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

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

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

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
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.

4•1•1 Jane Fonda will discuss My Life So
at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Monday, May 1, 8 p.m. Call


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