"If I made one mistake as a mother, it was giving in to my eldest son's every whim" frets Debbie Nelson in the introduction to the recently published tell-some My Son Marshall, My Son Eminem. So there you have it folks: if, and that's a very big if, Nelson made any mistakes in raising an angry, profane, drug-addled son who hurls invective at her at every opportunity, it was being overly indulgent. That's like job applicants crowing that their biggest weakness is being too much of a perfectionist or doing too good of a job; shameless self-aggrandizement masquerading as self-deprecation.
Marshall Mathers' blackly comic tales of life as a white trash fuck up raised by a crazy, pill-popping nightmare of a mother are the stuff of pop-culture myth. They're a crucial part of Eminem's legend. But are they rooted in reality? Entertainers often embellish and distort their histories but the Debbie Nelson of My Son Marshall bears very little resemblance to the lazy, out-of-it shrew of Eminem's music. It's like Rashomon in that Nelson and Eminem offers wildly differing accounts of the same events. Where Eminem sees only the brutal rape of his childhood innocence, Nelson sees a puppy parade. Who doesn't love a puppy parade? And why is Eminem trying to pass off his puppy parade of an upbringing as the cherished, endlessly indulged offspring of a mother who sacrificed everything for the sake of her beloved son as an endless gauntlet of abuse and mistreatment?
In Nelson's telling she wasn't just an ideal mom to her sons Marshall and Nathan; she was a surrogate mother to all their friends as well. Moppets would travel from miles around to soak in the golden maternal warmth Mama Eminem effortlessly emanated.
Here's how Nelson ends her book:
I have always helped the less fortunate, putting them before myself. I cared for my siblings when they were young and my grandmother when she got old. I fostered kids in need, and Marshall and Nathan always had playmates around. The house used to be filled with the sound of children's voices. And even though I'm alone now, the phone still rings. I have some wonderful friends who have helped me through so much. It still doesn't fill the empty gap in my heart, but it helps.
Nelson is perhaps the most vilified mother since Joan Crawford. But the Nelson of My Son Marshall has the compassion of Christ, the luck of Job, Nancy Reagan's hatred of drug abusage and a less permissive attitude towards booze than Carrie Nation. After reading My Son Marshall I didn't know whether to review Nelson's book or nominate her for Sainthood.
At heart, My Son Marshall is an achingly sad account of life on the margins of society as a single mother who only wants the best for her children yet is attacked from every angle by the random cruelty of fate. When life with Eminem's alcoholic father proves unbearable, teen mother Nelson sets out on her own. Marshall grows up to be a moody and spoiled child, lost in his own fantasy world and shy and insecure around others. In an adorable anecdote, Nelson writes of Marshall wrapping a pet hamster in Saran Wrap, then sticking him in a microwave to warm him up. Oh wait, that's not an adorable anecdote. That's creepy and disturbing.
Later Eminem is beaten so viciously by a schoolyard bully that he seemingly incurs permanent brain damage and is forced to go to school wearing a football helmet to protect his precious cerebellum. For some reason the thought of a pint-sized Eminem wandering around school wearing what MF DOOM calls a "'tarded helmet" amuses me to no end.
Then one cursed day a snake enters Nelson and Marshall Mathers' Eden in the form of Kim, a tawdry teen temptress who pits Nelson's weak-willed baby boy against his mother and seems to derive an almost orgasmic joy in making Nelson's life hell. If Nelson is the blameless hero of My Son Marshall, Kim is its scheming arch-villain.
When forced to choose between his mom and his girl, Marshall invariably chooses the pathologically evil love/hate of his life. She is his greatest addiction, a toxic emotional terrorist (to borrow my colleague Noel Murray's memorable description of Nicole Kidman in Margot At The Wedding) with a Rasputin-like hold over Nelson's son even after he becomes rich and famous and could conceivably settle down with a non-evil woman he doesn't hate with the passion and intensity of a thousand suns.
So why does Eminem prove unwilling to kick his Kim habit? Nelson suggests that he's a creature of habit who clings zealously to the things he's familiar with even if they bring him endless pain and suffering.
My Son Marshall does deliver some penetrating, unexpected insights into Eminem, like when Nelson writes, "Marshall worried constantly about the state of the world–he hated wars, famines and poverty. He was all for peace and prosperity; his lyrics reflected those things". I've always had mixed feelings about Eminem. Now I know why: Eminem's controversial views clash violently with my staunch pro-war, pro-famine, pro-poverty, anti-peace and anti-prosperity agenda.
When the Slim Shady LP takes off, Eminem assures his mom that his depiction of her as a drugged-up basket case is all an elaborate put-on, a tongue-in-cheek way to build up his street cred and bona fides as a working-class no-hoper. But when Nelson's lawyer files a ten million dollar defamation lawsuit, the relationship between doting mom and her beloved baby boy goes from troubled to toxic. It is shattered beyond repair. In Nelson's telling, the defamation lawsuit that destroyed her relationship with Eminem was entirely an unscrupulous lawyer's idea. She is once again innocent, blameless, a victim of parasites out to exploit her naiveté and her son's wealth and fame.
To her credit, Nelson invariably takes the high road, like when she reports that during her wedding to Marshall, "Kim had on a black micro-mini and a short cropped top. According to those sitting in the church, she didn't appear to be wearing any underwear." A less discreet author would have treated readers to an elaborate, graphic account of what Kim's genitalia looked like on her wedding night. Not our Debbie. She's classier than that.
Nelson ostensibly wrote the book to defend herself against baseless accusations, but she doesn't always help her case. She takes great umbrage at the notion that she's a serial filer of nuisance lawsuits, for example, noting that she's filed at most, maybe five lawsuits. Call me crazy but I'd argue that if you file more than four lawsuits you probably deserve to be called litigation-prone.
Similarly, when Nelson is accused of having Munchausen by proxy and her youngest son Nathan is taken away, she's deeply confused. Here's Nelson on the misunderstanding: "Then came the oddest charge: I was suffering from Munchausen by proxy. I looked at Betsy Mellos, my lawyer, to see if she knew what that was. She shrugged. I'm tiny, and so was Nathan's father. I guess I was thinking of the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz–that our genes had also made Nathan small for his age at the time. It had to be some sort of dwarfism, I thought."
My Son Marshall promises an intimate look at the history and psyche of one of pop music's most beloved, hated and controversial figures but after the author is purged from Eminem's life Nelson is reduced to delivering the outside scoop, recycling tidbits of gossip she picks up from tabloids and gossip rags.
So where does the truth ultimately lie? I suspect that Nelson is ultimately neither the drug-addled, callous monster of Eminem's music or the living Saint of her egregiously self-serving memoir.
Nelson's book is painfully earnest. It is almost perversely devoid of the irony, humor and self-deprecation that pervades her son's music. A typical passage reads, "Writing was therapeutic. Sometimes I took an inspirational line from one of my poems and stuck it on the fridge door. 'We are born crying, we must learn to laugh was' was one. Another said, 'Children are on loan to us from God'." My Son Marshall, My Son Eminem offers conclusive proof that sometimes the apple falls in a different hemisphere than the tree.