The Legacy of Maternal Cruelty: “I, Tonya”

I, Tonya” is a brilliant movie with a bold, much needed look at maternal cruelty, and the lifelong legacy for a wounded daughter. Margot Robbie, like Natalie Portman in Aronofsky’s “Black Swann”, adeptly wears the agony of a broken heart as she maneuvers skating with fierce determination. Channeling anger, hurt, passion and pain into her skill, she manages physical and artful achievements like no woman before her.   Yet, alongside her victorious moments lives another story: the damaging, shameless cruelty in her home. Learning that love means pain, Tonya finds toxic love again with Jeff, her first significant relationship and future husband.  Her need for Jeff’s love, and the love of her fans, are a desperate attempt to heal Mother Hunger.  (McDaniel, 2008)

As with Portman’s character in “Black Swann”, Tonya/Robbie can never perform enough, or “be” enough to achieve their mother’s love.  There is none to be had.  Yet we see the tenacious, constant yearning/need for (the mother’s ) love in both movies.  (see photo below…exquisite image of desperation).

Poignantly, director Craig Gillespie gives us this scene: adult Tonya, frightened, confused and utterly alone, receives a visit from her mother.  Tonya knows better than to hope…yet she tentatively lets her mother inside.  Shockingly, Tonya comes face to face with her mother’s perfect words, “I’m proud of you, you’ve done it, I’m with you”…and we see the vulnerable Tonya cry and move toward a hug. Robbie expertly delivers the moment, a hopeful guarded movement toward a mother’s love.  Yet in the embrace, she realizes her mother’s betrayal.

In Ready to Heal (2012), I explain that discussing mothers who are mean to their children makes one unpopular.  People don’t want to believe that mothers can be mean.  Yet, the cultural denial of maternal cruelty adds to the suffering for women who have lived this life.  Denial facilitates shame.  The constant question “What’s wrong with me? Why can no one love me?” lives in the molecules of a wounded woman’s body.  A daughter never stops wanting her mother’s love.  She may learn to live without it… heal the wound and find solace in other relationships, but the lingering shame remains, making life very difficult.

The desperate search for love that plagues the life of an unloved daughter poisons everything she attempts to create for herself. Her relationships (or absence of them), her talents, her dreams, and her self-concept.  “I, Tonya” bravely uncovers this truth.  Not only is the movie a tribute to Tonya’s athleticism; it highlights the incredible courage of a survivor. Her determination in the face of isolation tastes of brave desperation, a soldier walking into battle. Tonya is a warrior for other unwanted daughters…proof that they are not alone.

In my work, I find that the most damaging legacy of Mother Hunger is the devastation to the human bonding system.  A young girl experiences her first and most powerful broken heart with her mother.  This wound becomes the root of addiction, particularly love/sex/romance addiction.  Tonya’s relationship with Jeff adeptly takes the audience into the  addictive “love” dance that darkly progresses and intensifies.  Periodic moments of pleasureful “intensity” feel like love, and masquerade as “intimacy”.  Yet homicidal/suicidal gestures ensue, with repeated, ineffectual interventions from authorities.  Tonya’s capacity to practice and perform falters.  The cycle of love addiction unravels her strength.

This is the daughter’s legacy of an unloving mother: the fusion of pain, fear and love are hardwired into her nervous system, leaving scar tissue around her heart, and twisting “bonding” into a tragic battle ground. My heart is full and warm toward the heroine who is Tonya. Her generous spirit has allowed her story to be told.  A gift to other suffering women.  Bravo to the team who labored and delivered this movie with integrity and respect.