Winner’s circle: Williams reveals people behind her Nobel Prize
By Kevin O’Connor
STAFF WRITER | March 17,2013
The cover of Williams’ book.
The revelations in Jody Williams’ new memoir start on page one, where the native Vermonter writes she was in bed with her future husband — who was then legally separated but still married to someone else — when the phone rang at 4 a.m. Oct. 10, 1997, with a report she and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines had just won the Nobel Peace Prize.
But for her family now reading the book, that’s the least of its surprises.
Take the story about how Williams’ mother, Ruth, was 15 when she fell head over heels for John, the World War II sailor, in the summer of 1946, then eloped with him that autumn without telling anyone until, living with her parents as the bridegroom boarded elsewhere, she discovered she was pregnant.
Ruth Williams, now 82, can’t believe her daughter would divulge such a tale about a good Catholic girl simply trying to be faithful to both her man and God.
“I’m not going to read it,” she said upon receiving the book.
The author’s mother didn’t read her own child’s autobiography?
“Of course I did,” Ruth Williams says with a laugh. Although she prefers privacy, she long has given up trying to stop her activist daughter from speaking out.
“My Name Is Jody Williams: A Vermont Girl’s Winding Path to the Nobel Peace Prize” — the new 286-page hardcover from the University of California Press — spares few details about the now 62-year-old’s journey from the Green Mountains to the four corners of the globe. That’s attested to in book jacket blurbs from actress Mia Farrow and Archbishop Desmond Tutu — as well as her family’s wide eyes back home.
This past week, during Williams’ first stop on a cross-country book tour, the normally composed C-SPAN host Brian Lamb stuttered incredulously upon learning the author — who recounts, in her own words, “family tragedy, job burnout, idealism, heartbreak and grassroots activism” — didn’t seek anyone’s permission to tell all.
“Why do you think anybody wants to know this about a Nobel Peace Prize winner?” the broadcaster asked her on air. “There’s a lot of personal stuff — who wanted you to write this book?”
(This week’s Time magazine also inquires in its “10 Questions for Jody Williams.”)
The author has a ready answer: She did. Williams, who bounces between a Washington, D.C., suburb and Westminster, cites a simple reason for penning such a candid page-turner.
“Too often for my taste, giants of change are stripped of the flaws, weaknesses and complexities that make us all human,” she replied to this newspaper. “All buffed up and made almost saintly, they seem far beyond the reach of ‘ordinary’ people. It’s hard to believe we mere mortals could ever accomplish such things, too.”
Williams’ book is well grounded in reality. You can read about her father’s hardscrabble Depression-era childhood, her mother’s challenges raising two boys and three girls while her husband hit the road as a traveling salesman, and her older brother’s struggles dealing with deafness and other differences resulting from his mother not knowing she had German measles during her pregnancy.
“Some of my friends have said, ‘I never knew,’” Ruth Williams says. But she can’t get too upset with her daughter. Ask where the author inherited her frankness and the family matriarch replies with a smile, “My father was extremely feisty.”
The laureate writes of the late Poultney resident Ralph Colvin: “As I grew up, I increasingly identified with my Grampa Ralph. He was strong, confident and didn’t suffer fools lightly. He laughed as easily and quickly as he angered. Once the anger passed, also quickly, he didn’t think about it again.”
Williams credits her father for passing on his blue eyes and “lifelong concern for the everyman.” And she thanks her brother, Stephen, for inspiring her to stick up for the little guy when bullies literally threw stones at him.
“Instead of my mousy self standing mutely by, shaking in my sneakers while they picked on my brother,” she writes, “righteous indignation overpowered my fear and I went after them, screaming like a banshee.”
Williams introduces her younger siblings — Mary Beth, Mark and Janet — as she tells how the family moved from Poultney to Brattleboro so Stephen could attend the town’s Austine School for the Deaf. But for all her household disclosures, she’s most forthright about herself. Consider the start of Chapter 1, titled “What Do You Mean I Can’t Be the Pope?”
“At some point in grade school, I finally realized I didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of becoming the first woman pope,” she writes. “Then again, I’d also been slow in noticing I couldn’t even be an altar boy. Perhaps that turned out to be not such a bad thing, but at the time it felt unfair. Why boys only? What was so special about them?”
Williams went on to the University of Vermont, then odd jobs ranging from Howard Johnson waitress to oral surgery assistant, then master’s degrees from the School for International Training in Brattleboro and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and finally grassroots organizing that led to an invitation from veterans’ advocates to create the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
“I rolled my eyes, looked at them like they were completely mad, and laughed out loud,” she writes of the latter request. “What’s more, I couldn’t see what was so special about landmines in particular, why they merited a campaign to ban them.”
She has since changed her mind.
For readers, the book can elicit a spectrum of emotions. Ruth Williams can’t understand why her seemingly no-holds-barred daughter — “why does she have to be so honest?” she laments only half-jokingly — can’t admit she was part of a UVM sorority before morphing from what Mom calls “Betty Co-ed” to “bib overalls and combat boots.”
(“I’ve no problem saying I joined,” the laureate finally admits, “and then quit almost immediately.”)
On a serious note, her mother was most surprised to read about her daughter’s sexual assault in El Salvador a quarter-century ago — something she didn’t know about until reaching page 131 earlier this month.
The C-SPAN host was more tongue-tied by the author’s love life.
“In your book,” he said in last week’s televised interview, “you tell us the exact moment when you, ah, I don’t know how to, ah, when you decided, ah, that you were, ah, attracted physically to your now husband.”
“Goose,” replied Williams, collapsing in laughter. “His name is Steve Goose.”
In her book’s epilogue, Williams explains how she went on to marry the director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division in 2001. How she’s now chairwoman of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, a group of six female laureates working for “sustainable peace with justice and equality.” How her mother, after John died in 2004, stays busy tracking an ever-growing gaggle of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“Despite all the trials and tribulations, she has maintained a vibrant sense of humor and positive view of life,” the daughter writes of her mother. “She truly and completely rocks, and I absolutely adore her.”
Because for all her accomplishments, Williams always returns to her roots.
“I wanted to write this book because I know how many people think they are powerless with so many issues challenging us,” she told this newspaper. “I know they are not — they just need to understand about activism and change and that we all can find ways to contribute.”
And do so fearlessly, she adds.
“Much comes from the fact that I talk straight with people. I am who I am, and I don’t try to pretend I’ve not made good and bad choices like everyone else. I think I help people realize that they, too, can make changes in the world without having to turn into a saint to do it.”