Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher had a complicated mother-daughter relationship, but the animosity that kept them apart for years had long since subsided by the time of their tragic deaths this week.
The rift between mother and daughter began at birth, with Fisher joking that Reynolds and her famous father, singer Eddie Fisher, received more attention in the delivery room than she did as a newborn. “When I arrived I was virtually unattended,” she wrote in her memoir Wishful Drinking. “And I have been trying to make up for that fact ever since.”
As she grew up, Fisher found it difficult not to compare herself to her mother. “She was so beautiful, and I dreamed of looking like her one day,” Fisher wrote in her memoir. “I think it was when I was ten that I realized with profound certainty that I would not be, and was in no way now, the beauty that my mother was. I was a clumsy-looking and intensely awkward, insecure girl.”
Fisher found solace in books and her writing, but simply leaving the house with her mom was enough to trigger those insecurities. “When we went out, people sort of walked over me to get to her, and no, I didn’t like it,” Fisher later told the New York Times. “I overheard people saying, ‘She thinks she’s so great because she’s Debbie Reynolds’ daughter!’ And I didn’t like it; it made me different from other people and I wanted to be the same.”
Fitting in became even more difficult when Reynolds pulled Fisher out of Beverly Hills High School at the age of 15 to join her on Broadway. Fisher appeared as a debutante and singer in the popular Broadway revival Irene, which starred her mom. Onstage, the two seemed happy to be with each other, but inside Fisher was longing to escape her mother’s shadow.
She got her wish later that year when her mother enrolled her at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. Fisher did not want to go at first, but later said those 18 months were some of the best in her life.
When she returned home, it didn’t take long before she began exploring the L.A. party scene. Fisher had started smoking marijuana at 13, and by her early 20s her drug use had spiraled out of control, as she abused everything from cocaine and heroin to painkillers and acid. Later, Fisher would ascribe the drug use to a form of self-medication for her bipolar disorder, which she was diagnosed in her 20s.
Fisher went to rehab for the first time at age 28. After her discharge, she began distancing herself from her mother. The two barely spoke for almost ten years. “We had a fairly volatile relationship earlier on in my 20s,” Fisher later said in a joint interview with her mom on The Oprah Winfrey Show. “I didn’t want to be around her. I did not want to be Debbie Reynolds’ daughter.”
“It’s very hard when your child doesn’t want to talk to you and you want to talk to them, and you want to touch them, you want to hold them,” said Reynolds. “It was a total estrangement. She didn’t talk to me for probably 10 years. So that was the most difficult time of all. Very painful, very heartbreaking.”
Despite their estrangement, Reynolds never gave up on her daughter. Years later, when Fisher got sober and began taking care of her mental health, the two finally reconciled. “It took like 30 years for Carrie to be really happy with me,” Reynolds told PEOPLE. “I don’t know what the problem ever was. I’ve had to work at it. I’ve always been a good mother, but I’ve always been in show business, and I’ve been on stage and I don’t bake cookies and I don’t stay home,” she added.
The two became close again later in life, and learned to embrace their differences. “I’m not as intellectual as my daughter. She says bigger words than I [do], I don’t even know what they mean,” Reynolds later told PEOPLE. “But she’s so amusing to me and it’s wonderful to be around her.”
In fact, the two even thought about teaming up again in show business. “We thought of doing a reality show, and I said, ‘Together?’ You and I together?’ She laughed and said, ‘That’s what I told them!’ ”
The two finally did team up again, for the upcoming HBO documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, due to air next year.
By the time they appeared together on Oprah in 2011, their relationship was mended. “I would say that Carrie and I have finally found happiness,” said Reynolds. “I admire her strength and survival. I admire that she is alive, that she has chosen to make it. It would have been easy to give up and give in and to keep doing drugs. I always feel, as a mother does, that I protect her. I want happiness for my daughter — I want Carrie to be happy.”
Fisher responded, “What I say about being happy is that I am ‘also happy.’ I’m happy among other things. Happy is one of the many feelings or experiences that I will have throughout a day. I think happy has been sort of made into this Hallmark card of a word, and I don’t know what that means. So I will just say that I enjoy my life, I make choices, I do what I want to do. I am a strong person, I’m not afraid of almost anything, and that’s a lot because of your example.”