Obesely Speaking

The brain and obesity

Mothers Day: A Battered Child's Perspective

Why loving a less than perfect mother really matters
Eva Ritvo, M.D.
This post is a response to The Secret Superpowers of Mothers by Eva Ritvo, M.D.

One of Mom's Balanced Meals
Compulsive overeaters tend to have greater mother issues than most. Resolving those issues is a necessary component to managing compulsive overeating. To that end, I offer you this perspective, and some selected memories. There was the time she came home from my 2nd grade parent/teacher conference and said, "Your teacher says you are very smart but overweight.  She’s right. You are fat, so put that candy bar down, and get in that kitchen and get some fried chicken, mashed potatoes, cream corn and Wonder Bread. Put some gravy on those mashed potatoes too, because we're going to start eating healthy, balanced meals around here."

Later that year, on Mother’s Day, I was with my parents at a juke joint. My mother got into a brawl with a jealous woman, who slashed my mother’s throat with a switchblade.  I was only 7 years old, but I tried to help my mother.  The woman was enraged and swung at me with the knife. That is when my mother’s friend, “Big Leg,” said, “Not today you won’t!” and knocked the woman out with a brick. I was covered in my mother’s blood.  It was terrifying, but not even in the top ten of my worst childhood experiences.  

Then there was the day I told my mother I was gay. Her response was, "No you're not. Those people are very tidy, so you are definitely not gay.  Besides, I hear that kind of thing is the mother’s fault, and I’m the perfect mother, so you can’t be gay.”

Then there was the time when I was 19 and a 50-year old man bought me a sports car. Don't judge me I was young, and he was the kind of man that would give you a sports car for a kiss and nickel for your soul. Anyway, my mother said,

"Yeah it's a cute car, but I hate to think what you had to do to get it."

"Nothing you haven’t done," I replied, "I just obviously did it much better." As a scorn evaporated from her face, she responded,

"You're just like your father. Of course, you've never met him, so you wouldn't know. Responding to my horrified expression, she added, “Something wrong?  You look upset."

"Of course I'm upset, you just told me my father is not my father."  

"I was just playing with you," she said, not convincingly enough.

"I don't know that," I pointed out.

"No you don't," she smirked.

"So I don't know who my real father is. I'm going to be wondering about this my entire life. I will never get over this."

"Nope, you won't. And you won’t talk to me like that again either. I brought you into this world. I can take you out, physically, emotionally, or psychologically—it’s your choice.  Enjoy your tacky yellow sports car.  By the way, the man, who may or may not be your father, buys me a brand new car every year.  I am not impressed."

My friends got property and money when their fathers died; when my father died, I got my mother.  Moving her from Michigan to Los Angeles, during the 4-day grievance time from my job, was no easy task.  Living with her in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood was much harder.

There was the morning of my first book tour. I came out of the shower to find her hanging from the linen closet with a butcher's knife stuck through her heart.  I would rather go blind than to see something like that again. Saving her life involved a complicated surgery, which lasted for many hours.  During those hours, I had to get on a plane, go to San Francisco and entertain a sold-out nightclub of 3,000 vicious, West-Hollywood-hating, San Francisco sissies. The next morning I had two television appearances, followed by multiple autograph signings. I was dying inside. Then that night, while she teetered on the edge of death, I wobbled on some 6-inch high heels before another nightclub crowd making thousands of people laugh, while silently drowning in briney tears I could not let fall. 

This suicide attempt (there were 3) did some serious damage to her heart and mine.  She was on death's edge for days.  Each of those days I was in a different city, doing talk shows, autograph signings, and public appearances. There was one constant. It took every drop of my strength to call the hospital once a day to check on her. I could not have called the hospital twice for a million dollars. When the studio sent the car for me, the hotel had to send a bellman to knock on my door.  If the phone rang, I would start vomiting so violently, I would ruin my make up and have to get ready all over again. It was a difficult time.  I had to be strong, and I was. I realize now, that I got that strength from her. That is the take home message, not that she had a depressive psychiatric episode and tried to kill herself in front of me.

Me in Coming To America
Then there were all of those years when I wore her clothes, like she had worn me, i.e. my actress/model phase, when I became legally (but not anatomically) female. Our fights began with her complaining that I wore dresses; eventually that evolved into complaining about the length of my dresses.   How many times did I hear, "Don't make me strangle you with that ugly dress that is not fitting you nowhere, no how!" There was also the time my first husband asked her if she wanted to watch me in the Gay Pride Parade.  She said, "No honey, I see enough gays parading through this living room to Billi's bedroom when you're out of town." (In my defense, we went to Vegas one night, got extremely drunk and woke up married. It happens; happened to Jayne Mansfield twice.  Anyway, we never tried to be monogamous, we knew each other much too well for that, so we accepted that we were both virtue challenged.)

Let us not forget that truly unholy alliance that my mother formed with my husband, in the last 15 years of her life, when she lived with us. It was like the B-Movie from hell: “Queen Kong versus Gayzilla and Curse of the Mommy,” or "Driving Miss Crazy." How many times did I hear, "Ask your mother, she'll tell you I'm right.  You're just like your father.  You don't appreciate me." The only drop of joy in that entire horror was watching her homophobic nature wrestle with the fact that of her three children's spouses she liked her gay son's husband, the most, by far.

Then there were the final days, when I was finishing my PhD, and doing long exhaustive hours in my Brain Mapping Internship at The Med School at UCLA.  After which, I would go study and sleep, in a chair, or on the floor by her bedside. I remember breaking down, crying, and saying that I was sorry, I was a disappointment to her.  She said,

"You were the greatest kid, I could have ever hoped for. You did so much for me, after all I did to you. I cut you, I beat you. I locked you out in the snow in your underwear.  You almost froze to death. You have scars all over your body that I put there. And yet, you still loved me. For what its worth. I am so sorry. I don't know why I treated you so badly."  

“I know why you did it. You did it because I was fat and ugly. At least that is what told me."  

"I told you that?" she was astonished. 

Mom @88
"Many times mamma, many, many times," once again, there were tears that I could not let fall. "You are my mother, I  love you more than anyone or anything. That's all that matters." I said honestly. A calm came over her troubled face, and she winked at me, and said,

"Mamma loves you too baby. Now, mamma just needs you to do one last thing for me. When mamma dies, I want you to put some Kools in my coffin. Not just a couple of packages, I want five cartons.  Now don't worry about a lighter, because there'll be plenty of fire where mamma's going." Then she closed her eyes and died later that night.  I was holding her hand.  

Yes, my mother was all of the things that are human. Like life itself, she brought it all, good and bad, joy and pain, love and hate, courage and fear, wisdom and ignorance, tragedy and triumph and on no certain terms, which brings me to this.  Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers of the world; not just the June Cleavers and Claire Huxtables, but the mothers who struggle with addiction, mental illness and other difficult issues.  

I do not understand this world, but I do understand that saying something should not have been is tantamount to saying, I know better than God.  Most times, I do not understand what God is doing, or why She is doing it, but if nothing else, I do know, that none us know better than God. I also know, in a world that consistently batters women, the hand that rocks the cradle sometimes trembles with fear, sometimes is a clinched fist, and sometimes just cannot rock the cradle at all. 

Personally, my mother suffered a series of brutalizing life events. At times, she passed that brutality on to me.  However, to allow that to prevent me from loving her with all my heart, would have been allowing the men who raped her when she was 12-years old, to rape me as well, for my entire life. After they took so much of my mother from me, why would I willingly give them my mind, by hating her, or hating them? Hate is never useful, whereas love always is. You cannot remove darkness by adding more darkness.  You can only remove darkness by adding light. Remain fabulous and phenomenal.

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Billi Gordon, Ph.D., is Chair of the Advisory Committee for Collective Concerns in Medicine, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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