Gayle Kirschenbaum (USA)

“Compassion for my mother helped me handle her insults and criticism.”

Photo by Katalin Karolyi

As a result of a deeply unhappy childhood, American filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum decided to take her mother to task by making a documentary about their difficult and painful relationship. The result was the award-winning documentary LOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER!a humorous, intimate and courageous film following the transformation of this tumultuous mother-daughter relationship into one of love and acceptance.

I was born into enemy territory. My mother thought she was having a boy, already named Gary. Instead she had me, Gayle. I wonder if that is what got us off to a bad start. She loved and adored my two older brothers and I was the target of her anger and abuse. I grew up with a Cinderella complex and often felt like her slave. She would force feed me foods I hated and dress me up like I was her doll in organdy dresses which I was allergic too and broke out in rashes. When my brother would hold me down and beat me up, she responded to my screams for help by telling me to leave my brother alone. As that brother now says, I could do nothing right and he could do nothing wrong.

I often lived in fear not knowing what would trigger her rage towards me. As a result, I barely had an appetite and suffered from headaches, dizzy spells and nausea.

It is not uncommon for people who were abused as children to have poor self-esteem. I am lucky because even though there was a constant barrage of criticisms along with physical abuse, I never took it personally. I never felt it was my fault or that there was something wrong with me. I believe I came into this world as an old soul who is extremely sensitive. I always thought there was something wrong with my mother not me. I wanted to know what happened to her that made her treat me so horribly while being able to love my brothers.
Growing up not feeling loved leaves its scars. While my self–esteem is intact; my ability to let anyone in deeply is a challenge for me. Hence, trust and abandonment are my life long issues.

I felt so imprisoned and tortured by my mother that when I was young I would fantasize how I would be free if she died.   If that plane she was on during a vacation crashed, I would be free.

My father was not a happy man and he also targeted his anger towards me. He was constantly screaming at me.  When I started working on my documentary, LOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER! and I was reviewing years of home video footage, it was nearly impossible to find any moments where he wasn’t yelling at me.

I was advised to get out of my house by a social worker and ended up getting into university early. As soon as I turned 17, I was 200 miles away in college. I was no longer living with the daily abuse and my confidence grew as the fear started fading. But, I’d still find myself deeply affected by my mother’s criticisms even from afar and especially when I saw her. I was so filled with anger and resentment. I knew I had to render her powerless over me in order to be free.

There was a light bulb moment when I played a psychological board game. The facilitator asked me to stand up and imagine my mother as a little girl. At that time, I knew about some of her childhood hardships and I pictured a wounded child full of pain. Then the facilitator asked me to imagine myself as a little girl, and I knew too well my own pain. We were now both little girls who were deeply wounded coming together. That is when I realized I had to change how I looked at my mother. I had to take her off the pedestal of a mother who should love and adore me to a hurt child who doesn’t know any better.

We all have pain. How we deal with it is our choice. My mother chose to forget about a lot and put up a wall so she couldn’t feel the pain again.

My feature documentary LOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER!  is about the transformation of our highly charged mother/daughter relationship from hatred to love. It was inspired by an earlier short funny film I made called MY NOSE about my mother’s relentless campaign to get me to have a nose job. That film took off and on the back of it I became an accidental therapist, holding seminars about transforming difficult relationships and learning to accept and understand your critical parents.

People called MY NOSE ‘brave’. It wasn’t brave at all. When I saw how many people were suffering no matter their outward successes in life, I knew it was my job to make a film about my journey of forgiveness with my mother. I knew mom has a thick shell and loves attention at all cost so I wasn’t surprised when she gave me permission to make the film. I also knew she trusted me.

With cameras rolling I looked for answers to why my mom treated me like she did as I dug into her past. Her standard answer was ‘“I don’t know. I don’t remember.’”  It was at that point I knew I needed help from professionals and mom agreed to visit a therapist. I also investigated my father’s past and learned his father, who was a tyrant, abused him. As a result, he harbored resentment and lived an unexpressed life .

I know many women of my generation who haven’t forgiven their mothers who were mean and abusive to them because they never received an apology. I’ve never looked for an apology from my mother. I choose to forgive her for my own health and happiness and free myself from mental angst and bondage. As someone once said, ‘“Holding on to resentment is letting someone you despise live rent free in your head.’”

I’d say I’m a forgiving person while my mother is definitely more of a grudge holder, and can be very vindictive too, more in her younger years. My ability to forgive her has been a gift for both of us. Once I stopped reacting to her criticism, first ignoring it and then giving her love she changed her behaviour towards me.  She never bothers me about getting a nose job anymore and I understand her narcissistic nature and how it was challenging for her to have a daughter. If you’re female, glamorous and a narcissist, you crave the attention of a man and your daughter becomes competition for you. Due to my ability to understand and forgive her, we are close friends today and enjoy each other’s company. I am lucky to have gotten to this place and blessed I can help others do the same.