Before the Brady Bunch, there was the Beardsley bunch. Instead of six kids stuffing a house in a Los Angeles suburb, it was 20 in Carmel. And it was a true story.
The 1961 marriage of Helen North to Frank Beardsley – combining Helen’s eight children with Beardsley’s 10, and then two more to come – was the inspiration for the 1968 hit movie Yours, Mine and Ours, starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda.
Film critic Roger Ebert called the movie a “family comedy with a vengeance,” describing Fonda’s Frank Beardsley as a “wise, patient, bewildered father.” Lucille Ball, as Helen North, played her role with classic, kind-hearted flair, in humorous scenes like when she tries to serve breakfast to essentially what amounts to a small army.
But underneath the silver-screen treatment, says 11th child Tom North, there was darkness in the Beardsley household. The Hollywood fantasy family was simply that: a fantasy, North writes in his new memoir, True North: The Shocking Truth about “Yours, Mine and Ours.”
“What’s shocking is the contrast between the film Lucy made, and the actual experience of the children in this family,” North says in an interview with the Weekly.
He claims his stepfather, who’d been a chief warrant officer in the Navy and became the personnel officer at the Naval Postgraduate School, was violent, abusive and unstable – a far cry from Fonda’s on-screen performance.
The success of the film made things worse, pressuring the family to keep up their roles for the public eye, North says.
“We were stuck in a situation where there was no one to go to,” he says. “There was no one to talk to. There was no one who would help us.”
The family kept their secrets for years, but eventually reunited for family counseling sessions during which truths were revealed, North says.
North, a financial advisor still living in Carmel, started writing his memoir in 2008, partly as a way to work through his feelings, and partly to inspire other survivors of domestic abuse. He’s found happiness with his own family and two daughters, and solace by venturing into the surrounding wilderness and practicing Eastern meditation.
The story is about survival, but also of hope, North writes in the book’s forward. He addresses it to other victims of abuse or violence: “You are not alone,” he writes. “You can… be happy in spite of what you were told by those who were supposed to be your trusted guides in early life.”
Helen North died in 2000. Frank Beardsley died in December 2012; he was survived by his children, about 60 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren, according to an obituary that ran in The New York Times.
In a statement issued to a local television station, Beardsley’s son, Greg, wrote: “The Beardsley family does not support or agree with the overall content of the book,” or comments Tom North made to the media.
Below is the Weekly’s interview with North, which took place in his Carmel home. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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What’s so shocking about Yours, Mine and Ours?
The film was wonderful – it was funny, it was heartwarming, it was entertaining. Lucille Ball did a great job of portraying a Hollywood fiction, a story designed for theater-goers. What was shocking is the contrast between the film Lucy made, and the actual experience of the children in this family. Lucy came to stay in Carmel for a little bit to learn the character of my mother. The very first day she went up to my mother and she said [of my step-father], “You keep that man away from me.” What she didn’t know until she got there is that he was mentally and emotionally imbalanced. He was a dangerous person to be around.
Why was Frank Beardsley dangerous? What did you experience growing up?
When they got married I was 7 years old. I knew I was in trouble right away when I went to a San Francisco 49ers game with other children and Mr. Beardsley and my mother, and he was verbally abusing her in the car on the way back from the football game. I was supposed to be asleep in the back of the car. He wanted to go visit an old girlfriend of his, and my mother and Mr. Beardsley had been recently married, and she said, “Well, you’re married to me now and that’s inappropriate.” He became verbally abusive and was swearing vilely at her and telling her to shut up.
It just went downhill from there. It was not uncommon to walk down the hallway and have him just smack me or another child across the room. He was a prize fighter during World War II, so he was extremely powerful – you know that kind of linebacker body type. We would get up and say, “What was that for?” and he would say, “Just for drill.”
What was it like living in the house, and where was it?
It was just about five minutes from here. We lived on a house up on the hill. It was about 6,000 square feet, three stories, it had eight bedrooms and five bathrooms.
My mother moved her kids to California because she had family down here and a support system. She met Mr. Beardsley under unusual circumstances. She actually shared with me later that the reason she married him is that when she met his children, she saw 10 children living in terror for their lives, and she was afraid that he was going to kill them. She figured that she would marry this man and save his children from him and save him from himself. She was very good at being an Irish Catholic martyr. What she ended up doing is taking her eight children into a very dangerous environment and losing control of it. She basically abandoned her children to this man, and didn’t know how to handle it.
How long did the marriage last?
It lasted for 30 years. She actually left him because she realized what she had done and that it hadn’t worked. Her health started to fail, and when her health failed she was kind of looking around for answers.
Was there anything good about growing up in this situation?
The kids sort of raised each other, because with 20 children there’s not enough hours in the day, or ears to hear what’s going on in. I was a very independent child so the best part of this family dynamic is that I could be gone, and no one knew I was missing. So I went to the beach and I went to the river and I went to the mountains, and I was gone most of the time and no one cared. That was the best part. To have the freedom. I didn’t get a lot of parental attention, which has its pluses and minuses.
Why did you write this book?
In the early ’90s, I got a call from my younger brother who was a mess. He couldn’t keep a relationship going, he was miserable, and he asked if I could help him put together a family therapy session. I set it up, and we did it, and it was absolutely spectacular. There were those of us, including my mother, who said we were never going to support the fantasy of Yours, Mine and Ours ever again. In subsequent social conversations when people asked me what it was like to be part of that wonderful family, if it was appropriate, I’d share with them the real story. Invariably these people would come back to me and thank me for sharing that story because they addressed problems in their own families. They’d always say, “That’s a book, you gotta write a book.” I thought maybe there is some value of sharing this with a broader public audience. Perhaps it has some socially redeeming value to it.
Have any of your other siblings gone public with this, and how do they feel about your choice to do so?
I have an older sister who attempted to write a story based on her experience several years ago, but the emotional context for her was too heavy, so she couldn’t do it. The North family is predominantly supportive and they’re grateful that I’ve written the story. The Beardsley family, as a group, are opposed to my having written this story. So there’s a very distinct line between the two families. There’s this deafening silence in our culture around domestic violence and child abuse. There’s a denial that comes along with having had that experience. People don’t want to talk about it.
Have your experiences done anything to influence your own role as a father?
I’ve made sure that I’ve been present with my children every moment of their lives, when it’s appropriate. I had a very interesting experience when my older daughter, who is now 26, was 18 months old. She was trying to help me put away the dishes and a tape went off in my brain – it said, “Hit her, beat her, punish her, she could hurt herself.” I was shocked that this software timebomb was in my brain and it just went off at that critical moment.
I watched her, she just took the pot lid across the kitchen and put it away. Then she turned around and beamed at me, a big smile. I went over and picked her up and gave her a big hug and a kiss and I told her what a big girl she was. It turned into this positive experience that could have been a disaster because of the way I was programmed as a kid.
The book is not just about child abuse and domestic violence, its about what we can do about it. It’s an inspirational story. Having survived that very difficult childhood, the question was, “What am I going to do about it?” That’s the rest of the story – what I did about it.