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Tatum O'Neal shares survival story

Behind her smile there were secrets, a childhood full of neglect and abuse -- emotional, physical, and sexual. And there was more to come. Tatum O'Neal talks to NBC's Stone Phillips about what she calls "her crazy life," the dark side of that "Paper Moon."
/ Source: Dateline NBC

Say the name Tatum O'Neal and for many people, the image that comes to mind is still that of a fresh-faced, precocious child actress, who at age 10, won hearts and an Academy Award in "Paper Moon." But she says behind her smile there were secrets, a childhood full of neglect and abuse -- emotional, physical, and sexual. And there was more to come. Tatum O'Neal talks to NBC's Stone Phillips about what she calls "her crazy life," the dark side of that "Paper Moon."

Stone Phillips: "The stories you tell in this book are shocking, even by Hollywood standards."

Tatum O'Neal: "Yeah."

Phillips: "Beatings, hunger, neglect, sexual molestation, underage drinking, underage driving, car crashes, suicide attempts, and drugs virtually everywhere."

O'Neal: "I thank God everyday that it is so behind me."

Phillips: "What made you want to share so many painful secrets about your life and family?

O'Neal: "I think it's a chance to say, you know, things don't just happen by accident. One doesn't just fall off the edge of a cliff for nothing."

It was a spectacular fall from the heights of Hollywood stardom, as the youngest Academy Award winner in history, to a desperate drug addict who'd lost control of her life and custody of her children. Tatum O'Neal's new memoir, "A Paper Life," is a story about damaging childhood experiences thatinstilled "a profound self-loathing and sense of worthlessness." But it's also a story of survival, about a gutsy little girl forced to rely on wits and determination when adults let her down -- much like the orphan she played in the movie that made her famous.

Phillips: "We saw you in ‘Paper Moon' and ‘Bad News Bears,' and you always played the tough kid who could handle anything. But I don't think anybody had any idea what you were having to handle in your real life."

O'Neal: "No, I don't think so. Maybe someone thinks that on the outside it looks really glamorous.  And-- but really, it's just been a real struggle. And I'm glad I didn't pass away and die."

A traumatic childhood
Tatum's story begins with her mother. Joanna Moore was perhaps best known as the sheriff's girlfriend on the Andy Griffith Show. But in real life, she struggled with alcohol and amphetamines, her addictions growing worse after her divorce from a young, up and coming actor named Ryan O'Neal. In 1968, she moved their two children, 5-year-old Tatum, and her younger brother, Griffin, to a rundown ranch outside of Los Angeles. Tatum writes, "My own young life had eerily echoed Addie's, [her character in ‘Paper Moon'] even though my mother was still alive. In the grip of addiction, she had virtually abandoned me and Griffin, leaving us in squalor -- starving, shoeless, and ragged, as well as beaten and abused by the men in her life."

Phillips: "How bad was the neglect?"

O'Neal: "It was terrible. My mother stayed drunk for years and years and years. It just went on and on and on. So, even from when we were little up until when we grew up and, you know, it just didn't end."

Tatum says as a young girl, left unprotected, she was molested on the ranch.

Phillips: "You were six years old?"

O'Neal: "Yeah. When parents are off getting drunk or getting high or taking pills in another room, and leaving little children with, you know, people who don't watch their kids, this is what happens."

Phillips: "You write that your mother would continually leave you alone with strange men. So, this wasn't just a one-time thing?"

O'Neal: "No."

At age 40, the memories are still hurtful. But Tatum says as a child she held her feelings in, that she was more apt to steal or set a fire for the attention she craved. Defiance and delinquency were her defense against the pain.

By the time Tatum was eight years old, her mother was so incapacitated by her addictions that she could no longer care for her children. They were sent off to boarding school, but Tatum wouldn't stay there for long.

Phillips: "You went to live with your father at his Malibu Beach house. The good life, you called it."

O'Neal: "Yeah. It was pretty good then."

Phillips: "Did you know at that point how big a star Ryan O'Neal was?"

O'Neal: "I kind of did. Yeah, because I had seen ‘Love Story.'"

It was 1971. The blockbuster hit, "Love Story," had turned Tatum's dad into Hollywood's hottest leading man, on screen and off. Tatum says her father's beach house was a very busy bachelor's pad.

O'Neal: "Dad likes the ladies, no doubt about that."

Phillips: "How much of that were you exposed to?"

O'Neal: "I'm pretty sure I was exposed to most of that."

Ursula Andress, Angelica Houston and Diana Ross, were just a few of the women Tatum says her father entertained. 

O'Neal: "There was never any privacy. You could always hear him."

It would have been an awkward situation for any single father and daughter, but Tatum says it caused tension between her and her dad because she often insisted on being with him, even at night when he wasn't alone.

Phillips: "Is it true that you would actually crawl into bed with your dad, and whatever woman he was with at the time?"

O'Neal: "There were times that I was in the bed, or -- over the years, yeah. I was so afraid from all the things that had happened to me at the ranch that I couldn't sleep alone. And I didn't have, like, a mother figure. I didn't have anyone to nurture me. So, when a woman would come in, I would just be in terror. So, I just didn't know how to sleep alone. I was so afraid of the dark, and everything. So, it's not like I wanted to be in the room with women. It's just that I didn't—"

Phillips: "You didn't want to be alone."

O'Neal: "Right. That's what it was, yeah."

Life in the spotlight
But Tatum says the real friction came after Ryan helped her land that first movie role, only to have his daughter steal every scene.

Phillips: "How did your success in ‘Paper Moon' affect your relationship with your dad?"

O'Neal: "It sort of destroyed us."

From the book: In the press he played the doting father, but in his eyes I read the truth: Deep resentment that his own brilliant performance was being dismissed. I soon started getting such bad stomach aches that the doctors thought I had ulcers.

Some memories, she says, are blocked to this day. And yet, Tatum insists they are true.

Phillips: "You write, "People tell me that when I got the Oscar nomination, Ryan slugged me."

O'Neal: "I have no memory of it at all."

Phillips: "You don't remember that happening."

O'Neal: "No. But he did."

Phillips: "So, what would explain the fact that when you get an Oscar nomination, he hits you?"

O'Neal: "Well, I might have said something he didn't like."

Phillips: "You mean, like, ‘I got nominated, you didn't.'"

O'Neal: "I might have. But I was nine.

From the book: The feeling I associate most with winning the Oscar is an overwhelming sadness at being abandoned by my parents.

On the night she accepted the Academy Award, Tatum's mother didn't come. Even more hurtful was the absence of her co-star, who was off shooting another film.

Phillips: "You say in the book that he had an abusive streak a mile wide."

O'Neal: "Yeah, he still kind of does. I mean, there was always a slugging thing. Or a backhand, or throwing out of the car or whatever. It was a rough, just rough around the house."

Phillips: "Physically and verbally."

O'Neal: "And emotionally."

Phillips: "Which hurt more?"

O'Neal: "The verbally, I think, the shut-outs, because that's where you learn to derive your sense of self. ‘Is he in a good mood today?' You know, ‘Am I going to be loved today?'"

Phillips: "And you never knew day to day what it was going to be like?"

O'Neal: "Uh-huh. And that's hard. It's hard to grow up like that."

And Tatum says, it was confusing, because there was another side to her father that was irresistible.

O'Neal: "My dad could be one of the most charming men you'll ever meet."

Phillips: "And that feels pretty good, and that's pretty seductive?"

O'Neal: "Oh, that's very seductive. Sure. So, ‘Tatum, let me rub your feet.' Or, you know, ‘I love you.' You know. ‘Come, Tatum.' You know. And ‘Oh, yeah, I want to be in that fatherly glow.'" 

And she was, when he took her out on the Hollywood party circuit in the mid-70s. They became a regular, if odd, couple, showing up in places where young girls didn't usually go.

O'Neal: "Doesn't every dad bring their daughter to the Playboy Mansion? No, I guess not. OK, I was there. I don't know what I was doing there. I was being raised by Ryan."

Phillips: "And where he went, you went."

O'Neal: "Yeah."

Competing for attention
At 12, Tatum remembers going with her father to Europe where he was filming, "A Bridge Too Far." And she says something traumatic happened. She'd brought along someone she says she'd become very attached to, actress Melanie Griffith, who was 18 at the time. For Tatum, friends were hard to come by, so she says, Melanie meant a lot to her.

O'Neal: "I thought she was my best friend. But there's an agenda that I'm not aware of, which is that they're going to sort of get together -- and I walk in on them and I end up trying to take my life in a very sort of severe way."

Phillips: "You were devastated because you felt betrayed."

O'Neal: "Well, yeah."

Phillips: "She was your friend. He was your dad."

O'Neal: "Well, right."

When slashing at her wrists didn't work, she says she tried to overdose on drugs and alcohol. And in the book, she says she knew exactly where to go for both.

Phillips: "You went to this friend of your father's. And he gave you—"

O'Neal: "He gave me a lot of drugs, yeah. And then he molested me."

Phillips: "Did you tell your father what had happened?"

O'Neal: "Nope. No."

Phillips: "So, he molests you and then you just wake up and go on with your life?"

O'Neal: "Melanie took me to Paris."

Tatum says Melanie took her to Paris, on to London and eventually let her tag along to Israel, where Melanie was shooting a film. Tatum says she found her way back to Los Angeles alone.

From the book: Sleeping on benches in foreign airports… where I couldn't speak the language, as a terrified little girl. The helpless abandonment I felt has stuck with me to this day.

Phillips: "I mean, you read this book, and it just screams out, where are the parents? Where's the supervision. Who's looking out for you?"

O'Neal: "Yeah."

Phillips: "I mean, it's as if you're kind of out there on your own."

O'Neal: "Yeah. Throughout all those years, I just felt so banished. Like, just get rid of her."