It wasn’t until William Daniels was an adult that he realized he was abused as a child actor.
The Emmy-winning actor, who starred in Boy Meets World, Knight Rider, and St. Elsewhere, shares in his new memoir the painful memories of being forced into performing as a child by his mother.
Daniels, 89, was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1927 — two years before the Great Depression hit in 1929 — to his bricklayer father, Charles, and his telephone operator mother, Irene. Daniels recalls in There I Go Again: How I Came to Be Mr. Feeny, John Adams, Dr. Craig, KITT & Many Others that his mother dragged him to endless auditions from a very young age, pushing him to dance, sing, and perform. He later began working alongside his sisters, Jacqueline and Carol, performing on radio shows and television throughout the week that would go late into the wee hours of the morning, as well as on weekends, while the children received little to no compensation for their talents.
“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 memoir. “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,” the book continues. “It has taken me a long time to agree with this diagnosis. It is true that my sisters and I were the tool’s of my mother’s ambitions — her ambitions not just for her children, but for herself.”
Speaking with PEOPLE, Daniels admits that he was initially in denial about being the victim of abuse as a child actor. “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,’” Daniels tells PEOPLE. “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. … 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.”
Years later, Daniels sat down with both his parents at his home in California and opened up to them about the pain of his past. “I told them out here in our little pool house,” Daniels tells PEOPLE about the sit-down discussion. “[Irene] looked out on the glass doors onto the pool and never looked at me once when I told her this: That ‘You really put us through a lot.’”
“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 his loss of childhood, Daniels still has immense love for his parents, who have both passed away: Irene almost three decades ago and Charles on Sept. 11, 2001. And although he was forced to perform and was robbed of a healthy childhood, there is nothing else that Daniels would rather have done with his life than be on a stage or in front of the camera lens.
“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, and later adds, “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.”