As the daughter of a famous actor and a beautiful socialite, Jane Fonda grew up accustomed to all that came along with celebrity — both the public interest and scrutiny. Many were fascinated by her father and mother, Henry Fonda and Frances Ford Seymour, but despite the bright spotlight on her family, there were certain things of which a young Jane was completely unaware. Namely, her parents’ troubled relationship and her mother’s suicide.
When Jane was 11 years old, her father asked her mother for a divorce. Frances, who reportedly struggled with depression, ended up in a mental institution in the months that followed. All Jane knew was that her mother was “away.”
One day, Frances returned to the house briefly with a nurse. As Jane told “Oprah’s Master Class,” she was playing jacks upstairs with her brother, Peter, at the time. Jane was called downstairs to see her mother, but refused. She would never see her again.
Jane says she later found out that Frances had retrieved a razor from the home and slit her own throat in the mental institution on her 42nd birthday. Though Frances committed suicide, Jane was told that she’d died of a heart attack. Jane soon learned the truth from a magazine.
“A year after my mother died, I was in study hall and a girlfriend passed me a movie magazine, in which it said that my mother had cut her throat,” Jane says in the above video.
The information was devastating to the young teen. “I thought, if I had gone downstairs and seen her that day that she came to the house, then she wouldn’t have killed herself,” Jane says. “It was my fault.”
Jane carried this guilt with her for many years. Then, as an adult, she learned even more details that shed light on her mother’s struggles. “I got the records from the institution where my mother killed herself. It was a big packet. I remember when it arrived — I started to shake. I got in bed, I was so cold. I started reading it,” Jane recalls.
In the midst of pages and pages of reports from the medical staff was a typed section of pages with handwritten notes in the margins. Within these pages was another devastating secret.
“One of the most important things that I learned is that [my mother] had been sexually abused,” Jane says tearfully. “Everything fell into place.”
With this new information, Jane felt her tough exterior soften. “I wanted to take her in my arms and tell her how sorry I was, that I understood why it had been the way it was,” she says.
Along with finding compassion and sympathy for her mother, Jane also stopped blaming herself for her mother’s suicide all those years earlier.
“I was able to forgive myself,” Jane says softly. “It had nothing to do with me.”
“Oprah’s Master Class” returns for its fifth season on Sunday, Oct. 25, at 8 p.m. ET. Upcoming masters include Ellen DeGeneres, Robert Duvall, Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, Smokey Robinson, Jeff Bridges, James Taylor and Patti LaBelle.
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