Welcome to Bad Moms. This Mother’s Day, as we celebrate the beautiful angels kind enough to raise our sorry asses, we’re profiling five of the most notorious moms in history. Who says dads get to be the only antiheroes in pop culture?
“Whenever something good happens, the bad always follows,” Eminem said once about his upbringing. “That’s the story of my life since the day I was born.”
Those aren’t lyrics from an Eminem song, but a quote he gave to the Detroit Free Press in 2000 about being raised by Debbie Mathers, a single mother in a trailer park in Detroit near the boulevard 8 Mile, a major thoroughfare in a rundown neighborhood of poor black kids. There, he would nurture a talent for rhyming so successfully that he would not only become the most famous white rapper in the world, but also the best-selling artist of the entire decade, moving over 32 million copies of The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show, and getting endless digital and radio plays.
If you take Eminem at his word, though, his mother wasn’t much of one. By his account, she gifted him a life of problems he characterized as true Jerry Springer shit — replete with the trailer park, the string of drunk abusive boyfriends and stepfathers, the welfare, her pill-popping alcoholism and, to top it all off, the fallout of her lifelong bout with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, where she invented myriad illnesses for him and his half-brother, Nathan, so she could play the sympathetic caregiver.
You can hear that in songs like “My Name Is,” where he raps, “Ninety-nine percent of my life I was lied to/ I just found out my mom does more dope than I do (Damn!)/ I told her I’d grow up to be a famous rapper/ Make a record about doin’ drugs and name it after her (Oh thank you!).”
And later, on “Marshall Mathers,” where he sings: “My fuckin’ bitch mom suing for 10 million/ She must want a dollar for every pill I been stealin’/ Shit, where the fuck you think I picked up the habit/ All I had to do was go in her room and lift up a mattress.”
And on songs like “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” where he sings: “Witnessing your momma popping prescription pills in the kitchen/ Bitching that someone’s always going through her purse and shit’s missing/ Going through public housing systems, victim of Munchausen syndrome/ My whole life I was made to believe I was sick when I wasn’t/ Till I grew up, now I blew up, it makes you sick to ya stomach.”
That’s not all: “See what hurts me the most is you won’t admit you was wrong/ Bitch do your song, keep telling yourself that you was a mom!/ But how dare you try to take what you didn’t help me to get/ You selfish bitch, I hope you fucking burn in hell for this shit/ Remember when Ronnie died and you said you wished it was me?/ Well guess what, I am dead, dead to you as can be!”
Or the song “My Mom,” in which he reveals she sprinkled Valium on his food when he was a kid — “the water that I drank, fucking peas on my plate” — to keep him under control.
But aside from “My Name Is,” those songs all came after Debbie sued him for $10 million for slander in newspapers and broadcast media, telling the story of his terrible childhood as the reason for his gritty tales of white poverty that spurred him to success. She then released a “rap” song responding to the claims, letting him know she still loves him, even though she was in labor for 72 hours and almost died. She does apologize — for giving him everything and spoiling him. Then, she delivers the line of all bad parents everywhere: “I did the best I could.”
Then she wrote a memoir, My Son Marshall, My Son Eminem to set the record straight. Her response? He was a sickly little wuss who made all that up to get famous. He admitted it, she claims, telling her “The more foul I am, the more they love me.” Even so, she was still his biggest supporter. Her only crime — if you can call it a crime to care so deeply — was loving him too much.
But even if he is making it up (and what rapper doesn’t exaggerate a little?), in order to understand him, you have to understand her. There’s enough between them to explain, if nothing else, the anger, the misogynistic lyrics, the troubled relationship with wife Kim, the mom-shaped wound many men carry for life when abused by the one woman who’s supposed to nurture them the most.
Debbie Nelson Mathers-Briggs was born in Missouri in 1955 on a military base to Bob and Betty Nelson, who reportedly bickered nonstop and eventually split. Debbie ended up with her mom, who worked the bar at a strip club and was a magnet for a series of drunk, abusive boyfriends, until one of them became Debbie’s stepfather.
Debbie took the magnetic appeal with her. Just as Betty had married Bob at age 14 to escape her own drunk, abusive family, so did Debbie marry Eminem’s father, Marshall Bruce Mathers, Jr., at the age of 15 to escape her drunk, abusive stepfather, who’d aggressively tried to rip her clothes off one night on a rage. Bruce, whom she described as having long, flowing brown hair with the “high cheekbones of a Blackfoot Indian,” was the first guy to stand up for her. He wanted to be a drummer in a metal band. He said his mother’s family was actually part of a long line of witches. The next time Debbie’s stepfather tried to lay a hand on her, Bruce proposed.
But the bloom was soon off the rose when he cheated on her with what she calls “the local whore.” If only things had been that simple. Infidelity turned out to be the least of his bad qualities. He was also a drug dealer, selling acid to supplement the paychecks from the local wood veneer factory. Once, Bruce dosed her a hit of Orange Barrel Sunshine acid without her knowledge and sent her on a nightmarish trip, then refused to get her medical help.
A year later, she dropped out of school while pregnant, and Bruce, who by then was allegedly demanding sex three times a day and still finding time to cheat, became abusive, calling her a “selfish bitch” while pregnant and pushing her down the stairs.
She gave birth to Marshall Mathers on October 17, 1972, after a shaky 72-hour labor. She nearly died due to blood poisoning and seizures, leading to a temporary coma. Bruce, she writes, was off screwing one of her friends.
Marshall was a bit of a runt, born 5 pounds and 2 ounces, and sickly enough to catch pneumonia and need hospitalization as a baby. Debbie was over the moon about Marshall, but could already see his penchant for faking. From the moment she lays eyes on him, “He knew exactly how to look at me from under his long dark eyelashes and put on a show.”
She credits herself for his gift for rhymes, saying she used to read nursery rhymes to him but alter the phrases with “silly alternatives.” They moved to North Dakota, where Bruce took a job at a hotel. He allegedly began drinking whiskey and rum and shoving her head into a wall, calling her a bitch and ordering her around. Sometimes, to change it up, he he’d pin her to the sofa and punch her, she said. Things got worse: He cheated more frequently and brazenly, and even her his own father begged her to leave Bruce and take the baby. Finally, he hit her so hard he shattered her nose and left her unconscious. She took Marshall and left, finally scraping enough together for a train ticket. And for this reason, she writes, she vowed to never have any drugs or alcohol around him.
She moved back to her family, making it a point to mention that even as a 2-year-old, Marshall was already able to “make himself sick” with stomach pains during the ordeal. Bruce called a few times to try to get back together, but eventually split to California, making her a single mother at 17.
From her memoir’s first pages, the point of the book is clear: This is a corrective to Eminem’s lyrics, which in no uncertain terms characterize her as an abusive piece of shit. But she plays it skillfully both ways: She loves him no matter what and gave him a great childhood, even though he’s kind of a monster.
He was an easy baby, although he already has his father’s temper and tendency to throw tantrums. She refused to spank him. He had an invisible friend — Casper the Ghost — and is obsessed with superheroes. Her crime, if anything, was overcompensating for his lack of a father. Two Happy Meals whenever he wants, superhero action figures, comic books, all of which she works numerous jobs to provide.
She had a musical gift, too, joining a band on backing vocals called Daddy Warbucks that played Ramada Inns. She dated only professional men, doctors and lawyers, not scumbags, but her insecurities were a problem and she felt she wasn’t pretty enough for them, always getting hurt. She was always accused of things she didn’t do: setting ex-boyfriend Don’s cab on fire; hiding her sister who’d run away. She eventually remarried a motorcycle guy named Curt who stood up to Don for her, but sure enough, after the honeymoon, he was drinking and abusing her. Then he left her.
Every story is breathtakingly identical in her insistence of her own victimhood. There’s an answer for every claim: They moved around so much — he attended 20 different schools before dropping out at 17 — because after she redecorated every rental, suddenly the landlord loved how great she’d made it and wanted to sell it. They also never lived in a trailer. The homes she rented were always nice, in nice neighborhoods, and spotless, and Marshall grew up with everything he ever wanted. They had so much they often donated his old toys to Catholic charities. She even adopted four children, because Marshall had always wanted siblings. But Marshall locked him that out of the house, and a mysterious house fire got them taken away.
Eerily mimicking Eminem’s own later quote to the Detroit Free Press, she says that was their saying with each other: “Every time something good happens to us, something bad does, too.”
But the book is also, in every sense, a teardown of Eminem. Marshall loved animals, but then one day she came home to find he’d nuked his own guinea pig in the microwave because he thought it was cold. He killed his fish off too, but only because he just didn’t understand how delicate they were! Other people called her boy a monster, but she always defended him. At school, he was often bullied, but he was also always lying, pretending he was sick or had a broken leg.
She confirms that he was bullied and picked on as an elementary school kid, most notably by a black classmate, DeAngelo Bailey, who allegedly took him down with a snowball heavy enough to give him a brain injury. After a days-long coma, doctors told her he’d have to be institutionalized, but her steadfast love and care healed him, homeschooling him and even going on welfare to care for him around the clock. Eventually, he was okay again, and even the doctors said it was a miracle that he’d recovered.
Debbie sued the school in 1982, but the lawsuit was tossed. (Eminem would publicly name his bully on the track “Brain Damage,” and Bailey would sue for a million dollars.) This brain damage may be the source of the Munchausen Eminem is referring to in “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” an angle she seemed to use often to treat him like an invalid and gaslight his assertions about her behavior.
They seem to agree that they did, in fact, live in Detroit near 8 Mile, with its liquor stores, adult bookstores and topless joints. In her book, Debbie takes great pains to portray herself as the favorite mom of the neighborhood, with playdates so successful that none of the children wanted to leave.
She was the one playing the radio and records and taking him to concerts and giving him the broad musical education that would, of course, lead to his success. She took him to a Talking Heads concert, but it turns out to be another story of her again being dosed by someone against her will. When she’s passed a cigarette, it turns out to be weed laced with a tranquilizer — her only time ever trying pot. She also recounts trying alcohol just once, too, and puking.
From there the stories continue in a similar vein: She’s always being accused or framed of something, and that’s the reason they had to move, or go on welfare, or that she had another premature pregnancy: A guy pulled a knife on her, and the shock cut off the food supply to the baby. She doesn’t drink, she insists. She doesn’t take pills, either — except for the multiple instances where doctors prescribed them — panic, a toothache, nerves, anxiety, and so on.
She marries her third or fourth husband, insisting he’s sober, and then he has a mental breakdown three months later, attacking her and slamming her face into the fridge. The reason? Because she was so great. “The doctors thought that he’d had such an awful time during his first marriage that he’d finally cracked when he met someone who truly cared for him,” she wrote. “He couldn’t believe that someone so nice, with a lovely home and children, could love him.”
In and out of work, she eventually managed to come up with a successful business idea: limo driver. She bought a few cars and made enough to buy the family a home in Detroit.
That’s when Kim Scott, Eminem’s future wife (twice), entered their life, and for Debbie, it’s a rich source of bile throughout the book. Marshall showed up one day with a blonde, busty girl pretending to be 15, who ended up being 13. Kim has large breasts, which Debbie mentions often, as Marshall has a taste for tall, blonde, “big-boned” women.
From there, the once-close, loving relationship between a mother and son who used to write each other poetry to communicate deteriorated into utter mayhem — all because of Kim, a troublemaking manipulator. Debbie insisted she sleep on the couch, but Kim made it clear she was sneaking into Marshall’s room for sex immediately.
The book goes on like that. About everything. Debbie Mathers is a doting grandmother to Hailie and a generous check-casher to Marshall; and everyone else is an unrepentant liar.
“Anything Marshall wanted, he got,” she told Salon in 2000. “I sheltered him too much and I think there’s a little resentment from that.” She covered his car insurance and bank accounts through adulthood, and he lived with her until he was 26.
Whom to believe? Salon turned up some childhood acquaintances of the Mathers to investigate the claims, and found exactly the sort of polarizing contradictions you’d expect: Some people thought she was devoted and sweet. Other people called her a crazy bitch. Most people remembered Marshall Mathers himself as a loner or a dork.
Either way, she lost custody of Nathan for a bit after social services found her to be guilty of child abuse, including beating him with a hairbrush and inventing illnesses, as well as dragging him to multiple doctor visits and keeping him out of school. That’s where Munchausen comes up as an official charge. A social worker in the case said in juvenile court in 1996 that she “exhibits a very suspicious, almost paranoid personality,” and suggested Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
Debbie sees herself as the eternally sacrificing mother. She supported Marshall through a first flopped album and was there cheering him on all the way, even if he did paint her as a selfish bitch. Even if he kept getting back with Kim, a gold digger who fed him pills on the road, who told him throughout their relationship what a nobody he was, only to suddenly find him extremely attractive again when he got famous.
Kim, she just wants everyone to know, did not wear underwear at the ceremony the first time they wed.
So how about the lawsuit? Suing Marshall for $10 million was another misunderstanding, another victimization. Debbie had hired a lawyer to set the record straight; he told her everything was going smoothly and to just let him do his job. The CD she released? She was approached to do it, and “was literally given five minutes to write an open letter to Marshall.”
In 2013, though, Eminem apologized to his mother on the song “Headlights,” in which he acknowledges his anger in the past and thanks her for raising him. At least, that’s how it was widely covered. He even raps that they’re actually in the same boat — like mother, like son — and you’d think it’d make them closer, but they remain estranged.
From the cheap seats, we can’t really know what’s true, but Eminem, for his part, remains steadfast to the story he always told. “All the medicine you fed us/ And how I just wanted you to taste your own, but/ Now the medications taken over and your mental state’s deteriorating slow,” he raps. “And I’m way too old to cry, that shit’s painful though/ But Ma, I forgive you, so does Nathan yo.”
It’s not an apology for lying at all. It’s an apology for telling the truth.