In March 2019, federal prosecutors in Boston unveiled criminal charges against dozens of wealthy parents, accusing them of working with a corrupt college counselor to lie, cheat and steal their kids’ way into college.
Actress Felicity Huffman was one of those parents, and she quickly pleaded guilty to fraud and admitted to paying Rick Singer to have a test proctor fix her daughter’s wrong answers on the SAT after the teen completed the exam.
There was a heavy dose of schadenfreude as celebrities and CEOs were hauled before a judge. Oh, how the rich and mighty had fallen.
But what drove Huffman to do it may hit close to home for many other, law-abiding parents: insecurity. Even while slapping the phrase “good enough mom” on mugs sold on her old parenting website, Huffman questioned her own abilities constantly. She asked for suggestions from friends. She sought advice from all kinds of experts including, fatefully, one particular college counselor.
On a picture-perfect day at the end of August 2017, Felicity Huffman sat with her laptop in her red-trimmed Craftsman-style home in the Hollywood Hills.
She huddled with Singer to discuss the prospects of her older daughter, Sophia. Ever the eager student, Huffman typed notes:
*”Control the outcome of the SAT–15 grand”
*get a proctor in the room with her and she gets the answers she needs to get […] At the end of the test–the proctor is making sure.
*75 grand guy will make the scores perfect
Huffman had what seemed like a storybook life: wildly successful career with movie roles and television series like Desperate Housewives and American Crime; a decades-long, loving marriage to fellow actor William H. Macy; and two humble, kind, well-adjusted children. Sophia was interested in the performing arts, and Georgia was an equestrian with a passion for politics.
They regularly ate dinner together and played “rose and thorn,” in which everyone shares the highlight (rose) and lowlight (thorn) of their days. Huffman created elaborate spooky scenes for Halloween and engineered full-family games of capture the flag. Macy played the ukulele. They took regular vacations to Colorado.
Yet motherhood bewildered Huffman. She loved her daughters fiercely and enjoyed spending time with them, but struggled to feel like she was good enough, held herself up against other moms, and even fretted over how to plan family vacations that were both as relaxing and as enriching as she believed they ought to be.
“I found mothering my two children frightening, alienating, lonely and relentlessly difficult,” she wrote on her parenting blog, What The Flicka?
Huffman had launched What The Flicka? several years earlier, aiming for it to be a sort of virtual kitchen counter where moms traded tips and vented their frustrations. Forbes described it as one of the top one hundred blogs for women. The site sold mommy-themed memorabilia with sassy slogans like “Resting mom face” and “Make your own damn sandwich.”
She came across as vulnerable and honest in her columns, advising parents to empower their children by letting them stumble and do things for themselves. But, she admitted, “It’s hard to let them fail.”
The website was an opportunity for Huffman to keep appealing to fans who related to her Desperate Housewives character, and it also represented an extension of her years-long search for input from people she deemed better equipped at this whole parenting thing.
For six years starting in 2012, Huffman and Macy met with Wendy Mogel, a psychologist and bestselling author who spoke about “raising self-reliant, less defiant, appreciative children in a nervous world” and was revered in some L.A. circles. Huffman once went to Mogel in a tizzy about planning summer vacations.
“I sat down in her office and poured out my plans, objectives and fears for the summer, and also my inadequacies as the person in charge,” she recalled.
Singer came highly recommended by multiple other parents, and Huffman hired the counselor in 2016 for Sophia.
He provided tutors for Sophia and began to assess her odds of admission at particular colleges. Huffman would later say he painted a grim outlook within months of starting to work with her: Sophia faced stiff competition at many schools, against others with ties far stronger than just having Hollywood royalty for parents. There were athletes, legacies, kids whose last names adorned the library and dorms, she recalled him saying. Although a school reported a 10% admissions rate, she recalled him saying, that didn’t mean Sophia stood a 1 in 10 chance of getting in. For her, a girl with no such ties and very poor marks in math, it was more like one in thirty or one in fifty.
Singer had already recommended that Sophia receive twice-a-week math tutoring. But, Huffman later said, Singer warned it wasn’t enough.
Huffman had come to rely too heavily on Singer as a main source of guidance.
“I felt an urgency which built to a sense of panic that there was this huge obstacle in the way that needed to be fixed for my daughter’s sake,” Huffman later said.
As Sophia began her crucial junior year that September, regular (for Hollywood) events distracted the family: pre- and post-Emmy parties and dinners, as Huffman and Macy were nominated for the TV awards, she for American Crime and he for the role of Frank Gallagher in the Showtime hit Shameless.
Then it was back to reality, and the looming SAT.
Huffman was still mulling over Singer’s shady offer from late August, to “control the outcome of the SAT.” She adopted Singer’s legal recommendation, to sign Sophia up with a different math tutor for the start of her junior year.
Bit by bit, it began to fall into place.
On December 1, Singer’s test proctor Mark Riddell flew to L.A. The next morning, Huffman drove Sophia the three miles toward the West Hollywood College Preparatory School. Out the private cul-de-sac, down the hill with panoramic L.A. skyline views, past that hairpin turn and lush eucalyptus, sycamore, and oak trees. Soon the car passed a lively commercial district with yoga studios, ramen restaurants, fro-yo shops, hotels, and movie billboards.
Sophia asked if they could have a treat after the test, get some ice cream to celebrate.
Huffman agreed, but her head was spinning. Her moral compass briefly righted itself even as her GPS was pointing her to the corrupt test site. She knew what she was doing was wrong.
“Turn around, turn around, just turn around,” she told herself. She didn’t.
This essay is an adapted excerpt from UNACCEPTABLE: Privilege, Deceit and the Making of the College Admissions Scandal, by Melissa Korn and Jennifer Levitz.