By Danny Peary
Mother’s Day weekend is upon us and if you plan to spend time with your own mother or just reminisce about her, I recommend that you step into the Sag Harbor Cinema at 3 PM Saturday or Sunday and see Look at Us Now, Mother! This fascinating documentary will also premiere May 6 at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, the Bow Tie Cinemas in Roslyn, and North Shore Towers Cinema, and have multiple screenings at each venue. Its award-winning filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum (A Dog’s Life: A Dogamentary, My Nose) who spent her teenage years in the Five Towns in Nassau County, will appear at each theater, capping it off with a Q&A at the Sag Harbor Cinema after the screening on Mother’s Day Sunday.
I hope you will join me there. Her bravely revealing, alternately sad and very funny feature about her difficult, lifelong relationship with her supercritical mom is an expansion on her short, My Nose. In that acclaimed film her mother tries, as she did decades before, to convince her daughter to get a needless nose job in order to attract the opposite sex. By making her new film, in which she and 92-year-old Mildred prove to be a dynamic duo, the director hoped to come to terms with her unhappy youth, but in addition, the years she spent shooting and editing it also allowed her the time to heal her long-open wounds, as well as cement the love and friendship of mother and daughter. In anticipation of its release, Gayle Kirschenbaum agreed to talk about her movie. It was excerpted in this week’s Sag Harbor Express. This is the complete interview.
Danny Peary: You had made many films for television but A Dog’s Life: A Dogamentary was your first indie personal film. It was 52-minutes long and featured you and Chelsea, your remarkable and much missed Shih Tzu. Were you already thinking about making more films with yourself in front of the camera?
Gayle Kirschenbaum: It felt right and I was being encouraged by others. One of my assistants called me a “personality.”
DP: When did you decide to make My Nose?
GK: It was more or less a spur of the moment decision that I made because of my mother pushing me to get a nose job. She was relentless and was convinced that everybody agreed with her that I needed a nose job to find a husband and have a successful career. My mother had been saying for years that my nose looks like the Indian’s nose on the Buffalo nickel. I thought that if I got people to tell my mother on camera that there was nothing wrong with my nose, she’d get off my back, so I made My Nose for my mother and not because I had any great desire to actually get a nose job.
DP: How did she react when people said you looked alike?
GK: Oh, that was an insult for her. She doesn’t think we look alike. When the doggie film premiered in Florida at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, I ended up on the cover of the magazine insert in the local paper. So her friends were calling her going, “Oh, your daughter looks just like you.” Devastating! I had a podcast series called On the Trail with Gayle, in which I talked to mothers and daughters on the street. One mother said to my mother, “Don’t you realize she has your nose?” That definitely was not a compliment to her. I think my mother is beautiful and has amazing bone structure, and her nose never bothered her. I don’t really see it. My nose has a totally different shape and is similar to my father’s.
DP: When you were making My Nose as a short, were you already thinking of expanding it into feature?
GK: Yes, but it was going to be a completely different film. It wasn’t going to focus only on my mother and me. It was going to be about body image and society’s pressure to change how we look. What I shot originally was a 13-minute promo. But so many people loved it that it started getting recommended to festivals as a short. I thought, “Why not?” Then I decided that if I eventually expanded it into a feature it would go deeper into the mother-daughter relationship and the thrust would be: how to deal with a mother who is critical of her daughter.
DP: What was the thread from My Nose to making Look at Us Now, Mother!?
GK: It was due to the reaction of My Nose. People stood on line to tell me their own stories and I found myself couching them. Then after one Q&A following a screening of My Nose, a therapist who was there told me, “You have to do a seminar about how you were able to forgive your mother.” After some hesitation, I wrote down what I called “The Seven Healing Tools,” and I started to do seminars, using my life as an example to teach people how they can forgive somebody. Then I was encouraged by a friend to cut a trailer for a feature documentary. I never expected to make this deeply personal film about my life, to put it all,, but I felt, “This is my job, I just have to do this.” People called My Nose brave, but there was nothing brave about it. I will agree that Look At Us Now, Mother! is brave.
DP: When we talked seven years ago about My Nose, you said then that your relationship with your mother had become really good. So has it been really good the whole seven years or could it become truly good only at the end of filming Look at Us Now, Mother!, once she finally apologized and you forgave her?
GK: I need to say that I love my mother a lot and actually have grown to love her more with time. Since my father died in 2006, my mother and I have become amazingly close. She has a great spirit and is quite open minded about many things. How many people can talk to their mother about sex, particularly a mother in her nineties? How many people have moms that age who can take a computer apart and put it back together? So she’s got a few obsessions. Who doesn’t? Like with every relationship, there have been ups and downs. My biggest challenge in life was getting to that point where I could forgive my mother, and I had forgiven her prior to making this movie. I wouldn’t have made it if I hadn’t forgiven her already. However, I still had many questions about her past and throughout the filming of the movie and the therapist visits many got answered. And more importantly with the help of the therapist I was able to understand better why did what she did to me. No one could understand from having watched my funny short about my nose how I was even able to speak to my mother never mind love her. Many disliked her from a fluffy funny short. I thought, “They haven’t seen anything yet!” So I made this movie.
DP: Did you worry that your mother might not want to participate in a film that shows how she damaged you as a child, not with physical abuse but by being so critical?
GK: No. When My Nose premiered in Washington D.C., we were both on the cover of The Washington Post‘s Style section. There was a picture of my profile in front of the Indian’s on the Buffalo nickel, and the first line said, “If you have a mother like Gayle Kirschenbaum’s, you’d better get yourself into psychoanalysis.” She read it and said, “Great, bad press is better than no press. I’m on the cover of The Washington Post!” She loves attention at all costs, so I wasn’t worried about her.
DP: You say in your film that its goal is to help others forgive.
GK: I interviewed people of our generation who have written their stories and memoirs about their critical parents, and I’ve noticed one thing in common. They haven’t forgiven them. Frequently it was their mothers they hadn’t forgiven, and they’d say, “She never said she was sorry.” I’d say, “They’re not even aware they did anything wrong.” I hope that this movie, my personal story, will help people get to a place where they can forgive a mother or someone else. It takes a lot of work but they’ll be much happier when they can. I’m always very, very deeply moved when people who are victims of horrible things can forgive. Somebody said that when you don’t forgive and have anger it’s like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. It hurts only you; it doesn’t hurt anybody else. The ability to forgive is the biggest gift you an can give yourself. If you don’t forgive it effects you, your relationships and your health.
DP: When did you begin this movie?
GK: The summer of 2011 is when I ran a Kickstarter campaign. Then I started to shoot additional footage, including those scenes of my mother and me with therapists. It was a matter of shooting new stuff and combining that with previously shot footage to tell a journey that was never really shot as a journey.
DP: Talk about the old material.
GK: I had a lot of home video footage, most of which was not taken in anticipation of it ever being shown to the public. Also I found the box with my childhood diaries, and I read them. So I had to go back into my childhood and it took me down a dark road. I actually became a wounded, angry, victimized child again. If I knew it was going to be so hard I don’t think I would have done it.
DP: Because it brought up bad memories?
GK: Yeah, reliving them. I’m a highly sensitive person and the feelings were so real. When you’re reliving horrible things, you’re not going to be in a forgiving state of mind, right? It alters your attitude. And I was very much isolated during this time. I didn’t have a partner in making the movie, I produced and directed it and I took over the editing. I didn’t have anybody around. I didn’t have a support system. Chelsea, my beloved dog, had died in 2010, so my comfort and my healer wasn’t there. I put everything into this. I wasn’t doing anything else, so in addition to the emotional stress I had financial stress because I had no outside income. And I had physical stress. I was experiencing all these things I hadn’t had since childhood. Also I got shingles twice and developed an autoimmune disease due to the stress.
DP: Reliving your childhood with your mother brought on the stress, but did you use her for support while making the movie?
GK: She saw the toll it was taking on me and would say, “Finish this goddamn movie, it’s killing you–just finish it or do something else.”
DP: Was it just a matter of not finishing the editing? I know that for your A Dog’s Life, you had hours and hours of footage.
GK: But nothing compared to this film. That was 50 hours of light-hearted footage. This was 250 hours of footage that ate my kishkas out. There was lots of archival footage and photos. The key to moving it along was being organized. This movie came together in the editing room.
DP: How did you decide when to stop shooting? If she said “I’m sorry,” was that what you needed to put away the camera?
GK: Yeah, I wanted her to acknowledge she had done something for which she should apologize.
DP: I won’t say what happens, but were you thinking that if she never apologized, you would still have a movie?
GK: Yeah, absolutely. No matter what she’d say in the film, I knew she still wouldn’t think she did anything wrong!
DP: Does that make you sad? Or was it still good to conclude that she wasn’t trying to be a bad mother?
GK: Right, she did the best she could.
DP: Where are your parents from and where did you grow up?
GK: My parents grew up in Brooklyn. I lived in Queens until I was five and then from ages five to sixteen I grew up on Long Island, in the Five Towns, in an upper-middle-class Jewish neighborhood.
DP: Your mother wanted a boy named Gary.
GK: I grew up my whole life hearing you were supposed to be a boy named Gary. My mother was told that she had a 50% chance of having a boy, and I’m not good at math, but I know what 50% means. Still she was positive she’d have a boy and then she had me, Gayle not Gary.
DP: Did it reinforce your suspicion that you didn’t fit in and were probably adopted?
GK: I have to emphasize that those were very young thoughts. I whispered to my grandmother that I knew I was adopted and she shouldn’t tell anyone and she told everyone because she thought it was so funny. I found out I wasn’t adopted but I did grow up with a Cinderella complex, asking, “Why am I treated like this? Why am I like a slave?”
DP: In the film you say that your mom would say, “I need you” all the time. What did she need you for?
GK: For instance, the phone would be right near her and I’d be upstairs and she’d yell, “Gayle, get me the phone.” I’d have to go downstairs and hand her the phone. It was endless. It was about control. I had so much fear of my mother, I never knew what she was going to ask me to do or do to me. There was constant humiliation. So I was physically sick and would have headaches and dizzy spells and throw up. I couldn’t gain weight because I didn’t have an appetite.
DP: And you felt like a step-daughter while she embraced her two sons?
GK: Yes, they were treated completely differently. They even share that in the film.
DP: In your movie your mother defends her actions toward you by saying that as a little girl you were already defined and on track to be who you are and were very challenging.
GK: She tells the story of being in a dressing room trying on a gold-lamé bathing suit when I took it and said that would look better on me. I don’t remember that at all because I wasn’t even four but wouldn’t you think that’s kind of cute for such a small girl to say? Instead my mother thought it was horrible. It was jealousy. She felt threatened by her little baby girl, and now she’s defending her reaction then by saying, “That was your personality, you were bitchy.” That was my personality? I was just a little girl! Isn’t there something wrong with that?
DP: We see that you were a pretty girl with a fine nose but that you were already being harassed by your mother about having a large nose. Were you an insecure girl or confident kid who was a prime candidate to eventually go into television and film?
GK: When I was about five, before my mother started on my nose, my parents took me to see the movie Gigi, with Leslie Caron. From then on I wanted to be a movie star and told my parents they had to call me Gigi or I wouldn’t answer. As you say, my relationship with my mother was difficult from an early age. There was also physical abuse but those scars don’t last. You might say mom and I didn’t see eye to eye on things such as my being forced to wear clothing that made me break out in rashes. I was a late developer my mother wanted me to have silicon breast implants when I was a young teenager. She used to take foam rubber and stuff my bathing suit top with it. I was so self-conscious about my body in high school that I’d figure out how to get into my gym suit without exposing any of my body. I did not like being controlled. As I developed, she became even more critical of my looks and my various physical attributes. I wouldn’t say it was a confidence boost. Boys were attracted to me but I didn’t blossom until I left for college soon after I turned seventeen, and was living 200 miles away. I no longer had to live in fear of what my mom would do to me.
DP: Did you blame yourself when she treated you badly?
GK: Here’s the deal. When I was born, I felt like I came into this world as an old soul. I felt everybody else in my family was a new soul and didn’t have the knowledge I had. The difference between me and a lot of my friends who suffer from the scars of childhood–and don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of scars because I was being criticized and put down in every way–is that I knew in my own mind that there wasn’t anything wrong with me. I knew there was something wrong with my mother and the rest of my family for behaving this way towards me. So when she wanted me to have a nose job for years. I never thought I needed a nose job. When I was being ripped apart, I never felt there was something wrong with me, and that’s a saving grace because a lot of my friends who were criticized grew up feeling they were not good enough. The scars from my childhood are not about losing self-self-esteem but about abandonment and trust. Because I was convinced that my real parents left me at birth and these people took over, I felt abandoned. I told myself that if these two people are truly my parents and they wouldn’t treat me like this, I’m never going to let anybody hurt me like this again –and I put up a big wall. And it’s has always been very hard to let anybody into my life when I am that protected.
DP: Did you want different parents?
GK: It wasn’t just my parents. I disliked many adults because I thought they didn’t understand kids. Back in the fifties, women carried purses that hung in the crook of their arms. I remember going to Mays Department Store in Queens and my head was at the height of the purse. The women were so unconscious that I was there that I’d be hit in the head repeatedly. So I just had this thing about adults.
DP: Would you bring friends to your home?
GK: In the film, I put only one friend on camera, but I use the voices of two other childhood friends. One friend I reconnected with after thirty-seven years said she still remembers that she hated being at my house. One reason is that my mother would force-feed oatmeal to not just to me but my friends who slept over. They remember that.
DP: Having watched your film, I think your mother subconsciously always resented not having independence, and I think having a girl made it hit home how stuck she was. Her sons could do whatever they wanted, but a girl defined her more as a mother and having to stay at home. A girl coming into her life was taking away more of her independence.
GK: I don’t agree. I think that when I was born female competition arrived. Perhaps she thought a female from a later generation had more opportunities than she had in her life and could remain independent by not choosing marriage and children at a young age.
DP: If she were born when you were born, would she be like you?
GK: My brothers were of the same generation as me and weren’t like me, so I can’t say that about my mother. One of the things that I hope comes across in the film is that women from her generation and our generation handle things differently. I think if my mother were of my generation she would have had a pretty serious career, possibly as a high-powered lawyer. She’s one of the smartest and most versatile people I know. And I see her as being incredibly independent–you can see the thread from my grandmother to my mother to me, women who make things happen rather than sitting around and waiting. The difference is that my grandmother had to marry young in her generation, and my mother obviously married young, too.
DP: Would your mom have liked to have been rich? (don’t understand this question- are you implying she is not rich?
GK: Are you kidding? When I would bring a guy home it was always, “What does his father do?” She was always very impressed by wealth and fame. My mother drives a Mercedes. My mother’s a very smart cookie and when she was in her early thirties she was investing in the market. She is extremely clever with money.
DP: It seems like if she has any guilt over anything in your childhood, it was putting you on top of the refrigerator.
GK: She acknowledges it happened but she has no guilt about it. When the movie Mommie Dearest came out, she picked up the phone and said, “Hello, this is Mommie Dearest.” She embraced being Mommie Dearest. It wasn’t “I was horrible, I was a Mommie Dearest,” but was “They made a movie about me!”
DP: You included scenes of her just playing with you as a kid. How do you react when you see how loving she was with little you?
GK: I know she loved me, she just had a hard time.
DP: Maybe you had a need to forgive her because you always saw something in her, that she actually wanted a relationship. And I’m sure it was frustrating that you couldn’t get close to her.
GK: My mother has a lot of good in her. But when it came to psychology and understanding how people tick, she always was at a real loss.
DP: How were you about accepting flattery from her? For instance, there is a scene in the movie where she proudly shows your art on the walls of her apartment.
GK: I know that she has bragged about my art and found me creative, but I felt like I was working for her. I had to make paintings with certain colors to match different rooms. But I don’t remember flattery about my looks while growing up in a neighborhood where girls had nose jobs, straightened their hair, and shopped for expensive dresses. I was part of the artsy-fartsy group and she was not happy with that. I was being criticized about how I looked and because I was a hippie and my whole lifestyle devastated her.
DP: Were your goals for yourself as a girl different from what your mother wanted for you?
GK: Yes, absolutely. I remember my mother telling me over and over again I was going to be an art teacher because I had an inclination for art. She thought teaching was the perfect career for a woman because you can get married and have babies and then go back to it. I never wanted to be a teacher and when it came time to go to college, I picked one that didn’t have an education department.
DP: After college, you were quite successful producing documentaries in L.A. and back in New York, which I’d think would make your mother proud. Could you have continued doing that and made that your career?
GK: I don’t think so. My voice is so strong and my desire to tell my own stories was aching to come out.
DP: Including this one, which doesn’t always show you in the best light either.
GK: I decided to reveal many personal things in this film and show my flaws too, the ugly me. When you are abused it has a long lasting effect and anger is just beneath the surface. Controlling the anger and reframing it is the challenge and it’s liberating if you do it.
DP: Your father seemed to have a lot of anger.
GK: He was a very bitter, angry guy. He’d bark and scream, and he and my mother were always arguing, but he was a very soft person inside. He had a very dry sense of humor and was very compassionate, but he was so unhappy and that just kind of took over. And he married a wild woman. We’d go to affairs and my mother would get drunk and make a scene, and get lots of attention. Even at 90, she climbed on top of a bar and danced wearing a boa. She was and is a party girl.
DP: She has always been outgoing but you had the camera on him at your parents’ 50th anniversary celebration and he had nothing to say.
GK: That was my father. If I called home he’d pick up the phone and say, “I’ll get your mom.” He would never speak. I was probably the one he spoke to most because I was the only one who would listen to him. It usually had to do with his ailments, that’s what he was very focused on. He was always sick. He had arthritis and had a million problems. My parents moved to Florida and when I would go down there, it was exhausting because he’d be yelling at me nonstop. I was so drained from his badgering that I couldn’t wait to leave, but suddenly he tried to convince me to move down there because he thought he’d end up in a wheelchair and I would be a better caretaker than my mom. After he died, she was very upset, but her response to why she was not interested in dating others was “I don’t want to be a nurse with a purse.” And she said, “It’s the first time in my life I don’t have to answer to anybody.” That’s very telling, right? My father had a frustrating life because he worked in his family’s funeral home and never followed his passions, such as music. It was very clear he hated what he did but he let me know he did it to put food on the table. I thought it was very sad when I asked my mother what he really wanted to do and she didn’t know. How do you not know your husband after sixty-three years? I think my mother’s much smarter than me in many areas, but I am much more intuitive and sensitive about people.
DP: Were you surprised at the passion. romance, and lustfulness of the letters your parents wrote each other when he was in the army?
GK: I couldn’t believe what a great writer she is. I thought it was funny when he wrote asking about her figure.
DP: He wanted to know her exact measurements so he could brag to other soldiers.
GK: They fought like cats and dogs, but I will say that they were very physically attracted to each other. My father once confided in me that while we were vacationing together in Africa, my mother took him to a secluded spot on the beach and they made love. I do like my mother’s line in the movie about how she’d go to sleep every night holding my father’s penis. I’d heard everything so that was nothing new for me. One time her granddaughter asked her, “Do you two still do it,” and she said, “Are you kidding? It’s the only muscle he has that still works.” A lot of people asked my mother what the secret was to their long marriage, and she would say, “We never go to sleep angry.” And I agree that’s a very good lesson.
DP: For a mother and daughter, too.
GK: That is so funny, I never thought about that. But, yes.
DP: The big revelation in the movie is that your mother had a difficult childhood herself, something you didn’t really know, and it undoubtedly impacted on who she was as a mother. The only thing she made an effort to remember before was that her mother didn’t complain.
GK: Over the years I’d asked her about her childhood many, many times but she never opened up to anyone before. In France was the only time I’ve felt her pain about it. That scene is poorly shot and the audio is bad, but I couldn’t lose that one moment of her being emotional. My grandmother would say, you should never hang out your dirty laundry, and my mother was the same. Her cousin Tillie says to her in the movie, “You wouldn’t even mention if someone had cancer.” My grandmother dressed beautifully despite having no money. She had to sew her dresses together, but she looked rich. My mother inherited that ability to look stylish and upscale.
DP: Your mother, like her mother, accepted all the bad in her life without complaint. But you were able to detect that she has some pain because of her childhood, including untimely deaths in the family.
GK: My mother’s not remembering is what I think drove me to do genealogical research. I discovered tragic events happened in my mother’s life and she was old enough to remember but chose not to. It was a bad time in which grandmother didn’t have much time for her. My grandmother had a lot to do, including taking care of her depressed husband, and as a result I think my mother was cheated out of her childhood.
DP: One of the times your mother opens up in the movie is when you’re both with a therapist. In regard to your saying she was a critical mother, she admits, “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
GK: Soon after I finished the movie, I said to her, “Come on, Mom, give me another good ending and say you’re sorry.” And she said, “But I didn’t do anything wrong!” So she hadn’t changed. She’s not focused on reliving the past, her choice is to forget it. And it’s serving her well. She’s 91 and you would never know it.
DP: She does say that she loves you and that she’s happy you two are friends, so that had to move you.
GK: She once said, “If I knew you were hurting so much I would have said to you that I love you more often.” I absolutely love her. I need to emphasize my mother’s one of my favorite people to hang out with today. I speak to her all the time, and sometimes we go at it and have fights and hang up on each other, but then it’s over. She’s for sure my favorite person to travel with because she’s very adventurous and not fearful. My mom likes to take all the back roads, get on local buses, and eat food from the local stands.
DPP: You say in voiceover that she taught you to take on life with a fierce passion.
GK: Did my mother do that? Definitely. I got a lot of amazing qualities from her.
DP: Does she still want you to get married?
GK: She doesn’t care anymore. She just wants me to be happy.
DP: Would she approve of whom you’d choose to marry?
GK: After waiting so long, I could bring home a lesbian with three heads and she wouldn’t care. At this point, she doesn’t care.
DP: Does your mother compliment you more now that she knows she didn’t do it enough before?
GK: She’s been more complimentary about my looks as I’ve gotten older. I was recently down in Florida with her for three weeks because she had surgery, and I was putting on clothing to go to the gym, and she said, “You have a good figure.” She’ll now say things like that and “You don’t look your age.” We just had an interesting moment while I was down there. She got very moved and teary-eyed by how I managed her care. I took charge and was her advocate handling the doctors and her recovery. It was the first time I was able to be there for her and I loved preparing meals for her. She really appreciated my healthy dishes. In fact, I got her into making big salads filled with lots of tasty ingredients. I would not leave her until she was okay on her own and she cried from appreciation. She knows that I will be there for her no matter what the circumstances.
DP: Does your mom hope this film can help people?
GK: Absolutely. She says this film is like therapy.
DP: How did your recent pre-release screening go?
GK: What a night! I could not have shown it to a more enthusiastic audience. I was humbled by the standing ovation. Mom loved the film. Her first comment was, “I never realized I was such a bitch.” When asked what her next film will be she said, “A porn film.” That’s mom!
DP: So what do you hope happens with it in the future?
GK: The film started in festivals last spring and it has played in may all over America and abroad including Canada, UK, Israel and India. I have been humbled by the audience- sold out screenings, standing ovations and several awards. I apparently hit a nerve with this film. After the Q&A, I am usually mobbed by people waiting to give me a hug and then share their story in hopes I will be able to help them. Seems like I must be doing something right. I am the accidental therapist. My motivation and drive now is to build a movement focused on forgiveness and healing between mothers and daughters. And we have initiatives that we will launch one where people will have an opportunity to share their own story. And most likely next up I will be writing a book. Just need to pass the distribution baton to someone else because is quite time consuming. I intentionally did not sign away all my rights because I wanted to be able to have access to my film and launch this movement through the theatrical release.
DP: How can people see it this month and in the future?
GK: We are doing a Mother’s Day release on Long Island. Then probably elsewhere depending on how it does before it is out on TV and/or on Netflix and other digital platforms. The best way to stay in touch and know about when and where the film is released is to sign up for our newsletter at our website at
http://lookatusnowmother.com . The website will have everything up to date and there is much to watch and read there including the trailer. We will be sharing all our information about the release and many other things in our social media. Like us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kplookatusnowmother. And follow us on twitter @glkirschenbaum. Mom and I are becoming the mother-daughter poster combo who goes out there and talks about mother-daughter relationships, and about forgiving.