Abigail Trafford - Author, Journalist and Public Speaker


Mothers, Lost And Found

by Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Jane Fonda dedicates her latest book to her mother, the tortured, talented non-mothering mother who slit her throat with a razor and died when the celebrity-to-be was 12 years old. In "My Life So Far," Fonda addresses the theme of Mother Loss that has shaped her own tortured, talented life in the public spotlight.

"I have spent far too much energy obliterating all in my life that represented my mother. This has taken a profound toll," Fonda writes. "Dedicating this book to her marks another turning point in my attempt to live a full, conscious life."

On this Sunday's holiday of flowers and burnt toast, there's a place in the Hallmark Greeting Card Culture of Gushing Adoration to remember the mothers who could not mother. Or could not mother enough. Perhaps some were too selfish, too busy. Some too sick, too drunk. Still, they were mothers.

Fonda's mother was an extreme case, a woman desperate and depressed who was carted off to mental institutions. She was like many mothers after World War II who became depressed and were given draconian treatments in gilded snake pits. Like my mother, who spent many years in and out of institutions in a slow, tragic spiral downward. So I can relate to Fonda's lifelong tango with Mother Loss.

She explores how she rejected her mother. Children with damaged mothers do this instinctively. Initially the mother abandons her child -- then the child turns on her. "Why wasn't I nicer? I was ten years old," writes Fonda. "I also didn't want to be her daughter. I wanted to wake up and discover I was adopted." She blamed her mother for her parents' divorce; with scars on her body and silent tears so often running down her face, it was obvious to a child: Her mother wasn't beautiful enough or healthy enough to keep a man.

In a poignant scene, when her mother comes home from the sanitarium, she refuses to greet her. "Was I so angry with her for not being there for us? Was it I'll-show-you-I-don't-need-you-either?" Fonda never sees her mother again. A month later, Frances Ford Seymour Fonda committed suicide on her 42nd birthday.

It's not until Fonda starts working on this memoir that she returns to her mother. In between, she goes from riding horses in Greenwich to the New Wave of filmmaking in Paris, from protests against the Vietnam War (the infamous photo of Fonda in Hanoi) to body sculpting in the fitness studio (the famous home video of Jane Fonda's Workout), from "Barbarella" and "Klute" to "On Golden Pond" (with her Distant Dad, Henry Fonda) and "Coming Home," from the heights of fame to the depths of bulimia, from trying to please her three husbands to finally, as she puts it, pleasing herself.

At 67, Fonda is at the stage when people go back over the past to create a coherent narrative of their lives. In the lingo of self-improvement, she wants to get whole. Her mother holds the key.

Fonda is able to track down old medical records and learns that her mother was sexually molested as a child. She also interviews her mother's friends. A very different mother emerges. "She was always 'up,' the most lively one of all," recalled one. "Your mother was a very sexy woman with a modern outlook on life." And "she was the person we'd go to if we had a problem . . . she was a rock."

Fonda is stunned. She confronts the mystery of how mental illness (and the mistreatment of mental illness) hijacks people, taking them away from loved ones. Fonda finally forgives her mother -- and gets her mother back.

I feel the same way about my mother. Unlike Fonda, I grew up with a large cast of surrogate mothers. (This makes a huge difference.) They kept me connected to who my mother had been -- "the most popular one," said my aunt. And: "She could do anything -- fly a plane, play the recorder." And: "Your parents were so much in love." This enabled me to know my mother even as I rejected her while these loving surrogates mended my dresses, drove me to the dentist, explained about alcoholism and prescription drug abuse. I walk past my mother's photograph today and realize I look so much like her.

"Here's to you," writes Fonda to her lost mother, "you did the best you could. You gave me life; you gave me wounds; you also gave me part of what I needed to grow stronger at the broken places."

Mothers lost, mothers found. Mother's Day is a time to celebrate all of them. •

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