Mother Gone Bad: Why We Love Those Mommie Dearest Stories

In his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, the Irish author Frank McCourt wrote that “the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood.”

Is it the same for mothers — as in, the Mommie Dearest character? Is the nurturing, lovvy-huggy mother “hardly worth your while?” And by extension, is the profane or violent mother worthy of a book or movie?

Yes.

I’m basing this on all those Mommie Dearest characters, real and imagined, past and present, on page and screen. Closer to home, I’m basing it on the reader reactions to my 2011 novel, Dance Lessons, complete with its evil Irish Mammy character named Jo — who is, in fact, the book’s secondary female character.

Back when that book was released, more people asked and argued about Jo than the American-born main character, Ellen.

Why? Because the very word “mother” carries such sacred resonance and reverence. From our greeting card stores to the advertisers’ billboards to some heartwarming made-for-TV movies, Mothers are love. Mothers will bail you out of jail and declare that, bank robberies/child molestation/gang membership/white-collar embezzlement aside, they still love their own child.

So what happens when this is not so? What happens when the person who gave us life is also the instigator of most or all of our life’s pain?

What happens?

In real life, we’ve got a therapist’s couch or, worse, a whole bucket-load of conflicted and unresolved or painful emotions.

In book and movie land, we’ve got a plot. More than just a fascinating character study, the fictional mean mama becomes the ultimate ‘whodunnit.’ The mean Mama is the ready-made dramatic conflict between what’s supposed to be and what actually is.

“What happened to the maternal instinct?” we ask. “What went wrong here?”

This also applies for non-fiction works, in which the flawed or rabid mother drive the narrative arc (or ‘plot’) in memoirs like Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors.

In her novel, The Light of Evening, Irish author Edna O’Brien wrote:

“Such is the wrath of the mothers, such is the cry of the mothers, such is the lamentation of the mothers, on and on until the last day, the last bluish tinge, the pismires, the gloaming, and the dying dust.”

Put simply, the monster mother makes the story and gets the readers talking.