Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Paige (Kerry Washington): Have you ever wondered why you can pick somebody who's just totally completely different from anybody you've ever been with before but then you wind up feeling the exact same way that you always do. Repetition compulsion, that is why it starts in your childhood because what doesn't. Like I always say, when we're talking about relationships, parent and partner are just one letter off. How you got parented is how you get partnered.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to the incomparable Kerry Washington, who stars in the new Hulu series UnPrisoned. It's 8, 30-minute episodes inspired by the real-life relationship between showrunner Tracy McMillan and her formerly incarcerated father.
Paige (Kerry Washington): People always say that your parents do the best that they can.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Played by the gorgeous and talented Kerry Washington. The main character, Paige finds herself trying to rebuild a relationship with her father, who's just been released from federal prison after 17 years.
Paige (Kerry Washington): What I'm trying to figure out in this very moment is, what do you owe a parent whose best wasn't good enough?
Tracy: My name is Tracy McMillan and I'm the creator, writer, and executive producer of UnPrisoned on Hulu. This show was really based on my life. My dad went into prison for the first time when I was three years old and he was in and out for more or less in my entire life. I went into foster care as a result and it was truly crazy often, and when it came time for him to get out, at that point, I was in my 40s, I had a teenage son and I was trying to imagine how I was going to create a relationship with him on the outside.
I knew how to have a relationship with him in my phone but this was a whole other world of going to lunch and walking down a street. I can call him the same way he can call me. These were things that I could hardly imagine when he first got out.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's point out that this is based around this memoir, I Love You and I'm Leaving You Anyway, that is exploring this relationship between you and your father. In writing the memoir, did you mean to write at universal, or were you writing just your own story and I as a reading at universal?
Tracy: That's interesting because I feel like the father-daughter story and how that impacts a woman's choices in partnership and her relationship world, that is universal. Every person has an attachment strategy, and we form our attachments in our earliest relationships. Then we grow up, and we replicate those attachments in our relationship, so that's universal. I imagine that UnPrisoned is the sequel to my memoir. When I finished my memoir, that was 2010, 2011 so my dad was still in prison at that time. I want to say, writing that book really got me thinking about what was going to happen when he got out.
Melissa Harris-Perry: And what did?
Tracy: What did happen? I've been a television writer 17 years and you get very good at taking pieces of you, taking pieces of your story, but putting them into these characters who are not you and therein not your story. I had a level of removal. Even from my own story, sometimes you look at yourself not so personal. You're like, "What if this was happening to someone else who is like me, but not me?" You get this objectivity from being a storyteller and telling lots of stories, especially telling lots of stories on deadlines and then watching people act the scenes that you've created.
It's like this very interesting paradox. It's like a double helix of objectivity and subjectivity. I was like, "Let's explore what would happen if I let my dad move in with me."
Edwin: We do recommend parolees live with family to give them the best chance of staying out.
Paige (Kerry Washington): Yes, of course, that makes sense, but I only have two rules, and one of them is that he cannot live with me. The other is don't ask me for money.
Edwin: And don't ask for money.
Tracy: Now, in real life, there was no way I was going to let my dad move in with me because I've been to way too much therapy and I'm way too well-developed of boundaries but I did want to understand what that might be like and so that's what I put into the TV show. In real life, what happened is he went to live with his sisters in Michigan, and we would visit two or three times a year. We continued talking on the phone the way we always had, and he got to meet my son. We took a couple of great vacations together.
When he first got off parole, so at first, he gets out of prison, but he's still on parole. After a certain, I think it was like three or four years, he got off parole. For the first time in 37 years, he didn't have to report to anybody, he didn't have to check in, he didn't have to tell anybody where he was, he could get a passport. I was like, "Okay, everybody should see the Eiffel Tower before they die. We're going to Paris." I took my son at the time was 19 and my dad and myself to Paris for 9 days. At the end of the first day, I was like, "What have I done?"
Because I'd only ever spent maybe three hours at a time with my dad pretty much my whole life. Here we were, nine days and we look back on that, and no, that was a very powerful bonding, probably the most powerful bonding that really we ever did and he drove me crazy. [chuckles]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Quick pause right here, but we'll be back with more from Tracy McMillan, creator, writer, and executive producer of UnPrisoned. It's The Takeaway. We're still with Tracy McMillan, showrunner of the new Hulu series, UnPrisoned. The show is inspired by Tracy's real life and all the joy, pain, and absurdity she navigated while reconnecting with her father after his release from prison.
Tracy: People always ask me, they're like, "Where did you come up with the tone?" I'm like, "I didn't come up with the tone. I was reporting." You know what I mean? I survived by using humor. That is how I survived. What is humor? It's where you're looking at the human, the humanity. It's like you go to the flaw and you open your heart to it and you just go, well that's just funny because comedy and tragedy are flip sides of the same coin. I just think a lot of things are funny, and so does my dad. We both do have a lightness.
It doesn't mean there's not all sorts of density there, too. It's just to say that what is forgiveness? This is something I go into in the show, like if you're forgiving of yourself, of other people, what you're just saying, "We're all so human. I feel like you get in trouble when you try to repress." That is where trouble starts inside, emotionally for a human being. You just can't be emotionally healthy and be trying to repress whole parts of things. You have to find a way to metabolize it and that way to me is humor, it's understanding, it's spiritual principles.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Clearly, you have had not only plenty of therapy, but really good therapy that comes out not in this weird preachy way, but in this human way.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This story that you are writing and telling and creating and theorizing and going down past that you wouldn't actually go down in your real life, that in all of it, you're being played by Kerry freaking Washington, who I adore.
Tracy: I know.
Paige (Kerry Washington): I think that you can stay with us for as long as you need, but obviously, all of the same rules still apply. You have to keep this job and-
Edwin: I don't ask you for money. Don't get in your business. Don't put the knife back in the jelly after I done licked it.
Paige (Kerry Washington): Are you doing that?
Edwin: No, that is a joke, baby.
Paige (Kerry Washington): Is that something that you do?
Edwin: That was a joke.
Tracy: She's an amazing human being. I don't know and see this is again, I feel like the luckiest woman in the world. I will say this, Kerry, Delroy, first, every person involved in this production, but it starts with her in many respects. She is so committed to something higher. We want to create bigger, larger understandings. I think this story had that bigger thing. It's not just a father and a daughter.
It's a father and a daughter who are in a set of circumstances that millions and millions of Americans-- America jails more people than any other country on earth, and it's Black and Brown people disproportionately. That is something that we need to come to terms with. If we can tell a story that is going to humanize that predicament because it's a sentence for the whole family. My time in foster care, those two things are related, the parent goes to prison, the child goes to foster care. You're both marking time. You're moved to the margins, so many things that we consider the American dream become impossible.
1% of foster children graduate from college. Imagine, year up against those kinds of odds in your six, and that's it. This is something that I think we all were committed to doing something that was going to matter. Not to say there's anything wrong with just a father-daughter story, but we wanted it to be read both ways. You can read it as a father-daughter story, which is universal. Everybody's trying to work out their stuff with their family, and you can read it as something larger that we are all trying to deal with as a society or should be trying to deal with.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let me ask, as you raise in repeatedly, in both the memoir, I think, and in the show, what do we owe to the parents and the families of origin who don't? What do we owe to the parents who hurt us?
Tracy: I think that is a question that-- it's an elastic question. It changes over time. When I was young and hadn't graduated from college or had barely graduated from college, and was just trying to gain a put hold in the middle class because that was my first dream. I just want to know that I can pay the rent because I'd never had that. I would say, I owe them nothing at that point. In my own value system, I get to establish myself before I have to go take care of them or do anything for them. I wasn't trying to be mean.
I was just understanding, I have to put my own face mask on first. That's always the guiding principle, is you get to do what makes you feel safe first because, as a child, you didn't have that, but now, you're going to give it to yourself. You're going to take care of you, and then whatever's left over, whatever feels safe-- The character who played the woman who raised me, her name is Nadine in the show.
Nadine: You act like you're some kind of orphan. You had a mother, me.
Paige (Kerry Washington): Nadine, you were scary, totally unpredictable, intense, very, very, very yelly.
Nadine: Oh, please, I gave you 10 years of my life at a time when being a single mom was just a drag, not a social media venture.
Tracy: I never really got closer to her. I don't have ill will, I don't have a grudge, I just know what is there, and I get to stay safe for me. In real life, I never really got closer than birthday and Christmas texts because that's as close as I could get, and still feel safe. I get to honor myself like that. When your parents, when their best wasn't good enough, I don't have to blame, I don't even have to be super angry. Usually, what it is, there's grief. There's sadness and grief. Grief is not something that goes away. It's not like you're working a pile down to nothing.
It's like grief is something that you carry. You can carry it in a heavy way, or dense way, an angry way. You can carry it in so many ways. I dealt with my grief so I didn't have to stay angry. Then I take care of myself in ways that they couldn't care for me. That's the work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tracy McMillan is creator, writer, and executive producer of UnPrisoned. Tracy, thanks so much for taking the time with us.
Tracy: Thank you. This was a great conversation.
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