Inside Debbie Reynolds' Difficult Childhood and Complicated Relationship with Her Mother

A look back at Debbie Reynolds' difficult upbringing and tough mother

Debbie Reynolds was famous for her perky onscreen personality, but behind that sweet smile she was hiding a painful past.

When Reynolds, who died Wednesday, just one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher passed away, did a joint interview with Fisher on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011, she reluctantly discussed the at-times volatile relationship she had with her mother Maxine. Fisher went so far as to describe Reynolds’ mother as abusive.

“The big, big thing about my mom is that she had a very bad mom,” Fisher said on the show. “She had a very difficult, mean, punishing mother. My grandmother, she could really hurt you. And that’s what she did, she did it really well. She hurt my mom.”

Portrait of Debbie Reynolds with Mother

Reynolds countered, “My mother was tough on me, but I think the reason that she was [tough] was really she wanted to be me, she wanted to be the actress.”

Asked if her mother was jealous, Reynolds told Winfrey, “I guess. That’s a word that I don’t like, but I think it must be true because in trying to evaluate why my mother felt like she had to be so tough on me … ”

Reynolds disputed that her mother beat her up, despite Fisher’s claim that she “took a switch to you and locked you in a closet.”

“No, it’s true that my mother was tough and a lot of mothers are,” Reynolds conceded. “I suppose they don’t switch you, but in a lot of upbringings they raise you that way.”

Debbie Reynolds Holding Daughter

Fisher also noted that one of her grandmother’s favorite threats was to raise both hands in the air and say, “This hand is six months in the hospital, and this hand is death.”

“But I’m still here,” Reynolds replied.

Born April 1, 1932, in El Paso, Reynolds was the second child of Maxine Reynolds (née Harmon), a homemaker, and Raymond Francis Reynolds, a repairman and carpenter for Southern Pacific Railroad. Growing up, her parents struggled to make ends meet.

“We were rather poor, but we always had what we needed,” Reynolds told the El Paso Times in 2015. “We slept in the park before we had a house, and eventually we shared a home — my parents, my grandparents and five uncles, my family, all of us — on White Oaks Street by Magnolia Street near the railroad. Those were hard times, but I loved living there.”

Her mother, who died in 1999 at the age of 87, belonged to the Church of the Nazarene, and Reynolds’ strict religious upbringing influenced her interest in performing. After mowing neighbor’s lawns and washing people’s houses to earn money to go to the movies, Reynolds was limited to the selection of musicals. “I wasn’t allowed to see any other kind [of movie], because my mother was Nazarene, and they didn’t believe in going to the movies.”

Still, Maxine supported her daughter’s interests. “When I started, my mom would make my dress,” Reynolds’ told PEOPLE. “I was young and under contract. We didn’t have money.”

Debbie Reynolds
Michael Schwartz/New York Post Archives/NYP Holdings, Inc/Getty

Despite her difficult childhood, Reynolds was never ashamed of where she came from. Talking about the differences between her and Fisher’s upbringing, Reynolds told PEOPLE, “I don’t know fancy big words, because I didn’t have a rich mother who sent her to fancy schools. She did.” Reynolds said she often jokingly reminded Fisher, “I went to the school of hard knocks.”

Her upbringing also gave her a clear idea of what she wanted from her own life, although she later admitted that her career was sometimes at odds with what Fisher wanted. “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 told PEOPLE.

“[Carrie] wanted a mother who I guess baked cookies and did embroidery. My mother did that. I’ve been working since I was 16 in show business. This is my life. This is what I know. This is what I love to do.”

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