Actress Meredith Baxter got her big break on the 1970s sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie, made a name for herself as the selfish sister Nancy on Family and later became a regular in TV movies. But to a generation of viewers, she'll always be Elyse Keaton, the former-hippie mother on Family Ties.
In 2009, after more than 40 years of acting, three failed marriages and five children, Meredith went on the Today show and revealed that she is a lesbian. Now, Meredith has an explosive tell-all memoir called Untied. It goes beyond coming out and reveals all the shocking secrets of her famous life.
Some still think of her as Meredith Baxter-Birney, but she actually dropped the name of her ex-husband David Birney 20 years ago.
While in her acting roles Meredith always came across as a strong woman, she writes in Untied about how different her life was off-camera. Meredith alleges that David was an abusive and controlling husband, and delves into her own struggles with alcoholism. "I felt [like] a fraud in my own life," she says. "But it wasn't in terms about any public persona. I didn't live in any public persona. I didn't think about my fans or anything like that. It was just such a little dark little place I lived."
Meredith claims David's abuse was more often mental and emotional than physical. "The truth is, you don't have to be abused physically too many times. A couple times and you know that's always on the back burner," she says. "It's the continuing corrosive effect of being belittled, denigrated in front of children, second-guessed, called down so that I have no voice. I had no voice for so long, which is probably, ultimately, why I felt I had to say something at some point."
David's pattern of abuse and control began before they were married, Meredith alleges. "He was talking about what we needed in our life, and that he had to make a certain amount of money for us to live on if we were to get married. And I said, 'I've kind of started working and I'm doing pretty well. Things have speeded up.' And he goes, 'Well, what you make won't matter. It's what I make [that] matters,'" she says. "It was one of the first signs that I had to stay small. I can't get in the way of what he needs to do. Somewhere I must have made that bargain and agreed to it. Not verbal. It was all just internal."
Meredith says the negatives of her relationship with David mirrored the ones she had with her parents. "Not many other women would stay in a relationship like that. It's because [of] the belief system that I developed for myself as a child given the relationship I had with my mother and my parents. I came from a place where I had decided I was unloved and unlovable and not capable of love," she says. "I kind of was attracted to and found someone who thought of me the same way. ... There was a familiarity. It was like, 'Okay, I know how to be in this relationship.'"
Mollie, Meredith and David's daughter, says even though her father's anger didn't necessarily result in physical violence, it was "intensely petrifying." "His blowing up wasn't flipping tables or throwing chairs—not that he wasn't capable of that," she says. "There was an element that was humiliating."
Ted, Meredith's son from a previous marriage, says his stepfather rarely made physical contact with him. Instead, he claims David was more emotionally abusive with him. "Constant denigration, belittling. 'Your opinions don't matter. You're not worthy. You're not responsible enough,'" Ted says. "He said to me one day, 'I'll let you learn how to drive when I think you're ready. And that will probably be when you're about 45.'"
One of the ways Meredith says she tried to escape her painful home life was through alcohol. She says she started acting in a dangerous, reckless way—drinking too much, driving drunk, speeding—during the fourth season of Family Ties. "[I was] unmindful of anybody else. I was so caught up in my own hurt," she says. "I don't know what I was saying to myself, but I was so angry."
Because she was always so private about herself and her family, Meredith says no one at Family Ties knew anything about her troubled marriage or alcohol issues.
Then, while rehearsing a scene with Michael Gross—the actor who played Steven Keaton, the father on Family Ties—Meredith broke down. "David was in Europe doing a film and he was due to come back in a couple of days. He'd been out of town for, I think, six weeks and it had been six weeks of peace and heaven," she says. "[Michael and I] were talking and he said, 'David comes home soon, doesn't he?' And I burst into tears. I totally lost it. I couldn't talk because nobody knew. There was no context because I'd kept it all to myself for so long."
After she told her co-star everything, Meredith says Michael let her stay at his home. "He called his wife. He said, 'I'm bringing Meredith home,'" she says. "It was the first time I unloaded and told them everything that had been going on. Michael is the dearest man who walks the earth. He's just such a sweetheart."
Michael says while he never suspected Meredith was in such a bad marriage, he did notice something odd about her relationship. "I could count on one hand the number of times David came to a taping," he says. "Everybody's spouses and children came. For nothing else, it was a free meal. ... But David was never there."
Michael says he was surprised to hear Meredith's story. "She and David were the poster children of a marriage that was going well. All through the first years of Family Ties it was, 'Here's the Hollywood marriage that works,'" he says. "I didn't know it was because you kept your mouth shut."
Meredith says Eva gave her the strength to finally confront David, which prompted their divorce. After cooking Thanksgiving dinner, Meredith says David approached her. "He comes in the kitchen and he sits down and he says, 'Let's talk about what we're going to do so next year isn't a disaster like this year,'" Meredith says.
Eva says it was at that moment she asked her mother, "What are you waiting for?"
"And I didn't have an answer," Meredith says. "I didn't know what I was waiting for. But those were the words that somehow empowered me to say, 'There's not going to be a next time.' I don't know what I meant, I don't know where it came from, and I had no great groundswell of courage that accompanied those words. But that's what led to the eventual divorce."
Meredith and David were divorced in 1989. We reached out to David for a statement about Meredith's claims in the book and he had no comment.
Meredith says she didn't recognize she was gay until much later in life—years after her divorce with David. Though she says she had experimented with kissing her friends as an adolescent, and had crushes on other girls in school, Meredith says she never considered that she was actually gay. "I was a very conventional girl," she says. "I didn't have any other influences on me to direct me else-wise. I just didn't know. And I was the most shut down person you would ever be around. I was totally self-obsessed, no self-awareness."
After her mother died and her youngest children went off to college, Meredith says she rented a room in the garage behind her house to a young lesbian woman named Paula. "I just started to notice where she was all the time," Meredith says. "We started spending time together going on walks or movies and things."
Though her relationship with Paula eventually ended because of their 25-year age difference, Meredith says it changed her life forever. "I felt alive in a way that I had not experienced," she says. "Life was rife with possibilities."
Today, Meredith is living a very open life with Nancy, her partner of five years, but it's taken her a long time to get to this point. For the first years of their relationship, Meredith had not come out while Nancy had been out for years. "I never knew when it was okay, when we were out in public, to hold her hand or to put my arm around her," Nancy says. "We would be holding hands and perhaps someone would be walking up the street and she would need to drop my hand. It would hurt my feelings."
Meredith later came out to friends and family, but not her fans. "I never really saw the need to make any kind of announcement because, like, what do you announce?" she says. "I'm dating somebody? I mean, who cares? It's not what defined me."
As she grew more open about her sexuality, Nancy says she knew Meredith's change was complete when she suggested they go on a lesbian cruise together. "I was like, 'Really? You want to do this?'" Nancy says. "I did say to her, 'People are going to see you and people are going to know that you are a lesbian woman. You can't hide on a lesbian cruise.'"
After learning a national tabloid was going to publish a story about about the vacation, Meredith realized it was time to go public. She told her story on the Today show before the story hit newsstands. "It was the only way to control the story and make it my own instead of some fiction that was going to be sleazy," Meredith says. "I didn't want that."
"You can't keep secrets too long, you know," Meredith says. "It's corrosive."
On Family Ties, Michael J. Fox played Alex P. Keaton, the Ronald Reagan-loving oldest child of the liberal Keaton family. Michael says viewers clearly connected with Meredith's portrayal of Elyse. "She can be funny and charming and all that stuff, but she can tap into the real juice, and she really captured that."
While Michael says he would cut loose and party after taping wrapped on Fridays, he thought Meredith drank for different reasons. "There was a sadness underneath it. You could tell that something was troubling her," he says. "It was a symptom as much as it was a problem. It was a red flag."
Michael says he's happy his former TV mom has found someone to share her life with. "If anyone deserves a big plate of happiness, it's Meredith," he says. "I wish I could be there with you. I love you. I'm so happy for you. And I wish you luck on your book and love."