Many viewers may not have made the connection, but financial reporter Melissa Francis, who has been seen on both CNBC and Fox News for years, was once a famous child actor who starred on Little House on the Prairie and several other well-known shows and movies, including the groundbreaking movie of the week about sexual abuse, Something About Amelia.
Jason Bateman (pitter-patter!) and Missy with Michael Landon
in their roles as orphans that made them household names.
In her frank memoirs, Diary of a Stage Mother's Daughter, Melissa chronicles her life to date piece by painful piece. Her older sister Tiffany was also a child actor, and Missy got her start as a baby just by good (or bad?) luck when a casting director noticed her at one of Tiffany's auditions. Missy's talent at her young age (she could cry convincing tears at the drop of a hat) quickly led to bigger and better roles, until finally landing the part of Cassandra on Little House in the show's twilight years. What followed was a brief few seasons that would make her a great deal of money, provide spectacular adventures (Michael Landon once flew her and Jason Bateman by private jet to the set) and bestow her with a fame she could never shake.
Melissa eventually decided she wanted to leave acting behind and headed for Harvard and eventually reporting. As Melissa struggles to have a normal life and relationship all while trying to make sense of her bizarre mother and unusual childhood, the story eventually leads to a horrific loss, and a cathartic estrangement.
Not only is Stage Mother a portrait of a dysfunctional childhood in the public eye, it is also one child's story of a mentally ill mother. Her story will not only resonate with famous kids, but with anyone who ever had to live among mental illness.
The following are some important highlights from Stage Mother:
"I had made the mistake of speaking up during one of Mom's stories before and learned that no one but Mom was allowed to talk. Afterward, when we'd gotten in the car, she'd pinched my arm ferociously and said, 'You are never to contradict me in front of another adult ever again. Do you understand me?' The pain shooting through my arm confirmed how serious she was."
"At first, I enjoyed the novelty of being recognized by strangers. Then the attention made me terribly self-conscious. I started to hide my face or turn away when a stranger started to recognize me. If they got up the nerve to ask, 'Are you Cassandra from Little House on the Prairie?' I liked to say no. But I felt guilty when I did this because I knew I was being rude ... all the attention was just too much even though I had recently turned nine years old. I was still a kid, and it was an invasion.
"Little House on the Prairie had been out of the primetime lineup for almost three years, but the fervor around the show had yet to die down. It still ran every day in reruns ... You could always tell when they'd gotten to my years, because more people would stop me on the street than usual."
"'Are you asking if I spend my free time driving her to interviews and sitting on the set all day while she works and becomes a star and I'm not paid a dime? Do I deal with her agent and contracts, buy her clothes and pay for her haircuts so she can work and have a successful career? Am I the only one protecting her on the set, and looking out for her interests, all for free? Do I do these things for her while people call me names and treat me like a hanger-on while I'm on the set? And she becomes rich and famous? If that's what you mean by a Stage Mother, then yes, I am that.'"
"I'd realized by now that Mom was controlling every dime that came in .... and doled it out as if it were hers. I'd seen her write checks out of the account that was supposed to be my trust fund."
"'You just need to keep [Mom] happy. It's the only way to survive.'"
"'Have you noticed that Mom has never had a job in your lifetime?' he cracked ....'Yes, in fact, I have noticed that. She always said she would scrub floors to take care of us if need be, but I don't think I ever saw her clean a floor, or much of anything else, the whole time I was growing up.' .... Dad laughed too, welcoming a break in the continuing flow of bad news. 'Right, well, to be fair, she drove you to all those auditions .... She's not qualified to do anything now. She didn't go to college. Who would hire her?' .... 'So she can't work as a receptionist at a doctor's office? She can't work in retail? She can't work at Nordstroms? She can't file at some office? I don't buy it.... I've worked my whole entire life .... From day one. In commercials, at restaurants. I worked in the kitchen at my dorm when she said she wouldn't give me money so I could be a summer intern for the Today show .... I have never not worked. In my whole, entire life.'"
"The endlessness of my love for my son was matched only by the enormity of the love I later felt for his little brother when he arrived. Those boys make it impossible for me to understand my mother."
Melissa's book Diary of a Stage Mother's Daughter can be found on Amazon.