Life Lessons From Lauren Bacall

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Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not Trailer

This past week I was surprised to have been given lessons in life by movie legend Lauren Bacall.

How many times has this happened to you? You pick up a magazine you wouldn’t normally pick up start reading something you’re not particularly interested in and suddenly the printed lines jump up off the page and start shaking you by the collar?

Happens to me all the time.

For example, for months I’ve been thinking of re-issuing the Toxic Mom Questionnaire. I originally created it as a research tool to better inform myself on toxic moms. But I wondered: what if I expanded it and created a tool for daughters of toxic moms that is a starting point for self-examination, for writing, for creating a clear vision of what actually happened? Mmmm.

It needed some tweaking, I knew. I had to ask more:

  • What do you know about your own mother’s relationship with her mother?
  • What do you know about the months leading up to your mother being pregnant with you?
  • Did your mother suffer any personal traumas when she was young?

Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart and their son, Steve

I’ve been mulling this over and over and struggling with it. So, there I am, Vanity Fair in my lap and Lauren Bacall is talking about being married to Humphrey Bogart and that they had a son, Steven, who later wrote a biography about his father. She says to writer/interviewer Matt Tyrnauer:

“Steve always felt that nobody could be as perfect as I said Bogie was,” Bacall tells me. “But I never said he was perfect, because God knows he was not. Who would want to be married to somebody perfect? I wouldn’t. I think Steve got a lot of things wrong,” she continues, “because he wasn’t there, (but) writing the book made him feel good.”

This long quotation on page 337 of the March edition of Vanity Fair carries on — and I read it — but I went back and re-read the portion I’ve included here, several times.

“Steve got a lot of things wrong,” she continues, “because he wasn’t there, (but) writing the book made him feel good.”

As I’ve been working on my memoir and story collection I’ve often wondered what I have right and what I have wrong. My therapist has taught me that childhood memories must be filtered through a sieve of adult logic. As a reporter, I believe in research and talking to witnesses and collecting too much data, scraps, old letters, and black and white photographs — more than I’ll ever need.

I think a lot of us get it wrong when we remember our toxic mothers. We have to. As children hard-wired to love no matter what, we don’t see the adult issues at work in a family.

Think about how you explain your mother and family to others. I’ve found that often my words are so childlike. Daddy left. My mother wouldn’t open the door. I waited and waited and nobody came . And we never saw her again. We weren’t allowed to ask.

After nearly a solid year of thought on the topic of daughters who grow up sane and happy despite having toxic mothers I’m just beginning to truly realize that every person gets a lot wrong about their childhoods. In some cases we give our parents too much credit, too much gratitude, too much silence. Other times we stew and stew and stew and avoid ultimately pinning down what happened.

We silence ourselves.

Lauren Bacall and her familyYeah, Steven Bogart may have gotten some of it wrong, but at least Steven tried. And to Betty Bacall’s credit, she does say lower in the interview that she wished Steve had talked to her more; asked more questions.

And it makes me realize that trying to gather objective information about your parents; your family; is a big part of understanding how you survived a less than ideal childhood.

It’s why what used to be the please fill out my questionnaire needs to morph into something that each user can tailor to serve their needs on a personal journey of discovery.

With a little luck and lots of help from my Web mistress, next week we will be unveiling a tool for examining your life experience called “Ask Yourself: 20 Crucial Questions for Daughters of Toxic Mothers.

Here’s my hope: Even if you don’t write any answers down. Even if you never confront a parent or share it with a sibling, “Ask Yourself: 20 Crucial Questions for Daughters of Toxic Mothers” will give you a starting point for one of life’s biggest struggles: figuring out who you are in relation to your mother and why.


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  • I have thought about this a great deal with the years leading up to and after my father’s death. My brother remembers situations differently then I do, and we sometimes differ from our mom. I think it’s how we process pain, and since it is such an individual emotion, we may all look at it differently. It may be like our fingerprints — completely individual.

    My mother’s experience with a toxic step-father, is different than the experiences her half brothers had with him, and the experiences I had with an adoring grandfather.

    Also people do change. My mother has changed over the years and so did my grandfather. I imagine that I’ve changed too so I look back at my memories as if they are stories being told to me through a young person’s eyes.

    I see it this way because I watch how my teenage son misinterprets his surroundings. He will tell you he is not popular at school, but if you go to school with him it seems like every single kid in the place is saying hi to him. His shyness has him looking down and mumbling a quiet hi back. The girls giggle and point – “There’s Brian!” My mother has caught girls gushing about him in the bathroom at a football game, but he will tell you girls hardly notice him. I have had strange girls say, “Hi Brian’s mom!” and yesterday in the grocery store three seniors stopped to talk with me about how much they like Brian. But to ask Brian . . . Brian will tell you it’s not true.

    So it makes me wonder how much I got wrong before my father’s death (and after). It’s definitely something I consider when processing painful memories.

    Such a fascinating subject Rayne.


  • Remy Gervais, Top Photographer

    Awesome post, Rayne.

    “And it makes me realize that trying to gather objective information about your parents; your family; is a big part of understanding how you survived a less than ideal childhood”.

    My father swears he cant remember anything before the age of 8. I think that is when his father (my grandfather who i’ve never met) left the family. Hearing stories about how my dad grew up, and then recalling my own childhood, thinking, “My God ! My dad did it – he broke the cycle. He figured out a way to live thru it.”

    And a few years before his father died, my dad found him living in southern ca, called him up and went down there – and in the first time seeing him since he was 8, he asked questions to fill in the gaps so to speak.

    When he got home, he called his mom (my grandma) and in a voice I had never heard from my father he said, “Mom, I’m absolutely convinced that all that is good about me came from you.”

    The work you are doing is important for all of us- directly and indirectly Rayne. Thank you! xox Rem