National Post

Page URL:

Monday, January 03, 2000

Not even friends
Jennifer Aniston's mother, Nancy, sees her new book as a way of reaching out to her daughter, who has barely spoken to her in years
Charles Laurence in Los Angeles
National Post

Wilferd, Hultberg
Jennifer Aniston at the 51st annual Emmy Awards: behind the smile, an angry young woman.

Robert Gallagher, National Post
Nancy Aniston: heartbroken, ashamed

Robert Gallagher, National Post
Nancy Aniston turns out to be rather a difficult woman -- determined to set the terms, to be in control.

Jennifer Aniston, star of television's Friends, was on the telephone to her mother. "I will never forgive you!" she shouted before slamming down the receiver. It seems she meant it. In the 3 1/2 years since that call, daughter and mother have met only once. Behind the smiling face of the television character that has made her famous, Jennifer Aniston is an angry young woman.

And Nancy Aniston, her mother, is miserable. Mothers around the world will surely feel her pain. If the showbiz gossips have it right, Jennifer will soon be walking up the aisle to marry Brad Pitt, the ultimate Hollywood catch, and the chances of her mother being there to witness the happy union are slim to zero.

Nancy will be left weeping outside the church. And the velvet ropes that protect celebrity are firmly up against any possibility of a proud parent sharing the glory of first nights, Oscars and Emmys. Jennifer will no longer even speak to her.

Nancy is heartbroken. Few things can be more painful than being "divorced" by a child. Not only is there the agony of feeling the baby ripped from the maternal breast -- even if that baby is all grown up -- there is the shame.

"This has been extremely painful for me," says Nancy. Indeed, I can see her struggle against an urge to weep, visible even behind a rather generous application of makeup. "You spend all this time raising a child, with a lot of good intentions, and you feel you have failed. It makes you feel very ashamed."

Now Nancy Aniston has published a book -- From Mother and Daughter to Friends, A Memoir -- that mulls the question: What happened? As the title, with its allusion to the show, suggests, celebrity has something to do with it, but so does the need for mothers to "let go" and form an adult relationship with their children.

There are a few problems with this pop psychology, however comforting it may seem. Nancy Aniston turns out to be rather a difficult woman. She sits stiffly, wary of the world, on the sofa in a friend's house, the neutral, impersonal ground where she has insisted on meeting. There is a sharp tongue behind a formal manner, and an aggressive edge. Nancy casts herself firmly as being on the receiving end of life's travails -- always the victim -- and yet is determined to set the terms, to be in control, to be, in that modern American way, entitled.

She insists, even, that she is entitled to write her book for "therapy," to tell her side of the story and earn a fistful of dollars while doing so.

Perhaps her readers will believe her argument that she is offering only a "self-help" book to help ease their pain. More and more children, she says, are shutting their parents out of their lives as they grow up. "Family separation," she says, "is an epidemic today." She piously hopes that her book will not further alienate her from Jennifer, but might actually prove to be a balm to psychic wounds and help speed up the "healing" process.

This is absolute nonsense, says North America's favourite advice columnist, Dr. Joyce Brothers. "You don't do this publicly," she says. "It is guaranteed to keep the estrangement going. Let's turn the page, but not the written page."

Nancy is a woman who wants it both ways. The book opens with the fateful night on which Jennifer cuts the bonds of parenthood -- "I will never forgive you" -- after she has seen her mother gossip about her on a television talk show. Since that was the last straw, it seems unlikely that publishing a book will prompt much mercy, especially as it reveals a great deal about a rather private celebrity.

Jennifer was born in February, 1969, into a family that was already riven with problems. The birth, however, was as easy as a mother could hope for, with just two hours of labour in a Los Angeles hospital ward. Her father, actor John Aniston of the soap opera Days of Our Lives, came to get her in the family car. Her brother, Johnny, eight years older, brought flowers and kissed her on the cheek. It was a balmy California day.

This story had become Jennifer's favourite by the time she was four, according to her mother. It beat Winnie the Pooh, Ferdinand the Bull or anything by Dr. Seuss. Jennifer was, from the start, a self-contained, imaginative child. "She was a gentle, quiet baby," Nancy says. "Jennifer was careful, precise and seldom broke anything." Once, she fell off a kitchen counter, but was unhurt. Another time, Nancy heard "hysterical crying" and ran to find Jennifer sobbing in the back yard. She was not injured, the child explained, the problem was that "the grass was talking." She would entertain herself for hours with a group of invisible friends she called "The Little People."

The family's major trouble was poverty. "Kids are oblivious to hardship," says Nancy. "But money was so tight that Jennifer didn't have any new clothing for the first few years of her life." Friends had donated enough baby clothes to last for three years. "Broke as we were, Jenny was always dressed like a princess," she goes on. "Little Johnny was beginning to look a bit tattered. I felt bad when I saw his worn shoes and patched pants."

The problem was that John Aniston was very much an out-of-work actor. He and Nancy had met in the mid-'60s, when both were at drama school. Nancy picked up some work as a model and in films. But her hackles rose when her agent suggested she wear lacy underwear to auditions. When she became pregnant with Jennifer, she decided to be a stay-at-home mom.

Sadly, given their current rift, her lifelong ambition had always been to be at the heart of an old-fashioned family. This, she explains, was because her own mother had abandoned her when she was a teenager, leaving her with three sisters and an embittered father prone to secret drinking.

When she gave up her own career, she expected her husband's to take off. But by the time Jennifer was four, and played her first role as Little Red Riding Hood at her nursery school, even his agents had given up on John Aniston. The couple had spent six years struggling to repair their "fixer-upper" bungalow in the San Fernando Valley, over the hills from Hollywood, and had virtually no money. Nancy tells of friends giving them hamburger meat and of her stretching it out for days.

"I began to explode with fits of rage," says Nancy. "I feared becoming like my father and hated myself." In the mid-1970s, the family sold their little house and fled Hollywood. The Greek side of the family -- Aniston is an adaptation of Anistolpoulos -- gave them shelter, and Jennifer's father decided to try his luck at medical school back in Athens. When that plan failed, too, they headed for New York.

Jennifer grew up in Manhattan and, from her mother's memories, had some good times as well as bad. John found work at last and the family settled in on the Upper West Side. Jennifer went to the High School for Performing Arts, the school known from the movie Fame. She was happy there and made a start on her television career at the age of 15.

But by then the family had fallen apart. John met another woman, a co-star, and walked out. It was left to Nancy to tell Jennifer the news. "I watched a tear roll down Jennifer's cheek as confidence faded from her once trusting eyes," she remembers. Later, the young Jennifer said: "Mommy, I can't believe I'm going to be one of those kids who grows up without a father."

Her brother had already left home, hurrying back to California as soon as he was 17, and there was another episode of fury when Jennifer discovered from her father's relatives that Johnny was a half-, rather than full brother. Nancy found her weeping and raging, announcing that she "hated" a "half-brother I did not know was a half-brother."

As a teenager in the early '80s shortly after the divorce, Jennifer went through a time of dressing all in black and doing badly at her schoolwork. She saw less and less of her father. The Fame school, her first professional jobs and new friends on the stage seemed to have saved her.

Her mother seems to have had little idea of the fury building up inside her. Not long ago, a tabloid newspaper claimed that Jennifer had described Nancy as "an unfulfilled, bitter old woman." Nancy remembers the arguments -- over, for instance, whether Jennifer should have a manager as well as an agent -- and she admits to the shouting.

"Yes, I shouted a lot," she says. "But I had to get my husband out of bed to get him to do anything. Then he left me, and I was a single parent, responsible for my child. Imagine what my nerves were like. Yes, I did scold Jennifer. But a lot of my friends yell at their kids. They all do!"

But the little girl who heard the grass talk and kept her Little People friends in her head seems to have taken it all a bit more deeply than that. The big clue to the explosion ahead came in the early '90s, when Jennifer was already earning a good living and paying for her own Hollywood psychotherapist.

She had gone to the psychiatrist, according to her mother's book, for help in dealing with "boyfriend problems and some old issues with Dad." The finger, it seems, pointed at Mom, and Nancy was asked to come in for a three-way session. Nancy, clearly angry to this day, received a lecture on a daughter's need to "individualize" and on everything she had been doing wrong, which included too much bossing about and "controlling."

"If Jen needed to regain her power, why was she being pointed in the direction of me?" Nancy ponders. "Was being close to one's mother regarded as pathology? Had mom-bashing found its home in the current psychoanalytic rhetoric?" Was Mom a control-freak, Jennifer? Did she insist that you owed her everything because she had sacrificed everything for you?

"I do not," says Nancy, "accept this blame-the-parents theory. But I do see that a mother and a daughter have to learn to have a different relationship, a relationship between mature women."

Nancy suddenly seems to be talking to Jennifer. Perhaps her book really is a plea for understanding, a plea for Jennifer to feel sorry for her. "So I lost my temper. I'm sorry. I don't do it anymore," she says. "I've overcome that -- I have. And I've forgiven other people. I've forgiven myself, too."

After all her tears, Nancy Aniston claims to have found new meaning in life and a happy ending for mothers whose daughters want nothing to do with them. "There is life," she declares, "after children. Parenting takes so much of your time and concentration that, when it's over, it takes a big effort to redefine yourself.

"But you must! And you rediscover your own self! And it is wonderful, and it is very exciting!"

And there is hope, too, that one day her daughter will talk to her once more. "I'm her mom," she insists. "We have so much to share." Would Jennifer agree?

Copyright © Southam Inc. "National Post Online is a production of Southam Inc., Canada's largest publisher of daily newspapers."