Born on June 11, 1939, Christina Crawford was born in the south to an unwed mother and a father married to another woman; she was placed through the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. As the home was run by the infamous Georgia Tann, one may say that was the first time that Christina was mistreated, as Tann ran a black market baby ring for over twenty years; Tann allegedly went so far as to actually kidnap babies from unwed mothers. Whatever Christina’s birth situation, she was placed with movie star Joan Crawford in an adoption orchestrated by Tann that took place in Las Vegas in 1940, with Christina initially being named Joan Crawford, Jr. Considering the later relationship with her mother, it is best that name did not stick.
Christina grew up in the lap of luxury, enjoying lavish birthday parties and visiting her mother on movie sets. However, she had a hard time with her mother being overbearing and controlling, as well as being eventually abusive. The phrase “No wire hangers, ever!” has become a much-spoofed, pop culture phrase, but the incident in which she was beaten with wire clothes hangers left her traumatized. Christina was only ten years old when her mother sent her away to boarding school, afraid that traditional school was not teaching her proper manners and convinced that Christina was too willful. The two continued to have conflicts, with Christina left to live in a convent in her mid-teens.
In 1960, Joan Crawford told “Redbook” magazine, regarding Christina, “It has been eighteen years of disappointment.” Nevertheless, she helped her daughter get her start in show business, although she withdrew the allowance and all support when Christina dared to rebel and quit a job her mother had set up for her; it was her way or no way. Like many children of celebrities, Christina faced dealing with a bubble that can lead to self-pity, yet having unimaginable opportunities and luxuries that could make anyone green with envy.
The struggles between Christina and Joan seemed to be ongoing for the rest of Joan’s life; Christina has been estranged from her mother for a few years before her mother’s death. It has been speculated that either that or the fact that Joan knew that Christina was penning a tell-all led her to disinherit Christina from her $2 million dollar will. Christina did not get a penny when her mother died in 1977.
Approximately a year after Joan’s death, Christina published “Mommie Dearest,” a frank and harrowing account of her life and the abuse that she survived at the hands of her mother. Although Larry King announced that “Mommie Dearest” was one of the most successful tell-all books on his show during Christina’s 2001 appearance on Larry King Live, Christina told him, “First of all, I just wrote it for myself and my family. It was like a diary, a memoir, that kind of thing. I never really knew that it was going to be published.”
However, when Christina sent it to friends in New York, they stated that it should be published. It was a bestseller, and it was the inspiration for dozens of other tell-all celebrity memoirs that have been published since. The book did something else remarkable: It brought child abuse into public conversations in a way that it was not typically address in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The dialogue helped spread activism, and child abuse prevention organizations and activism for stricter laws against child abusers continue to grow.
Mommie Dearest, Christina Crawford, William Morrow & Co., 1978, hardcover
Mommie Dearest, Christina Crawford, Seven Springs Press, 1997, anniversary edition, paperback
RedBook Magazine Article, October 1960