Joan and Melissa Rivers were America’s most public mother-daughter duo. As someone who has written about this most central relationship and has lived it both a daughter and a mother, Joan’s untimely death seems like a good moment to reflect on both its complexity and that of love

My only daughter and I watched their reality show “Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best?” together with a mixture of amusement, horror, understanding, and, sometimes, discomfort when the material hit too close to home. Neither woman was afraid to exploit the inevitable tensions between a controlling but talented, caring but deeply neurotic, “I have the right answer to every question” kind of mother who loves her daughter utterly and a daughter who loves her right back but is trying to find the oxygen in the room when her mom’s in it. At times, the show seemed to beg the question “What does love cost anyway and is it worth it?”

When Joan moves into her daughter’s house, the queen of  “Everything Must Be Just Perfect” takes one look at the comfy, tattered living room furniture and decides to “surprise” her kid by replacing it. Of course, Joan believes this is a loving gesture and so buys stuff that reflects her taste and gives Melissa’s furniture to Goodwill. You can easily imagine what Melissa’s reaction is—and they had the guts to play out on television what happens when boundaries are trespassed—and Joan ends up buying it all back from Goodwill and amends are made. But reality is adhered to, even in a so-called “reality” show, because there’s no neat “tie it all up with a bow” resolution.  It’s clear that given the personalities of each woman in the relationship, the lesson hasn’t been learned in the true sense. Yes, the dance steps have been altered a bit for the moment, but the dance goes on.

The show begged its audience to become amateur psychologists. Enmeshed? Sure. It was hard not to notice that in a family enamored of nips and tucks, the daughter looked more and more like the mother over time. Was it healthy for a daughter to become her mother’s producer or was it more like joining the family business which is acceptable enough? What about taking her mother’s name which was a stage name, after all? You tell me.  Neurotic? Uh huh. Damaging? Well, it’s not easy living with or loving a force of nature.

These two women, mother and daughter both, weren’t afraid to reveal their history, including a period of estrangement following the suicide of Joan’s husband and Melissa’s father. This wasn’t a relationship that could be summed up by a rose-encrusted Hallmark card which is the shorthand our culture prefers and is most comfortable with when it comes to the mother-daughter relationship.

Both women were well-educated and intelligent and driven, on the one hand, but each acknowledged significant failures in love and life. In choosing to live their relationship or at least a version of it out in public, Joan Rivers—who never met a taboo she wasn’t willing to out—took on another one. The question mark that followed Joan Knows Best?—a mocking reference to the television show, Father Knows Best—articulated the turf war that is always the backdrop to every mother/daughter relationship with an admirable amount of bluntness. But these two also managed to articulate a basic truth: Love ain’t easy, folks, not even the maternal or filial kind.

But dance or no dance, there was something real there. Joan’s eyes shone when she looked at her kid, and her kid smiled back, perhaps sometimes with rue but always with admiration. The bee pins Joan sold on QVC and wore were her tip of the hat to her daughter whose name means “bee” in Greek. So thank you, mother and daughter, for showing us all one version of love without bothering to gussy it up for public consumption. Thanks for the screaming and yelling and utter exasperation that sometimes comes with the territory, and for showing us that it’s very different in kind from what happens when love is absent.

Joan, rest in peace and, Melissa, good luck on your journey alone.

Copyright© Peg Streep 2014


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