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Looking Forward by Looking Back

Jane Fonda Talks About Her Life — and Yours

by Charles Donelan

Jane Fonda will be at UCSB on May 1 for a lecture based on her autobiography, My Life So Far, which has just been issued in paperback. Already a bestseller in 15 languages, Fonda’s book blends a fluid retelling of her extraordinarily eventful life with a series of progressively more challenging ideas about how we all perceive and construct our identities. I spoke with Fonda on the phone last Sunday as she stopped over in San Francisco. What came through in our talk was a mixture: a tremendous, somewhat intimidating sense of honor and responsibility that at first comes across as wariness; and a willingness to think out loud, laugh, and play in the moment that is thoroughly charming. Fonda clearly does not suffer fools at all, never mind gladly, yet her interest in others and their struggles feels entirely genuine and organic to her essential personality.

Being Jane Fonda, which over the years has brought her great influence and privilege, has also unquestionably had its liabilities: Systematic, targeted caricatures of her political engagement in the 1960s and 1970s continue to dog her to this day, and the energy she has devoted to self-examination and self-defense must often seem stolen from the more optimistic aspects of her agenda. Yet the Jane Fonda who has emerged now, and will be here on May 1, is remarkably upbeat and unfazed by lifelong status as what she calls, with some irony and more pride, “the loyal opposition.”

Even some of the things Fonda says about the less politically charged aspects of her work are so seemingly contrary that it takes a moment to comprehend them. For instance, when she says that she intended to write a book that “people are constantly putting down,” it takes presence of mind to stay with her until that sentence ends, and I find out that she means “putting down” not in the sense of dismissing or denigrating the book, but rather as laying it aside for a moment in order “to think about how these things are playing out in their own lives.”

The book presents her life as something that she still studies and learns from, and this practice of reflection brings with it the intellectual responsibility to employ the best that has been written and said about the various phenomena that touch her life. How many Hollywood autobiographies have footnotes? This one does, and, what’s more, they tend to be fascinating, offering glimpses of areas of study and contemplation that are only hinted at in the welter of the more-than-500 pages of text. Fonda’s authorities are a broad mix of men and women, with some particular areas of special interest, such as the psychology of adolescent development, or, in one memorable sequence, the various theories behind the training of actors.

The slightly scholarly bent of some of Fonda’s musings makes sense, not only in relation to her own highly intellectual education (Vassar, Lee Strasberg, the French New Wave, ’60s political philosophy, ’70s feminism, etc.), but also in relation to the sense of mission she espouses today, and of which her book and these lectures are an integral part. Through her collaboration with Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, and a pair of organizations — the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (GCAPP) and the Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health at the Emory University School of Medicine — Fonda has taken on the mission of reforming and influencing positively the way young people learn about issues of sexuality, gender, identity, and total health and well-being.

Although these organizations are based in Georgia, where Fonda has made her home since moving there to be with Ted Turner in the early 1990s, the impulse to help children and teenagers at risk is one that began for Fonda in another location: Santa Barbara. In fact, it was not until the move to Georgia that Fonda sold the Laurel Springs Ranch in Painted Cave, which is now a retreat center. For 15 years, she and a dedicated staff that often included her own children ran the ranch as a summer camp for underprivileged kids in which learning through creativity and the arts was the focus.

The shift from what Fonda was doing at Laurel Springs Ranch — helping kids find themselves through art — to what she is engaged in now with the GCAPP is a good gauge of what kind of transformation the writing of My Life So Far has been for its author. Drawing authority both from her experiences as a daughter, wife, mother, and grandmother and from the intense scrutiny of individual men occasioned by the dissolution of her marriages to Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden, and Ted Turner, Fonda has emerged from the crucible of literary creation with a more directed, team-oriented sense of her mission. As she puts it in the book, she is through now with being “the Lone Ranger” and trying to fix the world’s problems all by herself.

Today, a wiser, savvier, and more centered Fonda knows better how to pick both her battles and her teammates. Although she distinguishes what she does from the defense of reproductive rights and the freedom to choose by saying, wryly, that “we’re more concerned with things above the waist,” she makes it clear that she has chosen this work for its potential to liberate the largest number of people in the most important ways possible. Even her role as the sympathetic grandmother who takes in a rebellious Lindsay Lohan for director Garry Marshall in the upcoming Georgia Rule reflects this persistent desire to be of service to a younger generation. One can only wonder where the challenge will end, and if the momentum will build into a phenomenon the way it did two decades ago when she first loaned her name and presence to the cause of health and fitness.

Most actresses, even very successful ones, can only dream of Jane Fonda’s level of professional achievement — the multiple Oscars, etc. — but are there any women in contemporary America who aspire to her level of commitment to social change? Fortunately, the answer is yes, thousands, although few of those who share her passion for reform would be capable of generating Fonda’s power to make things happen, or her impressive intellectual understanding of history and society. So it is as an outsized profile in courage that Fonda continues to inspire men and women alike, and this book and lecture tour both succeed in making that almost superhuman vigor manifest. Through all the glamour, drama, clamor, and heat of her surpassingly vivid life, Fonda has traveled steadily onward, leaving behind those things that no longer serve her, and embracing whatever arises in answer to her deepest sense of her own values and honor. With My Life So Far we get a generous helping of what Fonda has to offer today, which is a kind of tough hope, tempered by experience but unbowed and absolutely unbroken.


Jane Fonda will discuss My Life So Far at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Monday, May 1, 8 p.m. Call 893-3535.