By Hara Estroff Marano, Kaja Perina, published on July 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 8, 2012
There is no relationship more emotionally charged than that between mother and child. The gravitational pull defies space, time and logic and persists in the wake of estrangement, rejection and worse. Every human bumps up against these bonds, but few have grappled with them as directly as Linda Carroll, a 62-year-old therapist in Corvallis, Oregon. Carroll, the mother of five children, struggled with her firstborn, the notorious rock singer-songwriter-actress Courtney Love, whose erratic behavior and outsize persona have made headlines for years. Linda emancipated Courtney at age 16, and the two are now estranged. When Courtney had a daughter in 1992, Linda began a search for her own mother, the woman who gave her up at birth. The quest led to Paula Fox, acclaimed writer and a National Book Award winner. In a memoir, Her Mother's Daughter (Doubleday), Carroll chronicles the painful dissolution of her relationship with Courtney and her improbable reunion with Paula. Carroll spoke to Psychology Today about ambiguity in relationships and the myth of closure.
PT: Your book is about your famous daughter and your famous mother. Why?
LC: I wrote a book about me and looking for my roots. I found that the roots were inside me. It's my struggle to understand. My daughter Courtney has struggled with alcohol and drugs and mental illness and celebrity. It is a lethal combination, and she continues to do damage. The question is, how do you go on with your life? How do you mourn the living?
You learned to live with ambiguity. You talk about Courtney and her inconsolability when upset even as an infant.
I took Courtney to a therapist when she was 2. I felt something was wrong. There were times she would cry for hours and couldn't be soothed. Other times she cried in a way that seemed fake, as if she would study people and then do it. The first therapist I consulted said, "I don't know what's wrong. But I have a feeling it's going to get worse, and there's not anything we can do." I have been grateful all my life for him.
For admitting that he doesn't have any answers and he's not going to blame you?
He was an intern; he hadn't yet learned that he knew everything. When she was 14, we went to a therapist who also said she may get worse. All the rest said, "It's you." And I believed that.
You lived a chaotic lifestyle with many moves and several marriages.
Besides Courtney, I have two other daughters by my second husband and two sons by a third husband. The four children are really close. The two girls did a lot of moving back and forth as children, and they are all so worldly. They say it was hard but that it also gave them something. But until Tim [my fourth husband, of 17 years], my selection process in men was bad. People always talk about the negative effect of divorce on kids, but they don't talk about how children might be better off not being raised by a disturbed father. A therapist once said to me, "Your problem is not getting divorced, it's getting married. The fact that you got out is really healthy; you finally got your act together."
In Courtney's childhood, when did you stop blaming yourself for her behavior?
When she was about 8 and I became the brunt of her rage. Something in me shifted then. One time, years later, I was visiting Courtney's daughter, Frances, at their home in Beverly Hills, and Courtney was horribly cruel to the people who worked for her. I felt deep shame and asked myself what I must have done to her for her to do that to them. I went to my own therapist and cried. I was trying to show myself that I'm not responsible for her treating people like that. I know that I'm not making her make those choices and that I didn't make her bipolar. What I did do was give in to her. I was so scared of her anger that I indulged her, and I taught her really young that if she screams, she could get her own way. But I did not make her a seriously character-disordered person.
You have had to deal with heartache as a parent. You've faced existential issues. And then there's the fact that it is all done on a big public stage. Was that an undertone with Courtney growing up, what other people thought?
No. But it started to be when she was in juvenile detention and I was training to become a counselor. On Sundays I would drive with my daughters Nicole and Jaimee to see her in detention, where she'd busted a door and knocked someone's teeth out. She was 15 or 16. That was so mortifying, I didn't talk about it. I was becoming a counselor, my children and I were building a life, and then I have this kid who is in prison.
When did you last speak with Courtney?
About six years ago. She was cleaning up her act, practicing Buddhism. She was dating the actor Edward Norton—she was sort of his project. We had some conversations. She made some generous gifts of money to me and to her half-brothers: paid for a year of their college. But she became enraged when she found out one of her siblings hadn't listened to her new album as soon as it came out. That was the end.
Have you achieved closure in this relationship?
Closure is the worst term in our culture. I don't think there's such a thing as closure. I think of people who have experienced the death of a loved one by murder and are waiting for the murderer to be executed. They say things like, "Well, then there can be closure." Closure is a human fantasy. We live with open wounds. We live with what happens to us, and we do something with it.
The only place where choice exists is how I deal with something that happened. I can also take steps to reduce the chances of something happening. But our culture emphasizes the idea that we have control over all sorts of things that we don't. We don't have power or control over other people's lives. When you have a child or a family member whose behavior or mental condition or life story is really painful to observe, it just exaggerates how powerless we are. There's an ultimate existential moment, which I see as a marriage counselor, where marriages really begin either to die or to get healthy. It's when two people say, "I cannot change you. Either I accept this or I get out."
That's an excellent analogy, accepting people for who they are, no matter how flawed.
With a baby, it's like falling in love. You think, "I'll keep you safe, you'll have everything I didn't, it will be so different." And then this human being shows up who has her path of destiny and her life. We make children better or worse, but we don't make them.
Clearly in Courtney's childhood you were holding out hope for change. At what point did you realize you could not fundamentally alter the course of her life?
It happens all the time. It happened last week. I got a letter on my Web site [for Her Mother's Daughter] that I knew was from Courtney, written at 4:38 A.M. It said, "You're a terrible mother, no wonder your baby died." But when I first saw her letter, I thought, maybe some part of her is able to engage at some other level.
You're telling yourself that maybe this time it'll be different.
Courtney doesn't cook, drive or have relationships. One hundred years ago, she would have been institutionalized. So much of Hollywood is based on people like that. One day two years ago, Frances was staying with me, and we were at a nail salon, which had a television on. The announcer said, "After the break, we'll tell you what ex-rock star was running naked through the hallway." I grabbed Frances and said, "We've got to go, sweetie, I just remembered I have an appointment." In the car, she said, "Grandma, I know that's Mommy. And if you don't tell me, I'll have to look on the Internet."
That night her manager called my daughter Nicole and said they'd just taken her to Bellevue Hospital, nobody there cares what happens to her, and if someone from her family doesn't come, they're going to really throw away the key. Nicole called me and said, "We have to go." I said, "But you know what she'll do," and Nicole said, "It doesn't matter. That's her karma. Our karma is we have to show up for her."
There's something I feel that's organic, primal, in my body. I don't even have sentimental feelings for her anymore, but I would give her my kidney. I can see the National Enquirer, "Courtney Love's mother admits she doesn't love her." But love is an ongoing relationship. The sum of all the work I have done has gone from "Maybe I can fix it" to "I'm not going to show up" to "I'm going to show up because it's right, but I'm going to have a good time in New York when I go, because most likely she won't have anything to do with me and she'll twist it." But there's always something that can happen with a human being. So I went. And she said something like, "My mother's trying to have me committed."
How do you deal with this open wound?
You just work with it. You build your own life. I cannot change her. What I can change is me. If I am called to New York, am I going to fix her? No. What are my expectations? Will she let me be a resource for her? Probably not. She'll probably say I'm there to lock her up. I go because it is the right thing to do. I'm showing up, but with a clear expectation of what's possible. I have to do that because my instincts and the likely outcome are at odds.
There's a belief about our own omnipotence as mothers. My other four kids are fabulous humans and I would think to myself, "How did they get that way?" Then I would think about Courtney, "How did I screw up so badly? What did I do?" One day, I was astounded to realize that while I could not take credit for the way my children have done well, I took all the blame for the child who has troubles.
Has your work as a counselor helped you handle this?
Has your work as a counselor helped you handle this?
I've drawn more insights from Courtney and from three bad marriages to people I should never have been with. I started with a lot of arrogance. Dealing with Courtney has been good for me as a human being. Having a child or family member that is lost to drugs or alcohol or mental illness or celebrity, or all of them, teaches you about helplessness. How do we react in the face of helplessness? Depression is one common reaction. But that's a way of not choosing—I deliberately use the word "choosing"—an active path out of it, a learned helplessness. One thing that distinguishes us as Americans is a grandiose optimism that we're in control of our lives. I drew tremendous insight from the opening line of M. Scott Peck's book The Road Less Traveled: "Life is hard." When you're dealing with an open wound in the family, you have to enrich your own life and accept the other person for who they are.
Along comes the paradigm-busting child and you have to rethink everything you thought you knew.
That's hard as parents. Do I take all the responsibility for the good choices my kids make when they're adults? That's a light narcissism. But it's a black narcissism to think that I make Courtney behave the way she does at 42. Maybe some of her success is due to the fact that I didn't give up on her a lot earlier or force her into a mold or give her electric shock treatments.
One thing that helped me was the day my youngest son said, "Mom, you have no context to understand Courtney; she is not of your world. She cares about power, and it's all about who is more powerful than whom. You care about things like connection and good will, and she hates those things. Anything to do with human kindness enrages her. And she thinks you're a total wimp."
How have you been disabused, through experience, of the idea or illusion of control?
Courtney was my greatest teacher about that. With my other kids, I still have some illusion; once in a while, they call and ask what I think about something. But with Courtney, there's never been control. I've never been able to soothe her. I was never able to find a school or a therapist or a friend or a life that in any way worked for her. I never understood her music. I don't understand how to be her mother or how to support her. I know what to get my other kids for their birthday that they're going to love. But Courtney is foreign to me. To have a child and not know how to comfort her, it's just been so painful to see her making such a mass of fuck-ups. Those words aren't big enough to describe it. That's where I've learned that I am not in charge. And then when she had a child, I knew I wasn't going to be able to protect her from what's going to happen in her life.
It's popular today for parents to believe that they control how their kids turn out.
The truth is that some of the darkest paths we walk give us the greatest gifts. If we let them have a bad fourth-grade teacher and teach them how to live with the teacher rather than change schools, then they have a little skill when they have to work for someone who's an asshole.
I took Courtney to therapy when I was living in New Zealand; she was an insomniac. I was mad at her, and I feel so bad about that; I'd say to her, "If you'd just sleep at night." But she couldn't, and it was horrible. They gave her sedatives at 10 years old. And Kurt [Cobain], who had ongoing stomach trouble and scoliosis and couldn't sleep, was also given sedatives at age 10. The drug couple of the world and both were put on drugs at 10. But what do parents do when there are other kids and the whole family is organized around the one child? The limits of my mothering were acutely brought home to me with this child.
You grew up adopted and when your first grandchild [Frances Bean Cobain] was born, you began searching for your mother.
I grew up in the 1940s. People believed then that any baby could become a part of any family, that we were a tabula rasa; you just got a blank baby and filled it in. My parents told me, "When you were 10 days old, we brought you home from the hospital." I knew something happened during those 10 days, but it was never talked about. I was always listening behind doors for some clue. When you grow up with secrets, the secret becomes bigger than what's there. The 10 days became an enormous truth about my life that got bigger and bigger. Author-psychologist-adoptee Betty Jean Lifton has said that every child who is adopted knows that to be adopted means that you had to be unadopted first. But nobody ever talked about those 10 days. I began to think, "I don't care what people say, I care what they don't say." One reason I became a therapist was to hear what really went on with people.
Did you ever find out?
There was another dynamic, which I found out in bits, finally, from my birth mother, Paula, when I met her. My parents had been given a baby boy the year before I came, and after several months, his mother changed her mind and took him back. My adoptive mother was devastated. My father went to the up-and-coming gynecologist in town and said, "Get her another baby and make sure the mother doesn't come and get her." When Paula got pregnant at 19 and told the doctor she didn't know what to do, he insisted she give the baby up for adoption. Four days after I was born, she told the doctor, "This is a terrible mistake, I want my baby." He told her, "You have signed your baby away, and if you come back again, we'll have you put in jail. You have to leave San Francisco." She had no clue about her rights.
I think my adoptive parents knew that I wasn't legitimately theirs. My adoptive mother was a righteous woman who, I'm sure, was haunted by the suspicion that my mother had tried to get me back. My father knew. I know there was a veil beyond the adoption veil.
Did you always have a fantasy about contacting your mother?
No. I had a fantasy about that until I was 5. Every day I'd see two women who walked by my house, one who looked like a movie star, one a drunk lady with shopping bags heading to the bar.
I had the idea that one of them was my mother. One day the pretty one said, "Hello, sweetheart." I knew that was her, that my mother was the queen. I told a friend down the street that my real mother was going to come for me, that she had just notified me. Word got back to Luella, my adoptive mother, who was outraged. She said, "Your real mother didn't want you, and you're lucky to have people who do." Then I remember just knowing that my real mother was the drunk lady. I stopped longing for her. By the time I was 11, it became about men. I wanted one to fix me.
So much in our culture still leads women to think they don't really have a life until a guy comes along.
I'm really grateful for my marriage, but it hasn't saved me from myself. When I was 30, I decided I wanted to find my mother. Then I got really scared that she would be a homeless alcoholic and I would be embarrassed. I had made the drunk woman into my mother. But that was really a reflection of how I felt about myself: If I came from someone who didn't want me, I had to be pretty bad. I understand now that I couldn't look for her until I was OK in myself and had my own sense of rootedness, because adoptees have to be prepared for anything. You can't approach the search with a fantasy; you need a sense of curiosity and acceptance. By the time I did search, I was 47 and had done so much work on myself that I was ready. I was prepared for anything but what I found.
What did you do?
I got a search expert, who found nothing. I turned to an underground system of people, and after many months, I got my real birth certificate. There was her name, "Paula Fox," under Mother. I felt like Pinocchio turning into a real boy. It said my mother was from the South, when she was really from New York. One thing it did say was that she wanted to be a writer.
I went to the library and said, "I'm looking for someone who may have written something once." The librarian was annoyed and said, "What's her name?" I said "Paula Fox." She said, "Paula Fox?! She's one of the best writers in America!" She typed her name and the computer started exploding with pages about my mother. I felt faint.
I asked, "Where can I read about her?" She pointed me to Who's Who. There I read from a speech she delivered when she received the Newbery Award for children's literature: "This effort to recognize is an effort to connect ourselves with the reality of our own lives. It is painful; but if we are to become human, we cannot abandon it. Once set on that path of recognition we cannot forswear our integral connections with other people. We must make our way towards them as best we can, try to find what is similar, try to understand what is dissimilar, try to particularize what is universal."
Extraordinary words: Connect, abandon, painful.
I went home in a state of delirium and wrote her a very Jack Webb-ish letter, just the facts: This is who I am, I found out you're my mother, I don't care about meeting you or want a relationship, I just want facts. Who was my father? What happened? I want to know my medical stuff. I put it in an envelope and remembered that she was turning 70 and thought, "She'll have a heart attack." An intense feeling of caring came over me, so I put a little card atop the brown envelope. It said, "Go slow." I sent it by FedEx. When she opened it and saw those words, she screamed up four stories to her husband, "Martin, she's found me."
What was your first interaction with Paula Fox?
I sent it on Tuesday. On Friday, the FedEx man delivered a package containing a brown envelope. I thought she was returning my package. In reading about reunions, I had learned that mothers can say, "You have the wrong woman; don't come into my life." I looked inside and all these pictures fell out. My mother wrote: "I'm sitting here with tears streaming down my face, and my husband of 40 years is standing behind me. Welcome into my life." We wrote three or four times a day for three months. Tim said it was like taking a lover. Then we decided we'd meet. We practically sent out birth announcements.
You still hadn't spoken on the phone?
No. It was too scary. We had decided to meet in San Francisco, the place where we'd been separated. She'd never gone back there even though her agent lived nearby. We went everywhere, to the house where she lived when she was pregnant. I called my best friend and said, "My mother's here."
What about your birth father?
My mother and father had stayed in contact. He lived in Los Angeles, and every year he'd come to New York and they would go to dinner, but they never talked about me. Immediately, she called him. He had died two months before. But I found his family. He had no children, but he had told a nephew about me.
It's a tough question, but how do you think life would have been different had Paula raised you?
I don't think she would have become the writer she is. Becoming a writer has given her a foundation that has allowed her to live a rich, good and full life. It has filled in a lot of the holes in her life as nothing else could have. If she had kept me, it would have been a very different road for her. I'm really grateful for the way my life has turned out. My mother felt a loss that never went away that had to add to all of her other losses. She lost her mother and she lost her daughter. And I lost my mother and I lost my daughter. That's the connection. But I had two more daughters who are wonderful. My life feels rich. My adoptive parents died when I was 27, but growing up I had freedom in the world. I wouldn't have had that with Paula, because she had nothing behind her. I would have felt responsible for her and made very different choices. She and I have a hard time talking about this, because for her, it was the worst thing that could have happened and she regrets it every day. And I feel she couldn't have done anything else, that it was a brave thing, unfortunate in the way it was done.
What advice would you give to other adoptees seeking their birth mother?
You have to have a life that works, that you can turn to and drink from when the fantasy doesn't pan out. Whatever those obscurations are in your life that stop you from living the life you want to be living, you'd better deal with those before you go looking for your mother. It's pretty awful to search and find a birth mother who says, "You have the wrong woman; never bother me again." Somewhere tucked into the mind of every adopted adult is the idea or hope of a relationship.
An adoptee has a built-in mystery, an automatic fantasy.
You can go there whenever things are bad, "My real mother would..." "It would be different if ...."
You've had to realize the ambiguity in each of your relationships. How does it feel to be sandwiched between a famous mother and a famous daughter?
I'm not in between them. I don't want the notoriety. I'm not a Buddhist, but I have a lot of the Buddhist in me. It's all fluff. It can all go in a heartbeat. I love that phrase about the ego: "One day a peacock, the next day a feather duster." When the book was published, a review would come out: "This is such a good book. It's so solid. It's touching. It's wry." And I'd think, I knew I was a writer, I have it in my blood. Then another review would say, "She ripped off her daughter. What kind of mother would do that? The book is terrible. Who cares?" and I'm a feather duster. It's up and down. I have to keep saying, "I'm not this. I'm not that." My mother lives in that world, where she's elevated and defeated. Courtney lives in that world much worse. She's elevated much higher than Paula and smashed much lower.
Paula is fragile, but it's amazing how she functions. Courtney is always flung around by what's happening. In her room are piles of magazines. What she does all day is look for herself. If she's not in there, she'll do something to make herself in there, because that's how she knows she's alive.
How do you reconcile the trajectory of losing a daughter and finding a mother?
The "formula" [of finding a mother/losing a daughter] is not what I experience. Both relationships are anomalies. But both have been about learning to let go of expectations and being surprised at the outcome. I had to let go of everything about Courtney, including whether she lived or died and how she treats people. She's not "mine" any more than Paula is "mine."