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Mia Farrow’s Essential Self
June 1, 2004 Cover Stories

Mia Farrow is an icon. Her doe-eyed, impish face could represent the seminal cultural events of the past 40 years. As a flower child in the early ’60s, she traveled to India to meditate with John, Paul, George and Ringo. In each decade since, she very publicly partnered with three of the most unique, successful, famous–or infamous–American men of the latter half of the 20th Century. In 1974 hers was the first face on the cover of People magazine. Her films have been exemplars of America’s changing zeitgeist since the 1960s, from Rosemary’s Baby to Hannah and Her Sisters and Private Parts. In 2003 she starred in Fran’s Bed, a new play written for her by Tony Award winner James Lapine.

Mia Farrow is indomitable. The day after her 9th birthday party she was diagnosed with polio and rushed by ambulance to Los Angeles General Hospital. In spite of paralysis and time spent in an iron lung, she physically recovered from polio. But, at age 17, she suffered another blow. The sudden death of her father, writer and director John Farrow, forced her to find work to support her family. She moved from Beverly Hills to an unfurnished Manhattan apartment. Without acting experience, but with her pedigree and the support of her mother, actress Maureen O’Sullivan, she quickly captured roles on Broadway and on television’s first prime time soap opera, Peyton Place. She went on to a consistently successful film career punctuated by parenting 14 children, most of whom were adopted from overseas and many of whom have disabilities. Unfortunately, Farrow’s life has also been punctuated by two divorces, the death of two children, and one famous lover allegedly molesting their adopted child and bedding and marrying her teenaged daughter.

Yet, in spite of four decades of a very public life, Farrow remains an enigma. She is widely considered unhinged, described in the media as “odd, even obsessive,” for adopting a dozen almond-eyed, dark-skinned and disabled children. Even after hearing Farrow speak at length about her life, a reporter wrote, “Throughout the night, she referred to her desire to make a difference, to take responsibility, to do some good. Her bout with polio also helped her develop a sense of compassion. Nevertheless, it is hard to fathom what drives her.”

Fathoming Farrow
The key to fathoming Mia Farrow can be found in the first sentence of her autobiography: “My childhood ended when I was 9″–that is, on the day she was diagnosed with polio. She describes an experience that is painfully familiar to polio survivors: spinal taps, being abruptly taken away from her parents without explanation, screaming when she entered the hospital, a nurse hissing, “Be quiet, you’re only making things worse for everybody!” She wrote about the physical pain of polio in her back, neck, legs, arms, and chest, and proclaimed the hot packs “loathsome.” She mentioned spending time in an iron lung and that she couldn’t stand on her “tiptoes” in the hospital. But she never provided more specific details of how she was physically affected.

She also had little to say about her emotional experience of polio. She did mention her wardmates screaming, crying and dying. She wrote that her childhood innocence was “extinguished” when she saw how fragile life was, and “how easily you can be plucked from it, and thrown into the land of uncertainty, fear, pain, and death.” And she wrote that her innocence was replaced by “a powerful and unforgettable knowing” and “a deep sense of responsibility,” creating what she called her “essential self.”

Despite its pain, power and apparent lifelong importance, Farrow devotes only the first seven pages of her 340-page autobiography to polio. We’re left wondering just what her “essential self” is and what exactly happened to her in the polio ward–both physically and emotionally–to forge it. Is it her “essential self” that propelled her to a continuously successful acting career while simultaneously parenting 14 children, working to promote polio eradication, chairing with her polio survivor-son, Thaddeus, the International Post-Polio Task Force’s “Post-Polio Letter Campaign,” and making daily five-hour round trips from her home in Connecticut to lower Manhattan for months after Sept. 11 so that she could serve food to rescue workers at Ground Zero? And is Farrow’s “essential self” the self-same overachieving, care-taking, type A personality polio survivors know so well? During a long lunch in a restaurant near her rural Connecticut home, we explored these questions.

Polio: Terror and Teacher
“I was in the iron lung for about three days early on when I was having trouble breathing,” Farrow says. “The biggest problem was of weakness on my whole right side. Every few days the doctor would come and put you on the floor and say, ‘Stand on your tiptoes.’ I couldn’t stand, let alone stand on my tiptoes. I would just crumple and they would stick me back in bed. I was unable to stand at all for two weeks and was in the hospital for about three.

“I never tried harder to do anything in my whole life than stand on my tiptoes when the doctor told me to. The fact that I couldn’t do it made me even more determined, because I knew if I could do it, I would be released from that place. When I left, I could stand and get myself up on my tiptoes only one time.”

Even before she left the hospital in early March, she felt her new “self” forming: “When I was in the polio ward I was the one saying to the other kids, ‘We’re not going to get paralyzed. We’re not!’ I was leading exercises from my bed. I would make everybody try to move this and that. ‘We’re going to move our legs,’ I’d call out. ‘We’re going to move our arms: Move your right arm, move your left arm!’

“After polio I recognized how determined I was. When I left the polio ward, I think the weakness made me even more determined. When I got stronger, I was more determined to climb a tree than anyone you’ve ever met.”

Farrow’s nascent “essential self,” formed in the polio ward, was fired in the crucible of her experiences when she returned home. She found that her dog had been given away and that her brothers and sisters had moved to another house. She was not allowed to see them or any other children for months. She returned to school in September but only for half days because she tired so quickly. The isolation and rejection she experienced at school were punishing.

“Before polio I was a secure child who had loving parents and a safe home. After polio it was as if a protective membrane fell away. With that protection gone, the world became very, very scary. It’s a world in which anything can happen, and does. That’s why I entitled my autobiography, What Falls Away. Every time tragedy strikes, you lose a lot. But you also discover that it is by that which cannot be taken away that we can measure ourselves. It is really through tragedy that we can define what is essential in ourselves.”

The polio experience left 9-year-old Farrow with a powerful and unforgettable “knowing” about others’ illness, fear, pain and even death. She was also left with a profound sense of empathy and the realization that we have a responsibility to help each other. These traits–plus determination–combined to create Farrow’s “essential self.”

But was her own illness, fear and pain, her isolation and rejection–and the loss of that “protective membrane”–incorporated into her essential self? She remembers well the day when she could finally stand on tiptoe: “I hung on to the doctor’s hands and, staring hard at his board face, I stood trembling on my own two feet.” Five years later she recalled the doctor when she won a gymnastics badge at school. “That gave me as big a thrill as I have ever known. When they announced my name, I remembered trembling on my feet, and the board face of the doctor, way back in the polio wards.”

Could it be that her choices of partners–older, successful, powerful, but very demanding and self-centered men–from Frank Sinatra to Andre Previn to Woody Allen–might have been a way to please that older, powerful doctor who held the key to her safety and freedom?

“It is possible,” she says. “It’s also possible that my choices were related to not seeing enough of my father on a day-to-day a basis. So, when I did see ‘him,’ I wanted so badly to please.”

I assured her that most polio survivors are eager to please others and even ignore their own needs. Nearly 75 percent of polio survivors responding to our 1995 International Post-Polio Survey reported, “I often do what others expect regardless of how I feel emotionally or physically.”

“I am certainly guilty of that,” she says. “One part of me that I am not fond of–and I hope I’ve corrected–is my desire to please people, especially men. I have also been too trusting. Today, if someone came along who I was considering having a relationship with, I hope I would say, ‘Look, this is what I need in my life and this is what I need from you.’ I would make sure that my needs and those of my kids were met, rather than thinking only how I could meet his needs.”

‘Essential Self’ vs. Post-Polio Personality
The world knows well the troubles Farrow has had trying to meet the needs of, and being overly trusting toward, the man with whom she had her last relationship. But long before allegations of Woody Allen as a child abuser and his betrayal of Farrow mesmerized the media, she had been dubbed, in the words of one reporter, “a crazy collector of abandoned children.” Mothering her eclectic mix of 14 kids, both biological and adopted, disabled and non, is by no means crazy. But it certainly is unusual. I asked if adopting such a large number of children with disabilities came from the super-responsible, type A “polio survivor personality.”

She denied it: “It sounds clichŽ, but I knew since polio that I had to make a contribution to others in order to feel any measure of real happiness. I was very fortunate early in my life, in television and in movies. I had every kind of success by the time I was 21. And I was miserable. I knew I wanted to do something beyond myself.”

She has certainly done that, not just by creating her own large and loving family, but also by simultaneously working as an actor and volunteering–both locally and globally–to help millions of families she’ll never meet. When I pointed out to her that doing all she does plus adopting 10 disabled kids is way beyond what “normal” folk do, she answered, laughing, “Well, it shouldn’t be beyond what ‘normal’ folk do. And it isn’t. A lot of ‘normal’ folks do wonderful things. I have enough resources, emotionally and financially, to have a large family, which is my work and my privilege and my joy. Countless families across this country have taken in one or more children who need homes when they themselves don’t have much money.

“I understand adoption is not for everyone,” she adds. “But millions on this planet are in misery and dying needlessly of malnutrition and treatable diseases. We’re all one family, all brothers and sisters. Everybody has something they can give. If you don’t have money and can’t do something on a large scale, you can at least take the time to write a letter to your congressman. Time is a great wealth in itself. And if we have no money and no time, we can at least be kind to one another.”

A Collector of Abandoned Children
The world knows well the troubles Farrow has had trying to meet the needs of, and being overly trusting toward, the man with whom she had her last relationship. But long before allegations of Woody Allen as a child abuser and his betrayal of Farrow mesmerized the media, she had been dubbed, in the words of one reporter, “a crazy collector of abandoned children.” Mothering her eclectic mix of 14 kids, both biological and adopted, disabled and non, is by no means crazy. But it certainly is unusual. I asked if adopting such a large number of children with disabilities came from the super-responsible, type A “polio survivor personality.”

She denied it: “It sounds cliche, but I knew since polio that I had to make a contribution to others in order to feel any measure of real happiness. I was very fortunate early in my life, in television and in movies. I had every kind of success by the time I was 21. And I was miserable. I knew I wanted to do something beyond myself.”

She has certainly done that, not just by creating her own large and loving family, but also by simultaneously working as an actor and volunteering–both locally and globally–to help millions of families she’ll never meet. When I pointed out to her that doing all she does plus adopting 10 disabled kids is way beyond what “normal” folk do, she answered, laughing, “Well, it shouldn’t be beyond what ‘normal’ folk do. And it isn’t. A lot of ‘normal’ folks do wonderful things. I have enough resources, emotionally and financially, to have a large family, which is my work and my privilege and my joy. Countless families across this country have taken in one or more children who need homes when they themselves don’t have much money.

“I understand adoption is not for everyone,” she adds. “But millions on this planet are in misery and dying needlessly of malnutrition and treatable diseases. We’re all one family, all brothers and sisters. Everybody has something they can give. If you don’t have money and can’t do something on a large scale, you can at least take the time to write a letter to your congressman. Time is a great wealth in itself. And if we have no money and no time, we can at least be kind to one another.”

Beyond the Polio Paradox
Farrow’s life has been full of tremendous triumphs and punishing trauma. Remarkably, it was when she experienced the greatest stress and most profound grief that she was able to draw strength from the essential self that emerged from the polio ward exactly 50 years ago: “It was at times of my greatest losses that I remembered polio. Life is really about loss as much as it is about anything else. If you live long enough, your losses will be counted in so many ways. So, it is really important to learn how to endure our losses.”

In learning to endure loss and by being able to tap into her essential self, Farrow avoided the most pernicious psychological paradox polio survivors experience. More often than not, polio survivors forget that they cheated death, conquered disability and dealt with years of severe physical and emotional pain to become the best and the brightest, not just surviving polio but thriving, creating extraordinary personal and professional lives. Too many polio survivors believe that they have no survival skills at all and have forgotten the power in the meaning of the words “polio survivor.” But not Farrow: “I realized that if I could survive the loss of security and the pain of polio, I could survive anything!”

Would she have found her essential self, would she have realized that her life’s work and pleasure was to raise a big family and to help others, had she not spent time on that polio ward?

“I’ll never know who I would have been,” she says. “But I think my children would say, ‘Thank God you had polio.'”


Tale of Two Cities

1954: It was the best of times for Mia Farrow, growing up a child of privilege among movie stars and Hollywood moguls in Beverly Hills. But it became the worst of times on her ninth birthday, not only because she was hospitalized by polio, but also because of the way she was treated when she returned home and to school. The reaction of her classmates–even of her friends–may have been more painful than the polio itself: “The fear of polio was so great at the time, and so much had been said about my polio, kids were afraid I could contaminate them. People didn’t want to come near me, even my close friends.

“My friends got over the fear sooner because they wanted to, and because my mother and my doctor called their parents. But some people stayed clear of me for a year. I remember pursuing people with my finger outstretched to touch them, just to annoy them. My way of dealing with it was, ‘OK, if you tease me and scream, when I come around I will come after you.’ Nothing could scatter people better than if I came after them with my finger extended. That whole year was a nightmare for me.”

2004: It is the best of times for 15-year-old polio survivor Thaddeus Farrow, living in a beautiful, rural Connecticut village, fishing, playing with friends, going to junior high school. But his early days in India were the worst: At age five or six (no birth records exist) he was living in an orphanage, malnourished and abused. Mia learned about him from a friend and immediately set the adoption process in motion.

Like his adoptive mother, at first Thaddeus found that grammar school and polio were an uneasy fit. “Everyone else could walk and I couldn’t. I felt strange. People would stare and point at me. It hurt a lot. Some kids were terrified by the polio and some were scared by my braces. They didn’t want to be disabled like me.”

Apparently, kids hadn’t changed much since 1954. “I told my mom and she explained her experience after she had polio, which was the same as mine,” said Thaddeus. “Everyone around her freaked out about the polio.” That shared experience has created a unique bond between the two. In September 2003, at the age of 14, Thaddeus joined with his mother and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in promoting global awareness of polio. He has also spoken to his school about UNICEF.

One big reason for Thaddeus’ growing self-esteem is Andre, his service dog. Thaddeus feels he has become more acceptable to his schoolmates, even cool, in a school where he is the only student in a wheelchair. “It’s really transformed his life. He has a buddy with him always,” his famous mother told writer Jason Feifer, in a recent Worcester, Mass., Sunday Telegram article. Andre helps with doors, light switches, even fishing.

Some people still ask Thaddeus about his brace. “I explain why I have it and they say they’re sorry. So it’s easier to use my wheelchair. With my wheelchair people don’t stare, I don’t get as tired as I do with crutches, and I feel more freedom.” Thaddeus wants to go on to a technical school and receive training to work on motors and cars.

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