Conspiracy theories are usually aimed at assassinations, UFOs, religion, Bill Clinton, Richard Gere, etc. We’ve all heard the JFK assassination theories. We’ve heard about how the U.S. never really landed on the moon – it all took place on a sound stage!
But have you heard the one about Mommie Dearest?
Mommie Dearest was written by Christina Crawford less than a year after her mother, Joan Crawford, died in the late 1970s. Even if you haven’t actually read the book (really?), I’m sure all I have to say is “No more wire hangers,” and we’re suddenly on the same page. That ghoulish image of Faye Dunaway staring in the movie version as Joan, green-tinged cold cream smeared on her face and brandishing a wire hanger, has a way of staying with you.
So we’ve all thought for decades now that Joan was a monster. The lowest of the low – a woman who abused two of her four adopted children (just the first two; the other two have maintained that their mom was a fine lady). Joan cut the two ungrateful ones out of her will with the words, “For reasons that are well known to them.”
But we have some Joan Apologists on our hands – Lawrence Quirk and William Schoell and their book Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography, published in 2002 by The University Press of Kentucky.
Author Lawrence Quirk had some ties to Joan – he claims to have been Joan’s “friend and confidante” for over 30 years… and his uncle, James Quirk, wrote and edited the mag Photoplay when Joan was a big star. His uncle also, um, seemed to have used Joan’s services back when she was starting out and “entertained” bigwigs from New York for MGM. Ick, right?
Oh, there’s a lot of fodder in this book!
Anyway, throughout the book Quirk and Schoell do their best to point out what an ungrateful beastie Christina Crawford was, getting their pokes and jabs in where they can. But then they really drive their points home in one of the last chapters, called “Serpent’s Tooth.” Here’s a lot of stuff you didn’t know!
“The first thing the objective reader of Mommie Dearest will notice is that much of the book simply does not ring true… Christina remembers conversations and incidents that she was much too young to recall in such detail, and has her mother unhappy and raging at the fates, lashing out in drunken anger, during periods when Joan was one of the two or three biggest stars in Hollywood. What comes across most vividly is that Christina completely fails to understand or appreciate her mother… Her self-absorption is all over every page…”
Hmm… imagine having the audacity to be absorbed in your own story when writing an autobiography!
They go on to point out that the “twins” (Joan’s two youngest children) have always flatly denied that Mommie Dearest was in any way true. I can’t help but point out that Joan always referred to these two girls as “the twins” when in fact they were not biological sisters and were actually born a month or two apart. I’m just saying… bitch a little crazy, OK?
“Nowadays, when children talk about physical or sexual abuse (sometimes the product of an overactive imagination), they are taken very seriously, with the result that some innocent people have been arrested for vile offenses that they never committed.”
The problem, really, is all these evil children we’re raising who advantages to telling horrible lies about being beaten so they can luck out and get to go into foster care! Or laugh manaically when innocent adults go to jail!
“Christina did not and could not know that during the time she was growing up, it was the norm and not the exception for children to be sent to bed without supper if they refused to eat what was on their plate. It was the norm and not the exception for disobedient children to be spanked. They were expected to be seen and not heard, to stay silent until addressed, to behave in front of visitors, and to keep their good clothes clean. If they spoke back to a parent, especially if they used foul language, their mouths would be washed out with soap… The situations Christina found herself in were hardly unique or unusual.”
See, back in the day, when people were really stupid, everyone hit their kids and washed their mouths out with soap. Everyone was a walking cliche of a parent. Everything you’ve ever seen on TV is true. And everything on the Internet is true. And if a child didn’t eat her dinner one night, it would be served up to her again and again for a week. Why, Joan Crawford wasn’t a monster at all. She was a progressive parent!
I’m fascinated by Joan Crawford because of what she represents about Old Hollywood. It’s that dream of rising up from obscurity, of the flapper, the exhibition dancer, the bisexual playgirl, the star, the grand dame, the tragic drunk. Let’s face it, she covered all the bases. And yet, try as I might, I can’t by any stretch completely write off Mommie Dearest. Maybe some of the book was false memory… but then, we’ve been down that road many times now in recent years. It’s now common practice for memoirists to write disclaimers saying conversations probably didn’t contain exactly the sentences written in the book. I, for one, can’t remember exact conversations I had last week. And each time a conversation is replayed in one’s memory, or an incident is replayed, the mind changes it just slightly. But you still remember the gist, the tone. And big events… well… if someone woke me up in the middle of the night and made me scrub a bathroom on my hands and knees, I have to believe that I would remember that.
We certainly didn’t begrudge Frank McCourt his remembrances of his Irish childhood in Angela’s Ashes. We relish the stories of difficult childhoods told in books like The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. But when it comes to Joan, some find themselves getting a little bit… territorial. We want so badly to believe…
But, tell me, what woman in her right mind subs in for her 20-year-old daughter on a soap opera when she’s 40-plus years older, as Joan did when Christina became ill while appearing on the soap The Secret Storm? According to Quirk and Schoell, Joan was afraid that Christina would be replaced by another actress while she was in the hospital recovering but knew the producers wouldn’t be able to resist having Joan play the part.
“Indeed, Joan thought she was saving her daughter from losing the role. Of course, Joan undeniably also enjoyed being in the spotlight again. Most of Joan’s friends found the entire episode a little bit sad [oh, just a little bit!] – in that whatever Joan did, it just made Christina madder – and, unfortunately, hilarious. While it may have been true that Joan fortified herself with some vodka before taping her scenes, it was not true that she was obviously drunk on camera.”
No, no, no – because she could hold her liquor, after all! All those years of practice. And, according to the authors, “drinking generally made Joan mellow and happy, not angry or vicious.” Which is why they claim Mommie Dearest is all the more baffling – Joan would have been more likely to nod off while drunk, or maybe write a bit of poetry, as go on a rampage through the house.
I think the key phrase from one of the paragraphs above is, “Joan thought.” Joan thought she was helping. Joan thought she was a good disciplinarian. Joan thought children should be seen and not heard. Joan thought eight-year-olds should hand-write hundreds of thank you cards each holiday season.
In the end, “One can sympathize with Christina, up to a point. It wasn’t her fault she hadn’t been born with those special qualities that distinguished Joan from the rest of the pack.”
Oh, so true, Quirk and Schoell. Go forth and spread the word. Mommie Dearest is a pack of dirty lies.