Actress Meredith Baxter is an iconic television star, best known as mom, Elise Keaton on the award-winning “Family Ties” show. Behind the bright smile and seemingly perfect life however, she dealt with alcoholism, breast cancer, an abusive relationship with former husband, actor David Birney, and when it was all over, picked up the pieces to move on. Baxter, who authored “Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame and Floundering” will be the featured speaker Saturday at the Connective Alliance for Victims of Violence and their Families at the Mandell Jewish Community Center for its “An Evening of Thriver Spirit and Song” celebration. Also a producer, entrepreneur and women’s advocate, the three times married 64-year-old mother and grandmother found some time to Spill the Beans with Java as she prepares for her trip to Connecticut and her talk on “Breaking Family Ties: Empowering Ourselves to Overcome Domestic Violence.”
Q: Most of us out in the public assumed you had it all in what appeared to be a perfect marriage to David Birney and your career. The rocky relationship, your alcoholism, the path you were on, what was really going on?
A: I had a lot of success but who ever looks to be happy. I never knew to measure happy. I don’t know. There were good times and bad times but I never took my emotional temperature. I carried a bag of rocks around as far as my beliefs system. There were enough signs things weren’t good but I pretended I didn’t see them. I didn’t know that I was doing that until I did some self-examination. I had hit an emotional bottom and thought I was going to lose my mind. I didn’t think about what I wanted. I survived moment to moment.
Q: Do you think that emotional dilemma is one that many women face?
A: I think a lot of women do that. We don’t know what works. We don’t spend enough time to see what we want. I came out of one marriage and thought I knew better. My last marriage was to a guy I didn’t like, who was greasy and oily and a promoter who was slick, hip and cool. I just got worn down when it came to marrying him and thought “maybe I should, what do I know?
Q: What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment in life, your biggest regret?
A: The accomplishment? Probably just survival. I can’t say I have achieved an awful lot but the work I have done has been okay, but not life changing. I hope I have reached people talking about domestic abuse. My biggest regret? That I am such a slow learner. I wish I had known I was going to write a book before I did. It took me so long to have realizations. When you are treading water and trying not to drown, which is how I perceived myself, you find any spar to hold onto. You don’t think about whether it is oak or elm, you just want something to hold onto.
Q: What would you tell your 19-year-old self now that you are older and wiser?
A: I had my first child at 19 and nothing else mattered. That speaks most to what I was then. I tried to make it different for my children. I got up in the morning and made them breakfast and sent them off to school. When I couldn’t be there we had a nanny but I was never in the house with them without being engaged with them.
Q: And what is your life like now?
A: I am really busy. I am doing the speaking engagement, I have taken some writing workshops, I put up a website of my art. I am an okay artist. I am looking at a couple of pilots and last week, was approached about producing a documentary that is an idea that looks very exciting. One never knows.
Q: Would you ever run for political office?
A: No, even if I were someone who had something to say. No matter how strong you are, your positions are divided once you are in public office and you have to compromise so it’s difficult to accomplish anything. If I am going to be effective, I would rather do it in small ways. I do love President Obama.
Q: Besides your professional accomplishments, you are a domestic abuse survivor, a recovered alcoholic, and a breast cancer survivor. To other women facing breast cancer, do you have any wise words?
A: On the most surface level, you are not your breasts. Get your priorities straight.
Q: And to those women who are living in a household where they are being abused?
A: Many of us think “Oh, we will change him, or he’ll change and it will be better.” People don’t change until they are highly motivated to change. When I was living with a husband who abused me, I kept thinking it was going to be okay. There would be those times when we would dance in the kitchen or sing together. Great times. I would hold onto those and then the abuse would happen again. Women who listen to me speak are “Gee, how did this happen to you?” You had everything going for you.” The reaction I have had is that women listen to me is “Gee, how did that happen to you, why wouldn’t you say get out of here? I had everything going for me. I was terrified and after our divorce, I had no faith and found myself thinking, Oh my God, what did I do?
Q: Several years ago, you also announced you are a lesbian. You described coming out as “glorious.” Was it?
A: I made the announcement on the “Today” show. I thought who the f*** is going to care about this? I was afraid people would think it was a sad attempt to reignite my career. I am such a private person that I am still appalled that I wrote so many things that I did in my book.
Q: The role you are proudest of?
A: Probably the Betty Broderick movies. The fact that they did a two-parter on that story was great. It was great playing someone with no boundaries. It is much more fun to play someone who is bad. And probably “Winnie,” about a mentally disabled person. I got into that character.
“An Evening of Thriver Spirit and Song” is on May 5 at the Mandell Jewish Community Center, 336 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford from 6 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $50, or two for $70 in advance. Student and senior rates are $25. An additional donation of $25 per person includes a meet-and-greet with Meredith Baxter at 5:30 p.m. For ticket information for to thriverspiriteventbrite.com