Look As Us Now, Mother

by Karin McKie

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday April 8, 2016

'Look At Us Now Mother'
'Look At Us Now Mother'  

Filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum forges a path to forgiveness in her highly personal "Look at Us Now, Mother," taken from home movies never meant to be shared.

Kirschenbaum always felt she had been born into the wrong family, that she was adopted. Her mother Mildred - "a piece of work," a Boca Raton neighbor calls her - treated her much worse that her two brothers, who are also featured in the movie. (The doc is sometimes scored by "Curb Your Enthusiasm"-type music.)

While "outgoing and smart," as she approaches 90, as well as "effervescent; what's on her lung is on her tongue," Mildred is also "politically incorrect," so some fellow Mahjong players wish she would "be muzzled." Her daughter agrees, and sets out through interviews with friends and family, sessions with prominent "mommy issues" therapists, and scores of home movies and photos taken by her father ("who started filming the years I was born"), to sift through and repair their relationship "in order to help others," the ending credits say.

Usually with pulled-together hair and make-up, including tattooed eyeliner, Mildred continually berates her daughter's "undesirable Jewish nose" (the subject of a previous documentary), her Jewish hair, and her spinsterhood, as her only companion is her dog, Chelsea (the subject of her "A Dog's Life: A Dogamentary").

The animosity is traced to Mildred wanting a boy, pre-named Gary, which morphed into Gayle when her only daughter was born. Her brothers note that "mom was cruel and humiliating" to Gayle for little or no reason, having them hold her down for punishment, and once putting her on top of the refrigerator.

Gayle's childhood friends remember a mom who was "intrusive, disrespectful, shrill." Yet Gayle was still able to find her calling as a painter, writer, producer, documentarian.

Still, her "wounds of childhood fester beneath the surface," so she continually asks her mom why she didn't like her, why she pulled a "Mommie Dearest" on her, yanking all the clothes out of her closet after a boyfriend dropped her off late, saying, "I don't care if you get raped if you weren't already."

Mildred also says, "you were a bitchy little girl growing up."

Some wonder if Mildred was jealous of the only other female in the house, to which mom repeats her mantra when pressed on difficult questions: "I don't remember."

Gayle wonders "we all have pain, but what does it take to find forgiveness?"

The filmmaker finds a way back to a relationship by seeing her mother, and father, as abused children themselves. Her beloved grandmother Tillie was forced to raise Mildred and her brother almost on her own, as her grandfather suffered from depression and often attempted suicide. Her younger sister Shirley died of pneumonia at age one.

Gayle's often-angry father, who "lived an unexpressed life," was himself raised by an angry father, but one who doted on his daughter, a "mistake" Mildred didn't want to repeat. The family describes Mildred's long (over 50 year) marriage as "rocky at best," because she was controlling and emasculating, despite Gayle finding, and having her mom read, passionate love letters and telegrams from when the pair was separated by World War II.

Mildred and Gayle try to deepen their nascent bond by "mother and daughter seeking father and son" dating on Craigslist. They travel together to Gayle's film opening in France, and to India. Despite her ongoing diatribes, Mildred has Gayle's artwork all over her house. Mom finally makes a therapist-prompted partial apology, and Gayle finds forgiveness once she sees Mildred as a wounded kid.

Karin McKie is a writer, educator and activist at KarinMcKie.com