An Open Letter to Audra McDonald and Time’s Belinda Luscombe

Audra McDonald's Tony Award speech mentioned children on medication.

Audra McDonald won her record-breaking sixth Tony Award on Sunday for her portrayal of Billie Holliday in Lady Emerson’s Bar and Grill. During her acceptance speech, McDonald thanked her parents “up in heaven for disobeying the doctor’s orders and not medicating their hyperactive girl and finding out what she was into instead. And pushing her into the theater.” The audience laughed.

Belinda Luscombe took exception to McDonald mentioning medication, and wrote an article in Time titled, “Sorry, Audra McDonald – My Kid Needs his ADHD Meds.”

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McDonald responded to Luscombe’s concerns in an open letter, “Audra McDonald: Why I Thanked My Parents for Not Putting Me on ADHD Medication.”

While I’m against open letters on principle, I figured it was time to get over it and write a few open letters of my own.


Dear Ms. McDonald,

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You have no reason to apologize. Congratulations on your award.

Warmest regards,
Laura Axelrod


Dear Ms. Luscombe,

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I don’t have children, so you might ask how I am qualified to weigh in on a discussion about children and medication. Don’t worry. That’s not why I’m writing.

My concern is how you view your child and his or her potential. You see I was one of those kids who wasn’t going to finish high school. My problem wasn’t ADHD; it was alcoholism and depression. As I’ve written before, I didn’t expect to be alive by the time I reached 18 years old.

That was also the general consensus of people around me. I hit bottom at 15, experienced alcoholic withdrawals, sobered up and gradually began to sort through a myriad of issues adults twice my age had to deal with.

If you are asking how ADHD compares with chronic alcoholism, you are missing the point. Kids have problems in life. Some of those challenges are life threatening and unfair. But you want to know what’s really unfair? Underestimating your children.

You wrote:

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“I have kids too. Should they happen to ever achieve a modicum of success, I’d like to think they might thank me one day. Not publicly from a podium or anything, but maybe just from their desk, or whatever place of work they happen to land upon. Here’s the thing, though: I really want them to have jobs. Unlike your family, of whom you once joked that if you were “tone-deaf they would have kicked me out,” I’m not musical. Unlike you, my kids do not have five aunts in a professional gospel-singing group.”

Unlike you, my parents didn’t want me to achieve a modicum of success. They didn’t want me to just have a job. Despite all their flaws, the one thing my parents did right is that they wanted me to achieve success. They desperately wanted me to follow my heart. When I sobered up, the people who surrounded me told me I could do whatever I wanted, no matter what challenges I had.

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For 20 years now, I’ve been a part of the American theater scene in some capacity. Sometimes I was just on the outskirts. What I can tell you is that it’s a damn hard profession. I’ve seen numerous people with trust funds and connections tread water. Brilliant people still can’t make a living at it. Sometimes, people with talent work hard and achieve success. When that happens, it should be celebrated.

Audra McDonald shows Carrie Underwood how it's done!
Audra McDonald with Carrie Underwood in “The Sound of Music.”

Your open letter to McDonald typifies the mood of America right now. When someone achieves success, there are plenty of others to remind that person they don’t deserve it. The mention of her background makes me wonder if perhaps you were claiming she had a “talent privilege.”

I’m pretty sure Audra McDonald wasn’t thinking about you while she was accepting her Tony Award. She wasn’t wondering how to make people like Belinda Luscombe uncomfortable. But you took one person’s stellar moment and made it about yourself and your situation. McDonald was forced to publicly clarify her statement. And yes, she was talking about her own, direct experience when she mentioned medication.

McDonald handled her open letter with grace and tact. Still, I can’t help but wonder why you needed public validation for your parenting choices. If you are that sensitive about it, wouldn’t it be better to write about that rather than pointing the finger at an actress?

And on a completely different note, why aren’t you writing about the fact that kids are getting shot in schools? As of Tuesday, there have been 74 of them since Newtown. As Jon Stewart on the Daily Show revealed last night, the media was more shaken by Eric Cantor’s loss than the latest school shooting in Oregon.

I guess we’re all so worried about being offended that we forget kids are getting killed in schools.

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Laura Axelrod