“This is like Rashomon!” my mother used to exclaim, whenever we disagreed about an event in our family’s past. By invoking the 1950 Kurosawa film, which retold a story of betrayal and murder from wildly varying points of view, my mother was saying: you have your version and I have mine. My daughterly version of events often included a not-too-subtle catalogue of her sins, so this was her way of ending an awkward conversation. But books and movies not only mediate hard emotional truths; they also elide them.
I never understood why, even when my memories seemed neutral enough, my mother tended to react defensively. I got my first hint when I interviewed a psychiatrist who specialized in wartime atrocities. The psychiatrist explained that to treat perpetrators and victims from countries like Cambodia or Sierra Leone she needed to set aside her own cultural lens. Only by understanding a person’s sense of right and wrong, and determining whether they themselves believed they had violated it, could she soothe their lingering disquiet.
This principle also holds true in our private wars. A few weeks ago, I found myself devouring the tabloid coverage of Sachi Parker’s memoir Lucky Me: My Life With - and Without - My Mom, Shirley MacLaine. I realized that I had stumbled onto one of the reasons for my mother’s defensiveness: her belief that she had sinned. The turmoil of the Sixties and Seventies freed my mother’s id, but her mind refused to follow. A Fifties girl, she didn’t possess the counterculture ideology to justify her behavior.
This was hardly the case with Shirley MacLaine. Unless you have been living on another planet (and possibly if you do inhabit another planet) you know that MacLaine is not only an actress and bestselling author, but also a female L. Ron Hubbard. Until recently, MacLaine’s New Age proclivities, a mashup of classic enlightenment texts and UFO sightings, seemed benign enough.
But Sachi Parker’s memoir details a childhood of striking neglect and creepy, 1970s-style abuse. When Sachi was two years old, MacLaine packed her off to her father. Steve Parker was a charismatic, abusive con man who lived in Japan. In the days of propeller planes, flying from Los Angeles to Japan was a three-day journey. Parker traveled alone, cared for by stewardesses, one of whom she remembers “sitting beside me, cradling me in her arms, and rocking me gently for what may have been hours.”
This was not an isolated incident. When her Swiss boarding school let students out for Christmas, neither of her parents showed up. Parker had no idea where she would sleep that night. Seeing her distress, a friend’s parents took her in for the vacation. She was fourteen.
Neglect was often preferable to attention from Parker’s parents. Her father molested her, called her “The Idiot,” and forbade her to read. Parker’s account of losing her virginity at her mother’s home is a harrowing real-life version of Meet the Fockers featuring her mother’s friends, Phyllis and Eberhardt Kronhausen. If these Hollywood sex gurus weren’t the models for Bernie and Rozalyn Focker, they should have been. Listen to this dialogue from Parker’s book, issuing from Phyllis Kronhausen: “It would be a fabulous opportunity for Sachi, to have her first introduction to sex with all of us here as a support group. We could talk about it afterwards and validate her feelings.”
Parker writes that her mother responded: “I think it’s a wonderful idea. We’re all here to help you, sweetheart.” Parker and her teenage boyfriend duly repaired to the bedroom and, thanks to the miraculous power of teenage hormones, managed to have sex. "Once our mission was accomplished, we had to face the next hurdle: reporting back. We hid out in the bedroom until we heard a light knock on the door, and Mom’s voice, 'Is everything OK in there?’"
Oy vey, as Rozalyn herself might say. Parker compared the experience to Mia Farrow surrounded by Satanists as she’s impregnated by the Devil in Rosemary’s Baby. Parker’s tales evoke many such cinematic moments, both in the text itself and, inevitably, in the reader’s mind. Even if you’re not a Shirley MacLaine fan, the actress has appeared in so many iconic films that the story of Parker’s girlhood arrives with a built-in movie reel. MacLaine has appeared in more than 70 films, but left her mark on cinematic history in the 1960 Billy Wilder film The Apartment . As Fran Kubelik, the feisty, working-class elevator operator who can’t resist the practiced seduction of a married corporate executive, MacLaine was at her best, revealing something archetypal, not only about class, but female strength and vulnerability.
Like Wilder’s other masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment is uncannily prescient, its critique of capitalism resonant in ways that even Wilder couldn’t have imagined half a century ago. The Apartment so clearly overshadows MacLaine’s later work that the scolding Rashomon daughter in me wants to say that the actress, triple threat though she was, might have been better off making 50 movies instead of 70, and paying just a little more attention to her daughter. It was, after all, Sachi who blew the whistle on her Dom Perignon-for-breakfast father, who had been bilking MacLaine out of more than $60,000 a month for years, claiming that he was sending the money to an extraterrestrial.
But leaning out was not an option for MacLaine. She cites her own Virginia Baptist mother as a cautionary tale. “I was not about to give up my work,” she told Barbara Walters in a 1990 interview. “Oh, no. I saw my mother suppress her creativity. That was not going to happen to me.”
Perhaps it’s inevitable that every woman defines herself, at least partially, in reaction to her mother. But psychological tensions are exacerbated by a culture that presents only two alternatives to women, both so all-or-nothing that to fulfill either one requires amputating a vital part of one’s soul. Not long before Parker’s book came out, the dichotomy burst forth yet again with the debate over Anne-Marie Slaughter’s contention that the American workplace needs to change in her much talked-about Atlantic magazine article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” and Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s pragmatic dictum that women are the ones who need to change, in the predictably bestselling Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.
Even the minor kerfuffle over Parker’s book is revealing. While the salty British tabloids had a field day with the book’s sexual misadventures, the U.S. media repeated familiar caricatures of hard-driving careerist versus cookie-baking stay-at-home mom, like this headline from NBC: “Shirley MacLaine Chose Career Over Me.”
A hardheaded Sandberg realist despite her UFO proclivities, MacLaine may have simply been reporting on the exigencies of success, particularly for women in Hollywood. But the neat resolution of the conflict between ego and motherhood in MacLaine’s films strikes Parker as both painful and ironic. As an actress of a certain age, MacLaine forged a second career playing clever, self-absorbed pre-feminist women whose maternal nature comes to the fore in a crisis. Starting with 1983‘s Terms of Endearment, these films provide a cheap catharsis, reassuring us that our mothers wanted to bake cookies for us, after all.
The template for this wisecracking broad was Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment. Just as Barbra Streisand’s sex therapist is risqué but sufficiently sanitized to maintain the Fockers’ all-important PG-13 rating, MacLaine’s brittle narcissist turns out to be a wise and warm trouper after her daughter Emma, played by Debra Winger, is stricken with cancer. (Jack Nicholson, as the picaresque ex-astronaut Garrett Breedlove, goes through an equally miraculous transformation from womanizer to paterfamilias, a schtick he’s reprised so often he might as well license it to a digital production company and direct deposit the check.) In Terms of Endearment, directed by TV veteran James Brooks, MacLaine’s cinematic maternalism is so expansive it extends beyond a single generation. After Winger’s death, MacLaine, with Nicholson’s help, raises her grandchildren, in lieu of their feckless English professor father.
Like Nicholson, MacLaine reprised this archetypal role repeatedly, most recently in Downton Abbey. But the most notable iteration was her role in 1990’s Postcards from the Edge, based on Carrie Fisher’s memoir about a daughter and a narcissistic actress mother with a penchant for con men. Whether this was art imitating life or life imitating art is a dizzying question best left to Oscar Wilde, who coined the phrase and would have appreciated the ironies.
There are grittier portraits of my mother’s generation, many of whom found themselves divorced and adrift in the late Sixties, their only skills the wifely attributes of shopping and throwing parties. The fearless actress Julianne Moore specializes in these roles, which expose the despair that tinctured these womens’ lives, and inevitably seeped into the lives of their children. Moore’s depiction of the porn star Amber Waves in Boogie Nights was the most sympathetic, closely followed by the housewife Cathy Whitaker in Todd Haynes’ homage to Douglas Sirk, Far From Heaven, a film that directly addressed the purdah-like confinement of women’s lives in the 1950s.
But the most unsparing was Moore’s portrayal of 1960s jet-setter Barbara Daly Baekeland in the 2007 film Savage Grace. Divorced by her wealthy, insensitive husband, Baekeland repaired to a villa in the South of France, where, according to the film, she seduced her son, played by Eddie Redmayne, By 1972, with most of the money gone, the unlikely couple found themselves confined to a tiny London apartment. In this desperately claustrophobic setting, reflecting the unhealthy world of a narcissistic mother and the child who becomes her object, matricide is the only exit.
Savage Grace is so agonizingly painful that it is nearly unwatchable, yet I found it impossible to turn off. I had recently returned from West Africa, where my research into wartime atrocities included the conversation with the psychiatrist who specialized in trauma. Everyone I interviewed, from taxi drivers to college professors, impressed upon me that the war’s violence - rape, amputations - was not a phenomenon of “primitive Africa” but something that could happen anywhere, if people are under enough pressure, and the society’s normal restraints lifted.
From Civilization and Its Discontents to The Life of Pi, artists and thinkers have explored the dichotomy between good citizens and the conscienceless predators that lurk within them. Often, it seems, the female version is slightly more pathetic, but nevertheless merged with a terrifying animal. As film scholar Matt Mazur pointed out, Billy Wilder’s other masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard opens with the death of aging silent film star Norma Desmond’s pet monkey, and, Mazur points out, Gloria Swanson, as the icon of narcissism-turned-to-madness, is swathed in leopard skin, calling up the half-animal, half-women of mythology: Sirens, Harpies, Gorgons.
As I watched Julianne Moore and Eddie Redmayne play out their fatal swoon in Savage Grace, I had an odd association. Moore’s trademark red hair reminded me of the burnished cropped hairdo of a concentration camp survivor I had met ten or fifteen years before. Articulate, intellectual, and outspoken to the point of causing discomfort to people more conventional than herself, this woman swore that her teenage years in Auschwitz, where a kind rabbi protected her, were preferable to life with her mother in Vienna.
I didn’t know whether to believe her. The statement sounded melodramatic, but the conviction in her voice was unmistakable. Watching the film, my stomach in a queasy knot, I realized the red-haired concentration camp survivor had been telling the truth. I surrendered my illusions.
I’m not suggesting that Shirley MacLaine’s treatment of her daughter is tantamount to a war crime, even if Parker’s description of MacLaine locking her into a hotel room without food for several days is quite Gestapo-like. Most of the abuse is the more ordinary variety of the card-carrying narcissist, But once you are turned into an object there are no limits to what someone can do to you. No wonder we need our Medeas defanged by pat TV endings and PG ratings.
At 56, Sachi Parker is at an age when women realize that, despite their best efforts, they’re not entirely different from their mothers. If we’ve done our work in life, the similarities are confined to a tone of voice, or the values we have chosen to preserve: an irreverent sense of humor, a sense of fair play, the notion that if a task is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. We may not have forgiven our mothers, but we no longer regale them with our Rashomon tales. They’re tired, and so are we. It’s easier that way.
Sachi Parker may not be quite there yet. In her interview with 20/20, the divorced mother of two appeared sad rather than angry. Perhaps it is telling that she became a flight attendant, becoming the substitute mother who cared for her as a lonely toddler flying to Japan. When the reporter asked why she wrote her book, Parker said: “I find myself wanting to protect her. Yet the pain is very deep. I would hope that she would own it, and apologize.”
But in real life, narcissists rarely apologize and never explain. Medea does not turn into Donna Reed, real husbands don’t stay at a comfortable distance, and we can’t make ourselves safe from our mothers by reducing them to a pool of blood. In a statement issued by her publicist, Shirley MacLaine, who once wrote that she had created the moving picture show of her own life, responded:
“It’s a painful moment for me as a mother and as someone who values the truth. I’m shocked and heartbroken that my daughter would make statements about me that are virtually all fiction. I’ve praised her lovingly and truthfully in my own autobiographies. I’m sorry to see such a dishonest, opportunistic effort from my daughter for whom I’ve only ever wanted the best.”
“This is like Rashomon!” Perhaps my mother and MacLaine aren’t so different, after all. Toward the end of Parker’s memoir, there is an tragicomic scene featuring MacLaine stalking out of a therapy session with her daughter, pointing out that the word “therapist” includes the word “rapist.”
I believe that MacLaine, the daughter of alcoholics, was relaying the truth of what she felt when confronted by her daughter. I also believe Sachi Parker’s book is factual. Parker is no fabulist, except for her against-the-odds hope for a mother’s love. Despite her art and life mashup Postcards from the Edge upbringing, she’s no Oscar Wilde, who provoked Victorians with the notion that art is more real than life. She certainly isn’t Woody Allen, who played with Wilde’s Modernist trope in The Purple Rose of Cairo.
Parker may not have abandoned the dream of having a real mother, but the poignance of using art as a substitute for life isn’t lost on her. She recalled looking up at the in-flight movie while working as a flight attendant and seeing her mother on the screen: “She’s right there and I would just yearn for her,” she said. “And yet it was a movie.”
At least Parker knows the difference.
Susan Zakin is the author of several nonfiction books, including Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Enviromental Movement and has written about Washington, D.C. politics for magazines and newspapers. She recently finished a novel about a young West African army lieutenant and a British reporter that has been described as "Entourage with AK-47s".