‘She had a wild look in her eyes, and as she descended on me I was terrified’
“I had one black eye and a cut on my upper lip which was swollen and covered with blood. My whole face was puffy and I had a perfect handprint bruise across one cheek. My eyes were also swollen from crying during the night.”—Christina Crawford from Mommie Dearest
In the Hollywood of the 1940s, few children seemed as blessed as Christina Crawford. Adopted in infancy by one of the movies’ most glamorous leading ladies, she and her mother, Joan Crawford, shared a 22-room mansion, a staff of servants and a doting public that followed their happy lives in the fan magazines. To outsiders, recalls Christina, “I was her precious, beautiful princess of a daughter, the golden-haired baby she wanted so much.”
In fact, their relationship was grotesquely different, says Christina, now 39, in her blistering book, Mommie Dearest. Her tale of beatings and abuse from an alcoholic mother has stunned disbelieving friends of the late actress, who died in 1977; yet its sales—10,000 copies a day—have pushed Mommie Dearest (which Joan Crawford insisted her children call her) onto the best-seller lists. “I wrote it basically for myself,” Christina insists. “I’ve spent most of my time and energy trying to I come to terms with my life.”
For the public’s sake, she says, there were lavish birthday parties with hired clowns and happy pictures of mother and daughter in matching dresses. Inside the mansion, life might have been scripted by Dickens. Servants would find Christina tied up inside the shower or locked in a dark linen closet. Mommie “spanked so hard she broke hairbrushes, wooden hangers and yardsticks across my bottom,” recalls Christina. In one attack after an argument, Joan had to be stopped by a horrified secretary from choking her daughter unconscious. Recalls Christina: “If people who worked for us said anything, my mother would have them fired. With friends, she just told them to mind their own business. If they persisted, she stopped seeing them.”
Most terrifying of all, says Christina, were the dreaded “night raids.” Once “I was awakened by a crashing sound,” she recalls. “I saw that my closet door was open, the light was on, and various pieces of clothing were flying out into the room. Inside the closet my mother was in a rage. She had a wild look in her eyes, and as she descended on me I was terrified. Shaking me by the hair she screamed in my ear, ‘No wire hangers!’ ” (Some clothes had come back from the cleaners on wire hangers; Joan insisted on wood and quilted ones.)
Looking back, Christina believes “It’s clear that she was quite literally acting out frustrations and anxieties that were beyond her control—especially at a time when she felt herself to be battling the world alone.” Christina adds: “They were compounded by drink, of course.”
Physical abuse turned psychological after Christina was bundled off to boarding school at age 10. When Joan heard that her daughter had worn a coat to class one chilly day instead of a sweater, as suggested by the headmistress, the actress had all Christina’s clothes—except two plaid dresses—shipped back home for the remaining four months of the term.
When Christina failed to prepare her Christmas card list one year, the punishment was even more draconian: an armed detective showed up and took her to a convent school. Eighteen months passed before mother and daughter saw each other again.
“That was the point when I could have cashed it all in,” confesses Christina. “I was only 15 and living in solitary confinement. If it weren’t for the extraordinary kindness of the sisters, I wouldn’t have made it.”
Despite her own troubles, Christina believes that her adopted younger brother Chris suffered even more. Until the age of 12 he was tied to his bed each night with a canvas harness. (“It was a rule in our house that the children wouldn’t get out of bed once they were put there,” explains Christina.) Now a power company lineman on Long Island, Chris first tried running away when he was 7 and once spent a week living on the Santa Monica pier. “I hated that bitch,” he said of his mother in a recent interview. And of the book, he said, “It’s a love story—a very, very sad love story. Tina cared about that bitch. She still cares.”
Incredibly, Christina agrees, insisting that she always loved and has now forgiven her mother. Three years of therapy with psychoanalysts Bernard Berkowitz and Mildred Newman, authors of How to Be Your Own Best Friend, helped heal some of the wounds. “When I was growing up I never heard the phrase ‘child abuse,’ ” she says. “There are two victims—obviously the child but also the parent, the majority of whom were abused themselves as children. This was certainly true of Mother.”
Joan Crawford came from an impoverished Midwestern family, Christina notes, was deserted by three fathers and possibly molested by one of them. Four husbands (including Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Franchot Tone) and a parade of lovers (Clark Gable among them) never erased her “basic distrust of men,” says her daughter. By the late ’40s, as her career faded and her drinking intensified, “she had very few resources for dealing with her own emotions. She wanted to destroy something, and she did.”
Still, “I came to peace with what happened,” Christina adds. After a brief acting career (including two years on TV’s The Secret Storm), she returned to college in 1972, graduating magna cum laude from UCLA and earning a master’s degree in communications from USC. She now shares a two-bedroom home in California’s San Fernando Valley with her second husband, producer C. David Koontz, 38, and his 15-year-old son.
Thanks to her book’s success and the Mommie Dearest screenplay she and David have written for Paramount, they will soon be moving to larger quarters. Meanwhile she and brother Chris are contesting their mother’s will. In a final slap, Crawford cut both out of any inheritance “for reasons which are well-known to them” and left the bulk of her $2 million estate to charities and to her younger adopted daughters, Cynthia and Cathy, both 31.
“Studies in child abuse repeatedly show that one or two children are for some reason singled out for the abuse. It doesn’t hit everyone,” says Christina, explaining the unequal treatment. Although relations with her sisters are now severely strained (the book “is so unbalanced,” Cathy says), Christina claims she has no regrets about airing the sordid family history.
“This was a story that needed to be told,” she says. “There are hundreds or thousands of people who have lived through similar experiences. If I survived, others can too. They can change their lives.”