Authors: Annette Witheridge,Debbie Nelson
Tags: #Abuse, #music celebrity, #rap, #Eminem
Copyright © 2008 Debbie Nelson and Annette Witheridge
All rights reserved. Written permission must be secured from the publisher to use or reproduce any part of this book, except brief quotations in critical reviews and articles.
The opinions expressed in this book are those of the author of this book and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher or its affiliates.
eBook International Standard Book Number (ISBN): 978-1-61467-143-5
Original Source: Print Edition 2008 (ISBN: 978-1-59777-596-0)
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Kindle Edition: 1.00 (5/3/2011)
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
There was a time not so long ago when I had everything I ever dreamed of—two loving sons, Marshall and Nathan; a great job running my own limousine business; and several houses I’d turned into real homes. No one was prouder than I when Marshall turned his talent for writing poetry into rap. I encouraged him every step of the way. It wasn’t easy, and Marshall was no overnight sensation. The skinny white dude, as he called himself, was often laughed off stage and mocked by the hardcore Detroit musicians and radio disc jockeys he was so desperate to impress. Along the route he ditched his first professional name, M&M—a play on his initials—and became Eminem, the foul-mouthed entertainer.
At first I went along with it for Marshall’s sake—if I made one mistake as a mother, it was giving in to my eldest son’s every whim. He never knew his father, and I did all I could to make up for it. I wasn’t happy when he made up a whole new life for himself—what mother wants to be known as a pill-popping alcoholic who lives on welfare? To tell the truth, I was heartbroken. The lies started coming thick and fast—and not just from Marshall. Relatives claimed I’d abandoned him as a baby; his father alleged he’d spent years trying to find us but we’d just disappeared. None of it was true, but the fibs kept getting bigger, and ultimately Marshall and I became estranged. I think he’s forgotten the good times we had, and this book is my way of setting the record straight.
As a child, Marshall would tear around the house in a Batman cape, jump on the sofa to battle imaginary foes, and then crash exhausted onto my lap. Our home was full of music. Marshall mimed in front of the mirror. He filled notebooks with poetry and cartoon-superhero drawings. Between the ages of eleven and thirteen, he charged younger kids twenty-five cents to watch him breakdance. He doted on his little brother, Nathan, who copied everything he did. Nathan too loved Ninja Turtles and superheroes.
Marshall and I were so close that friends and relatives commented that it was as if the umbilical cord had never been cut. He confided in me throughout his teens; no subject was taboo. When he came home deflated, I told him he could achieve anything he wanted.
“Kim says I’m a nobody, nothing but a hamburger flipper,” he said after one especially brutal falling-out with his girlfriend when he was working as a $5.50-an-hour fast-food chef.
As everyone knows, Marshall proved his critics wrong. He became the biggest star in the music world, with an Oscar, nine Grammy awards, and countless MTV trophies to his name. He’s a billion-dollar industry and has broken numerous sales records. With the release of the film
in 2002, he became the only artist ever to top the movie, album, and singles charts at the same time. He is constantly compared to Elvis Presley, who a generation earlier turned the music of poor black people into mainstream entertainment. Marshall did the same with rap—but it came at an unimaginable price, not only to him but also to all of us who loved him.
After his first album,
, flopped, he reinvented himself as white trailer trash with a crazy welfare mom. I was shocked when I first heard his lyrics—Marshall rarely swore much in front of me. But he constantly reassured me it was all a big joke.
“The more foul I am, the more they love me,” he said.
And so began the great Eminem show.
Many things have been said about my son since he rocketed to fame in 1999 with
The Slim Shady LP
. American president George W. Bush called him “the most dangerous threat to American children since polio.” Learned professors have dissected his lyrics, and—unbelievably to me—his concerts have been likened to Hitler Youth rallies because of the way he supposedly whips up anger. He’s also been compared to the poets Robert Burns and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Depending on whom you believe, he’s a woman-hating, gay-bashing gangster, or a genius with a talent for irony.
Marshall and Nathan were among the people who inspired me to write this book when they started asking me about my own childhood. They knew I’d had a difficult life and wanted to know more. I’d hidden my struggles to bring them up because I never wanted to worry them about anything. I often juggled several jobs to make sure they had everything they wanted. Then Marshall confessed that he was so strung out on alcohol and drugs that he could recall nothing of 1999. The hits, the concerts, and even his first wedding were all a blur.
No one prepares you for the downside of celebrity. There isn’t a school for would-be stars and their families where you can learn about the pitfalls. Marshall says fame brought a slew of problems he never expected. He no longer trusts anyone. Everyone wants a piece of Eminem the megastar, not Marshall Mathers the man. I call these people the circling vultures: they spot dollar signs and swoop in for the kill.
My son never intended for me to become an object of hatred. He did not want to believe it when he discovered that fans spat at me in the supermarket and stuck chewing gum in my hair. It’s not just the fans; their parents sneer at me too because they do not realize that Marshall was reared in a loving, creative environment. I’m not saying I was the perfect mother—far from it, as you will read—but I did my best.
I’ve been described as much maligned. Misunderstood is more accurate. Strangers assume they know me because of songs like “Cleanin’ Out My Closet (I’m Sorry Mama),” but until now, only Marshall and I knew the truth. It wasn’t just the hurtful things involving alcohol and drugs. Everyone believed I was an evil, abusive monster. Even professionals like police officers, court officials, and hospital staff treated me badly because of what they’d heard about me.
Over the following chapters I’ll not only explain how I came to be tarred as a pill-popping alcoholic but will also tell the real stories behind my son’s lyrics, along with the happy times and the tragedies that touched our lives. Two of my three brothers died young, violent deaths. I want to tell their stories, too. I’m a fighter, and I will never give up. My beloved Nan had a wonderful old saying: “The truth will stand when the world’s on fire.” This book is all about that.
I was fourteen going on thirty when I fell in love with Marshall Bruce Mathers, Junior. I’d climbed a big old apple tree to escape my drunken stepfather when Bruce suddenly appeared. He squared up to my stepfather and told him he’d regret it if he ever hit me again.
Bruce was four years older than I was—a lean six-foot-two with beautiful long brown hair that he wore in a ponytail. He played the drums and was crazy about Jimi Hendrix and The Doors. Lots of girls in Saint Joseph, Missouri, had the hots for him. I was a skinny little tomboy with a bad overbite, so the last thing I expected was a romance with someone as tall and strong as Bruce. But that day changed everything. He offered me something no one had offered before—protection from my family.
It didn’t matter what went wrong at home; it was always my fault. That evening Mom ordered me to wash the dishes twice over to make sure they were clean. I refused, so Mom went for me. I managed to push her off before running out of the house and clambering up the tree. I heard Mom scream from inside, “Find the kid and beat her!”
My stepfather was swinging a belt around, swearing drunkenly. An apple fell to the ground. The branches around me creaked. I was terrified they’d find me. Then Bruce appeared.
“When you find her, you’re not going to lay a finger on her,” I heard Bruce say. “If you’ve got any weapons, throw them down. You want to hit someone, then hit me.”
My stepfather tried to change the subject by asking for a cigarette. Then he scurried back inside.
It was just going dark and I was frightened Bruce would leave, so I called down to thank him for saving me.
“What are you doing up there?” he asked, amazed I’d managed to hide myself so well.
I scrambled down the tree, jumping the last few feet into his arms.
“They’re not going to put their hands on you anymore,” he said. “No one’s going to hurt you again, Debbie.”
He looked deep into my eyes and all my fears disappeared. I could hardly believe it. Suddenly Bruce was the big brother I’d always wanted. And more. He was the first man in my miserable life to show he cared.
If only I’d known then how wrong I could be.
Looking back on my childhood, I find I have few fond memories. I was born in 1955 on a military base in Kansas. My parents, Bob and Betty Nelson, argued nonstop. I was the eldest and a total daddy’s girl. I recall sitting with my German shepherd dog on the front porch at Nan’s house in Warren, Michigan, where we lived at the time, waiting for Dad to come home from work. If I tried to stray into the street, my dog would pull me back toward the house.
I also remember standing with Mom waiting for surplus food outside an old government warehouse. By the time my younger brothers, Steve and Todd, were born, I was going alone to collect canned meat, dried beans, powdered eggs, and milk while Mom waited nearby in the car. It could take several hours to reach the front of the food queue. Sometimes the men who worked there helped me carry the heavy cardboard boxes to the car. On other occasions they yelled at me to keep moving. I hated every minute of it, but it helped feed us. At eleven, I was keeping house, caring for my brothers, cooking, and cleaning.
Dad’s mother, Bessie “Betty” Whitaker, whom we all called Nan, was the one woman in my large dysfunctional family to show us kids love. She was the nearest thing I had to a real mother. I adored spending summers with her. It meant a rest from the chores, screaming matches, and violence at home. I felt secure snuggled up next to her.
Nan’s house in Warren was quiet. Our homes—and we moved constantly—weren’t. There was always noise. I was seven when my parents first split up. Todd was a baby, and Dad claimed he wasn’t his son. Steve—who was three years younger than I—and I stayed with Dad. I remember trying to cook breakfast and setting the frying pan on fire. I was terrified I’d burned the house down. We went home to Mom, who was by then living in Saint Joseph, Missouri.
Dad was back with us when Mom met Ron Gilpin, the man who was to become my stepfather. Mom used me as cover when she sneaked off to see Gilpin. He’d give me his loose change and tell me not to tell Dad. Everything unraveled when my sister Tanya was born in 1964. This time Dad found himself a girlfriend and left for good.
Dad married Geri and adopted her two children. One of them was called Debbie, just like me. That broke my heart. It meant there were two Debbie Nelsons, and he obviously preferred his adopted daughter to me. He turned his back on us completely, acting as though we didn’t exist. Poor Nan did her best to make up for his disappearance. She tried to arrange meetings, but Dad rarely showed up. And when he did, he mocked us because we were small and scrawny.
I retreated into my own little world of makebelieve. I carried a picture of my father in his Air Force uniform everywhere with me and told my school friends that he was dead, that he’d been horribly maimed in a train wreck. People said Dad looked like Elvis Presley, so I pretended we were related to him and the singer Ricky Nelson. Before he retired from the military we’d lived a nomadic life, spending time in California, Italy, and Germany. I would close my eyes and try to magically transport us back to Europe.
Mom married Gilpin, but they split up constantly. She worked behind the bar at an exotic dance club. She attracted drunken bullies, and the cycle was always the same. After the initial courtship, the drinking and fighting and leaving would start again. There were nights when we kids slept on the porch with Mom to escape beatings.