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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Francis’ Diary

The commencement speaker in one of Woody Allen’s films said that, “mankind is at a crossroads. One path leads to utter despair and hopelessness. The other, to total extinction.”

Too many child television stars have encountered these crossroads after the shows they’ve appeared in were canceled. But Melissa Francis, host of Money with Melissa Francis, a one-hour program broadcast live each weekday at 5 p.m. on the Fox Business Network (FBN), is a notable exception. Francis has arguably found more success as a journalist than she did as a school-age actress in Hollywood, a chapter of her life which peaked when she was cast as Cassandra Cooper Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie. The show was a staple of NBC’s prime time line-up until the early 1980s.

Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter (Weinstein Books), Francis’ just-released memoir, offers interesting anecdotes about her experiences in television news and show business, although at the vividly detailed book’s center is Francis’ contentious relationship with her mother, from whom Francis is now estranged. In Francis’ telling, her mother pushed Melissa and her older sister, Tiffany, into the acting business early in life, with both of them appearing in numerous TV commercials while growing up in Porter Ranch, California, near Los Angeles.

Mom Francis is portrayed as a cross between Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest and the author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. How Mom Francis got this way, and whether an undiagnosed mental illness was to blame, are issues which go largely unexplored. True to her reporting roots, Francis lays out the facts as she saw them. An analysis of Mom Francis’ personality is perhaps best left to a psychiatrist anyway. Dad Francis is described as a passive and quiet observer of his wife’s frequent acts of madness but no possible explanation of his behavior is offered here either.

Through it all, Melissa Francis excelled academically and ran on her high school’s track team before moving cross-country to attend Harvard University, an institution from which she graduated with a passion for the television news business.

“I interned at the Fox station in LA after my freshman year and news was immediately addicting,” Francis writes. “It was such a rush to see everyone race to airtime. And there’s no safety net. It’s totally unlike entertainment. There’s barely a script, there’s no rehearsal, no support. You’re responsible for coming up with everything you say. Live or die, it’s all on you. It’s exhilarating. I love it. But it’s stressful, too.”

Francis understandably, and tellingly, liked to keep an entire continent between herself and her immediate family after leaving Harvard, taking a television producer’s job in Maine, and then an on-air reporter’s role in New Hampshire, before rising through the ranks to high-profile positions at national cable networks such as CNBC and FBN.

The author will celebrate her 40th birthday this month and has formed her own family, where she is making sure her mother’s parenting skills are not passed on to the next generation. Francis is married to a former Harvard classmate, and the couple lives in New York City with their two young sons. They have yet to meet their maternal grandmother.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net