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Life Arts    H4'ed 5/30/16

Filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum: Reconciling with Mother

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Negative mother and daughter relationships are more frequent than may be imagined. Feeling defined by a mother's pejorative observations and pronouncements is deadly for a growing child's self-esteem.

Filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum has added a new contribution to the material on this topic. Look At Us Now, Mother! is an exploration about coming to terms with her complex emotions and beliefs about her mother.

Mother, otherwise known as Mildred, is presented to the audience in all of her abrasive glory. At the beginning of the shoot, she is 87. Currently, Mildred is 92, and enjoying her new found notoriety as she and Gayle do talk-backs after screenings.

Gayle introduces the narrative with the words, "This story may resemble yours." Before we get to see her mother in action, she also informs the viewer, "This is a story about forgiveness."

Mildred presents as hypercritical, rejecting, and dismissive key words in the mother-daughter psychological lexicon for dysfunctionality. We get to hear the top retorts she throws at Gayle, including the size of her nose, her unmarried status, and that her vocal inflections are too ethnically Jewish.

Gayle juxtaposes this harshness with images of the handmade cards she made for her mother, filled with love. She considers why she perceived herself as an interloper in her family. By the age of 9, Gayle is questioning if perhaps she was adopted. It's clear that her mother treats her male siblings much better.

Anecdotes recall humiliations at the hands of her mother, as well as controlling behavior and routine mortification. When recounting that Mildred didn't like that Gayle was flat-chested at 15, we learn how Mom stuffed her daughter's bathing suit top with foam. It escaped and floated away during a swim lesson. Rather than express regret at the incident, Mildred offers the response, "Your boobs grew, and your nose grew."

Can it get any worse?

Yes, actually it does -- until Gayle decides she needs to heal herself and take her mother along on the journey with her.

Gayle convinces Mildred to do talk therapy with her under the guidance of several top practitioners. Mildred is initially reluctant to go down that path. Beginning sessions find her responding to her part it the relationship with either accusations, ("You were always defiant. She was a bitchy little girl.") or by being defensive ("I don't know what I did wrong.").

Probing into Mildred's memories of her family of origin are stonewalled with repeated refrains of, "I don't remember" or "I don't know."

It takes time, but as Mildred starts to share memories of her upbringing, one can clearly see how she was damaged as a child and how those traumas impacted and shaped her mothering. Poverty, a baby sister who died when Mildred was only 6, and a father who attempted suicide twice have led Mildred to use avoidance as a coping strategy.

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Marcia G. Yerman is a writer, activist, and artist based in New York City. Her articles--profiles, interviews, reporting and essays--focus on women's issues, the environment, human rights, the arts and culture. Her writing has been published by (more...)

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