After her much-watched turn on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, Marlee Matlin kept being told, “You’re an inspiration!” The praise reminded her that she’s triumphed over challenges far tougher than dancing to music she can’t hear. “People saw me as the deaf actor or the deaf dancer,” says Matlin, 43, who lives with husband Kevin Grandalski, a policeman, and their children in Los Angeles. “I wanted to show them there was much more.” In a new memoir, I’ll Scream Later, Matlin addresses several of her shattering ordeals: molestation, addiction and a tempestuous, abusive two-year relationship with actor William Hurt. “I hope I’m able to reach people,” she says. “It happened to me, it happens, get out.” An excerpt follows.
It should have been the best time of my life. And in a surreal way it was. I had won a Golden Globe for my performance as the deaf, angry young woman in the film Children of a Lesser God. But that night I closed the door on Hollywood—at least for a time.
Only a handful of people knew I was going to rehab at the Betty Ford Center the next day. I had virtually no support for my decision. My boyfriend Bill Hurt, whose own stint at Betty Ford was barely finished by the time I checked in, was the only person encouraging me. Everyone else thought whatever problems I might have with drugs weren’t that serious.
But consider January 9, 1987. I was due to fly the next day to be with Bill at Betty Ford as part of his therapy. I knew they would bust me about my drug use, so I tried to finish everything I had: a gram of coke, a half-ounce bag of pot. I knew I needed help.
Her drug use had begun years earlier. Raised in a Chicago suburb, she had loving parents and a passion for acting, but being a deaf child in a hearing family could be lonely. And at 11, she suffered a devastating trauma.
Sometimes you want to block out things in life, erase the memories. Things that feel so bad that you don’t tell your family, your friends. I’ve decided to try to talk about something here for the first time in hopes that if other girls have faced similar circumstances, they will know that silence is not the answer.
“Marlee, go lock all the doors in the house.” It’s the babysitter, not my usual ones, but still a girl I know. She is closing all the blinds. I wonder if it’s a game, but she seems strange today.
She forced me to take off my pajamas. She pulled down her jeans. I was barely eleven. She was sixteen and overpowering. I am scared. I do this terrible thing she has demanded.
Afterwards I ran into the bathroom. I wanted to throw up. I was drowning in that crush of emotions—fear, shame, anger, betrayal—molestation victims everywhere feel. My parents never found out.
In the years since, I’ve often wondered if she targeted me because I was deaf. Did she think she could talk her way out of it if I said something?
By high school Matlin was finding escape in pot; she moved on to acid, quaaludes, speed. But when her shot at stardom came, she grabbed it. For Children of a Lesser God, she was flown to New York City in 1985, at 19, to audition with Hurt.
When I finished shooting my first screen test, Bill asked as I was leaving, “What are you doing tonight? Let me come over at 11.” I needed to tell him no, I had a boyfriend. But being wooed by Bill Hurt is seductive.
At 1 a.m. he buzzed the apartment. He was wasted. He looked a little sheepish. “Sorry, I’m late.”
I was five feet three inches, and all of ninety-eight pounds—there’s nothing like coke to keep you slim. He was thirty-five, around six feet two. The sex was spectacular, and that is the one thing that would never change.
Many of the scenes from Children of a Lesser God are defined in my memory by whether Bill and I were fighting that day. Almost everything we did together had an intensity that was searing, in good and bad ways. One scene near the end of the film is particularly difficult for me to watch. We argue, then make awful, violent love. We’d had an equally awful fight before we got to the set. Down my leg are fresh bruises.
After Children wrapped, I moved to New York with him. He was extremely sensitive to barriers presented by deafness, adjusting the house to accommodate my needs and working to improve his signing. So many things about Bill were wonderful. But he worried that I was so young I would lose interest in him. Our fights were made far worse by his drinking and my drug use. [Famously private, Hurt has expressed regret about his drinking and behavior in past relationships.]
While she was in rehab, Matlin learned she had been nominated for an Oscar. When she won and Hurt, also nominated for his performance in the film, didn’t, it only worsened things.
I don’t remember how our last fight started; what I know is that I have never been as scared in my life. The struggle turned violent. I was afraid I might not survive. I broke free and called a friend. I sobbed, “Please come get me, please. Hurry, please.” How had the love between Bill and me turned into this? I knew the only way to recover from this would be to never go back to him. That was a great, great sadness.
And a new beginning. She went on to TV guest roles that garnered her four Emmy nominations, has remained drug-free for more than 20 years and wowed audiences on Dancing with the Stars in ’08. Her greatest joys: Sarah, 13, Brandon, 8, Tyler, 6, and Isabelle, 5.
Kevin and I are hands-on parents. My favorite time is picking my kids up from school. I love it when they pile into the car with stories. I want to scoop up and save those moments.
I have been given an extraordinary life thus far, and I am nowhere close to done with it. The dark secrets that I kept locked away in my heart for all those many years are now out in the open. Today, I can face those old wounds. I know they cannot defeat me—the drugs, the babysitter, the actor, the deafness and the rest. I am stronger than all of it.