Gayle Kirschenbaum is the documentarian behind My Nose, a short film about her mother’s demands that she get a nose job, and A Dog’s Life: A Dogamentary, about her dog Chelsea, her own romantic life, the aftermath of 9/11, and unconditional love. (“Sex and the City Meets Best in Show,” Kirschenbaum called it.) Her newest film, Look at Us Now, Mother!, is a tragicomedy about her troubled relationship with her mom. It opens today in New York City and Los Angeles, and then has screenings in other cities and film festivals.
This is not always an easy film to watch. Gayle’s mother, Mildred Abramowitz Kirschenbaum, now 92, comes off as a figure out of a Philip Roth novel: larger-than-life, selfish, cruel, passive-aggressive, and aggressive-aggressive, a virago of venom. She threatens, on camera, to break her daughter’s camera; tells Gayle, now 60, that she looks “like the Indian on the Buffalo nickel”; says that the reason she wasn’t nice to Gayle when Gayle was 2 was because “she was a bitchy little girl.”
Mildred, known as Millie, is often hilarious (“If you believe in God, keep texting and driving the way you’re doing, and you’ll meet him soon,” she warns her daughter and later tells a friend, “The secret to my long marriage was holding his schmuck”) but more often, she’s furious and scary.
“This is a film about forgiveness,” the voice-over tells us, and it’s true. There’s an awful lot to forgive. Gayle’s older brother tells her early on in the film, “Mom only wanted to have boys, not girls.” And we see Millie’s cruelty in entries from Gayle’s childhood diary. An entry from Oct. 5, 1962: “Mom got Irwin to put me on top of the refrigerator. I couldn’t get down and they all laughed at me. I hate when they do that.” We see her plaintive little-kid art: a big red-crayoned heart with “Mommy and Gayle” written in it. A painstakingly printed letter on handwriting worksheet paper: “Dear Mother I love you I hope you have a happy day. I will help you all I can. Do you like my picture?”
The Kirschenbaums were clearly huge media preservationists: The movie is full of diary entries, letters, drawings, home videos, and family photos. Often the videos are plaintive as well as funny. We see Gayle’s father endlessly Dustbustering (what is it with elderly Jews and Dustbusters?) and Gayle’s mother as a glamorous, exquisitely dressed young matron, swiveling and crossing her legs elegantly for the camera.
Gayle makes clear early on what her motive for making the movie is. She wants to explore her own fear of intimacy, which she thinks has kept her single throughout her life (her only serious attachment has been to Chelsea, her Shih Tzu), and she wants to resolve her anger at her mother. Millie has finally agreed to go to therapy with Gayle, and we see the two of them meeting with two different counselors. At first, Millie’s present in body, but not in spirit. When questioned or challenged about Gayle’s childhood experiences, and even about her own feelings, she responds repeatedly, “I don’t remember.” There’s a whole “I don’t remember” montage.
Gradually, though, Gayle and the viewer come to understand Millie’s own history. When the therapist asks about Millie’s father, she says that he was a fruit vendor who went broke. She then casually adds, “Well, he tried to kill himself because he figured he had a small insurance policy and Mother would collect a few thousand dollars and she’d have it to feed us.” How did that make you feel, the therapist asks? “Numb, I guess,” Millie answers. “I felt bad.” Was she embarrassed to have a depressed father? “Not really,” she says. “I just avoided the whole subject.” The second time her father tried to commit suicide, she was 12. She came home from school to find paramedics carrying her father’s limp body out of the house. “I ran so fast I flipped over,” she says. But her family didn’t talk about this stuff. Their motto, she says, was: “When you laugh, the world laughs with you; when you cry, you cry alone. No one has to know your business.”
But Millie wasn’t always closed off. We see her as a beautiful young woman being courted by Gayle’s father. They’re a gorgeous couple, and even the old black-and-white photos feel erotically charged. Gayle’s dad was sent overseas to fight during WWII, and we see a letter Millie wrote him in April 1945, as we hear the Millie of today reading it aloud: “I wanted to sprout wings and fly and fly until I found you,” the letter says. “Maybe it was the spring and the beautiful memories which I thrive on. The circus last year, the baseball games, the walks in the park and the good old necking—remember, darling? Our love is stronger than steel, and our memories of the past will mean nothing compared to the ones we’ll make in the future.” Elderly Millie pauses in her reading and laughs, “I didn’t know I was such a romantic!” Obviously things changed over time. At their 50th anniversary party, Millie tells the camera, “When I agreed to marry him for better or worse, I didn’t know it would all be worse!” Her husband mutters, “Likewise.”
But we learn that Gayle’s father, too, had sorrows. He was the beloved youngest son in a family of boys until the unexpected arrival of his younger sister when he was 10. Suddenly he felt ignored and shunted aside. A cousin describes him as a perpetually “angry boy … angry at his father”; he later gave up his own career dreams to manage the family funeral home.
Eventually Gayle gains an admission from her mother: Perhaps her father’s experience affected Gayle’s own childhood. “I was not going to treat you better than the boys,” she tells Gayle in therapy. “You were not going to be a little queen and your brothers pushed aside.” And gradually, after a lot of false starts and explosions, Gayle gets the motherly apology she’s longed for. At 60 and 92, the two women seem to have a stronger relationship than ever before.
The film is utterly compelling. Most of us have conflicted relationships with our parents; most women, in particular, have super-complicated relationships with their moms. When Gayle, her family’s youngest child, sings the Mah Nishtana as a middle-aged woman at the family Seder, I thought about how often family trauma stays with us, how the sins of the parents are passed along to the children, how difficult it is to outgrow or resolve our old family roles and resentments. In some ways, Gayle felt infinitely younger than her chronological age to me. I could see Gayle’s complicity in her own unhappiness, her own stuck-ness in her anger at her mother. But I have no answers for how to fix this. How do any of us overcome childhood misery? How can we come to understand the wrongs done to us but also take responsibility for our own happiness? Is it possible to see the past as an explanation but not make it an excuse?
And I struggled with the movie’s depiction of forgiveness. I have friends who have had terrible childhoods and have chosen not to forgive their parents. They’ve opted not to see their parents anymore, because that’s what they feel they have to do to preserve their own mental and emotional health. And I understand that completely. Perhaps ironically for someone who writes a blog about apologies, I don’t believe forgiveness is mandatory. But I wish I understood better just how we grant forgiveness. What does it take to make that leap? It’s one thing to understand that our parents have suffered, too, but a whole other megillah to internalize, understand, accept, and choose to embrace them wholeheartedly. As I watched the documentary, I thought about Anne Lamott’s book Traveling Mercies. Lamott is a great nonfiction writer, but I just couldn’t comprehend her Christian notion of grace. Intellectually, I understood. Emotionally, nope. You can tell me what blancmange tastes like, but I can’t really know without dipping my spoon into your dessert. I respect Kirschenbaum for wanting to forgive, and her mother for at last giving her daughter the gift of therapy and the apology Gayle is desperate for. But I still don’t understand what makes people act like assholes, and what allows others to forgive and move on.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.