When Shaquille O’Neal was drafted into the NBA in 1992, not only was his life changed forever, but so was his mother’s. Her son’s success on the basketball court signaled the end of Lucille O’Neal’s lifetime financial struggles. Although his fame brought previously unimaginable luxury and security for Lucille as a result of Shaquille’s generosity, the same old demons taunted Lucille: The disapproval of her family when she became an unwed teenage mother, her unfulfilled potential, feelings of emptiness and loneliness within a twenty-eight-year marriage, and a decades-long pattern of escaping her problems by abusing alcohol. She also found herself surprised and bewildered by her unexpected feelings of jealousy and resentment about her son’s accomplishments and prosperity.
Lucille O’Neal grew up during the turbulent 1960’s on the East Coast. Her journey “from mental welfare to mental health” was a struggle for self-esteem and self-confidence with which many are all-too-familiar.
As a very young child, Lucille moved from George to Newark, New Jersey. She recounts a vague recollection of being packed into a car with her father, brother, and sister, and not even knowing enough to ask if they were “there yet because we didn’t know where ‘there’ was!” In the late 1950’s, it was rare for a father to have custody of his children following a divorce unless, as in the case of Lucille’s parents, it was the wife who wanted to end the marriage. She would not be reunited with her mother for several years, during which she lived with her father and siblings on the second floor of her paternal grandparents’ home. In light of a disability that impaired her father’s speech, he was a quiet and largely uninvolved parent. Her grandparents, primarily her judgmental and harsh grandmother, were the authority figures in the house.
Lucille’s “height continued to inch upward as my self-esteem continued to nosedive during my preteen years.” But she was convinced that her grandparents did not notice because, in part, the O’Neal family was so involved in church activities. Although Lucille hated the routine nature of her family’s life, she loved Rev. Iola Hartsfield, a female, African-American evangelist. She writes, “For me, Rev. Hartsfield’s very presence was mind-numbing. It was such an awesome vision back then to see this woman of color– so confident and sure of herself — in a man’s profession and world. . . . Watching this courageous woman command the attention of all her members with effortless skill and ease spoke volumes to me about what was possible. I’m pretty sure that’s where I first got the idea in my head that one day I wanted to become a public speaker.”
Rev. Hartsfield was “nothing but a little bit of a woman. She couldn’t have been more than knee-high to a duck, even with heels; but she stood like a giant among giants no matter where she was.” And Lucille, at six feet by her twelfth birthday, was inspired by her, especially one Sunday when Rev. Hartsfield “found it necessary to try to uplift me from her place in the pulpit.” On that morning, she told her, “Lucille, walk like you have somewhere to go.” Lucille was mortified at the time, but years later she would come to “understand what this remarkable lady was trying to do for me and for my confidence.”
Lucille found herself pregnant at the age of seventeen. Depressed and alone, she availed herself of various governmental programs and eventually landed a job working for the city where she met her future husband, Phil. Over the next twenty-eight years, they would raise Shaquille, along with three more children, moving from place to place after Phil enlisted in the military in order to provide for his growing family.
Lucille describes Phil as increasingly rigid and autocratic. As the years passed, she found herself more and more confused and distressed by his behavior, especially considering that he would be away from home for long stretches of time on military duty, during which she was fully in charge of and responsible for the family. Yet when Phil returned, he expected her to yield to his authority as head of the household. With alarming frequency, she found herself seeking solace from liquor, binging with neighbors and friends on the weekends, as her relationship with Phil steadily grew more strained and distant.
It was not until she faced two life-altering crises that Lucille was pulled back to the faith of her childhood and the strength it provided allowed her to not only quit drinking, but also adapt to her first-born’s success as a professional athlete. Still, she could not escape the sense that something was missing in her life. When she finally amassed the courage to assess her circumstances, she not only left the marriage, but with her son’s financial backing, returned to school and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Master’s degree in Organizational Management.
Lucille O’Neal’s story and the manner in which she tells it are both contradictory and frustrating. I wanted to understand Lucille’s experiences and feelings in order to determine if I related to and was inspired by her struggle for self-esteem and pride in her own accomplishments. Unfortunately, the book tells the “what’s” of her life, but provides precious little insight into the “why’s,” barely skimming the surface of the emotions that I hoped would spill onto the pages. For instance, she tells us that she was depressed when she found herself pregnant at the age of seventeen. That’s completely understandable, of course. But she never fully explains how that depression felt on a visceral level or how the pain of her family’s judgment of her motivated her to forge an independent life with her child.
Likewise, she relates how unhappy she was in her marriage, but never delves into the deep-seated reasons why she and her husband stopped communicating — if, in fact, they ever really did. Rather, she says only that they never discussed their problems, but describes numerous happy family times and commends Phil for being an involved and protective father. The reader is left almost as stunned when Lucille announces her decision to divorce as Phil must have been when she moved out of the “mansion” Shaquille provided for them into a modest home she calls her “little hut.” Her sudden desire to complete her education is also surprising, given that her description of her childhood leaves the reader with the impression that she was never all that interested in school.
Perhaps most aggravating is her professed unconditional love for her children and desire to give them the kind of loving childhood she lacked. When contrasted with her descriptions of weekends spent binge drinking — to the point that the next day she frequently could not remember her actions of the previous evening — one wonders what compelled her to behave in that manner for many years, especially when she repeatedly describes the family’s woeful financial condition. If they were so poor that she had to figure out how to make one chicken feed six people, why did she waste so much money on alcohol? (She claims that when she and her husband could not afford alcohol, it was supplied by the neighbors with whom they partied.) The emotional genesis of her alcoholism (that word never appears in the book) is never explored in an detail and, in fact, she claims to have overcome her addictive behavior without participating in any sort of rehabilitation program.
A cynic would note that the timing of Lucille’s self-discovery and liberation conveniently coincided with Shaquille’s ascent to sports super-stardom. After all, the college education that eluded Lucille as a poor, young, single mother in New Jersey was readily attainable no matter what the cost because of her son’s ability to fund her studies. (To his credit, Lucille recounts that he has provided for his entire family’s educational pursuits, in addition to completing his Bachelor’s degree program and subsequently earning a Master’s degree himself.)
Despite the book’s lack of passion and in-depth exploration of Lucille’s psyche, her journey has a distinct aura of sincerity and truth. For instance, the story unfolds against the backdrop of the unprecedented societal changes we witnessed in the 1960’s and ’70’s. And anyone schooled in the complexities of mother-daughter relationships will recognize the authenticity of Lucille’s reevaluation of her own life and future as her mother was dying.
For most of my life, my mother had been that steady presence in my life that never wavered as I fought so many demons. Even when we were torn away from her, I could still feel her presence deep inside me. She was my biggest fan and my staunchest supporter. It simply had never occurred to me that she just wouldn’t be there one day, especially then, when circumstances were just beginning to look up for the entire family.
Perhaps the book’s lack of introspection is due to years of “mental welfare,” defined by Lucille as “the absence of self-love [that] resulted in a total lack of self-esteem and confidence.” By 1992, when Shaquille was embarking upon his professional endeavors, Lucille still felt lost and continued to be subservient in her marriage as she navigated “the process of questioning so many things that no one could answer but me — like when would I finally grow up and stand up for myself on the inside and the outside?” It took a long time for her to find the answers she sought partly because, along the way, when she tired of asking the questions, she retreated into a bottle because a “drink asks no questions and accepts you as you are.”
Lucille’s life story is a powerful tale that, if told with more emotional depth and unflinching honesty, would resonate with and evoke empathy from many women. Unfortunately, the book fails to reach its potential because the heart and soul of Lucille’s story never actually unfolds on its pages. As I read the last page and closed the cover, I felt short-changed because I desired an opportunity to understand and learn from Lucille O’Neal’s cathartic journey “from mental welfare to mental health.” Sadly, it seems that I will never get that opportunity.