One of the quintessential “bad” mommy characters that many are familiar with is Joan Crawford, a.k.a. “Mommy Dearest.” Who can forget that terrifying scene from the movie with the wire hangers? Personally, I do not keep a single wire hanger in my home because of the film — I worry that the ghost of Joan Crawford may show up.
However, after reading Melissa Francis’s memoir, Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter, I believe Mommy Dearest may have met her match in Francis’s mother.
Francis’s career as an actress started when she was barely a toddler. From that point forward, she writes, much of her time was spent rushed to auditions, memorizing lines, and shooting commercials and TV shows. Francis made her mark on television when she landed the role as Cassandra on the popular show Little House on the Prairie. In her memoir, she relates stories and memories from her time on sets with great clarity. What is most impressive is her ability to capture the thought processes that she had in various moments, as well as her childhood innocence and naivety.
However, the real story in this book is the outrageousness of her mother. Unpredictable at best, Francis’s mother was at times sweet and spoiling while at other times downright devious and frightening. It quickly becomes apparent that the sweet and spoiling side of this Mother Dearest came when she needed Melissa to act the part in a commercial or television episode.
When she wanted something from her daughters, she was not afraid to use bribery. But the second someone crossed her, they were punished, and she doled out these punishments in a variety of formats. It could be scathing words, being locked out of the house in only a bra and jeans, being shoved out of the car to walk home—even being pushed down the stairs. The author or her older sister, Tiffany, experienced each at various times.
One of the best examples of how this behavior reached out beyond the family involved another family in the Francis’s neighborhood. The Parkers lived a few doors away, and reported the Francis family to animal control due to feral cats in the area. Animal control picked up the Francis family dog, KC. The author’s mother decided to have revenge. She drove to the Parker household and returned home a while later. When the author confronted her, she saw that her mother had taken the Parker’s dog’s collar. Her mother replied, “It’s Coco’s. The Parkers’ dog. I took her in my car, and drove her out to the pound in Simi Valley. And I turned her in. A lost dog. Like KC.”
The weight of this was not lost on Francis: Since Coco did not have her collar, and the pound that she was dropped off at was far from their home, the Parkers would never find their pet. “Mom had effectively murdered our neighbors’ dog,” she writes.
As the years roll by, the impact of her mother’s behavior becomes more apparent. Tiffany leaves for college and continues a destructive path that started when she was a teenager. She uses alcohol and drugs and, unfortunately, 16-year-old Francis, our memoirist, is a witness to this behavior. Mother Francis continues with her antics after Tiffany leaves the house, but now, rather than sharing that burden with Tiffany, the author is left to fend for herself.
She begins planning her escape from the home, plotting a way to get to Stanford summer school. At this point, you may be wondering where the author’s father is. He was there, but just barely, Francis tells us. Rather than assist in the dramatics and try to curb the chaos, he hid away in his study or at work, avoiding the wrath of his wife and laughing it off as though it were a minor flaw.
The family could not turn a blind eye to Mother Francis’s behavior forever, though. After the author got married, her sister Tiffany’s health took a serious turn. Her pancreas had been destroyed by her drug and alcohol abuse, which was only discovered after a couple rounds of rehab. The problem seemed to awaken Father Francis from his stupor, and he immediately took action to take care of Tiffany. Mother Francis, on the other hand, seemed to find Tiffany’s condition more of an inconvenience than something to be truly worried about. After one of Tiffany’s nights in the hospital, the author recalls, the two sisters were talking in the car. Tiffany wiped tears from her eyes and said,
“You know, I was lying in the hospital last time and in the middle of the night I was just in so much pain. And… so scared. All I could think was, it would be so nice to have a mom.”
This seems to be the final straw for Francis. She confronts her mother and ends the conversation with these words: “All the craziness. It ends with me. I swear it, once and for all. One way or the other. It’s your choice how it ends. But it ends with me.”
Such a powerful moment in the book: I silently cheered and presented Francis with a standing ovation.
And Francis’s book is worth cheering for, too. I absolutely love reading memoirs. When an author writes one with raw honesty, great style, and a narrative that holds you every second, she creates a real treasure. Francis’s is a great example — I could not put it down. At times, I wanted to reach in and comfort young Melissa and Tiffany. Other times, I wanted to reach in and teach Mother Francis a lesson or two. All in all, Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter is a solid, gripping read.
Diary of a Stage Mother’s Daughter
Weinstein Books, November, 2012
Hardcover, 304 pages