Whoopi Goldberg is a woman well known for her comedy and acting chops, being one of the few people to ever EGOT (receive Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards) and being an opinionated social commentator on The View. What is less well known is that she has done this all with dyslexia, a learning disorder that makes something like reading a script very difficult for her.
On Tuesday at the 13th annual Adam Katz Memorial Conversation, Goldberg sat down with Dr. Harold Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute, to talk about the challenge of growing up with dyslexia, and how she thinks it may have helped make her the person she is today.
Before Whoopi Goldberg was Whoopi, she was named Caryn Elaine Johnson. She grew up in a housing project in New York City with her brother and mother, who was a nurse and later became a Head Start teacher. She told the audience, “What I remember about being a kid was that I felt pretty protected, I wasn’t afraid, and I had a mother who understood after a while that there was something different about the way I learned.”
She remembers the period when people around her were suspecting she was just lazy or not trying in school, and likens it to having severe menstrual cramps. “People never believe that you’re actually in pain until you keel over,” she joked. But she wasn’t lazy, and her mother knew she was bright because she had an excellent memory, which she relied on to get through her early grade school years, when the learning was all rote. Her talent and creativity was also apparent from an early age. Her favorite thing in school was story time, because she said she could picture everything in her head, and she always wanted to be an actor. She remembers pretending to be the queen of Mars and Daniel Boone as a young child, and got her first paid gig at 14.
But her dyslexia didn’t get diagnosed until adulthood, so school got harder and she continued falling behind until she eventually decided to drop out. Her mother gave her money to go to museums and sit in on lectures to try to continue her education that way.
During this time Goldberg said she also developed a drug problem, something that kids with dyslexia and other disorders are more at risk for. She struggled for several years before eventually getting cleaned up by a group of fellow actors. Of this period she said, “Our lives weren’t horrific, but there just had to be more. There had to be something more and despair makes you believe there is no more. That’s what happens in the midst of drugs. But because I have such a huge ego, I could not let despair get me because I knew there was something else.”
For Goldberg that something else meant beginning her career in earnest and becoming the star we know today, who was at one point the highest paid female actor in Hollywood. Along the way she developed tricks to work around her dyslexia. Like in grade school, Goldberg found she learned best by having someone read the script to her and memorizes her lines that way. For her books, she likes to dictate instead of write, and then sits down with an editor to tweak the language.
When asked how she thinks her dyslexia affected her, Goldberg says, “I think perhaps it made me more introspective. Made me more thoughtful, maybe slightly slower in how I do things because it takes me a minute sometimes to figure things out.” It wasn’t all bad, but she’s happy that dyslexic kids today have more role models and more opportunities for different kinds of learning. She credits teachers as being a major source of help and inspiration, saying, “Teachers have always been, to me, the brightest lights in the neighborhood. Without them the world is so much smaller for kids.”
She shared some advice for parents in the audience, asking them to be supportive and ready to catch kids when they are sliding and need extra help to stay balanced. “If you’re the parent of a child like us, you can’t be timid, because you’re all we have,” she says.
She also warned that parents should be aware of what people say around their kids, because the words people use can be incredibly painful. “People always complain that I use bad language, and I don’t think I do. I use colorful language. Bad language is a word like stupid, which you can say to someone who is 80 years old and still bring tears to their eyes.”
This year the Adam Katz Memorial Conversation was also streamed online with help from Understood, who cosponsored the event.