I feel like there are three stages in growing to understand the mistakes your parents made as they were raising you: 1. Getting enough perspective on what children are actually like to see that there were times when you were being really obnoxious and that whatever seemingly inappropriate response you got from your parents was probably all they had left in them after you pushed them to point of madness. 2. Growing old enough to finally understand that your parents were people with their own lives and thoughts and desires and that what they needed wasn’t always going to overlap with what you needed. 3. Realizing that even after you factor in some forgiveness because humans are imperfect there’s probably going to be a few things that you’re just going to have to work through on your own.
Mommie Dearest is a painful movie to watch because it’s from an adult child’s perspective, but it’s perspective isn’t fully realized on any of those points. Many of the scenes depict instances where the conflict between parent and child isn’t clearly abusive. For example, at one point Joan Crawford wants her daughter to eat her steak raw, but Christina refuses, so Joan won’t let her leave the table. When Christina is still sitting at the table hours later, Joan tries to make her eat the steak again at breakfast and lunch the next day, before finally giving in. Now, on the one hand you do have some poor parenting there – she should have asked her daughter how she wanted her food cooked, I suppose – but kids often refuse to eat, which must be maddening for the person who is responsible for making them eat. Especially once you factor in the different ideas about parenting in the 40’s you can see that as a story about a stubborn ungrateful child almost as much as you can see it about a stern unapproving mother.
As to the second step, it’s possible that Joan just didn’t know how to be a good parent because her own upbringing was so rough. We don’t hear much about how Joan was raised, but the one mention of her mother implies that she was a woman who slept around, which must not have been easy to live with as a child growing up in the early part of the twentieth century. Furthermore, we don’t know much about Joan’s life before she adopted Christina and her brother, but there is a mention of seven miscarriages and two divorces, which can’t have been easy to endure. Perhaps she was too focused on her career and not enough on her family, but she was a plain woman in a business that fetishizes beauty and and an aging woman in a business that lionizes the young, and even if Christina can’t see why that would push her into heavy drinking, I can.
Another problem with the film’s perspective is that in the thirty years since the film came out we’ve really changed how we think about mental health, and what we see of Joan Crawford does make her look bad, yes, but it also makes her look like a person who needed treatment. In many ways I pitied her because she clearly wasn’t getting the help for her alcoholism that she needed, help that wouldn’t become widely available for decades after her children were full grown.
That said, I don’t want to go too far into defending Joan Crawford, since growing up as the child of an alcoholic is, I’m sure, completely traumatic, and at the end of the day there are some things you cannot make amends for. But whatever drove her daughter to write a tell-all book about her mother after her mother died, to air all the dirty laundry at such a time that it would destroy her mother’s hard-won reputation when her mom would have no ability to defend herself, seems sort of gross and spiteful to me. The fact that so many of the examples that were chosen to illustrate Joan’s flaws also reflect poorly on Christina suggests that the daughter has some issues of her own to work through – issues that don’t necessarily have to be worked out in public. I do not have any real idea of how much was truth and fiction in the story, but I do know that the people that made this movie were being exploitative and helping the public rubberneck on a story that’s sad and bitter to the core. As a document of a conflicted person who has not healed yet it has it’s interesting parts, but as anything else it’s just unappetizing.
Winner: The Cat