In her book, Driven: A Daughter’s Odyssey, former Olympian and tennis champion, Julie Heldman invites the reader into an unbridled examination of her unique and success-driven upbringing. A cornerstone of Heldman’s re-telling, she details her tumultuous relationship with her mother, Gladys, who served as both an emotionally demanding figure and a trailblazing tennis promoter. In this memoir, Julie so effectively weaves historical tennis digests with her own maturing behind the scenes.
A coming of age story, Driven explores family dynamics that will be sure to resonate with many readers who have nuanced parental relationships. A child’s yearning to please their parents, especially ones of great notoriety, is put on the world’s stage when Julie rises to stardom at an early age. She details each tennis match like you’re watching it on TV for the first time, and with an adept way of keeping the reader on edge, goes through her most notable wins and losses — all told from her point of view on and off the court.
“I wanted whatever was happening [in the book] to not be colored by hindsight,” she explains.
For a bit of background, in the late 50’s big money began pouring into tennis tournaments, soon becoming apparent that a lion’s share of the prizes would be allocated to men. Realizing the tennis industry needed some gender equality, Gladys began engineering the women’s tennis revolution. Not only did she start publishing World Tennis Magazine, but Gladys also created a women’s circuit in the 70’s, ultimately setting a perfect stage for young Julie to grow into a tennis star. However, while Gladys paved the way for countless female players to find success, in private Julie was left with emotional scars due to various forms of abuse.
Julie’s public persona greatly diverged with her struggles behind the scenes and learning to balance her volatile emotions proved to be her greatest challenge.
As tennis players spend 30 to 40 weeks on the road, life for the star while in the pro tour circuit was chaotic to say the least. “I think, in general, every highly successful tennis player has to learn to leave life off the court as much as possible,” Julie explains.
The athlete likens tennis to a form of psychology “because the point of what you’re studying is how to gain advantage and win.” But when asked if psychoanalytic skills gained on the court helped her to analyze those closest to her, Julie admits she was lost. “I had no idea what people were like. When I was very little, I was isolated from both kids and adults and, as I grew up, my mother found ways to continue to isolate me and my sister from others, so I didn’t have much experience understanding people. I didn’t understand her, and I didn’t understand myself, so I had no frame of reference.”
Though Gladys Heldman was, on the one hand, a visionary who helped shape the future of women’s tennis, she didn’t exactly diminish her daughter’s ongoing turmoil. Driven poses the question: How does one contend with the rivaling image of someone’s legacy in their head?
Having spent the last several decades working on her mental well-being and addressing childhood traumas that seemed to have halted her life, she’s since developed a new skill: that of believing herself.
“Until recently, it was an ongoing struggle, which I now know is called disassociating. Back then I just couldn’t see it, because to see it, I would have had to feel it. And to feel it would have been too much,” Julie goes on. “I started to see that there was an enormous amount of emotional abuse, and yet at the same time, the person who was doing this was an incredible person in the outside world.”
Addressing the trauma is one thing, but Julie has successfully taken the reigns of her healing to not only understand how her upbringing affected her, but to learn useful skills in self-care and treating herself with kindness.
A fascinating read for tennis aficionados and sport newbies alike, Julie’s memoir is sure to provide everyone with universal takeaways; the tribulations of a young adult navigating intense competition, hiding one’s struggles from the world’s stage, coming to terms with tumultuous relationships — familial and romantic — and most of all, gaining the toolset and clarity to grow stronger amidst the chaos.
Sonia Gumuchian is a filmmaker from Vancouver, Canada who holds a BFA in Writing for Screen & Television from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Her past scripts have won awards at international film festivals, while her written articles have been featured in various magazines. Her most recent short film, Home Entertainment, was an official selection at Austin Film Festival and the Portland Comedy Film Festival. She currently has two digital series in development with a Canadian production company.