You might recognize the girl on the cover of Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter as Cassandra from Little House on the Prairie. And sure enough, the memoir includes appearances by Michael Landon and a young Jason Bateman, to name just a few. Its central drama, however, does not occur on the plains, but in a four-bedroom house in the Valley in which Melissa Francis’s abusive mother pushes her and her sister to achieve perfection in everything they do. Melissa mostly measures up, landing lucrative child acting gigs on various shows and commercials, getting straight As, and eventually going to Harvard, but her sister, Tiffany, cannot withstand the pressure and retreats further and further into herself. Now a broadcast journalist with a show on money management, Melissa has turned the lens on her own past to offer a warning tale about love, the lack thereof, and great expectations. —Kate Guadagnino
You say in the epilogue that you’re a master of avoiding questions about your past. What led you to want to tell this story finally?
I have two sons, who are six and two, and when my older son was about four, he asked me if my husband’s mom was my mom too. I hadn’t figured out what I was going to tell him about where my mom was, so I needed to decide how to tell my story.
Memoirs can be really boring, but I tried to write it in a style that read like fiction. I’m someone who loves books—I love reading, and I want to be a writer. As a first time author, it’s such a process. What’s most heartwarming is that everyone comes up to me and says, I had the same thing happen to me, and they start telling me their story and it’s actually not similar at all, but I guess it’s the idea that almost everybody has gone through some sort of trial or big challenge in their life. My message is to come out the other side and choose to be happy.
The book raises the question of how much to push your kids. It seems like despite the unpleasantness, you actually responded to some aspects of your mom’s approach, while it made things unbearable for your sister. How do you approach that question with your own kids?
The book is really a meditation on parenting, especially now that I have kids of my own. I would never tell anyone how to parent—my kids are so little, who knows how they’ll turn out, and we’re all just doing our best—but I did learn from my childhood that each child is born unique. My boys respond completely differently to the same circumstances, discipline, and encouragement. I think the one-size-fits-all approach, whether it’s the tiger mom or the Hollywood version of the tiger mom, which is the stage mom, is really dangerous. It can make some kids focused, but for others, that type of unrelenting parenting can be wildly disruptive, and rob them of their confidence and identity.
It’s interesting that you say the stage mom is the Hollywood version of the tiger mom. To me it seems like maybe they’re different breeds.
I think the type of stage mom you’re thinking of is sort of the Honey Boo Boo type of mom, who’s focused on fame at any price, but mine demanded drive and perfection in everything. There’s a scene in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother where the child makes a card for her mother’s birthday, and the mother flicks it back at her and says you can do better, referring to the drawing, which was so raw to me. When I was in AP chemistry in high school, I had to get a tutor from UCLA to help me get through the class. I got an A- and it was the hardest-fought grade I’d ever received. I came home one day and my mom was waiting for me and she flicked the report card at me and said, you almost got a B+.
Of course you’re known for this role that’s about a very stable, cheesy family. Did you ever take comfort in that, even though it was fake?
I had a wonderful time on Little House on the Prairie. By the time I got on the show, it was a well-oiled machine and they knew exactly how to get kids to perform, but it was also a work environment. Michael Landon was very much in charge, and while he would do pranks—once we were sitting on the prairie (Simi Valley, California), and he took off his hat during a very serious scene and a tarantula crawled down his forehead; he’d just found it on the valley floor and put under his hat to make us all scream—but we were also expected to show up every morning on time, lines learned, and try to get everything done in one take. At the end of the day, we all went home to our own families.
Little House on the Prairie has had such staying power and people are so nostalgic about it. Are you still in touch with anyone from the show?
I wasn’t because I moved away so long ago, but in writing the book I was able to reconnect with Melissa Gilbert and Alison Amgrim, who’s Nellie. They have also written books and it was nice to get their feedback. Other than that, I haven’t had a lot of contact with the folks, but I have the DVDs and showed a few of them to my kids. They laughed and had a lot of questions, like why are you in wagons instead of cars?
And now you’ve gone in a completely different direction but are still in front of cameras. What attracted you to journalism?
I studied economics at Harvard, and was always interested in politics and the economy. By the time I was a teenager, I didn’t love acting out someone else’s words. With the show I do now on Fox Business, Money with Melissa Francis, we debate, and it’s all right from my own brain. It’s unscripted, there’s no safety net, and there’s no rehearsal. To me, it’s more fun and intellectually engaging.