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Davis Memoir Discusses Adversity of Childhood and Her Career

In her memoir, state Sen. Wendy Davis talks about the difficulties of her childhood, her two failed marriages and her political career.

State Sen. Wendy Davis, the 2014 Democratic nominee for governor, addressing supporters on July 13, 2014, in East Austin.

State Sen. Wendy Davis’ memoir generated several headlines Friday evening, when news reports addressed her reflections on terminating two pregnancies in the 1990s due to medical reasons. But that chapter only makes up a small portion of her 320-page book, titled Forgetting to Be Afraid, which details several aspects of her background, including her parents’ upbringings, her two failed marriages and her current race for governor.

Davis' memoir officially goes on sale Tuesday; The Texas Tribune obtained a copy of the book Friday night.

Perhaps the most harrowing scene in the book comes in the first chapter, when Davis describes how her mother nearly killed her three children and herself when Davis was a baby.

Davis’ parents had separated for the first time. She describes her mother putting “the three of us kids in the trunk of her car — Chris, four; Joey, two; and me, not quite one – in the garage, with the intention of getting in the car with us and starting the engine.

“As she told me many years later, without my dad she didn’t want to live anymore. But she didn’t want to do something to herself and leave us behind, not knowing what would happen to us.”

Soon after she had placed her children in the trunk (“a Pontiac or Chevrolet Bel Air, with a great big trunk"), the doorbell rang.

“It was a neighbor, a gentleman who was not in the habit of visiting but who’d come to the door that day, he told her, because he wanted to check on her. … When he’d left, she’d gotten past that terrible dark spot she’d been in, so she took us out of the open car trunk and brought us back into the house.”

“I absolutely believe that an angel saved my mom that day,” Davis concludes. “And us.”

Davis writes about hearing the story from her mother years later. Her initial reaction of “horrified disbelief” eventually transformed to “compassionate astonishment” and a belief that her mother was likely suffering from postpartum depression, a condition that dramatically impacted Davis’ upbringing.

Davis, 51, the Democratic nominee for governor, notes several other moments from her life and career in her book.

***

The rocky relationship of Davis’ parents is a dominant theme early in her book. She describes infidelities by her father, theater owner Jerry West, and her mother’s subsequent “rage and anger.”

Of her father, Davis writes, “I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand his compulsions to look for love elsewhere when he was so beloved at home, by my mom and all of us – his family – and when I know he loved us all so much, too.”

Davis recounts several happier years after her parents had reconciled before their second and final divorce. Her dad’s decision to pursue his passion for community theater full-time, meant a severe drop in child support payments to his mother.

Davis also wrote that the difficulties of her home life shaped her.

“I think it contributed to my drive, to my toughness, and to where my public-service energies ultimately have led.”

***

Davis discusses getting pregnant with her first daughter, Amber, in 1981 while a freshman at the University of Texas at Arlington. She decided to marry Amber’s father, Frank Underwood, whom she had been living with at the time.

“But on that night, on the way to my wedding, even without the benefit of hindsight, I knew I was making a mistake. I knew that Frank and I weren’t long-term marriage material."

Underwood and Davis lived in a mobile home in southeast Fort Worth. Davis dropped out of college to work full-time. After losing her job at a company that sold drilling rig parts, she began receiving unemployment benefits.

***

Her first marriage fell apart, in part because of the financial strain the couple constantly faced.

“It’s hard when people are that young – or even when they’re older – to cope with the burden of financial challenges, and rather than being able to find within each other an escape from that difficult storm, we instead thought, Had I not met you, I wouldn’t be suffering with this.”

***

Davis writes about meeting her husband Jeff Davis, when he was 35 and she was 21. Jeff Davis was a board member of her father’s dinner theater, where she waited tables.

“Jeff wasn’t like anyone I’d ever dated before. He was worldly, sophisticated, and college-educated,” she writes.

She writes highly of him in the book, saying he has a “desire to lift people up.”

They married in 1987.

***

After graduating from Texas Christian University, she was accepted to Harvard Law School.

In the book, she briefly addresses allegations she faced this year that she had not given enough credit to her second husband in helping finance part of her education.

“I have no doubt in my mind that whether I’d married Jeff or not, I would still have gone to law school. My head was down. I was working hard to put myself on that path.”

***

She writes about the struggle to balance her studies with being a young mom at Harvard. The first semester there, in 1990, she had Amber, then 8, and Dru, then nearly 2, with her.

“By the time I sat down at my desk, my day would already have included getting two girls up, fed, dressed, and off to school and then a commute into Harvard Square. Thinking that living in Lexington would somehow make life better for me and the girls was proving to have been a misjudgment on my part.”

Experiencing stress and anxiety that impacted her health – and with Dru suffering from asthma — Davis decided at Christmas break that the girls should go back to Texas.

“I would become a long-distance commuter student.”

***

She says she regrets going negative against her onetime Fort Worth City Council runoff opponent, Cathy Hirt, mentioning a mailer in which she questioned her qualifications.

“To this day I regret it. The mailer was mean spirited and it hit below the belt … I am absolutely certain it cost me support. Most certainly, it cost me self-respect and a feeling of pride about how I had run my campaign.”

***

There are shades of her current battle with Greg Abbott, her Republican opponent in the governor’s race, when Davis talks about going negative against Kim Brimer in her first Senate race in 2008. Friends told her it was a mistake.

“I remain convinced that if we hadn’t made voters understand why Brimer needed to go, he’d still be there and the district would continue to be woefully underserved because of it.”

***

She theorizes that Greg Abbott agreed to settle her lawsuit over the redrawing of her Senate district because he didn’t want to face her in a gubernatorial race.

“There is a part of me that believes that Greg Abbott, my gubernatorial opponent, agreed to the settlement of my redistricting case in the hopes that it would remove any incentive for me to run statewide by keeping me content in the Senate … he knew, I am sure, that I was a one of a handful of people who could legitimately stand in his way.”

Continuing on that theme, she says at the beginning of the 83rd session she saw Abbott and shook his hand.

“When I approached Greg Abbott to shake his hand, he looked me in the eye with a smile and said, ‘I don’t think we want another redistricting battle, now do we?’ He was calling a truce." You’ve gotten what you fought for, now be happy with that.

“But I don’t placate easily,” she continues. “Soon he and I would be locked in battle again — this time for the hearts and minds of the people of Texas.”

***

During her 2012 re-election campaign against Mark Shelton, he posted ads painting her as a lawmaker using her Senate post to gain lucrative contracts for her law firm. In the book, she says the allegations were false and that the Travis DA “dismissed” them.

“Even now, in my current race, those same false allegations are being circulated. I think what scares my foes more than anything is actually the opposite of what they claim: they know that the old insiders network can’t sway me. That I’m true, above all else, to the people who elected me to serve them.”

***

She claims that some of the Republicans in the Texas Senate don’t like her.

“When I walk into the Senate lounge, for example, the chilly manner of some of my Republican colleagues makes me well aware that they wish I were not a member of their elite body. I’ve learned to let that roll off my back.”

At the same time she says she’s “proud of the friendships I’ve formed with Republican members who don’t come to the table predisposed to ultraconservative ideals.”

***

There is much detail about the day of her June 2013 filibuster of abortion legislation, and the way she felt.

“The morning of the big day came all too soon. Needing moral support, I had spent the night with Will Wynn, my then boyfriend of three years, in his apartment in downtown Austin. I bathed while listening to Bruce Robinson’s ‘What Would Willie Do,’ as I often do on a day that I know will be tough.”

The attention-grabbing pink tennis shoes she wore that day were decided on at the last minute, after she realized her flats wouldn’t do:

“I ran back inside, grabbed my pink running shoes, still dusty from my frequent runs around Lady Bird Lake, and headed back out the door for a long day a the capitol. Little did I know by the time I walked back in through that same door, my life would be forever changed in ways I never thought possible.”

She had problems with the catheter she had had installed, and at one point, soon before she needed to be on the floor of the Senate to begin her filibuster, she tried to remove it herself in the ladies’ lounge.

With minutes to spare, a nurse came and discovered “there was a blockage where she had inserted the tube into the bag. Clearing it brought instant relief. I had just enough time to empty the bag, reattach it to my leg, and make my way to the floor.”

***

She talks about getting choked up while reading the story of “Carole M,” which reminded her of her own experience with Tate, one of the two pregnancies she had had to terminate years earlier for medical reasons, during the filibuster.

“Her family’s story was so very much like my own. It shook me to my core. For an instant, I felt compelled to talk about Tate, to share my story and add it to the others I was reading out loud, to give voice to my own pain and loss and grief as so many courageous women had. But knowing such an unexpected and dramatically personal confession would overshadow the events of the day, I knew the time wasn’t right. I moved on to another letter.”

***

She said the events of that day “led to an awakening” statewide.

“It wasn’t just about reproductive rights. It was about a group of citizens, all over the state of Texas, who were fed up with those folks on the inside who aren’t listening to them … people across this state were inspired to believe that when they do stand up and when they do cry out, they can be heard and they can make a difference.’’

As some critics have noted, the bill Davis filibustered was ultimately passed in a second special session. Davis doesn’t allow that fact to take away from the historic events of June 25.

“And even though that bill passed just a few days later when a second special session was called, people were empowered by what they had been able to accomplish that day.”

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