“Find your own way home. And another place to live while you’re at it.”
With that, Melissa Francis’s mother pulls over to the side of the road and pitches her out of the car. “I’d watched my mom throw my older sister out of the car countless times,” Francis remembers. “Now it was my turn. I was eight years old.”
But where her sister, Tiffany, had cried and waited helplessly for their mom to return, Melissa runs on to a golf course that abuts the street, crawls into the underbrush and takes a long, refreshing nap. “What did I want?” she asks. “An apology from her for throwing me out of the car? Maybe just an end to the domination.” At any rate, Melissa finally walks home, strolls into the family kitchen and casually makes a peanut butter sandwich.
She’s right in her calculations; her mother hasn’t told anyone about the incident. Melissa’s family jogs on, living a semi-Hollywood life. Her father owns a small business, and her mother has dedicated much of her life to pushing her children in the world of TV commercials: “She was mercurial, domineering, but also devoted. . . . She brooked no nonsense when we resisted her efforts. We were treated to riding lessons, skating lessons, the best schools my parents could afford. But her vigilance was also a leash, one she could pull tight enough to strangle.”
The author, a Fox Business Network anchor, isn’t kidding. Terrible things are going to happen in this superb family memoir, “Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter.” An untimely death occurs. Money gets stolen or misappropriated. Tantrums are pitched. Emotional war is declared. The mother stands at the center of this dynamic. For days, weeks, months at a time, she is inert. She can’t stand housework, she hates to grocery shop and, many times, the girls go hungry. The mother lies on her bed, eating potato chips, working herself into a foul mood, and when she gets there, watch out.
On one memorable occasion, she kidnaps the neighbors’ old dog and drops it off as a stray at a pound in another city, where it’s sure to be put down. “Mom had effectively murdered our neighbors’ dog as revenge,” Melissa says.
Another time, she takes a hammer to an offending car in a parking lot. All of this raises the question: What is evil and what is mental illness? What must this awful woman’s children do to save their own lives?
Luck and chance intervene on behalf of Melissa. She’s offered an ongoing part as one of Michael Landon’s youthful charges on the TV series “Little House on the Prairie.” For once, she and her mother share the same agenda. Melissa’s mother has every reason to keep her daughter happy, and Melissa is more than happy to be the center of attention and treated with respect.
Poor Tiffany, her elder sister, can’t or won’t live up to her mother’s expectations. She gets fewer and fewer commercials, begins to drink and hang out with the wrong kids. Her mother, a natural predator, pounces on her mercilessly.
Melissa, as strong as her mother, battles to go to Harvard. Her parents tell her repeatedly that there isn’t enough money, but, if so, where did her TV earnings go? Her father responds with a stunningly passive-aggressive performance. These adults are truly baffling, insisting first on success and then on failure. They want control. Or is it money? Or simply their children’s ruin? This book can be sickening in its implications. A little love would be in order here, but that’s what none of them would seem to have in abundance.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.
A STAGE MOTHER’S DAUGHTER
By Melissa Francis
292 pp. $26