Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story
Evaluating the literary merit of a new project produced by a beloved comedienne can be tricky as the skill of the author may not match the level of goodwill enjoyed by the entertainer. Trickier still is a project from the hands of said comedienne that involves the sad tale of the all-too-early death of her daughter and that stands as something of testament to the life of that child.
It is just such a case with Carol Burnett’s new book Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story.
Had the book been crafted as a novel it would be easier to dismiss. Or had its author been some stranger, someone who we had not all invited into our homes on a regular basis, it might have been easier to ignore it, to glance at other books on the shelf and not at this one.
After all, it is not a story that most of us would choose to read.
And for that reason, Ms. Burnett is to be commended, in that it is a story that should be written, read and pondered over, as nothing in life is so important, so dreaded, so transformative as is the death of a loved one.
In Carrie and Me, Ms. Burnett does something brave and tackles the complicated love story between mother and child head on, forthrightly dealing with the issues that arose to threaten the easy flow of both communication and love (divorce, fame, drug abuse, etc.) while the intertwined journey of their lives together that came to an end on the morning of January 20, 2002, when Ms. Burnett’s daughter, Carrie Hamilton, died of brain cancer at the age of 38.
About the last moments of her daughter’s life, Carol Burnett writes:
“Toward the end she had suffered and endured so much. I remember holding her several times after she had been through a seizure. She’d look at me and cry, ‘Mama, this is just not acceptable!’
“At the time, I was torn between wanting her to let go, yet wanting her to hang on . . . (Was this a selfish wish on my part?)
“Looking at her now, I saw peace on her beautiful face. She looked serene. I was relieved for my baby. She wasn’t going to ever suffer again. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘It’s not supposed to happen this way. I’m the one who should go first.’”
The whole of the first section of this brief book is Ms. Burnett’s first-person account of her daughter’s birth, life, and death, with the author’s own diary being used as source material.
The setting is, of course, Los Angeles, where Ms. Burnett and her then-husband, television producer Joe Hamilton, were living (“We bought Betty Grable’s old house. She had been one of my favorite movie stars when I was growing up, so it was a particular thrill to know that she had walked (Or tap-danced!) in those very halls.”), while they together created and produced The Carol Burnett Show.
A child born into a world of plenty, fame, and to some degree indulgence, Carrie Hamilton by her young adolescence had developed a drug problem, which more than once sent her into rehab and which landed the two of them on the cover of People magazine:
“We all agreed that we should go public to ward off any tabloid stories with all their distortions. We wanted to tell our truth about Carrie’s drug abuse, so we gave People magazine the story and it made the cover. Over a smiling picture of Carrie and me they ran the headline, ‘Carol Burnett’s Nightmare,’ which I hated. Carrie laughed about it, calling herself, ‘Mama’s Little Nightmare.’”
All of this leads to a rather startling insight on Ms. Burnett’s part, one that compares the lives of mother and daughter in a way that allows for each to ultimately reach across the gulf that had formed between them.
From an undated diary entry, Ms. Burnett quotes:
“I just realized something! For all the obvious difficulties of my childhood, I had it easier than Carrie did! I am dumbstruck by the thought. Not only did our modest means provide me with far fewer temptations, but my goal in life was crystal clear from the beginning: survival. Period. There was no room in my life for experimentation. Anything that didn’t contribute to staying alive was an indulgence I couldn’t afford, pure and simple.
“Now I’m thinking that Carrie and kids like her (by that I mean from outside appearances) aren’t actually born into fortunate circumstances at all when it comes to developing character, or their souls. If someone heads along a good path IN SPITE OF a silver spoon in their mouth, then I believe they’ve really done more hard work than someone like me, who had none of the distractions and temptations that come with those ‘advantages.’
“God, how often do we say and hear, ‘I just don’t get it. These kids today have so much more than we ever had. We had to work, we had no money, we had to struggle. What the hell’s the matter with them? They should be so damn grateful. We certainly would be!’
“Could we have survived and made something of ourselves if we hadn’t HAD to?”
Soon Ms. Burnett’s memoir switches from diary entries to emails and we have copies of notes passed back and forth between mother and daughter as Carrie matures, marries, divorces, and begins to find her voice as a writer.
The two together coauthor a play called Hollywood Arms, based upon Ms. Burnett’s earlier memoir, One More Time. They worked together long distance, Ms. Burnett in Hollywood, Hamilton in her cabin in the mountains of Colorado, faxing pages across telephone wires, which would be developed through the Sundance Theatre Lab and produced on Broadway by Hal Prince.
At the same time, Carrie Hamilton was at work on a novella called Sunrise in Memphis, a high-concept piece in which a drunken/stoned girl meets a stranger at a party in L.A. and the two set out together for Graceland. The work was left unfinished as Hamilton was soon diagnosed with lung cancer that metastasized to her brain.
A publication of this unfinished story fills out the last third of the book.
And this perhaps is the single disservice that the mother foists on her daughter. While the rest of the work stands as a testament to a talented, passionate young woman who had both the strength and courage to battle both drug addiction and cancer during her brief lifespan, the publication of her unfinished work does not do her justice.
The state of the work is the stuff of college classrooms and amateur writers’ groups. It is not finished, not ready to be evaluated. Nor is it likely something that the author would have wished to have had read in its present state.
Would that Ms. Hamilton had been granted the time to finish her story, to perfect it. But in its present state, perhaps it is best for readers to let it remain unread. Best to stick to the diaries and the emails and leave the manuscript alone.