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Her mother wasn’t so hateful.
Printed in Shield’s new book, There Was a Little Girl, the note is a telling snapshot of the model-actress-author’s complicated relationship with her larger-than-life mother, called “Teri Terrific” by friends and family; a young daughter so devoted to her parent she once told her mother, “If you die, I die,” but also mature enough to recognize a battle with alcoholism from early on.
As a young girl, Teri was not only Shields’ mother, she was her manager, and her best friend.
Teri Shields died in October 2012 after suffering from Alzheimer’s. An obituary in the New York Times recalling some of Teri’s most controversial public moments — allowing Shields to be cast as a prostitute in one of her first films, Pretty Baby, and to appear in a widely sexualized ad for Calvin Klein, among others — shocked and horrified Shields, triggering her to want to tell their story in her own words.
“It is not a Mommie Dearesttale. But I’m not holding her up on a pedestal either … This is by no means an attempt to idealize her or condemn her. It is simply my turn to tell the story as I saw it and felt it,” she writes in the book’s introduction.
Tell the story she does. Shields delves into a contentious relationship with Susan Sarandon on the set of Pretty Baby. Sarandon slapped her on-screen daughter across the face for a minimum of nine takes from each angle during a particular scene.
“Mom hinted that Susan may have been threatened by me because I was the lead in the film.”
“I was worried that once I slept with him, I would become too vulnerable and would no longer own myself. I was afraid I was leaving my mother.”
She chronicles her stormy first marriage with tennis star Andre Agassi, admitting she knew immediately after their wedding she had made a mistake, and details her shock at his admission that he was addicted to crystal meth throughout their relationship. It led to their divorce.
Shields muses that although she was the person who knew her mother best, she didn’t really know her mother at all.
“I still feel as though I knew and understood you better than anyone else in your life, and that was hard to do because you so rarely told anybody how you were feeling. And yet I feel as though I never got the full story,” she writes in a letter to her mother at the book’s end, pages longer than the childhood version. “I think I hated your drinking so much because the you I knew existed and loved was stolen away from me.”
Teri suffered tragedy early in life. She lost her father at a young age. As a teenager, an infant son died. Her first fiancé was killed when he was hit by a car and, not two years after marrying Shields’ father Francis Alexander Shields, she was divorced and became a single mother. She would remain that way for the rest of her life.
Drinking, Shields surmises, helped Teri manage the pain. Initially, she writes, her mother’s antics were funny. An instance at church when a hungover Teri dozed off, only to begin vigourously clapping when the congregation stood to sing, “was a scene worthy of a Lucille Ball sketch and we would retell it for decades.”
“It just seemed funny then,” Shields wrote.
Finding humour in her mother’s addiction dried up by the time Shields was seven or eight, she recalls.
Shields writes she suffered verbal abuse at the hands of her mother, who could become volatile when drinking. But the relationship, and Teri’s drinking, persisted until Teri’s death more than two years ago.
The book took nine months to complete, and wasn’t a cathartic experience for the former child star.
“It was sadder than it was cathartic,” she said.
Writing and talking about her mother means Teri remains ever-present in her daughter’s life. Shields says she expects she won’t fully begin to mourn her mother’s death until she has completed her book tour and Teri isn’t a near-constant topic of conversation.
She’s touched by the reaction she’s received from readers who also have parents who suffer from alcoholism and Alzheimer’s.
“The range of people that have been saying, ‘I totally identified with the book’ — it’s amazing how wide the appeal seems to be,” Shields said.
As for what Teri would think of the book, Shields says her mother would be really happy people still cared about what her daughter did.
“I think she would be proud that there was a sense of longevity about my career.”