How does a mother cope with a rock-star daughter famous for showing up wasted and flashing her tits at all sorts of public events? If you’re Linda Carroll, the mother of Courtney Love, you find someone else in the family whom you can be proud of.
The first part of Carroll’s memoir is pretty much what you’d expect: a worried mother’s attempt to make sense of Love, her first-born child, as she morphs from troubled child into exotic dancer into Hole frontwoman and, finally, into Kurtney, the wild widow of Nirvana god Kurt Cobain.
Carroll dishes little on the events that have made her daughter so infamous: getting locked up for drunken disorderliness on a transatlantic flight or singing “Danny Boy” while smashed on top of David Letterman’s desk. Nor does she say much about Cobain’s death. But she does make some sense, as a mother and a professional therapist, of Love’s deep need to bask in the slimelight.
Much of it should surprise no one—that young Courtney was brighter and quicker than the rest of the kids on the block or that she was a problem child from the get-go. Carroll’s marriage does not last, and her daughter becomes the product of an overweening single mother long before she assumes her throne as Hollywood’s biggest attention whore. By age 2, Courtney has her mother wrapped around her conniving little finger. Once the tantrum-prone toddler gets her frown down, she learns to use it to her advantage, acting out to get her mother to give in. But the child could flip manically from anger to joy. Which Courtney is waking up on any given day—the enchanting cherub or the angry little monster—is always Carroll’s guess.
These sections are probably best read as a sort of anti–Dr. Spock guide. Carroll acknowledges that she spoiled Love, essentially, by failing to set boundaries. She admits she was seriously lacking in parenting skills, the product of a sexually abusive adoptive father, cold nuns, violent boyfriends, and hippie communes.
It’s the prospect of her daughter’s parenthood that drives the memoir’s second, better half. When Love calls home to say she’s pregnant, and that the father is the world’s biggest rock star, the news inspires Carroll to find her own biological mother. The search begins in earnest right after the birth of Frances Bean Cobain, reviving the slightly sagging narrative.
Carroll’s mother turns out to be Paula Fox, the gifted children’s writer, novelist, and memoirist. No run-of-the-mill long-lost mother, Fox entered the pantheon of great American writers with the 1970 novel Desperate Characters, which followed two famous books for children, The Slave Dancer and One-Eyed Cat. Today, Fox continues to scribble well into her 80s. When mother and daughter reunite, they find a common past: Like Carroll, Fox had become pregnant at 18 by a man she did not love. Unlike Carroll, however, Fox did not marry him and chose instead to give her first-born up for adoption. That, of course, raises a question: Would Courtney have been better off adopted?
Hard to say otherwise, and her grandmother’s discovery hasn’t held much redemption for Love, either. According to Carroll, Fox has little truck with the famous rocker, who in turn has little time for her biological grandmother. (They’ve met only once.) Carroll herself maintains a strained relationship with Love, who has made no secret of her grudges against her mother.
A therapist, Carroll approaches her relationship with her daughter almost as a diagnostic exercise. (Conclusion: Her daughter was an uncommonly moody kid, whose manic drink-and-drugs lifestyle still fuels her old childhood resentments.) With Fox, though, Carroll finds a different kind of bond with a different kind of person. While her discovery has its self-rewards, maybe Carroll’s effort is best regarded as a gift to Frances Cobain, who now knows her family contains a nonboorish model for artistic success. —Patrick Tracey