Mean Mothers

By Jessica Burtch

January 31, 2014 5 min read

I was 10 years old when I first saw "Mommie Dearest" — and I was terrified. How could a mother be so cruel? Especially such a pretty one? I went to my closet and searched for any sign of wire hangers. Just in case.

Twenty years later, while walking through Philly's Center City, there it was again: Faye Dunaway's face slathered in cold cream projected onto the crumbling wall of a grizzled pub. College students and drag queens camped out in its overgrown courtyard. "Tinaaaa! Bring me the ax!" they roared as one.

And laughed.

How did a movie about child abuse come to be so funny?

When Christina Crawford published her 1978 memoir of the same title, it wasn't because she found her abusive childhood hilarious. But when the film version was released three years later, Dunaway's pedantic portrayal of Joan Crawford became a drag-queen fav. Fun, sexy and oh-so-quotable: No wire hangers!

Leave it to Hollywood to make mean moms campy.

But some mothers are so mean — or so not famous — that we are not fit to stomach their stories, much less quote along.

Michelle Crockett is one of those mothers.

In 2005, The Tampa-Bay Times published an expose about a little girl named Danielle — "the most outrageous case of neglect" her doctors had ever seen. Due to Crockett's total lack of nurturing, Danielle was designated a feral child. "No light in her eyes." It was years before she could receive a hug, and she may never speak.

Fafane Caze is one of those mothers. Last week, she was jailed on charges of aggravated child abuse/torture and attempted felony murder for the death of her 3-year-old son, Ghanson Debrosse. According to police, every inch of Ghanson's tiny body harbored the scars of painful abuse — some old, some fresh. I'll spare you the details. A detective who thought he'd seen it all was brought to tears.

Pearl Sinthia Fernandez is one of those mothers. She faces a capital murder charge for the death of her son, Gabriel Fernandez. Gabriel was barely breathing when his 8-year-old body was found last June. He had a fractured skull, broken ribs, burns to his skin... It gets worse, so I'll stop.

These mothers are monstrous. Unworthy of the designation. Inhuman sociopaths who awaken an uncomfortable yearning for violent revenge in even the most compassionate.

Be careful in googling these children's names. Their faces will haunt you. Most of us are not built to absorb stories of innocence tortured and snuffed out. It's too much. We want our torture soldier-on-soldier and kept within the confines of faraway places like Guantanamo. We prefer our abusive mothers with an amusing edge. Thank you, Meryl.

In "August: Osage County," Oscar-darling Meryl Streep plays Violet Weston: one mean momma. At a pivotal point in the film (or the play, as it were), Violet tells a tale about her own shrew of a mom — and its telling is as much an act of cruelty as the hope-squashing prank at its core.

Having just lost their father and in need of some comforting morsel from mom, Violet's three daughters gather around as she lights a cigarette and embarks on a seemingly fond childhood recollection: As a little girl, Violet desperately wanted a pair of cowboy boots for Christmas. Her mother dropped hints leading up to the big day, and on Christmas morning, a hopeful Violet opened a beautifully wrapped box — just the size of a pair of cowboy boots — only to find "men's work boots, holes in the toes, chewed-up laces, caked in mud and dog shit. Lord, my momma laughed for days."

Lord. There were chuckles in the theater.

But the reality of small children stuck under the boot of mean moms? That's about the farthest thing from funny I can imagine.

I know a woman whose mother refused to let her sit on her lap. Ever. Seem like a small thing? Not to the toddler. Not to the little girl. Not to the grown woman who still carries the sting of that profound rejection.

Mean mothers don't all leave scars we can see — but they all leave scars.

Follow Jessica on Twitter @sicaleigh. To find out more about Jessica Leigh, and to read features by other Creators writers and comics, visit the Creators website at

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