Gayle Kirschenbaum is busy planning not one but three 100th birthday events for her mother when we speak — so far, so normal, you might think. After all, Gayle has made her mother a social media star, sharing Mildred’s tips for a long and happy life — gems such as “If the food’s not quite right, have an extra dessert!”
But 60 years ago, their relationship could not have been more different. Gayle remembers Mildred not as an adored and loving parent but as abusive and cruel. “I lived in fear of what she would do to me,” confesses the now 68-year-old, who blames a childhood spent in terror of her family for a fear of intimacy not yet completely dispelled.
“Being abused when I had done nothing wrong while seeing how loved and adored my brothers were, I actually thought I must have been adopted,” she confides. Even Gayle’s father, whom she describes chillingly as “the German shepherd dog my mother set on me”, took part in the bullying.
An old school friend backs up Gayle’s harrowing recollections of Mildred: “I remember her being intrusive, disrespectful and scary…she was this loud, shrill voice in the background; she was to be avoided.”
But now Gayle can even make fun of the past. “I joke with my mother that if we hit ice around Newfoundland on our cruise and the lifeboats came out, she’d say: ‘Leave Gayle, give me Robert! [Gayle’s brother]’”
After a miserable childhood, Gayle left home as soon as she could. “At 17, I was on the first train out.” She built a career as a film-maker, winning awards and plaudits. One film was about the much-loved dog she feels was the only creature she could form an attachment to. But the acclaim she attracted could not heal the scars of her unhappy childhood.
Then she made The Nose (2007), a film about her mother’s preoccupation with Gayle’s prominent hooter. On the film festival circuit she realised she was not alone. “Audience members would queue up to tell me how they were abused by their own parents.”
Thus was born the idea for Look At Us Now, Mother!, a 2015 documentary showing Gayle calling Mildred to account in therapy and the story of their journey towards forgiveness.
That’s when I first met Gayle, when it was shown at the UK Jewish Film Festival. Since then it has played around the world and Gayle, who calls herself an “accidental therapist”, has found a second career running “forgiveness” workshops, which she is developing into an online course for “the adult daughters of difficult mothers — I want to call it ‘No More Drama With Mama!’
“Based on the feedback I’ve gotten, and the fact that my film played in many Jewish film festivals, I did notice that many of these Jewish adult daughters related to my story. But when I played in Atlanta, a big African-American community, a lot of the African women who are adult daughters of strong mothers came over and said to me, ‘Your mother’s just like mine.’
“When I was at the UK Jewish Film Festival, a woman raised her hand and said, ‘This is a typical Jewish mother-daughter story’, and then another one was eagerly trying to get the microphone and she did, and she was east Indian. And she went on to describe how her mother was so abusive to her and her sisters.”
She’s now working on a memoir, a book she never expected to write. “But people I meet who have seen the film have been asking for a book, and they told me they wanted a memoir rather than self-help,” she says.
Despite the humour and the positivity, it has been a painful journey, not least in the trauma of exposing her secrets to the world at large. “I never imagined I would one day share my childhood diary entries and personal footage never intended to be shown; I could barely figure out how to tell my story and not come over as a victim,” she confesses.
The journey towards togetherness had started in 2006, after Gayle’s father died and Mildred announced she wanted to accompany her daughter to a film festival in France. It was the beginning of a relationship that led to Mildred agreeing to be filmed in her first-ever therapy session.
“I knew she would agree, because as a narcissist she likes any attention better than none.” During the sessions Mildred, then nearly 90, revealed the unhappy childhood that drove her bad behaviour towards her only daughter — a father who tried to commit suicide twice and, more pertinently, a husband who felt he had been sidelined when his baby sister came along. Mildred felt driven to over-compensate.
“Because of the infant in your father’s life who made him feel the left-out, unwanted third child, I was not going to treat you better than the boys. You were not going to be a little queen and your brothers pushed aside,” she confesses to Gayle in the film.
“Maybe I did go overboard,” she admits. Yet getting that admission of guilt and an apology took a terrible toll on the daughter. “The whole experience of reliving the trauma and fear was really excruciating,” recalls Gayle.
She still suffered years of headaches, nausea, dizzy spells and worse. “In the reliving of it all I developed an auto-immune disease which left me with dry, cracked, bleeding skin,” she says.
“I didn’t realise how painful it would be to make the film and may not have made it, had I known. But once I learned to look at my mother as a wounded child, it took away her power to hurt me. She was exposed to a lot of things she shouldn’t have seen, cheated of her own childhood, and now I can trace her relentless criticisms of me back to our heritage as well as both of being the same gender, and the generation gap.”
She was even able to care for her mother when she suffered a fall. “In January 2020 I was in the South of France celebrating my 65th and my mother was in Orlando with my brother when she fractured her shoulder.
“When he sent her home she allowed me to install a nanny-cam to keep an eye on her from New York, but during lockdown I saw she had fallen out of bed and ended up in hospital. Within 24 hours I packed up and went down to stay with her for a year to help her. Now she’s doing great —she goes to the gym, pays her bills online and drives herself everywhere.
“She has a huge social life, playing cards and mahjong and enjoying happy hour at the country club, and she says that’s what keeps her alive. I never expected she would live this long, and that I would be so close to her now.
Mildred and Gayle Kirschenbaum,(Photo:Madeline Bey)
“I tell other people don’t wait for the person to hurt you to acknowledge they have done anything wrong and to say sorry, because some people are incapable of it — it’s like asking a blind person to drive a sports car and being angry with them when they can’t. But there is a lot of energy in forgiveness, and it doesn’t have to mean we forget or condone the behaviour which hurt us. We don’t even have to reconcile with that person — we can reconcile on our own.”
She’s now turned her social media accounts over to her mother, keen to share her views on ageing. “I began my Instagram account to showcase my own work, particularly my fine art photography. We were celebrating her 99th birthday last year on cruise and I aimed my camera at her and asked her what it felt like to be turning that age. I posted that video and it went viral.
"That’s when I decided to dedicate my Instagram and TikTok accounts to my mother, her wisdom, and our story. Mom is the longevity expert talking about her secrets, I’m the forgiveness expert and together we are the model for a transformed mother/daughter relationship."
Gayle thinks Mildred’s longevity is mostly about the true grit she exhibits even in her nineties and in the face of accidents: “She doesn’t buy into aches and pains, and she hardly takes any medication. She’s an incredible example of living a good, long life.”
Mildred has embraced the chance of reconciliation wholesale, admitting accountability one more time in the video she made with Gayle in the run-up to her 100th birthday: “I’m sorry. I hope you forgive me,” she says in the post.
“I feel you did because we talked to each other. So now I’m trying to forgive myself.”