Just the words, “Mommie Dearest” makes me want to cringe. I was aware that Crawford had adopted her children from Georgia Tann. Actually, I had come across the story of the younger siblings, twin girls, while doing my research about Georgia Tann. They have a more positive perception of Crawford. However, I know that one child may be a problem for the parents, while another child won’t be. There are defiant and compliant children and certainly, the complaint ones are easier to parent. Not that I am judging Christina as a problem child but it is clear that she had problems with her mother.
I don’t doubt that she suffered abuse. I’ve read the accounts of too many adoptees in my all things adoption group to doubt anyone’s claim. My first reminder of Christina’s memoir was an article in which the writer describes going to see the film version (about 40 years after its release) and it being found hilarious by many in the audience, that it had become a bit “camp”. Since I really didn’t know the definition, I googled it. Camp is an aesthetic style and sensibility that regards something as appealing because of its bad taste and ironic value. Somehow a movie about child abuse just doesn’t seem like the same kind of cult classic as The Rocky Horror Picture Show from my own perspective.
Christina was 80 years old last year. Her memoir came out in 1978 but she had written a musical based on it around the time of her latest birthday. It had a run at Birdland, the renowned New York jazz venue. She was happy about it. “It sold out, it was fabulous,” she says, looking glamorous and spry, before issuing what has become a standard warning: “The musical had absolutely nothing to do with the movie. I want to put that in big capital letters.”
The movie she is referring to (and the one I mentioned above) is the 1981 adaptation of Christina’s memoir that starred Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford, Christina’s adoptive mother, whose abuses, soberly detailed in the book, were turned by the movie into high camp. As chronicled in Mommie Dearest, Crawford slapped, kicked, punched and tried to strangle her daughter, while subjecting her to a severe schedule of cleaning and other household chores, driven by the movie star’s alcoholism and who knows what else.
The publication of Mommie Dearest, perhaps the first memoir ever to document child abuse from the child’s point of view, changed the landscape of victim representation and was an early precursor to today’s more robust protection of victims’ rights. Generally speaking, we don’t recognize the long-term psychological damage that is inflicted on people who are abused, neglected and trafficked. It is hard for people to understand that what happened 20 years ago is creating behavior patterns today.
Being sent to boarding school at the age of 10 was a turning point for her. She understood that the rules she grew up under weren’t normal. She tried to build a degree of self-esteem after years of being told by her mother that she was useless. Education was the path forward for her.
“Fear is the water that abused children swim in,” Christina says. “Because you don’t know what’s going to happen and your life is so chaotic. But on the other side of the equation, it’s fear from people who are afraid to speak up. Fear that they’re going to lose their job or that people are going to say something bad about them. If you were to ask me about one thing that embraces all of us, it’s the constant fear.” The fear doesn’t go away when the abuser dies. Christina says, “Because it’s internal.”
After a period of estrangement in the latter years of her mother’s life, she attempted a reconciliation. It turned out not to have been possible. Christina says of Crawford that at that point in their lives, “She was an alcoholic. She was ill. She was drug-addicted. And I think she just wasn’t playing with a full deck. I completely lost context – not contact, but context with her, because I wasn’t physically present. Then she died.”
Christina and her younger brother Christopher were cut out of Crawford’s will, for what was cited as “reasons which are well known to them.” Christina was so furious she went straight to her desk and started writing down everything that had happened in her childhood. Her two younger siblings disputed the book. Different people in the family experience the parenting situation in different ways. Because the parenting situation is different towards them, they may have trouble believing how awful it was for a sibling.
Credit for much of this blog goes to Emma Brockes for her June 25 2019 article about Christina in The Guardian. Though I hesitate to add this movie trailer, I will for full diligence to this blog.