She grabbed for my throat like a mad dog . . . like a wild beast . . . with a look in her eyes that will never be erased from my memory. I lost my footing and fell into the floor, hitting my head on the ice chest as I went down. She banged my head on the floor, tightening her griup around my throat . . . Her eyes were the eyes of a killer animal, glistening with excitement. I gasped for air and felt myself sinking into unconsciousness . . . All I could think of was that my own mother was trying to kill me . . .
From "Mommie Dearest"
The mother was Hollywood's Joan Crawford. The woman who tells the painful, lurid litany of a lifetime of child abuse at the hands of "Mommie Dearest" is the eldest of her four adopted children, Christina.
She was 13 - and had endured years of cruel and unusual punishment - when her mother tried to strangle her. Stopped by a secretary, Joan Crawford went through a familiar ritual of locking her daughter in a storage room in the Beverly Hills mansion viewed as a home of glamorous bliss by unknowing, gawking tourists.
Christina - who had one black eye and a swollen, bloody upper lip, a puffy face and a "perfect handprint bruise across one cheek" - was then summoned downstairs. Christina Crawford writes in her autobiography that a waiting juvenile officer told her that if her mother called authorities again, "He'd have no choice but to take me to juvenile hall and book me as an incorrigible."
Recalling that officer's reaction today, Christina says, "I was horrified and terrified. I felt as if there was no hope for me, that I was all alone."
Christina Crawford is 39 now. She relates her childhood nightmares as if by [WORD ILLEGIBLE] - little inflection, her Nordic-looking high-cheekboned face at most times a mask. As a child she was commanded to call her mother "Mommie Dearest," she writes, until the phrase made her want to "vomit." At other times she refers to her mother as an "insane bitch." But, in person, there is a calmer tone. "Mommie Dearest" was mandatory. If you said, 'Yes, Mommie,' she'd say 'Yes Mommie What?' . . . and you would have to say 'Yes Mommie Dearest.'"
And so in a diabolical last word, Christina Crawford has entitled her book "Mommie Dearest" and it is filled with the passions of hate and an unforgiving memory. Crawford insists she tried to show a convoluted love between the two women as well, but what stands out are page after page of beatings and cruelty. Russian Roulette
It is a raw and chilling book - both in the treatment of Christina and in the seemingly intense revenge the daughter is now trying to inflict after her mother's death. Skeptics call it a distasteful, distorted, one-sided hatchet job to which Joan Crawford, who died a year and half ago, could not respond. However, many of the seamy revelations are confirmed in a recent biography of the actress by Bob Thomas. Helen Hayes' son, James MacArthur, recalled finding Christina's brother tied to a bed during one visit. Thomas also portrayed the actress as a rigidly obsessive, vengeful and a largely fabricated personality.
Christina disinherited by her mother, is getting rich now off the profits of the book. She denies that she waited to exhume the past until her mother's death in order to sensationalize. It took this long to get some perspective, she says, and, until Crawford's death, "There was no end - it had no conclusion."
Christina, disinherited by her scrub her mother's dressing room all night for some infraction of her mother's rigid rules. During the "night raids" her mother decimated her closet, yanked Christina out of bed, beat her about the head and pulled out clumps of hair - all because Christina, then less than 9, used some wire clothes hangers, another of "Mommie Dearest's" no-nos. There were other mementos - her mother's endless Russian Roulette of male and female sex partners, stupefying alcoholism and blind rage.
And then the other side: The matching mother and daughter dresses, worn only for the photographers. The Christmas presents unwrapped for movie magazine and radio audiences - then rewrapped and put on shelves to be given away at birthday parties for other Hollywood offspring. The mother who would gush for interviewers. "Can you imagine what it meant to me to be surrounded by four warm young lives? To come home to their confidence and love, their chorus of 'Oh, Mommie-dearest'?" And Christina, so well rehearsed that she would parrot for a long-ago Christmas Eve radio show: "Oh, we insist that mother hang up her stockings right beside ours."
Joan Crawford, of the ankle-strap shoes and wide shoulder-pad suits, engendered a certain awe rather than loving affection from her audiences. Her unforgettable face was handsome rather than beautiful and although only 5 feet 4 inches tall she seemed to tower over others and dominate scenes no matter her tendency to overact. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that if she were given a stage direction such as "telling a lie," Crawford would give you Benedict Arnold betraying West Point.
When she won an Oscar for "Mildred Pierce," she would be forever remembered on celluloid for her fierce thoughness. It was hardly an act.
Still, Joan Crawford - whose four husbands included Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Franchot Tome and whose lovers included Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, among a large cast - remains, nonetheless, a Hollywood icon. And so - while it is not the same as defiling June Allyson or Doris Day - her daughter has been vilified by some book reviewers and TV talk-show audiences for marring an idol. And for making a bundle as well - $750,000 paperback sale, $300,000 for screen rights, $250,000 for writing the screenplay.
Crawford's stock answer - just a hint of anger in her hazel eyes - is that the book will stand by itself, that she also showed her mother's vulnerabilities and pathetic past and terrible needs to explain her actions. The attempts to psychoamalysis, for example: During all the years there was never enough success, never enough money or fame to fill the void. "She needed an audience to reassure her that she was loved." "She had a terrible time trusting anyone or letting others see that she was human with the failings and frailties that usually implies. She lied to herself about life until she could no longer tell the difference between reality and her personal version of it."
She was a man-hater who took out that hatred beating her son. But somehow all the words of understanding and love "about this woman just don't ring true." Crawford feels her mother belonged to that now-familiar pattern of the child-abusing parent who was herself abused. "She was always very sketchy about her past - and what little she said tended to change all the time. But the implication was that she was very badly treated by my grandmother and very possibly by one or more of my grandmother's husbands, perhaps sexually molested. She was deserted by three of them." 'Cleanomania'
Christina Crawford, the adult, appears to be marked by some residual rigidity from her childhood. The unyielding control of a mother with a discipline fetish, rules and neurotic emphasis on "cleanomania," (she sometimes showered several times a day) appear to be indelibly etched.
Christina Crawford's legs are crossed at the ankles. Her nails are folded on an armchair, are seldom released in abandoned gestures. When she smiles, it is not a fake Hollywood smile, but neither does it seem to be spontaneous.
She is articulate and intelligent but at times seems to be almost deprogrammed: she spews forth neutral psychological jargon. Three years of heavy analysis saved her from crippling insecurity, depression and, she says, saved her life: "I felt I was in danger of being consumed by her identity."
In one of her simpler sentences, Crawford says, "My life was filled with extremes. I was either the public 'princess' - or I was the private servant."
There is only one truly poignant scene in the book about her mother's childhood. In poverty, deserted by one of the men in her life, Joan Crawford's mother had to work in a laundry. She and her two children lived in an unused room behind the laundry, with no cooking stove and no bathroom. At night, Joan Crawford would sneak out after her work was finished - to practice her dancing in a dirt yard in the dark.
Sheer grit, working in dance halls and - legend has it - prostitution paid for Joan Crawford's move from obscurity-to Hollywood and stardom.
It was then, her daughter says, that Joan Crawford, who was unable to have children, thought her image was incomplete without them, and adopted some. Christina Crawford feels she is lucky that in her formative years she viewed herself as being "overwhelmed by love." It was only later that she felt she had been manipulated for the cameras.
Later, she got conflicting messages: "She instilled in me those qualities of independence, thinking for yourself," but then fought her daughter when she went against her rigid rules. When she was abused, Christina Crawford said she felt as if she somehow deserved it.
There was a time when Christina was 4 and had to take a nap every day. "As I daydreamed I ran my finger over a seam in the wallpaper, tracing the design. Before I realized it, several little pieces of the wallpaper had fallen away." She spit on the wallpaper, trying to make it stick. It didn't. Her mother spanked her furiously. But that was not the end. She reached for Christina's favorite yellow dress - "She knew it was my favorite" - and shredded it with scissors until it hung in tatters. Then she forced her to wear the dress for one whole week. Christina writes:
As the days went by it got dirtier and dirtier until it was nothing but a filthy rag. The material had unraveled and there wasn't much to cover me except my underwear.
The humiliation of that story seems finely drawn as Crawford recounts her life. "You know, it was no secret in Hollywood that we were mistreated. If employes tried to intercede, they were fired. An endless troop of servants came and went, but never wrote memoirs," says Crawford. "I tried to tell people, but no one would believe me.So who would have believed them? No one was ever able to intervene in such a way that it made a substantial difference in our lives."
It is not just the famous who are so protected. "For many, many years, society has held the view that the child is the property of the parent. That the child has no rights as a human being. I survived because I came to the decision at some early age that I wanted to live more than I wanted to die. It was a terrifying journey because I was so alone," she says. "But many people, whether from wealthy Hollywood, or more ordinary circumstances, have not survived. My hope is that the revelations in my book will give other people hope . . . The sad truth is that at any given time there are upwards of a million children suffering the terror of child abuse."
It seems gratuitious sensationalism to interject one throwaway episode in the book: A former nurse confided that in a condition of drunken loneliness, Joan Crawford used to ask her to sleep with her until the nurse locked the door and refused to answer her poundings. Crawford writes, "It didn't shock me because I already knew about my mother's lesbian proclivities . . ." Crawford defends this by saying, "It's in there because it was part of my life. During the years it actually took place I was primarily aware that there were no men as such , a houseful of only women. I was 9 or 10. My mother's appearance became progressively more mannish."
While she was only subliminally aware of this side of her mother, Joan Crawford left no doubt about men. The endless parade included homosexuals and lovers that Joan Crawford commanded her daughter to call "uncles."
Her dating routine included Christina, not quite 10, mixing the uncles stiff drinks, then ushering them upstairs.
I thought it was rude of my mother to be dressed only in her underwear and a robe when dates arrived. As she and her date sat and talked up in her dressing room over their drinks, she'd put on the rest of her clothes right in front of him. I usually tried to find other things to do then.
Today, Christina Crawford says that this upbringing - hardly a convent experience - and the lack of a father caused problems in her own life.
"Initially, I had a very distorted view of what to expect of men-women relationships. I simply had no adequate role model. I had to go through a rather painful trial-and-error process." That included, at 12 and at boarding school, her first sexual experience - in a haystack. It caused a furor at the school; her mother responded by calling her a whore; and doctors proclaimed after examination that she was still a virgin. But Christina's reputation was damaged for several years.
Later, "I did what a lot of women do. Tried to look for a father image. I came to the painful realization that in order to have any decent relations as an adult, you have to bring yourself to it."
She says she's found that decent relationship, with her second husband, David Koonz, 38, a producer. Now married for two years, they were friends for several years before that. They have formed a company and he will assist in the filming of the movie of her book.
A slim man with a warm, low-key personality, Koonz sits in on his wife's interviews and goes along with her on the endless TV appearances. She says of him: "I love the mirror of myself that David is able to give me." He says, "I have my own growth, my own things to work through, and so the relationship becomes very synergetic. We work together for long-range goals. It is not always easy because we're very honest with each other."
Crawford made a conscious decision not to have children - not because of a fear of repeating her mother's pattern, she says, but because of her own chaotic early adult life. Koonz's 15-year-old son lives with them much of the time. Koonz says of Crawford, "She's a fabulous mother." 'The Secret Storm'
Crawford began her emancipation process in her 20s when, after 12 years, she decided to give up acting. She naively thought she could make it on her own, and opted for the theater and television rather than movies. In one of those cutting Time magazine "milestone" descriptions, when she was married for the first time in 1966 (to a Broadway stage manager), Crawford was listed as the daughter of Joan Crawford and as a "sometime actress." Two years later, Christina Crawford woke up in the hospital after an emergency tumor operation to find out, to her horror, that her mother, then 60, had temporarily taken over her starring role as a 24-year-old housewife in the soap opera "The Secret Storm." Joan Crawford was quoted at the time: "I'll never be as good as you, but I'll keep the spot warm for you." And Christina was quoted, "I couldn't exactly jump up and down in bed about it, but I do remember thinking it was fantastic that she would care that much."
In the book, however:
She was the star again, the focus of all the attention. It was my job she'd taken. What could she be thinking of when she did that? . . . It is extraordinary how entangled in each other we had become. Now it was my mother looking to me for the same love and approval I had always sought from her . . . She had become me for a while and I felt I was sinking into oblivion. It was insanity for both of us.
Although Crawford was sent to boarding school at the age of 12, Joan Crawford continued to control her life, telephoning during drunken rages for behavior reports.
Crawford attended Carnegie Mellon University and the Neighborhood Playhouse Professional School before going into acting. Her release from the past came when she went back to school, graduating mogna cum laude from UCLA, then getting a masters in communication management. She did public relations before writing her book. Next she wants to write a novel. Back From the Grave
Her book was not a catharsis, she insists. "I could never have written this book if I had not already come to terms with my life." That sentence, spoken with no inflection, does not square with her final words in her book, titled "In Memoriam." Describing a Hollywood tribute to her late mother, she recalls bitterly:
There was not one mention about her family. No one ever alluded to the fact that I was seated just three feet away in the first row.
In her will, Joan Crawford disinherited Christina and her brother, coming back from the grave for the final exit line - adding in the will the cryptic "for reasons which are well known to them."
I was speechless and stunned . . . it was the humiliating innuendo that was left to be interpreted publicly . . . How could one woman carry so much hatred with her for so many years? I should think the reown would eat you alive. But, then, maybe it did. Maybe it just did . . . The private conjecture was that she died of cancer. So maybe all that insanity and venom finally did eat her alive.
Because Crawford is contesting the will, she will not discuss it. But she, too, gets in a last lick at her departed "Mommie Dearest."
God Almighty, at last it is over. I have survived. It is time for us to go forward with vigilance, honesty and love.
And then the last line in the book: . . . for reasons which are well known to them.