Opinion by Sarah Gundle
(CNN) — Why are so many of us enthralled by the stories of daughters whose mothers abused them? Why follow so obsessively the details of how a mother-daughter relationship could go so wrong?
These are appropriate questions, when you consider the public fascination with stories about Gypsy Rose Blanchard, who was recently released on parole after serving eight and a half years for helping to kill her abusive mother. She is the subject of the Lifetime docuseries “The Prison Confessions of Gypsy Rose Blanchard” and recently told CNN in an interview: “For me, getting to prison was a chance to start life for myself in terms of gaining independence from everyone.”
The idea of prison as a place to find oneself for the first time may seem shocking for most of us, but less so for Blanchard, who was for years paraded before reporters and the public as a sickly cancer patient, before it was revealed that her own mother, Claudine “Dee Dee” Blanchard, had been slowly poisoning her. The revelation drove Gypsy Rose to seek revenge by convincing her boyfriend to murder her mother.
Later, it was revealed that Dee Dee had “factitious disorder imposed on another,” formerly yet more commonly known as Munchausen-by-proxy, a rare syndrome in which the caretaker of a child, most often a mother, either makes up fake symptoms or causes real symptoms to make it look like the child is sick.
Blanchard’s case, and the obsessive following of its every detail, brings to mind the story of former child actress and Nickelodeon star Jennette McCurdy, another daughter whose toxic relationship with her mother became the subject of media scrutiny and prurient interest. McCurdy spoke out purposefully about her experiences in her bestselling 2022 book, “I’m Glad My Mother Died,” which describes how her narcissist mother Debra pushed her into an acting career as a child, and then so hounded her about her caloric intake that she became malnourished and developed severe eating disorders, as well as alcoholism.
This “Mommie Dearest” genre, into which these cases neatly fit, continues to fascinate and entertain many of us. At the same time, we are encouraged by social media to embrace and pursue an impossible ideal of maternal perfection that makes it even easier to consider these women horror movie monsters.
Of course, the behavior of Dee Dee Blanchard and Debra McCurdy was beyond the pale, rising to the level of evil. But as a psychologist, I often wonder if the so-called “wicked mother paradigm,” like so many forms of othering, may be hiding more about us than it reveals about them. What if instead of asking questions about these evil mothers or avidly attending to the details of their children’s lives, we viewed stories like these as an opportunity to ask difficult questions of ourselves and our own relationships?
While we are following these stories so breathlessly, I believe we owe it to ourselves to ask about the similarities we share with Blanchard and McCurdy, even those we might not want to admit to. The fact that those of us who are mothers would never behave like Blanchard or McCurdy risks becoming a way of avoiding the small ways that these stories mirror our own — not because we act like them, but because, like them, many mothers are often suffering in silence, unable or unwilling to get help or talk about it.
In telling the stories of Blanchard and McCurdy, the media makes scant mention of the fact that both were clearly suffering from their own forms of mental illness, yet neither woman was treated. Jennette McCurdy said about her mother: “Any time that my grandfather or my father tried to encourage her to get help, pleaded with her to get help…she just refused to do it. She refused to acknowledge that she had any issues.” And Gypsy recently said in an interview of her mom: “Maybe it was like an addict with an impulse, and that it was not consciously malicious.”
In my practice, I see many mothers suffering with their own forms of anxiety and fear of failure, and for the most part these are not discussed either. “I know better than to tell anyone else this,” mothers in my practice report on a regular basis. Then they go on to admit that they yearn for a day off from parenting, that they were relieved to go back to work after maternity leave or that they have to lock themselves in the bathroom sometimes to avoid yelling at their kids. Often, they can’t make eye contact while admitting these things. “I know that makes me a terrible mom,” they say.
According to the images we get on a loop in advertising and the media, parenthood — especially motherhood — is supposed to be blissful, a non-stop endorphin rush of unconditional love and joy. When I suffered my own bout of postpartum depression, I was so conditioned by this paradigm that even with all my training, it took me months to put a name to what I was feeling, and to overcome the shame and guilt that ensued.
I’m not surprised anymore when I hear how parents feel that they can’t talk about their fears of maternal failure or doubt outside of therapy. I try to normalize these feelings. In “Far From the Tree,” Andrew Solomon writes, referencing the British psychoanalyst Rozsika Parker, that “in our open, modern society, the extent of maternal ambivalence is a dark secret. Most mothers treat their occasional wish to be rid of their children as if it were the equivalent of murder itself.” But disclosing and discussing our maternal ambivalence make for better parents, not worse ones.
“We’re not supposed to put anything else before our children’s needs, right?” I’m often asked. There are very few questions that patients put to me that I answer definitively. This is one of them. “No, that’s not right,” I reply.
When someone asks me if I love being a mother, the answer is a definitive yes. Yet I know how much the joy is often shadowed by grief and shame. It took me a very long time to be open and factual not only about my postpartum depression, but also about the five miscarriages that preceded it. How would my experience of motherhood have been different if I didn’t have a good therapist, supportive friends who I trust enough to be vulnerable with, and a partner who would never judge me for my complicated feelings of motherhood and the losses it has entailed?
Psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote that “By not being aware of having a shadow, you declare a part of your personality to be non-existent.…If you get rid of qualities you don’t like by denying them, you become more and more unaware of what you are.”
What is it that most people deny and repress? Things that are deemed bad or immoral by society or frowned upon by our family or peers. But repressing any element of our personalities comes with the cost of psychological wholeness. Denying them only renders us more prone to destructive results.
We live in a society that looks askance at mothers who need help, don’t instantly fit with their children or are struggling with parenthood. Does that mean that the parts of us that feel like a “bad mom” for feeling burdened, saddened or overwhelmed should be banished? Most of us are just trying to do our best at a very hard job, often with scarce resources.
As easy as it might be to think of the Dee Dee Blanchards and Debra McCurdys of the world as alien from us, their lives and actions totally unknowable to those of us on the other side of the darkness, it may be more useful to try to understand them. We would like to believe that we aren’t anything like them because we don’t like the lines to be blurry between the monsters of the world and us. But that misses a valuable opportunity.
I can only imagine that Debra might not have pushed such a misogynist agenda on her daughter had she not internalized it herself growing up. And would Dee Dee Blanchard have been able to stop the train of destruction if someone had more doggedly recognized and confronted her mental illness?
By no means do these societal failures let either of these moms off the hook. What their daughters experienced at their hands was horrific and inexcusable. But their stories should prompt us to ask ourselves if our own journeys in parenthood are not themselves burdened by what we won’t admit to ourselves or to those who might help us. And how, not if, each of us transfers our own internalized shame to our children.
Maybe we need to heed the words of Gypsy Rose Blanchard, who has said that trying to understand where her mother was coming from “brought me to a place of forgiveness.” Blanchard recently told CNN of her mother: “She was not an evil woman. She was not a monster. She was just a sick woman….I see her for who she is now, or who she was.”
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