Julianna Margulies, SUNSHINE GIRL

Julianna Margulies, SUNSHINE GIRL

“You always have to look for the silver lining. That’s sort of the purpose of my book and the telling of my journey.” Zibby is joined by award-winning actress from hit shows like ER and The Good Wife, Julianna Margulies, to talk about her memoir, Sunshine Girl, which is now out in paperback. The two discuss the importance of working through difficult relationships with your parents as adults, the best pieces of advice Julianna’s editor offered her, and what her mother thought of the book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Julianna. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Sunshine Girl: An Unexpected Life, now in paperback.

Julianna Margulies: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: It’s such a treat. I had no idea, as you don’t with most people who you don’t actually know, I had no idea about your whole childhood, how much you moved, what your mom was like, your dad, your family, how much you moved around, all these different cultures you were exposed to. Every time you moved, I’m like, come on, she’s not going to move again. Really? Again? What was that like for you?

Julianna: It was difficult. Every year was an unknown. There was no security in that, never knowing — forget what house or school you’re going to — what country you’re going to be living in. The bigger thing for me was, will I be near my dad? I think children of divorce go through so much pain when their parents separate, which I didn’t because I was a year old when they separated. My dad had always been a constant in my life. When it went to twice a year, maybe, that I was seeing him when my mother moved me and one of my sisters back to England and then when my father moved to England once we got back to the States, it gave me tremendous resilience in that I realized I had to fend for myself, which is probably a good thing, too, in many ways. I developed a strength I don’t know if I would’ve had had that not been the case. You always have to look for the silver lining. That’s sort of the purpose of my book and the telling of my journey. I didn’t realize until I was much older that I could create my own narrative for my own life. I think we live in the shadows of our childhoods for years. We put our parents up on a pedestal no matter how wonderful they are, how terrible they are. My parents were both incredibly loving but incredibly vacant. The silver lining of that for me was that I felt the love. They were my big champions. They championed me. There was nothing I couldn’t do in their eyes.

Yet I didn’t have a soft landing. I had no one to fall back on and no one to depend on but myself. The silver lining of that was that I became very reliable. In the midst of it as I was becoming a woman, I made poor choices in my relationships with men because I was used to walking on eggshells. I was used to not knowing. I got good at navigating that. When I turned thirty-five, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Wait, this actually doesn’t have to be my life. I don’t have to be in pain all the time. Just because my career was going great doesn’t mean my personal life has to be awful. It sort of felt like I was balancing, okay, I’ve got the career down. Now let me suffer. I really wanted people to see that you can come out of all this chaos and create your own calm if you really do the work, if you really do the deep-down thinking of, how did I get here? Where do I want to go? That can be really painful. There are parts of this memoir I wrote that I would look at the screen, and it was just blank. I’d be like, you know, this is too hard. I’ve got nothing. I’m good for the day. I’m going to walk away from my computer. Then there were days where I sat down, and four hours would fly by. I didn’t even realize I had been sitting there for four hours because it all just came flowing out of me. The gift that this book gave me was, once I had it all done and I let it out into the universe, I feel lighter. Even though I had worked all that stuff out and I knew it intellectually, writing it down on the page — that’s why I always say to my friends who are going through a hard time or can’t figure something out, I always say to them, write it down. Even if no one’s going to see it, write it down on the page. Once you see it, you can let it go. Until you see it, you’re going to be carrying it with you. That’s toxic.

I really wanted to live my life toxic-free. That includes my relationships with my parents. I needed a forgiveness for them in order to move on. It’s not just words. To really hear a parent say “I’m sorry,” parents so rarely tell their children “I’m sorry” because it gives them a disadvantage. Then why are their children going to listen to them again? I really learned from that experience. When I’m wrong with my own child, I have, on occasion, said to him, “You are right. I was wrong. I apologize.” I want him to learn that it’s okay to apologize in life. It doesn’t make you a weaker person. It makes you a stronger person and a more reliable person. Those are the lessons I took away and the lessons I wanted to pay forward. I think a lot of especially women, we feel like we’re supposed to do it all. Work-life balance, is that what they say? That’s why I wanted to show the underbelly of what it was like to be on The Good Wife, which I know on the outside looks so glamorous. Look at her. She’s got this incredible job. I did. I loved every minute of it, but the juggling I was doing to survive was ridiculous. I would never do that again. There’s just no way. I got sick because of it, because I kept powering through. I tried to blend it all into one to show the childhood part, the journey to the adulthood part, the mess of the adulthood part from the childhood part, and then the clarity of truly coming into my own as a woman.

Zibby: Wow. I see why, for you, writing made such a difference. You can’t read this book without having empathy for what it was like for you as a child. Whoever you become, when you see the way that it started out and the unpredictability and even little moments like when you got off that plane in London and your mom wasn’t there and then you showed us the picture of what you were like, I was like, oh, my gosh, I can’t believe she was just thinking she was going to go to prison for — not being able to count on someone who’s supposed to be the bedrock, it has to lead you in a certain way. Then I just thought it was so amazing, as you were saying about forgiveness, even with your dad’s letter and reshaping the way that your life had gone and making it into new memories for you and just understanding analytically so you can move on emotionally. It’s really amazing.

Julianna: Thank you. That’s also why you need a really good editor. I had originally written just excerpts of that letter and interwove it with my own dialogue. My editor called me after she read that chapter. She said, “I need the whole letter.” I said, “Oh, god. Really? You think anyone’s interested in the whole letter?” She said, “A hundred percent. We need the whole letter.” What was amazing about that was, I wrote it with the trepidation, the whole letter, but the response to that letter has been remarkable, from readers just saying that’s where they broke down in the book. That’s where they were sobbing. Also, to be able to show the parents’ side of things, it allowed me to understand we’re all just human doing the best we can. We’re flawed. We’re juggling. My dad just felt that he was up against a wall. Look, I’m supporting them. I’m giving them an education. To see my side of it, to understand it, to hear his side of it, and to realize you don’t have to walk around with this caseload of anger towards your parents for not being there — how about you ask them why? I’m lucky. I know how lucky I am that I had parents who were — they were receptive to that. I’m sure a lot of parents, especially of my parents’ generation, would just sort of pretend they didn’t hear it or not respond or defend themselves. My parents were very open. For me, when my dad suddenly died — it was so strangely sudden to have this vegetarian man who didn’t drink or smoke drop dead at seventy-nine of a stomach aneurism. It was so out of left field for all of us. Because I had done all the work with him, there was no unfinished business. I only felt love when he died, and grief. You can really work through love and grief. It’s very hard to work through anger and grief.

Zibby: Very true.

Julianna: That’s what I always try to tell my friends who have difficult relationships with their parents as adults. I don’t think we’ve explored that enough either. I think we need to explore what it is to be an adult and still have a relationship with your parents and be able to find the love. I didn’t want to complain anymore. I didn’t want to still have the same baggage with my parents because you bring that into a marriage. You just do. There’s no way you don’t. If you just block it out, you’re still holding onto something toxic. It’s cathartic to write it down and to see your feelings on the page and then be able to work through them. Also, as crazy as my mother was, she’s such a fascinating character. I’d love to play her one day.

Zibby: You should. That would be amazing.

Julianna: It’s good storytelling because no one would believe it. Who’s going to believe that a fifteen-year-old comes home and her mother is living with a twenty-one-year-old man? How do you navigate that as a fifteen-year-old, when the boyfriend’s much closer to your age than your mother’s age?

Zibby: You were like, he has acne. He has acne. That’s how young he is.

Julianna: I couldn’t believe it. I was like, are you kidding me? He’s got acne. Doesn’t she see it? She didn’t, by the way. We joke about it now a lot. My mom is almost eighty-seven. Just last August, I had to move her into assisted living because she has beginning stages of dementia, which has been really interesting to navigate also. Her narrative of my childhood and her own childhood, it’s selective narration. Actually, I think there’s another book in there, too, just the journey of an aging parent who’s falling ill. How do we get through it without letting it push our buttons? How do we react in a kind, empathetic way rather than an angry, go back to that childhood reaction when she triggers me? It’s been a fascinating journey that way too.

Zibby: I think you’re right. I feel like you’re only really an adult when you stop living your life about your own parents. When my mom was finally like, “You know what? I did the best I could,” I’m like, you know what? She did. That’s what I’m trying to do now as a parent. That’s all any of us can really do. Maybe we’ll make mistakes, but moving on.

Julianna: That’s all you can do, the best you can do. Don’t we deal with it every day on a — I don’t want to say mundane level. Just today, I have a back-to-back day. Then I have this event I have to go to tonight. What about dinner? I made sure, run and take the dog out early. Then, oh, my god, I’ve got to go shopping. I’ve got to get food. What do they want? Then you have to think about what they want to eat. Just the littlest things, it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it is when you’re a working parent. Of course, they could just order in, but the mother in me wants them to open the fridge and see, oh, we have a choice of this, this, and — all these crazy things we do because god forbid my child grows up to say, my mother was never home to make me dinner. Just drive a stake through my heart. I hope that’s the only thing he has to complain about when he’s on the shrink’s couch. Then there’s that point, too, when you come from especially someone like my mother — I write in the book, she definitely did not cross her T’s or dot her I’s. It is shocking that we got through any of it. Then, am I doing too much for my kid now? Am I doing so much that he won’t be able to fend for himself? I panic about that all the time. I try and stop myself. Constantly, there’s this monologue of, just because you can do it better, doesn’t mean you should do it. Let him do it and learn.

Zibby: It’s so hard, though. It’s so hard.

Julianna: When you’re watching them struggle, right?

Zibby: Yes. I’m like, let me just tie the shoes. It’s fine.

Julianna: Yeah. Come on, come on. We’re always in a rush. We’re always go, go, going. That was the silver lining of the pandemic for me, was just this sudden stillness and the time to really enjoy cooking and enjoy putting a meal out on the table and sit and talk to one another without a timer going off saying, okay, done. Now we got to go. It was so tragic in many ways, this pandemic, but I think in so many ways it reset the clock for many, many families, and especially many, many mothers who were juggling most of the work. I know that sounds sexist in the opposite way, but it is true.

Zibby: It was a huge relief not to be racing places. So much of the day is getting this kid to that place and figuring out what they need and not forgetting, having all that in your head always going around. At least you could put that piece down. There were other issues, but at least that.

Julianna: It’s so true. Also, to know that all these little things that build up, they’ll get through it. They’ll be fine. It’s a tremendous journey, this life we’re on. My child actually said to me the other day — at first, I was so taken aback by it. Then I realized, wait, what a great way to live. He said to me out of the blue, he goes, “I just need you to know I’m not afraid to die.” I said, “First of all, you’re a hundred percent healthy. Why are we having this conversation? What?” He said, “I just think it’s weird that everybody in this world goes around worried about death when it’s the inevitable. It’s part of life, isn’t it?” I said, “I think it’s really the people that get left behind that are the ones to worry about.” He said, “Yeah, I would be sad if there was death in my life, but I also know that that is what life is.”

Zibby: Good for him.

Julianna: I know, right?

Zibby: That is great. I literally, yesterday — I don’t know when this is coming out. Yesterday was Mother’s Day. I decided to write a note to my kids as if I were dead. I know this sounds depressing. I wanted them to know that I don’t want them to be sad on Mother’s Day. I love Mother’s Day. The thought that for years on end just because I died they would all be sad about it and mourning and crying, I wanted to be like, no, no, no, let’s enjoy it. This is not a plot twist. This happens to everybody. Now I’m sort of like, what if we could get rid of grief? How amazing if we got rid of it? What would that do for the community and the world at large? Think about all of the –anyway, that’s where my own crazy .

Julianna: That’s actually a really great letter. That’s a brave letter to write. Did they read it, or did you put it away?

Zibby: No, I posted it on Instagram.

Julianna: Oh, you did?

Zibby: I posted it. I read it to them. My daughter who’s younger was crying. She’s like, “Why would you read this to me? I’m not old enough for this.” I’m like, “You know what? Tomorrow, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I want you to know this is important. I want you to know it now and to appreciate every day. Nothing is promised. Let’s just enjoy it.” Maybe I was a little heavy.

Julianna: No, I think that’s a great point. A friend of mine, her father has a few months to live. They’re very, very close. I said to her, actually, on Saturday — I went away with a few girlfriends for the weekend.

Zibby: Nice.

Julianna: I think that’s what all mothers should do, by the way.

Zibby: Yes, very true.

Julianna: We were back by Mother’s Day, but it was really nice. I said to her, “When my dad first died, I felt such grief, just such grief. There was a hole in my heart. It’s been six years now.” Maybe more. Eight years. Jesus, it’s been eight years now. I said to her, “He’s a part of me. He’s still alive. He’s inside me. He’s in every fiber of my being.” I keep a picture of my father and me from my wedding day on my bedside table. Every night, I get into bed, and I see him. I say to him, “I hope I see you in my dreams tonight.”

Zibby: Aw, that is so sweet.

Julianna: It’s rare. It used to be much more frequent when he first died. Now it’s rare. It’s just those moments. I’m like, you’re right there. Maybe you’ll show up. Maybe you won’t. It’s the right order of things, first of all. Know that you’ll feel grief, but then you’re going to feel almost closer to your parent because you can talk to them all the time. I talk to him all the time. He left me my stepmother, who we thought was going to go way before him. She was very ill when he died. We were all ready for her to die. She’s older than he is, so we were like, oh, my god, he died? That’s not how things are — every time I leave the nursing home, because she’s a lot of work, I look up and I go, Dad, really? I take care of her because I know he loved her. It’s my gift to him. I love her too, but I don’t love her the way he did. I take care of her because that’s what he would’ve wanted me to do. They’re with you forever. I know it’s easy to say. It’s very hard to feel it. I think when children lose their parents at a very young age, it’s a very different story.

Zibby: Yes, agreed. That was actually interesting because I noticed how you wrote about Vicky in the book. I was wondering what the real story is here. I feel like it was the one relationship you didn’t totally dive deep into.

Julianna: I did. I have a lot of chapters on the editing room floor. I had a whole chapter about her. She was a very interesting character. What’s been interesting since my father’s death is I have been going out to lunch with a lot of their friends. There are still two high school buddies of my father’s. He went to Horace Mann. They’re still alive. One is my godfather, Alan, who I write about in the book. The other is a man named Jimmy Freund. We have lunch. They’re in the city. We have lunch probably once every six months. I said to them — it was upsetting to my stepmother that none of my father’s friends were calling her after my father died, so I called them. I said, “Hey guys, Vicky is alone in a nursing home in Great Barrington. I’m sort of her only conduit to the outside world and to my father. She’s wondering why you haven’t called her. I am too, to be honest.” I wasn’t trying to shame them. I just know that if they had died, my father would’ve been there for their spouses in a heartbeat. He would’ve been driving to see them all the time. Across the board, every single one of them was like, “We never liked her.” “Your father died because of her.” They had this whole narrative built up. “We never understood why they were together. Your father was this intellectual.” I had this whole chapter about her. My stepmother was an alcoholic. I wrote about her alcoholism in the book.

It was starting to get into too many — you open up too many boxes. Then there’s no cap on top. You can’t then put a close to it because you start veering down so many roads. My editor felt like, “We need to stick to your immediate mother and father and relationship. She can be on the periphery, Vicky. If we get into there, then we have to get into her crazy childhood,” which was a crazy childhood. It just started getting a little too messy. We had to contain it a little bit more. My father, who never drank alcohol, was married to a woman who was not a deep thinker. You could never be too rich, too thin, or too famous in her eyes. Her world was much more of a superfluous world than my father’s was. None of us could really understand why they were together. Yet, and I did write this in the book, she made his eggs just perfectly. She had his shirts ironed and his orange juice freshly squeezed every day. My mother would rather burn in hell than do that for any man. It all works out. We all make our choices. I love her. She was good to me as a kid when I visited, so I’m going to take care of her until she dies, which is what you do, right?

Zibby: It’s not what everybody does, so it’s really nice you’re doing that.

Julianna: She’s turning ninety in June. I’m like, really? Not to sound morbid. She’s very sick, so I just don’t know what she’s clinging to. I want her to let go and go and hang out with my dad.

Zibby: That’s just really awesome. I saw, by the way, on your Instagram that you post about books every so often. I feel like we have the same taste in books. I’ve had every author who you mention, like Erin French and Lily King and Brit Bennett, Who is Maud Dixon?, . I love all the books you love.

Julianna: Just right now, I’m obsessed — it’s so good. Are you reading Delia Ephron’s new book, Left on Tenth?

Zibby: I already read it. It’s amazing.

Julianna: I’m halfway through. Don’t tell me. I know her a little bit. I know how it ends.

Zibby: I loved it.

Julianna: Isn’t it beautifully written?

Zibby: I put that on my list of what I got my mom for Mother’s Day this year because it’s great. It was great. I loved interviewing her. She was awesome. Yes, it’s so good.

Julianna: Oh, you got to interview her too. She lives around the corner from me, so we bump into each other all the time. She had read my memoir and stopped me on the street. She had once written an op-ed in The New York Times years ago when I was on The Good Wife. I think the title was “What About Me?” It was all about how important it was for her, not the character Will and Alicia, but for her for Will and Alicia to get together. That’s a great op-ed. I’ve been a huge fan since then. I’ve been calling her going, “Wait, wait, let me tell you. It wouldn’t have been the greatest story.” She’s like, “I don’t care. It’s about me.”

Zibby: Did your mom — I know she’s having dementia now, but did she have any feelings about the book? Has she read the book?

Julianna: She has read the book. First of all, she knew everything that was going into the book because my research really was her. Thank god I got her before — she’s in and out of dementia. It’s the early stages, so she’s still pretty coherent on most days. It depends on the day. I told her this. She laughed so hard. She’s like, “I love the book, honey.” I said, “Of course, you do. You’re the biggest narcissist I know, and it’s about you.” She does. She loves the honesty of it. My mother valued her worth on the amount of boyfriends she had. I write about how beautiful she was and all her boyfriends. To her, I think it seems like she is this stunning, still a Broadway dancer with the men falling at her feet. I think that makes her happy.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, it’s amazing. Do you know what has become of Lamby and Rabbity-Jones, your stuffed animals?

Julianna: They’re here. They’re in my apartment.

Zibby: Yeah? Do you still have them? Oh, my gosh.

Julianna: I do. I still have them. Right now, they’re in storage in a bin. For years, they were in Kieran’s room. They’re dirty. I tried to wash Rabbity-Jones. It’s a little grey. I still have them. They’re the only things I have from my childhood. I thought my son would take to them, but boys are very different than girls.

Zibby: He’s like, no thanks.

Julianna: He’s like, whatever. Does it have wheels? No. I figure one day maybe if he ever has children, I’ll be able to give them to my grandchildren.

Zibby: My mom had these dolls that her parents had gotten her. They don’t move very much. They’re just propped up. She gave them to me when I was a little girl. I was like, oh, great, I’m going to give these to my kids. My kids are like, “These are the creepiest things we’ve ever seen.” They made me put them in the closet with the door closed. They’re like, “We never want to see these again.” Best-laid plans.

Julianna: It’s like watching our children now with technology as opposed to how we grew up. When I was editing and writing my book, I was in such a panic because I’m technologically challenged. My son would be like, “Mom, why are you cut, copying, and pasting? Just do this.” I was like, “You’re going to lose it!” For them, it’s so easy. There’s an ease to it. It’s just a different language now. I have to stop — I sort of push it away because I mourn the good old days of actually sitting down with a pen in hand. Now I sound ancient. There’s something about writing. Kids don’t write anymore. All those letters I had from when I was a kid was because my father saved the letters. What happens to emails? Unless you put them in a folder or print them out. When I got older and I made my father get email, when I was away on different jobs — there was a whole chapter about that too. When he died, I found all my emails. He printed them out and put them in a file, which was great because I then remembered the whole job that I was on. I’d come home every day and write to him about what it was like. It was when I was doing The Mists of Avalon. It was my favorite job I’ve ever had because I was riding horses. The only reason I knew how to ride horses was because my father gave me horseback riding lessons and supported me as an equestrian. I was so grateful to him. It spelled out the journey. Now we’re on a mission to clean out our mailboxes.

Zibby: Yes. What can I throw away? It’s true.

Julianna: I’m a definite cleaner. I like everything in order, but those little things, you have to save those moments because you’ll forget them. You think you won’t, but you will.

Zibby: It’s true. Julianna, thank you so much. Thank you for sharing your whole life story. Even without all the entertainment stuff, I found it absolutely fascinating. Then to know what’s become of your career on top of this childhood just made it even more interesting. I just thought it was fascinating. I’m so glad that you’ve come to this place of forgiveness and acceptance and leading your life the way you are. It’s really awesome to have gone through this little journey with you through the book. Thank you.

Julianna: Thank you so, so much. Thank you for reading it and for having me on your show. I love the name of your show. It’s so good. Good luck to you. Thank you for supporting writers. It’s such a great thing you’re doing.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.

Julianna: Take care.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Julianna: Bye.

Julianna Margulies, SUNSHINE GIRL

SUNSHINE GIRL by Julianna Margulies

Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts