When Mommie Dearest Isn’t

The thought of a woman abusing a child is a really terrible one. Yet the sad truth is mothers can be abusive too.

The thought of a woman abusing a child is a really terrible one. Yet the sad truth is mothers can be abusive too.

NO ONE wants to talk about it. Society is totally in denial that women aren’t always victims. So why aren’t we talking about abusive mums?  Corrine Barraclough[1]

We want desperately to believe that every mother falls in love with her baby at first sight and that the complexity of relationships, so evident elsewhere as part of the human condition, is totally absent from the connection between mother and child.”[2]

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‘The truth about violence is that it has more connection to morality than gender. And, not all women are natural caretakers.’[3]


The publication of Mommie Dearest in 1978, by Joan Crawford’s adoptive daughter, Christina was notable for two things. It was perhaps the first memoir ever to document child abuse from the point of view of the child. It was also perhaps one of the first books highlighting that not all mothers are the eternally loving, self-sacrificing beings they are made out to be.

Not everyone was convinced Christina spoke the truth. Some pointed out two of the adopted siblings contested her statements (ignoring that her brother who was also abused supported her). Others might have said Crawford was only an adoptive not a biological mother. The controversy continues.[4]

The thought of a woman abusing a child is a really terrible one. It contradicts conventional concepts of woman as mother, providing for and protecting her young, regardless of the cost to herself. Yet the sad truth is mothers can be abusive too.[5]

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What does data tell us?

Australian data shows that unlike adult homicide, a crime overwhelmingly committed by men — when women are killed, the offender is male 80 per cent of the time; when men are killed, it’s almost always men who kill them, the numbers are almost evenly divided by gender when it comes to filicide (the killing of one’s biological child).

A national report found that the offende­r in filicide was almost as often female­ (48 per cent) as male (52 per cent.).[6] In South Australia, the offender was found to be female in more than 70 per cent of cases but the reasons weren’t clear.

The report also found there were some important gender differences in terms of reported contributing factors. For male perpetrators it was more likely to report­ unemployment, or alcohol and drug problems, for females it was more often mental health problems.[7] Low income, a history of childhood abuse and violence or coercion from an abusive intimate partner could also contribute.[8]

The Psychology of abusive mothers

In countries like India, maternal filicide is often linked to patriarchal values preferring sons to the extent the mother colludes in female neonaticide even though it is illegal.

A cross-cultural study of maternal filicide argued that in many cases maternal filicide is committed by mothers who cannot parent their child under the circumstances dictated by their particular position in place and time. This was as true of Western countries like the United States and Eastern countries like India and Fiji.[9]

The study concludes that there was little doubt that mothers who kill their children should be held accountable for their actions.[10] However, the authors add, one of the central moral challenges of these cases lies in determining the appropriate level of accountability to attribute to these women. The authors conclude there is a great need to understand the underlying factors behind maternal filicide and developing appropriate social supports.[11]

There is also some evidence that underlying social factors do not invariably lead to abuse.

Less well documented are cases of mothers who are abusive due to the personality factor called narcissism. These mothers who may not be under any social pressure but are abusive simply because they are jealous of their daughters:

‘While many people believe that to be envied would be a desirable, powerful experience, in reality being envied, particularly by one’s own mother, is unnerving and awful.[12].

My friends and I  have experience with abusive mothers with narcissistic personality traits

The above is from a Western source. I don’t have any statistical or qualitative evidence on this phenomenon in India, but I have observed it in my own family. Fortunately, there were no taboos on criticizing the mother, checking the direct abuse and trying to get her to be more responsible. It didn’t work but the abuse moved to neglect of the daughter and the violence directed towards the husband who was not as rich as the woman wanted him to be and was further resented because of his great fondness for his daughter which she felt detracted attention from herself.

The experiences of other friends, in both India and Australia (of all backgrounds not just Indian) with similarly narcissistic mothers were mixed, with some receiving more support from the male parent and other relatives than others.

Here again, I did hear many stories of daughters being able to come out on the other side once they were old enough to strike out on their own. Most became successful in both their professional and personal lives. Some even became activists working for children’s rights. And they did not repeat the cycle of abuse towards their own children or even their ageing mothers where the dependency relation was reversed.

Christina’s book changed the landscape of victim representation and was an early precursor to today’s more robust state of victims’ rights in the United States and many Western countries. She perhaps summed what many of the women I have met or read about believe:

“I’m not a martyr, but I think, looking back, it is truly amazing to me what one person can do.”[13]

There are many movements in India to address the social factors underpinning abuse and neglect of girl children by mothers and other family members. I hope there are similar movements to address the complex issue of narcissistic mothers in India in the not too distant future.



[1] Why aren’t we talking about abusive mums? https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/kids/why-arent-we-talking-about-abusive-mums/news-story/629b48b93abd22be2b63f1344c0c5de6

[2] Peg Streep, Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt

[3] https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/hw180537

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/may/25/biography.film

[5] Why aren’t we talking about abusive mums? https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/kids/why-arent-we-talking-about-abusive-mums/news-story/629b48b93abd22be2b63f1344c0c5de6

[6] https://www.aic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-05/ti_filicide_offenders_050219.pdf

[7] Filicide: why do mothers kill their children? https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/filicide-our-most-shocking-crime/news-story/cf64b6a0c7643d8cbd86453dc5336c7d https://abcnews.go.com/Health/MindMoodNews/mothers-psychologically-abuse-children-bad-sex-abusers-experts/story?id=10577646

[8] Mothers’ Potential for Child Abuse: The Roles of Childhood Abuse and Social Resources

L A Hall 1, B Sachs, M K Rayens

[9] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/9069924_Mothers_who_kill_Cross-cultural_patterns_in_and_perspectives_on_contemporary_maternal_filicide

[10] https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/scotland/1618917/mother-from-hell-who-abused-daughter-from-day-she-was-born-jailed-for-three-years/

[11] Hall et al, op cit.

[12] https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-legacy-distorted-love/201310/mothers-who-are-jealous-their-daughters

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jun/25/christina-crawford-on-life-after-mommie-dearest-my-mother-should-have-been-in-jail

Image courtesy Pixabay

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About the Author

Indrani Ganguly

Indrani Ganguly was born of Bengali-speaking parents in Lucknow, India. Her parents imbued her with a strong sense of Indian and world history and culture. Indrani studied English Honours at the University of Delhi read more...

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