One in nine Americans will lose a parent before age 20. Children, particularly daughters, who lose a mother at an early age can be profoundly affected in countless ways. As comedian Rosie O’Donnell, whose mother died of breast cancer when she was a child, puts it, “The dead mother thing…it’s like a club. You’re initiated. You get a tattoo. It is not going away.”
THE (DEAD MOTHERS) CLUB tells the story of three women whose paths never cross, yet are bound by the shared experience of losing their mothers during adolescence, exploring each one’s sometimes-complex relationship with her mother. Directed by first-time filmmakers Carlye Rubin and Katie Green, who are themselves members of “the club,” it also includes insights from O’Donnell (one of the executive producers), Molly Shannon and Jane Fonda, who share their own experiences with losing a mother.
At a baby shower in New York City, Leticia, a 29-year-old with Brazilian roots, celebrates the impending birth of her first child with friends and family. “Everyone has to guess which features the mommy-to-be would like the baby to inherit from each parent,” a friend announces to the guests, who jot down their answers amid laughter. Although the game is light-hearted fun, genetic concerns have been weighing heavily on Leticia: Her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all died from breast cancer as the result of a hereditary gene mutation.
Leticia is realistic about the risks, saying, “If I have the BRCA gene, I have a 75% chance to develop breast cancer. The odds are just enormous.” She is grateful for the support of her husband, Andrew, and, after the birth of their daughter, chooses to get tested for the gene. Despite her uncertain future and what it could mean for her child, Leticia does her best to live in the present and decides to move back to Brazil with her family. “You can’t live in fear,” she says, “That’s the big lesson my mother taught us.”
“Art is a curse and a blessing,” says Ginger, a talented southern artist who struggled to make her mother understand her artistic ambitions as a child. She enjoyed the freedom college offered, and argued with her mother on a visit home. After their tumultuous relationship ended dramatically, Ginger was haunted by the heated argument that turned out to be their last exchange, just days before her mother’s sudden death. Losing her mother so abruptly prompted an immediate upheaval in her personal life and a shift in her artwork.
“I started to translate how I was feeling through my art,” says Ginger, who had never felt such an emotional connection to her work before. Years later, she is happily married, with a baby on the way, and her artwork has been selected for a museum exhibit. Ginger is finally able to find peace in her new life. “It’s no longer this long drawn-out train full of emotions. It’s just a feeling of closure,” she says.
Since her mother’s death from cancer five years ago, 17-year-old Jordyn has taken on the maternal role in her younger sister Brooke’s life, while focusing her energy on getting good grades. “School has always been the one place I can control,” she explains. Thanks to her hard work, Jordyn can choose from a number of impressive universities, including her mother’s alma mater, UCLA, just 45 minutes from home.
“I think my mom would’ve encouraged me to go to UCLA,” Jordyn admits, even as the opportunity to make a fresh start at a school in a new state becomes increasingly appealing. Wishing to be close to her sister, yet wanting to pursue her own goals, she knows now how much of an impact her mother’s absence has had on all their lives. “We never realized that the whole thing could be even more life-changing than it was at the time,” she reflects. “It’s just so much of our life that she missed out on.”
In separate interviews, Rosie O’Donnell, Molly Shannon and Jane Fonda – who all lost their mothers before age 12 – recall heartbreaking and touching experiences, reflecting on their struggles and the impact losing their mothers had on them.
“From my point of view at this stage of my life…. I think everything happened just the way it was supposed to,” says Fonda, who carried guilt over her mother’s suicide for many decades. Shannon acknowledges that the accident that took the lives of her mother, sister and cousin made her tough, fearless and driven, believing the “crazy freedom” she felt onstage was borne from surviving the tragedy.
O’Donnell’s greatest challenge has been coming to terms with the differences between herself and her mother, who died of breast cancer. “The day my son was placed in my arms, everything changed in terms of my relationship with my mother,” she notes. “I realized how much I loved this child, and my mother loved five children that much, and she knew she was leaving us. I remember at that moment, life seeped back in, color seeped back in, you know, all of a sudden there was hope again.”
THE (DEAD MOTHERS) CLUB is directed by Carlye Rubin and Katie Green; edited by Tina Grapenthin; original music, Mike Thies; produced by Carlye Rubin, Katie Green and Tina Grapenthin; senior producer, Lisa Heller; executive producers, Sheila Nevins, Rosie O’Donnell, Regina Kulik Scully and David Rubin.