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Channel Esther: Forgiving Our Mothers

Esther Cohen
April 6, 2016

by Esther Cohen

2015-02-10-GayleMomRoofcopy-thumbYears ago, although I am not a filmmaker, I went to the Maine Jewish Film Festival to discuss a short film about the labor cultural program, Bread and Roses, and its founder at 1199, Moe Foner. I spoke on a panel about Jewish subject matter with Gayle Kirschenbaum and her mother, Mildred. They were discussing a short film, My Nose, about Gayle’s nose and her mother’s desire for that nose to be different. The film was funny and disturbing in equal measure, and so were the Kirschenbaums. Victim and perpetrator, daughter and mother, they spoke about Gayle’s nose and what they wanted from one another in a way that a group of us discussed at the dinner that followed. Were they different or the same? On the surface, they seemed very different: the mother, superficial and insistent, the daughter questioning, questioning, questioning. The mother had an absolute point of view: Get a Nose Job. We thought she was demeaning, critical, shaming. Did her daughter make the film to show her in the worst possible light?

It was hard not to laugh. And there they both were, mother in daughter, defending their positions (No Nose Job, Yes Nose Job) to those of us in the audience.

Look at Us Now, Mother! is an documentary made from the short telling the same story, expanding on the Kirschenbaum mother-daughter conundrum. Can they reach a reconciliation? Can their relationship ever truly change? Can the filmmaker forgive her difficult mother? And can her mother accept that her daughter will not do what she wants?

I sat down recently with the filmmaker to talk:

Esther Cohen: What did you want my viewers to feel about your mother at the beginning of the film?

Gayle Kirschenbaum: I wanted people to get to know who she is by observing her, watching her in action, seeing how she interacts with me and others. I think she speaks for herself. And then, of course, after setting up who she is today, I needed to let the audience know what my quest was — which was to try and understand and forgive my mother before time ran out. That is when, as a storyteller, I had to figure out a way to take my viewers back in time to my past and not sound like a victim. My intention was not to vilify her, but to state the facts and then go on a journey to understand the anger and rage she turned on me. I assumed many viewers would relate to my story, as I knew I was not alone that is why I made this film.

EC: And by the film’s end?

GK: I wanted the audience to understand that she had a troubled past, which affected her personality and behavior towards me, her only daughter. As one female older audience member said to me, “Some women should never have daughters.” As I dug into her past and worked with therapists, it became clear she did the best she could.

EC: Should we all forgive our parents? Why or why not? Is understanding always the path to forgiveness?

GK: The most important gift you can give yourself is the ability to forgive. You forgive for yourself, no one else. Hanging onto to anger and resentment only hurts yourself. It affects your relationships, and can even affect your health. With that said, I believe one should forgive one's parent regardless of whether they have acknowledged that they have done anything wrong or apologized.

Understanding is a major path to forgiveness. A key to forgiving a parent or someone who has harmed you is by reframing how you look at that person, as was able to do by digging into my mother’s past — by taking her off of the pedestal of motherwho should love and nurture you, and looking at her as a wounded child who didn’t know any better.

If you were a parent and your little 3-year-old looked up at you and said, “Mommy I don’t love you anymore," you would want to pick her/him up and give her/him love, because that is what they're saying they need.

What do we all want in life? We all want to be heard, acknowledged and loved. And if we are not receiving that, we often act up to get that attention. So when your mother says you’re fat, you’re ugly, you will amount to nothing, it helps to look at her as a wounded child who needs attention, and not to react and cower, but to give her love — which will render her abuse powerless over you. In time, perhaps she'll stopped being abusive because she realizes it has no effect on your any more.

EC: Is there anything we shouldn’t forgive?

GK: We should forgive all — that is what we do for ourselves. I am not saying forget. I am saying forgive. When we don’t forgive, we wallow with anger in our memories towards the person or the event, and that is not healthy in any way.

EC: What about siblings? Should we forgive them too?

GK: Yes, absolutely! You should forgive all, as I mentioned before.

EC: I loved your film about your nose too. What will you next film be about?

GK: Most of which I will be creating in the near future will be based on this same theme and issue in Look At Us Now, Mother!, which is the centerpiece of a movement focused on forgiveness and healing between mothers and daughters. We will be launching different initiatives, including one in which others have an opportunity to share their story. I will be out there speaking and writing, and most likely, when I have some time, write and develop a one woman show called What Now, Mother?

EC: Did making this film help you forgive other people, too?

GK: Perhaps making the film made it clearer and easier to forgive people by using what I mentioned earlier: understanding where they are coming from and reframing how you look at them.

Esther Cohen's books include Don't Mind Me and Other Jewish Lies, illustrated by Roz Chast.