William Daniels is known to TV viewers for his work on Emmy-winning medical drama St Elsewhere, providing the voice of KITT the talking car in Knight Rider and, for young viewers who came of age during the 2000s, as schoolteacher Mr. Feeny on Boy Meets World.
Daniels, now 89, sat down with People to reveal that he came to realize that his youth, spent as a professional child actor, was essentially child abuse that led him to mourn for the childhood he never had later in life.
While writing his new memoir, There I Go Again: How I Came to Be Mr. Feeny, John Adams, Dr. Craig, KITT & Many Others, Craig says that seeing a therapist helped him to realize that when his mother dragged him from audition to audition and forced him to perform for long hours as the family breadwinner, this was actually a form of child abuse.
“Many decades later, when I started writing this book, I started seeing a psychologist, Dr. Estelle Shane, who suggested that I was an abused child. I was shocked to hear such a description — that I had been robbed of a normal childhood, forced to perform and put into situations that I had no control over,” Daniels writes in his book. “It was unhealthy, my doctor said, that I was unable to express my anger, my fears and my dread of knowing what was expected of me in the future.”
“Also hurtful was my mother’s failure to say ‘good job’ or ‘well done,’ compliments surely all children need to hear. Mother believed, rather firmly, that children get ‘swelled heads’ if they had too much praise,” he continues. “It has taken me a long time to agree with this diagnosis. It is true that my sisters and I were the tools of my mother’s ambitions — her ambitions not just for her children, but for herself.”
“I had no idea that — I didn’t feel like, ‘Oh my God, I’m being abused’ or anything like that. In fact, I didn’t really become that aware of it or aware of it at all when I was seeing an analyst who said, ‘You were being abused.’ And I said, ‘No, my mother wouldn’t.’ And she said, ‘Yes you were. You were forced onto the stage.’ They didn’t realize the pressure of performance that my sister and I went through. So they sat out in back or stood out back with the other parents.”
He continues: “It was during the Depression when kids became very popular performers because they didn’t have to pay them. So that’s what we did — many, many of those. Two or three a week sometimes. And I don’t know how we did it and got any sleep, because it was in the evening and we’d get home at 1 o’clock in the morning. But we did it and we didn’t feel like we were being abused. It didn’t occur to us until this analyst said to me, ‘No, you were being abused.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, yeah.’ I’m sure Irene — that’s my mother — didn’t feel that way.”
In fact, when he felt himself slipping into a dark depression, his psychologist helped him to sort out what he was actually feeling.
“Dr. Shane said that it wasn’t depression. She said, ‘I think you’re in mourning for your lost childhood.’ My level of anxiety while reading these pages — some of which literally brought me to tears — finally convinced me of my psychologist’s analysis: I was indeed an abused child. Why did my mother have to drag us around, throwing back carpets in her friends’ apartments, demanding that we dance like trained monkeys?” he writes in the book. “And why was I such a wimp and couldn’t say no? In my defense, I was just a child. But still ….”
Despite what he was put through as a child, Daniels says he still loves his parents, both of whom have passed away. “My mother was really the ultimate stage mother, and my father did nothing to stop her. … In retrospect my parents were right. At least when it came to me,” he writes, adding: “Clearly acting is what I wanted to do and what I’ve always wanted to do in spite of the countless times I said no and tried to push it all away.”