Bits and Pieces: My Mother, My Brother, and Me

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Release Date: 
May 7, 2024
Blackstone Publishing
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Bits and Pieces by . . . Whoopi Goldberg . . . is a rare gem among many ho-hum celebrity memoirs."

Within a period of five years, megastar Whoopi Goldberg lost her mother in 2010 and her only sibling Clyde to an aneurysm in 2015. “Suddenly I felt there might be many loose ends and unanswered questions. . . . I have no one left to ask.”

Whoopi thought, “Not everybody gets to walk this earth with folks who let you be exactly who you are . . . to become exactly who you want to be.” The major loss of those two main forces in her life— “the two most magnificent people I’ve ever known”—within such a short period of time was a tragedy.

Whoopi (then Caryn Johnson), her mother Emma, and her brother Clyde—who was six years older than Whoopi—lived in the diverse Chelsea projects in Manhattan in a five-room apartment. “[it]was the hub of it all . . . hippies, civil rights, women’s lib . . . Radio City Music Hall,” all within reach by bus or subway.

Goldberg’s mother remained married until her absentee husband, Robert Johnson, a gay diamond merchant, passed away in 1993. They did not live together.

Big bro Clyde took Caryn with him all over, even though he was twelve and she was only six. Softball games, skateboarding—they did it all—together. Because their family had little extra money, Emma would let the two collect empty soda cans and bottles and return them for goodies—a big treat when you’re poor. “The jackpot was having an extra nickel for a Bonomo Turkish Taffy.”

Years later when people learned where she grew up,” they would act like I survived a tough childhood . . . [however] as long as I had my mom and Clyde . . . everything was going to be good.” Especially at Christmastime when Emma would always find the time and money to take her kids to the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Show.

No matter how poor they were, there were always gifts around the tree when Clyde and Caryn awoke. “My favorite present . . . was a Frosty snow-cone machine [to] . . . make your own snow cones.” Of all the other gifts was a dress she didn’t care for, “but one disliked gift in fifteen isn’t bad.”

That Christmas was the last time they saw their mother for two years. She was “sent to Bellevue Hospital [with] a nervous breakdown.” “Having my mom taken away . . . was like having a Band-Aid ripped off and facing the real world . . .” But years later, Whoopi (Caryn) found out her absentee dad ordered electroshock therapy for her mom during her hospitalization. Back then, absentee husbands had control.

Though in the 1960s no one had heard of dyslexia. Whoopi discovered why her mother had to read her schoolwork to her and how she’d get stuck in class—she was forced to observe the other children and learned by listening.

She also learned by listening to neighbors’ conversations that women should support themselves—even though this was in the 1960s—and that beauty was not going to earn her a salary.

In the 1960s, Mom got a job as a preschool teacher, and the program funded her degree in early education at New York University—and later she studied for her master’s. But Mom’s education got Caryn thinking—when people praised her mother’s diction, Caryn got pissed: “Oh, you’re so articulate . . . What does it mean to sound black?” Mom just chalked it up to other people’s ignorance.

Mom also became an ardent feminist in the ’70s. Typically nonjudgmental, when asked if she were uncomfortable with one of Caryn’s sex-worker pals, Emma said, “No . . . [not] unless you start shooting ping-pong balls . . . from your vaginal area . . .”

Caryn/Whoopi realized, with her dyslexia, she couldn’t finish high school, displeasing her teacher mom. In her late teens, she drove with friends to California, became drug dependent, married her drug counselor, and had her daughter, Alexandrea. “There’s a reason I only gave birth once . . . this entails shoving a ninety-two-inch TV screen through a tiny hole.”

She divorced Alex’s father and lived on welfare in San Diego, while taking small theater jobs and studying cosmetology. From her frequent farting, she chose the stage name, “Whoopi Goldberg,” then moved to Berkeley, where she performed improv.

Her luck changed and she became prolific in New York. THE Mike Nichols attended her show and a few months later, Whoopi was ON BROADWAY! Whoopi and Emma were lunching with everyone who was anyone!

After Whoopi won the part of Celie (and her first Oscar nomination) in Spielberg’s The Color Purple, Emma abandoned their New York apartment, dropped the key in the incinerator, and arrived in California with just two shopping bags. Whoopi asked what happened to the contents of their flat, and Emma said, “I’m looking at this as a fresh start.”

She won her first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Ghost. Elizabeth Taylor once told her to always ask for a nice gift in return for each new role.

Whoopi became a grandma on her 34th birthday—her daughter Alex was 15. And Whoopi claimed, “I really am not good at, this marriage stuff,” after being married three times.

Brother Clyde became Whoopi’s driver. And Whoopi, Clyde, and Emma were astonished about all the stars they met, including President Clinton, and especially Barack Obama. But she worries about the 2024 election.

Both her brother and Mike Nichols died in 2014. “Mike Nichols’s friendship and belief in me still sustain me.” And when Mom passed a few years later, she called it “a grief that stays way down in my toes.”

Whoopi feels alone in the world—but tries to console her friends who’ve lost close relatives—she feels this blessing was handed down to her by her mother. “The best way to honor your mom is to laugh.”

Lovely photos of Emma Johnson, an older mirror image of her daughter, adorn the memoir’s pages. When Whoopi’s “Ma” died in 2010, her only request was that her ashes be scattered in Disneyland, Ma’s favorite place. Said Goldberg, Ma’s death was “the most devastating experience of my life . . . I still think about her every single day.”

Bits and Pieces by no-B.S.-Whoopi Goldberg (who considers herself “the luckiest person in the world”) is a rare gem among many ho-hum celebrity memoirs.