< Return to Adherents.com's Guide to Movies
The Religious Affiliation of
one of youngest-ever actresses to win an Academy Award
Tatum O'Neal had an extremely dysfunctional childhood. Tatum's parents were both well-known actors, but they allowed the Hollywood lifestyle to distort their lives and damage their daughter. Tatum's mother, actress Joanna Moore (who was eventually active in an Evangelical Protestant Christian denomination) was an alcoholic who was increasingly despondent about about looking older and her inability to land top acting roles. Tatum's father Ryan O'Neal was very non-religious and was a habitual user of illegal drugs. While Tatum lived with her father, he regularly exposed her to his lascivious, promiscuous lifestyle. While growing up, Tatum was sexually abused by friends of both of her parents. Tatum was also physically and mentally abused by her father (Ryan O'Neal), although it was Tatum's brother Griffin who received the most frequent and severe physical beatings at the hands of their father. When Tatum was nominated for an Academy Award for Paper Moon, but her father, who co-starred with her in the film was not nominated, her father berated her and belittled her acting ability. He further abused her when she won the Academy Award, so her memories surrounding receiving this award are mostly negative.
Tatum O'Neal tried to commit suicide multiple times while growing up. After one attempt to kill herself by slashing her wrists, her father berated her efforts, telling her she had made her razor blade cuts in the wrong direction. Tatum was a heavy abuser of drugs and alcohol during her teen years, but as an adult she was able to achieve a modicum of sobriety after being impregnated by professional tennis superstar John McEnroe. Tatum eventually married McEnroe, whose devout Catholic family did not approve of the marriage. Tatum's marriage to McEnroe was explosive and semi-abusive, but it was the relationship was a tremendous improvement for her considering how she had grown up. Being married to McEnroe helped her in many ways, and they had three children together, who became the central focus of her life.
Given the way in which Tatum's parents both failed her so miserably, it is not surprising that Tatum never came to strongly identify with any of the religious or non-religious affiliations she was exposed to while growing up: Neither her mother's devotion (as a member of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel) nor her father's manifest atheism. Tatum studied with a Catholic priest and considered converting to Catholicism as part of her plans to marry John McEnroe, but she never converted. Although John McEnroe had been raised by devout Catholic parents, he had distanced himself from the Catholic Church and he objected to Tatum's study of Catholicism. Tatum O'Neal and John McEnroe three children together, but they did not have any of them baptized.
Eventually, after much pain and suffering, Tatum O'Neal began to wonder about spiritual questions. In her autobiography Tatum states that she always had a "spiritual bent," although he had not been baptized. She knew that her life had been spared many times, and she wondered why. She experienced spiritual awakenings during which she vowed to stay away from alcohol and drugs, although she sometimes had relapses.
Tatum O'Neal closed her 2004 autobiography one a hopeful tone, with an expression of faith in God, gratitude to him for sparing her life, and wonder about for the purpose for which God had saved her.
From: Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life (autobiography), HarperCollins Publishers: New York (2004), pages 10-11:
My mother [Tatum O'Neal's mother, actress Joanna Moore] was born... in the heart of the Great Depression... in Americus, Georgia... She was the only one [in her family] not in the car when her father swerved off the road because her mom fell asleep on his shoulder, plunging down a sandy embankment into a ravine. Both her mother and her baby sister, Virginia, died instantly... Henry, my mother's father, was badly hurt but lingered for a year before dying of a ruptured spleen--or, she always believed, of a broken heart. So, at age six, my mother became an orphan.
Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, pages 13-14:
For a time she was farmed out to live with her maternal grandmother, who was confined to a wheelchair with an osteoporosis-like condition. She was also addicted to morphine, prescribed by the town doctor, making her the first known link in my family's chain of drug dependence.
Even in that environment, my mother managed to bloom. She was pretty and vivacious, with a million-dollar smile, and so talented at singing and playing that she became a star at church.
Patricia Callaghan, my grandmother, had sacrificed her own acting carer to raise her children. She can still be seen in Three Came Home, the true story of a woman's survival in a Japanese prison camp, starring Claudette Colbert. Born of a Russian mother (who was named Devonovitch and rumored to be Jewish) and an Irish father, she was raised in Toronto and San Francisco and instilled with a glove-wearing, hair-in-a-bun propriety that made her the polar--and harshly disapproving--opposite of my mother.
Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, pages 15:
My dad's father, Charles O'Neal, was more accepting and shared my mother's southern roots and jolly temperment. Born in North Carolina, he attended the University of Iowa, where thanks to his accent, classmates dubbed him "Blackie," and the nickname stuck. He met my grandmother in a San Diego theater troupe but discovered a new vocation--screenwriting--after publishing a short story in Esquire.
My grandpa achieved modest success with screenplays for such movies as The Seventh Victim, Cry of the Werewolf, The Missing Juror, and Montana in the 1940s and 1950s; then he moved on to writing for TV series, including The Untouchables, The Californians and Lassie. Also the author of two novels, he developed one into the 1952 musical Three Wishes for Jamie, which starred John Raitt (Bonnie's father) and Anne Jeffrey's and ran for several months on Broadway.
Patrick Ryan O'Neal [Tatum O'Neal's father], their oldest son, was born on April 20, 1941... He entered show business as a stuntman but quickly broke into acting... making his film debut in This Rugged Land with Charles Bronson in 1962.
It was around this time that my parents [Patrick O'Neal and Joanna Moore] connected in what must have been an explosive encounter. "She was pregnant within days of our meeting," my father told Newsweek, "and we were married within weeks."
When I was born, my father was twenty-two, and my mother was nearly seven years older... My mother hit the age wall before she turned thirty. By then everything about her was glossy: her ever-present wigs, fake eyelashes and nails; her surgically taut face, and the gleaming caps on her teeth that were never tight enough.
Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, pages 17:
My mom's career started fading when my dad's was on the rise, with his lead role as Rodney Harrington on Peyton Place, TV's first prime-time soap opera...
Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, pages 25-26:
My father's romantic life was also spilling off the TV screen. The tabloids had a field day linking him to a parde of starlets. He would describe his marriage in this period as "desolate." Very likely my mother's drinking and drug use--probably in secret--played a role. As their fighting escalated, my father grew physically violent.
My mom had a fifteen-year-old boyfriend--I'll call him "Seth"--with long, stringy hair and tatoos on the biceps... Early on, Griffin [Tatum's brother] and I discovered his cruel streak... Seth threw [our pet rats] in a pond and made us watch them drown. Since rats can swim, it took a very long time, and it completely freaked us out.
Tatum O'Neal's mother Joanna Moore apparently joined the pentecostal denomination known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel after divorcing Tatum's father. In the passage below, Tatum recalls her mother speaking in tongues (a key distinctive characteristic of Pentecostal denominations generally and the Foursquare Gospel church specifically). She recalls how her brother attended Bible study classes at Pat Boone's house. Pat Boone was an active member of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel since the 1970s or before. From: Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, pages 85-86:
I grieved for days. It was one of the few times at the ranch when I remember my mother reacting to my distress, which must have been too profound to ignore. "Are you okay?" she kept asking me. All I could do was sob, "Why did he have to kill them, Mommy?" I felt that I would never stop crying.
Most of the time, my mother was either closed up in her room--sitting for days, writing to Jesus--or else drinking and partying with Seth and his relatives or an older couple... My mother wasn't just boozing, however. Griffin recalls finding white-flecked syringes around the house, evidence that her addition was escalating...
Griffin and I were neglected on Sabana Lane, but at least there we had comfortable surroundings and babysitters. Now that we were stuck in the middle of nowhere [living with their mother], isolated, with no backup support for miles, we were virtually abandoned and--at just five and six years old--left to survive on our own. Our meals were erratic, basically consisting of fast food, along with whatever we could scrounge. I was so hungry that I ate raw bacon and, once, a whole tub of Cool Whip, which made me sick. Worst of all was the can of olives I started in on before I realized it was crawling with maggots... Griffin and I grew scrawny, and my teeth ached with cavities...
...as turbulent and frightening as life with my father could be, he was the devil I knew. My mother was more of a mystery. I visited her occasionally on Bolas Street in West L.A.--not a very good neighborhood--and observed what she'd do and wear and even eat, weird country combinations like apples with salt and cheese or salted grapefruit and watermelon. She and Gary, her husband, who was a roofing contractor, were members of an evangelistic religious sect. Griffen had to go to Bible study classes at Pat Boone's house. Once, around the time of Paper Moon, I got a serious blast of her religion when she started speaking in tongues and beating the hell out of me.
As a result of the hypersexualized and promiscuous lifestyle that Tatum O'Neal's father Ryan O'Neal exposed her to throughout her childhood, Tatum O'Neal lost her virginity and became promiscuous at the age of 14. From Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, pages 105-106:
...the main problem was my mother's alcoholism. She was constantly drunk--Gary left her because of it--and poor Griffin was losing his mind.
It was during [the filming of] International Velvet that I lost my virginity to a much older man. He was one of the stuntmen on Superman [which was released in 1978], which was being shot on a different lot at Pinewood Studios. I'd recently gotten my first period and felt that I was finally a woman, so with a combination of curiosity and longing for intimacy, I seduced him. It shocks me to look at my daughter and remember that at the time I was still as small as she is now--and that my world was so "adultized" that I could possibly imagine that I was ready to have a lover.
In 1978, Tatum O'Neal was badly injured in a car accident; her friend Carrie had been driving and lost control of the car of the Ventura Freeway. She had to remain in the hospital for a long time. From Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, pages 116-117:
The stuntman and I had sex in one of the changing rooms on the lot. It wasn't very romantic and it hurt. After that, I tried to get him to come to my hotel, but when he didn't, I was relieved.
My mother showed up once... She wasn't capable of comfort or support. My grandmother took the position that I'd gotten what I deserved for calling attention to my lack of parental supervision and embarrassing my family. As for my father, he too came just once, with his latest female conquest in tow. I passed the time smoking pot that had been prescribed for Larry Flynt, wondering whether my parents were coming back. They weren't.
Tatum O'Neal's legs were still badly scarred by her automobile accident when her father had her do a seminude scene in the movie Circle of Two (1980), directed by Jules Dassin. Tatum, who was 16 year old, found the experience uncomfortable and exploitative. From: Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, pages 118-119:
My only loving visitor in those terrible weeks was my dear friend from The Bad News Bears, Walter Matthau...
As I sank deeper into depression, though, I stopped wishing that people would visit me. I was ashamed of the accident, internalizing the notion that I'd brought it on myself and deserved what happened. I felt like the bad seed. Voices kept nagging in my head, mixing my father's words--"You suck, Tatum!"--with my own: "You're not worth coming to the hospital to visit. You weren't even worth picking off the highway. . . ."
By then I'd already attempted suicide more than once--the night when I was molested by Gavin and another time when I'd slit my wrists with a razor, only to have my father tell me: "You cut them the wrong way, Tatum."
The accident convinced me that my dad wanted me to die, if only so he could play the grieving martyr father. I was so filled with self-loathing that I kept trying, going on to take pills and to cut myself with knives.
Yet as I lay in the hospital, consumed with despair, a tiny spark began glowing inside of me--a spiritual spark, like a pinpoint light from God. I began to quesiot why I was alive. How could anywone survive being thrown from a car on a major thoroughfare, like a California freeway? Didn't 99 percent of the people that happened to die? Why didn't I? And how coudl my brain and even my face be intact?
Did I have some kind of guardian angel? Was there a reason I was on earth? Did I have some task to fulfill, some purpose? Over the years, I've kept asking why because I've had extra chances--not just second or third but tenth, even twentieth chances--to survive. Despair has extinguished my internal, divine spark, but it's flared up again--at times, more faintly than I've wished. It's taken me decades to fan it into a steady flame.
One immediate positive result of that moment of spiritual awakening was that I vowed to stay off alcohol and drugs, including pot, and I stuck to that promise for the next few years.
The premise of the movie was a little pedophilic and creepy, but the worst part for me was having to do a seminude scene. It's agonizing to watch--this awkward young girl disrobing for the artist in his studio. Even from the back, my body language shows that they'd forced me to take my shirt off--at least it's obvious to me--and that I'm standing there miserably aware of my half-developed breasts and my scarred legs... I got thorugh the scene, but it's a measure of how unprotected I was that no one--not a parent, not even my agents--objected to my being so frankly exploited.
Tatum O'Neal's co-star in Circle of Two was Richard Burton, who called Tatum a "the most divine enchanting f---ing little cu-- I have ever seen," which he meant as a compliment, despite the unprintable sexually-oriented vulgarity of the phrase. Burton would invite Tatum to sit on his lap, which she declined to do, but she "loved him and learned a lot from working with him" (O'Neal, page 119).
Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, page 126-127:
Eventually racquetball would create an unhealable breach beteen my and my father. I showed up late for a game one day and found him waiting for me, his face twisted with anger. "Where've you been?" he said--and I knew I as going to get it.
Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, page 131:
I started to apologize, but before I could get the words out, he raised his fist and coldcocked me, right in the head. I collapsed, then picked myself up, ran off the court, and drove away. I vowed that I'd never, ever see him again, and for a few years, I didn't--but I had to endure plenty of punishment before then.
My father terrorized me, but Griffin [Tatum's brother] was his real whipping boy. Everything Griff did seemed to provoke my dad, especailly winning at pool. Being an excellent pool player, my father insisted on worthy opposition, but he was also too competitive to tolerate losing. Then he'd often let loose with fists and sometimes even with pool cues...
Most of the time I couldn't protect Griffin from my father. He was always covered with bruises, which he'd account for with crazy stories about falling downstairs with his hands in his pickets.
[Circa 1980] What followed for me was a period of drifting and--finally abandoning my vow to stay clean--losing myself in drugs. It started when I got a bit chubby, by Hollywood and Farah-comparison standards. [Tatum's father Ryan O'Neal was dating Farrah Fawcett at the time.] ...I learned that cocaine was good for weight loss... Between doing coke and throwing up, the pounds started melting off me effortlessly. It didn't take me long to get down to about ninety pounds.
Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, page 151:
It was there in Malibu, in September 1985, that I discovered that I was pregnant.
Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, page 162:
John [McEnroe] reacted by throwing up, then spending four days in bed... Having lost three of the year's four Grand Slam competitions, John had plummeted from number one. He was becoming a father, which made him happy but also signaled major changes in his life. Both of these lightning bolts struck in a single week. No wonder he was a wreck.
And he was going to have to tell his parents--serious churchgoing Catholics--that his girlfriend had conceived a child out of wedlock, right on the heels of the disappointing U.S. Open. I was dreading that. I felt that they had been leery of me ever since John took time off when we first became a couple. His losing streak during our year together didn't make me any more appealing. I also believed that hey didn't respect me because I was a Hollywood actress and, now that we were having a child together, would be upset that I wasn't a practicing Catholic.
Just before [Tatum O'Neal's son] Kevin was born, I had reopened the discussions of marraige with John [McEnroe, the father of her child]. Over his objections, I'd started taking instruction from a Catholic priest so we could marry in the church, as he'd promised his parents. I actually enjoyed the study, since I'd always had a spiritual bent, even though I never reached the point of being baptized.
Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, pages 164-166:
None of our children would be baptized either, because John and I both disagreed with many of the Catholic Church's policies. We did flirt briefly with the idea of godparents, but only Kevin ever got one: Vita Gerulaitis.
John [McEnroe] and I got married... on August 1, 1986, in Oyster Bay... Kevin [their son] was utterly precious in a baby tux.
Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, pages 217-219:
Weird as it may seem, no one in my family came to my wedding or was involved in any way. It was like a flashback to the night I won the Academy Award with no one but my grandparents at my side...
The ceremony was held at St. Dominic's Catholic Church, whichhad curtains draped over its old stone facade to foil the paparazzi. Press helicopters circled overhead, thumping and whining all during the service...
[page 166] Back at the house, there was dinner and a band... We all got blasted drunk. I had to pump and flush my milk down the toilet to avoid passing the booze on to Kevin.
 That was the beginning of the end of my marriage... I had three small children who neeed a father... When I look back on that time--especially the months after Kevin got sick--I can see that I was like a swimmer stranded far from shore. Though I hadn't consciously decided to leave John, I was flailing frantically for something to cling to that could pull me from my marriage before I drowned.
Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, page 225:
For the first time, I began to make new friends of my own in Manhattan, including several from my acting classes, and to get involved in community activities, like the New York City Ballet, Art Against AIDS, anti-gay-discrimination groups [a woman once molested Tatum when she was a child, but she had nothing against GLBT people generally], and the Democratic Party...
Then, I began an affair.
I still have a lot of shame about it. I didn't see it as a way out of my marraige. It was more that I was just so dsad, yearning for gentleness and kindness, needing to feel beautiful and desired, rather than required to serve a man. When I met John [McEnroe], I was only twenty years old, and all the romance in our relationship had expired...
He [the man Tatum O'Neal had an extramarital affair with] was also also married, which made it feel oddly safer, like more of a toe in the water than a plunge off the high board. But, never being one to do anything halfway, I started to grow obsessional about my secret lover. That forced me to admit that what I was doing was wrong... after a few months, I broke it off.
[After Tatum separated from her husband, John McEnroe] I moved into John's old apartment at 200 East End Avenue, for which he charged me $6,000 a month in rent. I paid him with the money I'd saved from my movie work... My mother was horrified at the thought of my leaving John. Her own life had been such a struggle that she urged me to stay married, if only for the money. "For God's sake," I said, "I'm not a high-class whore, Mom."
Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, page 231:
...I knew it was inevitable, but I hated the thought of losing contact with John's mother, for whom I had genuine affection and respect. I soon started catching a whiff of attitude from some of his other family members and friend, to the effect that "Tatum's nothing but a spoiled movie star--not even a practicing Catholic--so what do you expect?"
...I just couldn't take all the rage and drama anymore. Whether I was an unbaptized Hollywood actress or a Buddhist housewife living in Des Moines, I had a right--or so I thought--to try to change my life, to escape an abusive man, and to grasp at happiness.
John had phoned me a few times in Hawaii, raging and calling me names. But it was still both traumatic and frightening when, on January 8, 1993, he filed for divorce. It was the point of no return, when I had to acknowledge that my life with John, the father of my children, in whom I'd invested such great hope and profound, all-consuming love, was finally over. I felt like I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, pages 260-261:
As 1998 dawned, I examined my condition in my diary.
Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, pages 263-264:
What is my New Year's resolution?
No more drugs, ever--I hate them!
However, a few months passed before I was truly ready to stop and get myself back into rehab.
Bfore I did, the unthinkable happened--an incident that fills me with profound shame. I did my best to hide it, but I'd now grown too deeply addicted to just stop shooting drugs during my "two weeks on" when I had my children. Not that they were ever neglected or endangered--I always had nannies around; and I loved them too much not to want quality time with them. All three of them loved to crawl into my bed at night to snuggle--that was so nice. My diaries from that time are filled ith drawings we did together, as well as pasted-in snapshots. I titled th diary chronicling my mother's death Infinity of Love, and below it wrote Emily, Sean, Keven--Gods--Children.
...It was seven-year-old Emily, my baby, who came toddling into my bedroom one night and found something I never wanted her to see: a syringe.
When that got back to John [her ex-husband], he pounced on it. Now, along with the drug tests, I had to endure the indignity of supervised visits, with John controlling the schedule.
...drug use was demonized in New York, more so than in California. Nobody gave me credit--especially not judges. Especially not judges settling custody issues between a local hero with a powerful legal machine and a vulnerable woman.
I was David up against Goliath, but without a slingshot. I didn't stand a chance.
Before I was finally through with drugs, I would make the rounds of several major rehabs: Hazelden in Minnesota and New York, Silver Hill in Connecticut (twice), and the Caron Foundation in Pennsylvania. But the stint I did in 1998 stuck with me for a couple of years.
Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, pages 264-265:
Part of the reason was that I finally had the support of an insightful psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Rosenthal, who believed in me at a time when other doctors suggested that I could never get clean. Another part of the reason was that I'd found temporary solace for my loneliness with a man I had decided to marry.
In 1999 I met Steven Hutensky, a beautiful, charming, and funny young executive at Miramax. I ran into him at the wedding of Jessica Bellafotto, my yoga instructor. He is perfect, I exclaimed to my diary. Gentle, hardworking, smart, elegant, going places, concerned and loving. Spiritual. I can tell he'd be great with the children.
I was right--my kids loved hm--and so did I. We did sweet things, like get stickers made from a photo of me kissing him, which I pasted in my diary, ringed with a big heart. When we'd been together a year, he proposed to me during a carriage ride in Central Park, which was so romantic. I said yes.
The truth was, however, that I wasn't yet healthy enough to marry anyone. I had too much unresolved emotional pain, which I didn't know what to do with, now that I wasn't drowning it with drugs. It took me a while to recognize that, and I'm afraid Steven caught the fallout.
Then, knowing that I couldn't face another divorce, I decided to return Steven's ring. I believe I broke his heart, and I still have a lot of guilt about that. But considering what lay ahead of me--"hitting bottom," as they say in AA--he probably dodged a bullet.
The Scoundrel's Wife [in which Tatum O'Neal appeared] was set in a small Louisiana bayou town during World War II. There were German submarines off the Gulf Coast, and local fisherman [sic] were suspected of trading with the enemy. Glen Pitre, the director--whom Roger Ebert called "legendary . . . arguably the world's only Cajun-language filmmaker"--had grown up in the area and based the stories on rumors he had heard in his childhood.
In the closing paragraphs of Tatum O'Neal's autobiography, she closes with an expression of her faith the Higher Power. From: Tatum O'Neal, A Paper Life, pages 283-285:
I played the widow of a shrimp boat captain whose neighbors thought he was a smuggler and murderer. Already an outcast, I become suspected of sabotage and collaboration with the Germans. Tim Curry played a priest who was a probably spy, and Julian Sands was the German refugee doctor, possibly Jewish, who becomes my love interest.
Forty is an awkward age for a woman in this youth- and beauty-obsessed culture, and even more so for an actress... It may sound funny, considering that I became a movie star when I was eight, but I am a late bloomer. It's taken me this long to start waking up every morning full of eagerness and joy.
The past decade of my life has been like a white-light experience, a passage through death and a rebirth. I wouldn't wish the experience on anyone, but mabe it was necessary, on some level, for me to nearly destroy myself in order to etch off the ugly scars--physical and psychic--of deprivation and abuse...
It's astonishing to think that [Tatum's son] Kevin is in college, and Sean isn't far behind--and that my beautiful daughter, Emily, is almost a teenager. My kids are my joy, and the greatest excitement in my life is the renewal of our relationship.
My rebirth has left me more creative--for the first time ever, comfortable in my own skin and confident in my own voice. Emotional pain, anxiety, and rage suck up all your vitality. Now I feel that I have an exciting new wellspring of energy to bring to my work as an a actress. It would be nice to end this book with a major career triumph, like a starring role in some brilliant epic film. Who know? Maybe I'll have that someday.
It's left me more open to love, which I'm finding all around me, in the warmth and support of friends, as well as romantic possibilities. As for marraige, I think I understand it better now and believe more than ever that the old cliche is true--that in order to make it work, you first have to love yourself. I'm working on that.
And, above all, it has confirmed my faith in the Higher Power that I first glimpsed in the hospital after being thrown from the Jeep on the freeway when I was in my teens. I felt then that I'd been spared for a reason, and after losing sight of that benevolent light for the past long, dark decade, I've been saved again. Clearly there's something more I'm intended to accomplish on this earth. I'm excited to see what it will be.
I often think of the theme song from Paper Moon and the line that goes, "It won't be make-believe if you believe in me."
What I've learned is that no one else--not fathers, not mothers, not husbands, not even adored and loving children--can define who I am and my reasons to love life. I have to believe in me, and I'm starting to now, which is exciting. It's taken my forty years, and it's time.
Webpage created 17 August 2005. Last modified 21 September 2005.
We are always striving to increase the accuracy and usefulness of our website. We are happy to hear from you. Please submit questions, suggestions, comments, corrections, etc. to: email@example.com.