Monday 18 February 2019

No love lost for a mother's lost love

Gaby Wood

COURTNEY became an adult at 16. She was like an adult long before that.

According to her mother, Linda Carroll, Courtney had perfected a warrior's glower at the age of two, was prescribed sedatives for insomnia as a preschooler, invented stories about being singled out for persecution in kindergarten and, at the age of eight, had become worn-out, witty and preoccupied with death.

But at 16, she was legally emancipated from her parents, that is, she was officially given the rights of an adult and a small trust fund to live on. She had by then been in and out of reform schools, drug treatment centres, correctional facilities; tutors, friends, family had given up on her.

The emancipation was not a sign that she was negotiating life well and didn't need guardians; it came about because she could not manage life at all and no one else could help her.

The fact that Courtney Love was a difficult and unhappy child is not exactly a revelation. Her entire persona has been constructed around the suggestion. As lead singer in punk group Hole and a punk-rock Plath for the Nineties, Love became the icon of a generation, a child gone wrong - a "kinder-slut" (as she liked to call herself) in stark, smudged make-up and torn babydoll dresses.

"The American public hates me," she would say.

Paradoxically, this hate was a symptom of the public's adoration. At her concerts, her most hard-core fans would shout: "Fuck you, Courtney!" before disintegrating into ecstatic trances.

Her raucous voice often masked what she recently described as "that thing that glitters, no matter how twisted or deadly or violent". What's stunning about her lyrics is not the hatred in them, but their weird, shattered love. Nowhere is this more painful than in the words written about her mother. "Your milk makes me mind," she sings on Live Through This: "Your milk gets so sour/ And I can only cry/ And I can only cower/ And I can only cry/ You have all the power."

Her mother has now wielded a new kind of power by writing a memoir, Her Mother's Daughter. The book is subtitled 'A Memoir of the Mother I Never Knew and of My Daughter Courtney Love', and it is the second leg of a kind of literary relay race.

Carroll recently discovered that her biological mother is the distinguished American writer, Paula Fox. Borrowed Finery, Fox's cool autobiography, was published in 1999 and ends with her long-lost daughter, Linda, getting in touch. When Courtney Love's diaries are published in November, we will have a vexed, three-volume chronicle of dysfunction and survival. (Perhaps there will someday be a fourth: Frances Bean, Love's 13-year-old daughter with Kurt Cobain, was reunited with her mother early last year. Love had lost custody of her daughter due to a drug overdose.)

Courtney Love has not spoken to her mother in years. Her response to Carroll's memoir has only been expressed via her manager. "The book," the manager said, "is a work of vicious and greedy fiction. We find it astonishing that any mother should write such a book. This is especially true in the case of Ms Carroll, who abandoned her daughter when she was a seven-year-old and whom Ms Love thus barely knows at all."

In person, Linda Carroll is calm, steady and easygoing. As she speaks, she weighs her words. She is imposingly tall and, though there is nothing grungy about her, flashes of her daughter's face appear now and again in hers. Their noses are absolutely identical and there is an uncanny resemblance about their eyes.

Carroll, whom I meet on the New York leg of her book tour, lives in Oregon and works as a family therapist. She has been with her fourth husband for 20 years; her other four children are grown up, happy and close to her; but her book is about the terrible secrecy surrounding her own adoption.

Carroll's diagnosis of her daughter is that she was a "bi-polar child" - though that phrase was not known at the time - and believes that the drugs Courtney was prescribed to help her sleep led her to becoming addicted to heroin later. Courtney was also surrounded by grief as a child, a fact that makes her status as a grieving widow and mother seem achingly ironic.

Within years of Courtney's birth, both Carroll's adoptive parents died, her best friend died and her three-month-old baby died. "Courtney came into the world with a very challenging temperament from the beginning," Carroll says. "But my chaotic lifestyle contributed to it."

The family - Carroll by now on her third husband - moved to New Zealand and left Courtney behind; she was shunted from one parent and step-parent to another. Love's father was an LSD freak with "paranoid tendencies" when Carroll met him as a teenager. He drew psychedelic magic-marker patterns all over Courtney's body when she was a toddler and described his daughter in the press as "a mean bitch".

"She would have felt terribly abandoned," Carroll confesses. "I mean, that would have been true. I was probably more afraid of what was going on inside her than she was."

In April 1994, when Kurt Cobain was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, there was one person Love wanted to call. "Mommy," she cried into Linda Carroll's answering machine, "my prince is dead, he's dead, he's dead. Please come and be here with me now."

I tell Carroll how heartbreaking I found it that her daughter should have still needed her. "I know, I know," she says. "She needed me, but she wasn't attached to me."

I ask Carroll at what point did she decide that she couldn't help Courtney any more, expecting her to recall some recent moment.

"When she was nine," she replies, abruptly.

That is not perhaps exactly true: "There's no way that I'm ever resolved with it," Carroll says and tells a story about some recent attempted rescue missions. "A year-and-a-half ago, when she was threatening suicide, someone called from LA - I guess it was her counsellor - and said: 'I think it would be really good for her to start to talk to you.'

"So I went down. I went into a room where there were lots of people waiting to see her. Hours. Somebody said she was watching television. It was a game, and I didn't want to be in that, so I left.

"Then a month later, somebody called from New York and said: 'She's really in trouble now. She's threatening suicide . . . and there's nobody who cares about her and they're trying to commit her . . . she needs someone here from her family.' I packed and went that night. And then later, Courtney's story about that was that I had gone back to commit her."

While there is nothing particularly mean about Courtney in her memoir, Carroll seems blind to the giant leap of bad faith the very gesture of writing it represents. I suggest that from Courtney's point of view, anything written about her - however innocuous - could, when written by one's mother, seem like the ultimate betrayal.

"I'm sure, knowing Courtney, that she would see it like that," she says. "When she heard I was writing the book, she left a lot of messages on my machine. She was far into drugs at that point and there were a lot of abusive and threatening messages. And then there was her manager saying how terrible that I would do that. But the book is so much more than a story about Courtney."

Everyone else in the book was sent the manuscript and invited to correct the passages relating to him or her. Courtney was not.

"I had to look into myself for a long time . . . why was I really doing this - was it a betrayal?" Carroll confesses. "I talked to a lot of people to try and explore my motivations. There's a question in there."

That question may be answered in the book itself. Early on in her daughter's career, Carroll quotes herself as fighting back. "Courtney," she tells her in exasperation, "if you don't stop making up stories about me, I will give an interview and tell every bit of the truth as I remember it."

Courtney hangs up on her.

"This is not a tell-all about Courtney," Carroll insists, increasingly uncomfortable with the trend of the conversation. "If I was going to do a tell-all, believe me, I've got files."

There is a pause while I digest this statement. Was that a threat?

© Guardian

'Her Mother's Daughter' by Linda Carroll is published by Doubleday

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