Distinguished actress Julie Harris shares how she learned how to handle her doubts.
- Posted on Aug 24, 2013
Sleet whipping off Detroit's Lake St. Clair hissed against our family car. Staring gloomily ahead, I sat close to my parents. Daddy took one hand from the wheel and patted my shoulder. "You were fine. Just fine." Mother agreed with him.
I didn't believe them, not one bit.
I was 14 and had just played the role of the juggler in my school's Christmas play, Le Jongleur de Notre Dame. I loved the legend about the little fellow who had no gift but his talent to give the Christ child and I had practiced hard for the performance. But now I was sure I hadn't done well.
Self-doubt and self-condemnation were not new to me. I wanted so desperately to do things right that nothing I did ever seemed good enough.
Later this misguided perfectionism haunted me. To achieve distinction in the theater I needed two things: sensitivity and assurance. I believed I had my share of the former, but the latter was woefully lacking.
In 1950 I found myself in a Broadway hit, The Member of the Wedding. As the cast staged this tense drama daily, Ethel Waters, also in the show, and I grew very close. I was 24, just beginning my career; Ethel, in her 40s, was an established star.
I came to love her very much and would watch with awe as she projected the warm emotions that melted the hearts of her audiences. For my part, I was tormented as usual by doubts.
One night I gave a performance that seemed so inept to me that I even felt guilty about taking curtain calls. As I trudged down the corridor to my dressing room, Ethel Waters was just about to step into hers. She stopped and looked at me, her face full of compassion.
"Why, Julie," she said, "what's troubling you?"
I was about to murmur a polite "Oh, nothing," when suddenly all of my misery overflowed in a flood of tears. Ethel came over and gathered me up in her loving arms. "There, there," she said softly. "No need to feel that way. You're doing fine."
"But I'm not," I sobbed. "I know I'm not!"
Ethel stepped back and looked at me. "You're trying to do it all alone. You know the Lord Jesus, don't you? All you have to do is give those troubles and worries to Him. He'll take care of them for you."
I was grateful to Ethel and dried my tears. I wished so much I could believe her. But though I prayed and went to church, somehow I could not seem to let go of my fears.
Then one day, near the end of the play's run, Ethel asked me how I was doing. I told her the truth: not very well. "It's so hard," I said. "So hard."
"No," she said quietly. "It really isn't." She took my hand. "Jesus is right here. If you want the strength and the confidence you need, all you have to do is ask—and hold out your hand."
Hold out your hand. Somehow those words got through to me. After that, every time the fears came back to haunt me I would visualize myself holding out my hand for help.
Slowly a deep realization came that Ethel was right. I became convinced that Someone was there, and whenever I reached out my hand, He would take it.
I had many occasions to explore that principle over the years that followed, but one stands out with particular vividness.
In 1955 I was offered the part of Saint Joan of Arc in Lillian Hellman's adaptation of Jean Anouilh's play, The Lark. At first I was overjoyed at the opportunity to portray the mystical young girl whose faith in her own spiritual guidance changed the course of history.
But then, as images of Sarah Bernhardt, Siobhan McKenna, Uta Hagen, Katharine Cornell and other immortals who portrayed her so beautifully became frighteningly real, I suddenly was appalled. Who was I to be following in such footsteps?
The more I thought about it, the more the whole idea of playing Saint Joan terrified me. I was sure that I couldn't measure up to the role. But then suddenly Ethel Waters's words came back.
I didn't have to do it all by myself. All I had to do was turn to the Lord and hold out my hand. So I did—and found a quiet confidence, a strong sense of assurance, that stayed with me through every scene and stays with me to this day.
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