My latest Goodreads review is a story you only thought you knew “because you saw the movie.”
Prepare to be surprised.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Just when you thought you knew the whole story about the relationship between Christina Crawford and her mother, Joan Crawford, you find out facets of the story that a “biographical” movie failed to cover, overdramatized, and gloss over.
First of all, this book admittedly took me a little longer to read than books normally do. It’s not because it was a difficult read in the sense that I didn’t understand the wording or references. That wasn’t the case at all. It was a difficult read due to the heaviness of the subject covered. If you’ve seen the 1981 Faye Dunaway movie “Mommie Dearest” before, it can’t begin to prepare you for what you’ll read within.
In a nutshell:
Christina Crawford’s 1978 best seller is the story of her relationship with her mother, actress Joan Crawford. Christina tells the story of her mother, going back long before even her beginnings and adoption (Christina was born on June 11, 1939), to when she was an up-and-coming actress, to the time she was a success in her career but not-so-successful in relationships. She had failed marriages, and was unable to have or adopt a child due to her personal history (which included the taboo history of divorces). And despite that, she still managed to adopt (albeit through alternate channels) four children, including her oldest, Christina.
The story tells of Christina’s life, growing up in privilige. But for all that glitters, not all is gold. Christina tells the story of her mother’s tumultous and unpredictable behaviors, stemming from drinking and a career that started to decline as with age and the extinction of exclusive studio contracts. Remember the rose bush cutting scene in the movie, after Joan is fired from MGM? Yes that actually happened.
Many details of the story that made it to film were glossed over, made more dramatic to build interest, or left out altogether. Christina Crawford has gone on record denouncing the film. I saw a 2001 Larry King Live interview where she said just that much. Indeed, it is a campy depiction of Crawford’s life, but it is a classic (especially if you like train wrecks of this type, as I do). While I had only been interested in seeing the movie in years past, it was only because finding “Mommie Dearest” in an e-book format was difficult, as was trying to find an affordable print copy. I didn’t actually succeed in finding a digital copy of this book until recently, and for $2.99, it was worth getting.
“Mommie Dearest” is an annual tradition of mine – ironically, I watch it around Mother’s Day every year. My dad can be thanked for that, as he loves this film for the camp fest it is (especially that infamous wife hangers scene). Thanks dad, you hooked me on this, and this was the story I believed for way too many years.
This year, though, was different. I really wanted to know how much of this story was true (I’d heard contrary information about the accuracy of some of this), so I’ve looked up documentaries (YouTube has a great collection, for the interested), interviews, and anything else I could find. I have a ways to go, but I like ongoing projects.
What “Mommie Dearest” (the book) boils down to is this the story of a young woman who, for all the luxury she was afforded, her mother worked to make life difficult. There were times where Christina struggled without finances or proper clothing, and in her years as a stuggling actress, her mother was living a life of opulence. This isn’t a story about a scorned daughter crying out for attention, but a woman who survived the abuse of a woman – her own mother – to come through in a huge way. Christina’s success can only be attributed to her own hard work and determination, both for success and survival. She has done both.
As I said, the material this book covers is heavy. It is not pretty, pleasant, or glamorous by any means. This is not light reading. It is not meant to be any of this. It shows that luxury is more than wealth and opulence, it is stability, emotional support, and love. This is a woman who loved her mother, but wasn’t always given that love in return. Even when Christina and Joan were able to have a healthy relationship, there was a catch, and it was a huge one.
See the movie, but read the book for the complete story. I also found the audio version of the book, and sometime soon, I’ll listen to Christina tell in her words what I pictured in my head. Be warned though, this is a tough read for the sensitive. I never experienced child abuse on any level, and I had many moments where I was rocked to my core.