Lifestyle & Culture

Why ‘Barbie’ Made Me Cry

August 8, 2023

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Rhea Perlman (Ruth Handler) and Margot Robbie (Barbie) /photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

By Janet Kelly

WE mothers stand still, so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come,” Rhea Perlman explains to Margot Robbie in one of the final scenes of Barbie. Perlman’s words resonated, unleashing a flood of tears.

Let me offer some background in my family drama to explain:

I suspect my brother’s mental illness went unrecognized in childhood (I remember him as a cute kid who liked to laugh and was also as a pain-in-the-neck little brother whom my mother wanted me to help do his homework). He did all right in college, even started a small business on campus. When he joined the family biz, though, things began to unravel. He threatened to quit his job, did quit a few times and then asked to be taken back too many times to count, causing my parents undeserved misery along with significant pressure from other, not-so-compassionate relatives in the business.

My mother’s worries about my brother were our most frequent and fraught topic of conversation. But before that and in between times, my mom was my biggest fan, proud of my academic and career accomplishments.

I had a rocky first marriage and then lots of dates/relationships. She listened to my love woes and advised when she thought I was heading down the wrong road. A woman with an innate sense of style, she was my role model and arbiter of good taste, although she could be annoyingly critical and controlling: “You’re wearing that?” or “Did you get a haircut?” Most of all what I loved about her was her enthusiasm/passion for life—she was up for her latest bridge game, to see a new movie, go to the ballet, play a round of golf or go on a cruise in her mid-80s with her daughter and son-in-law. And I admired her compassion for other people. To help out her sister who was working in the jewelry business, she sold one of her most prized possessions so my aunt could get the commission.

When my mother later moved to Florida, as did my brother, during my visits there I noticed but failed to understand his increasingly erratic behavior—renting new, expensive cars and later defaulting on the leases and hopscotching to different houses/apartments when he found fault with one or the other. My pleas to him about respecting my aging mother and taking more responsibility for himself fell on deaf ears. When my mom died she left money for both my brother—for his care— and for me. I suggested he use his funds to find an assisted living facility, which he did, and he remains there today. But my other efforts to guide him, suggesting he use my financial planner and offering to help manage any legal matters were rebuffed. My brother effectively broke all ties with me.

That’s when my mother’s cautionary advice kicked in. Unlike other parents I’ve learned of who burdened their children with taking care of the family strays, my mother looked at me a few months before her death and said simply: “Your brother ruined my life; don’t let him ruin yours.”

It’s painful to think my brother and I have so little contact—a phone call on birthdays is the extent of it, and that he has no family around him, but I have to live with those consequences in order to carry on with my own life. My attempts to interfere in his are unwanted and backfire on me.

As I watched Rhea Perlman offer her loving gift to daughters everywhere, I thought of my mother and the gift she gave me. My tears were tears of melancholy, of missing her, but mostly tears of gratitude.

20 thoughts on “Why ‘Barbie’ Made Me Cry

  1. Susan Pellish says:

    After years and years of therapy, wrong medication, more therapy I understand well that I have a cesspool of a genetic disorder of bi-polar II. I do hope your brother is receiving the treatment he needs. It is terribly hard for friends and family to detach with loving kindness and accept a mental illness diagnosis. My mother’s suffering is at the core of mine. Thankfully organizations as main stream as Rotary are taking up mental health initiatives worldwide fighting stigma. I’m encouraging you to use your platform to fight stigma also. “Who you were yesterday isn’t necessarily who you are today” with proper care. A monthly card to your brother may make all of the difference in his world or not.

  2. Helen Sullivan says:

    Tho we have lost touch through the years, I think of you often with fondness and admiration . Your words about your relationship with your brother resonate with sadness and echo my relationship with my son
    Though my mother is not here to guide me your words have.
    Thank you

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      I think of you, too, with all good wishes. I’m so sorry that my relationship with my brother reminds you of yours with your son. But I’m glad if what I wrote can help you in any way.

  3. Nancy G says:

    What a moving, and heartfelt, tribute to your very wise and giving mom. Severing familial ties has to be one of the hardest things to do, but often it’s for self-preservation. Obviously, true in your life.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      Yes, hard to do but not much of a choice.

  4. Dominique Rychlik says:

    Hugs. It is nice when a movie or book helps us reflect though.

  5. Jay Carson says:

    What a fine and touching memoir piece. I love the characterizations sad as some of the relationships are. The lack of easy answers screams truth.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      Thanks, Jay. Lack of easy answers is such a good way to think of all of it.

  6. Nancy McKeon says:

    I envy you your relationship with your mom. It was truly a gift.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      When I was growing up it didn’t always feel as if it were a great relationship. It took me a while to realize her strength and generosity.

  7. Janet,
    So moving, so sad, so emotionally on point! What an astute, wise mother you had! And how clearly her message worked for you.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      Thank you, Judy. I had to make a choice, and as difficult as it was–and still is–I’m so glad I had her release to do it. She was wise and a wickedly good bridge player.

  8. Jim Roddey says:

    Being an only child I’ve been spared what you have experienced. However, I recognize some tension with our son which we don’t understand and that has caused him to be angry with me and his mother.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      It’s so hard to be a parent, as you already know!

  9. Kathy Legg says:

    Such a gift your mother gave you. So wonderfully wise and generous of her.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      Generous is the right word to describe her.

  10. cynthia tilson says:

    Ah, dear heart…
    My brother stopped speaking to me one Christmas morning years ago. It was sudden and without warning, but his increasingly deranged emotional state was witnessed by many. I was in denial, it seems.
    Yet, it hurts, and yet that’s what is so confounding about those ties that bind. You can’t change others – it’s not your job – you can only change yourself. So forgive him, but first forgive yourself.
    Much love to you and your mama. She obviously loved you, and proved it by setting you free.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      I was lucky she was my mother.

  11. Christine Ledbetter says:

    Janet, this moved me to tears.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      I think you’d love America Ferrera’s speech in Barbie. Hits home.

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