In her book, Ellen shares what she has learned from her unconventional life...but when she began to write, she didn't intend to reveal quite so much. "As I wrote it, I thought, 'My goodness, there are so many things here I'm embarrassed to tell,'" Ellen says. "But I just decided that I would be honest. That if my life was worth anything at all it had to be the honest story. And I had to stand for my life."
Because her parents divorced when she was young, Ellen says she only remembers seeing her father one time when she was away at boarding school. At 19 years old, Ellen says she sought out her father, hoping to establish a relationship with him. "I arrived on his doorstep and ... he didn't consider me a daughter, he considered me a hot babe. So that ended that relationship," she says. "What happens is that you go on trying to look for a father all of your life until the day comes when you realize I have to father myself."
Neil left Ellen just before she became one the most celebrated actors of the 1970s and '80s, with five Academy Award® nominations and one win in 10 years. "Then he wanted to come back," she says. "By then I had discovered how pleasant life was without a crazy husband and I didn't want him to come back. So he stalked me for 10 years."
Later, when she was starring opposite Charles Grodin in the stage version of Same Time, Next Year on Broadway, Ellen says she was so scared of Neil that she had to hire bodyguards. Yet she and her co-star were still on edge. "We were on stage and in the matinee looking at each other. Suddenly I heard from the top balcony, 'Ellen!' And Charles and I both knew that it was Neil," she says. "We were both terrified. ... I thought that was going to be the end of the story—that eventually he would kill me."
In 1978, Neil killed himself. Though they hadn't been together for years, Ellen says this was one of the most difficult times in her life. "It was because so many things coincided—he went crazy right as I started to get work and he was an actor who didn't get work," she says. "It seemed like somehow my success had caused his insanity. I knew better because he was ... doing a lot of things he shouldn't have been doing for his own health, but [I still felt] the deep subconscious feeling."
With years of study, therapy and meditation, Ellen says she now enjoys being in a loving relationship. "At last I was able to give something I'd never had to give before, which was myself."
"You have to fall back on your resources and you have to experience what life is like without all of the props," she says.
Ellen says being forced to beg for money opened her eyes to certain truths about humanity that she's carried with her ever since. "A couple of weeks later, I forgot my wallet. I was in New York City and when I realized I didn't have my wallet I went, 'Oh, I forgot my wallet. I have no money. I have no driver's license.' And I said, 'Wait a minute. It's just like the street retreat.' And suddenly all the people in New York didn't seem like strangers anymore."
In early February, Sheryl's life took an unexpected turn. She and Lance announced to the world that they were breaking off their engagement and ending their two-year relationship.
Then, just two and a half weeks later, Sheryl made another shocking announcement. She revealed that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately, doctors caught the cancer early. Sheryl had a lumpectomy and endured six and a half weeks of radiation treatment.
Sheryl says the events of the past year have been life altering, and for her, things will never be the same. "I've had so many people [say to] me, 'Gosh, you know, everything's really gone wrong for you this year,' and it took me going through that to realize that everything really went right for me," she says. "It brought me to this point where I am now, and I really feel like I have a lot of clarity."
When news of Sheryl and Lance's breakup began making headlines, she says it was particularly hard because she's a very private person.
"My relationships in the past are not dissimilar than the relationships that [most people] have," she says. "They're great, and then when they fall apart, you're hurt and you get through it. Unfortunately for me, we know who the other person is oftentimes."
Sheryl dealt with the end of her relationship and learned an important lesson along the way. "Love doesn't stop," she says. "That's one of the things that I have learned...even though it's not perhaps a functional relationship, the love doesn't stop."
Sheryl says Lance was one of the first people she called when she found out she had cancer. In 1996, Lance was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He went on to beat the disease and raise millions for cancer research though his LIVESTRONG™ campaign.
After breaking the news to her friends and family, Sheryl realized she had to fight the disease on her own terms. "Life is messy," she says. "There's no way to make everybody okay with everything and that was a big lesson for me. I couldn't make everybody feel okay about it. I couldn't let everybody be there for me. I had to own it. ... When you get a diagnosis like that, you realize it's all about you. Nobody can do it for you. Nobody can go in and have the radiation for you."
While striving for self-discovery, Sheryl also learned who she needed to help her along the way. "It's about surrounding yourself with people who really edify you and lift you up," she says. "I still am very conscious about having people around me who are positive and who are on the right course."
After her diagnosis, Sheryl says she bought a home in Nashville, Tennessee, to be near her family. "At the end of the day, you really go to where the people are that are constantly helping you to remember who you are, who you were born to be," she says. "Your family, your friends, those are the people that really are here in your life for a reason to sort of help you find your way."
Every day, Sheryl carries four small reminders of her battle with cancer. She calls them her "radiation tattoos," but they're actually scars caused by the radiation machine. "I will eventually have them removed but it's a nice reminder," she says. "I want to remember every moment of what was going on at that time because we talk about defining moments, but I think nothing can define you. They're all refining moments. You're constantly refining yourself and refining your life."
Shortly after Charlotte's birth, Dana realized that her daughter was developing more slowly than other children. After a series of doctors' appointments, Charlotte was diagnosed with neurological, spatial and motor skill disabilities.
When Dana heard the diagnosis, she says her heart sank and she burst into tears. "I had no idea what learning disabilities were," she says. "I just knew it meant Charlotte was different and that was a red flag to me that things weren't going to be easy, perfect like I had imagined."
Dana threw herself into her clothing empire. For years, she kept her shame and embarrassment about her daughter being different hidden from the world. "I thought I always had to look good and be in control," she says. "In fashion, of course, that's what we do. We look good."
After years of pretending everything was perfect, Dana's facade finally cracked and she had a terrifying panic attack. "What it was, was my body finally, after 47 years, saying, 'You can't keep living like this,'" she says.
In her book A Special Education, Dana writes about juggling a career in fashion, family and a daughter with special needs, all while never asking for help or sympathy. "People I had worked with for 20 years said, 'Dana, I had no idea.'...I was really good at holding it in," she says.
These days, Charlotte is a college coed, who Dana says is having a blast. "What's ironic is [Charlotte] was always okay," she says. "She wore her weaknesses and vulnerabilities on the outside and was fine with it. It was through her example, someone who couldn't hide behind this perfectionist façade, who taught me that maybe it's okay. You can have a very rich, full, maybe fuller...definitely fuller life if you just bring up whatever is there."
Dana: I would tell myself that you can have it all, but the "it" might not be what you think it is.
Sheryl: Loving yourself—I think that's so key and that's really what love is. It begins inside. Also to be gentle on yourself. I think we have so many expectations put on us and so many projections. It's important to be really gentle and forgiving.
Ellen: Well, Edna Rae Gillooly is still alive in me. I talk to her all the time and I tell her that I won't abandon her now. When she needs attention, I'm going to give it to her. The past was the past, but I don't want her to suffer now what she suffered in the past.