The last time I visited my grandma we watched an interview with the legendary comedian Carol Burnett on Rachael Ray’s show. Most known for her ground-breaking show The Carol Burnett Show, which won 25 Emmy Awards, Burnett talked about her new book Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story.
Quick note: The other day I fell into a YouTube hole and watched clips from The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1978). The episodes hold up. Most feel like they could run today in the era of SNL and Louis C.K. Check it out.
For the whole interview, my grandma talked about how much she loved Burnett, so for Mother’s Day, I bought her the book. I also decided to read it before I gave it to her (but to be fair, I did send her a really nice card). This re-gifting tactic probably sounds tacky, but I told my grandma about it and she called it “practical.” Let’s go with that.
Carrie and Me gives us a collection of memories that paints a touching portrait of Burnett’s relationship with her oldest daughter, Carrie Louise Hamilton. Reading Carrie and Me felt like sitting cross-legged on that dark brown carpeting my great-grandmother had listening to a family member. With this book, Burnett lets us into her family’s living room.
About three years after Carrie’s birth, Burnett and her then-husband moved from NYC to Los Angeles to develop and produce The Carol Burnett Show. In LA, the couple welcomed two more daughters, Jody and Erin, and the family made California their home.
In elementary school Carrie found popularity (she won an award for it) and cared about her grades, “excelling in her classes,” Burnett writes. But by the time middle school came around, things started to change. Carrie experimented with drugs and her grades slipped. Burnett describes a decision to search her child’s room.
“Carrie was still hidden and distant. I was afraid of who she was becoming. One morning I made the tough decision to search her room. At first I felt guilty, but my fear over-rode my conscience and, after she left for school, I went into her bedroom and started to poke around.”
Burnett found pot in Carrie’s room, and the discovery made the mother “cr[y] all day.” A somewhat rebellious teen myself—I used to sneak out—I identified with Carrie’s story. Burnett talks about this rough time with frankness, and it helped me understand a little bit more about what my own mom went through at the time—sleepless nights, constantly questioning her parenting skills. Burnett grounded Carrie for the pot find, but the teen’s behavior continued a downward spiral.
Carrie entered rehab for the first time at 15 and again at 17 (while her father attended the same rehab facility). Thankfully, her second stint led to a sober adult life. The mother-daughter pair shared their story with People—under the headline “Carol Burnett’s Nightmare,” which Burnett “hated”—and inspired many families, in and out of Hollywood, to talk about addiction.
The real heart of the book lies in Carrie’s adulthood, after her rehab stints, when mother and daughter lived apart.
Carrie found a successful acting career on her own, appearing in Fame and touring as Maureen in the first national tour of Rent. We see the mother-daughter relationship in this time through direct communication, emails and some faxes (from the late ‘90s, early 2000s). Emails describe a road trip Carrie took by herself to Graceland as research for a novel. “GRACELAND tomorrow! Wow, “Carrie writes. “I’ll bid you adieu for now and I hope you’re doing fine. I love you. You know that, don’t you?”
Burnett published Carrie and Me 10 years after Carrie passed away from cancer. With a frankness equal to that used to portray Carrie’s addiction, Burnett also gives us a candid look at death and her grieving.
For me, the saved emails offered some catharsis. After my uncle died in 2007, I read emails he sent me. They sounded like him—so fun and loving. The emails helped me grieve and remember our special relationship. Similarly, and more intimately than you might think a star would be, Burnett allows us to get intimate with her family. As Carrie’s condition worsens, the emails become heartbreaking.
Sent: July 26, 2001
I’m glad you’re feeling better, but my view is that you should have a battery of tests ANYWAY. Darling, I really think you should get a second opinion. Is there another doc in the vicinity? I know you don’t want to get on a plane and come to L.A. (where I wish you were at this time).
Carrie and Me makes me think about the way family members communicate with each other. The digital age presents so many options to stay connected. It doesn’t mean we put in the time and effort.
For the past few weeks, my mom and I have played phone tag; we haven’t actually spoken in a few days. Toward the end of college, we talked every other day or so…now only once or twice a week. The reason? Well…life, busy-ness, complexity. Weak excuses, at best.
Burnett writes a bit—some storytelling and diary entries—to contextualize her emails with Carrie, but their correspondence frames the heart of their story. We see Burnett use her legendary humor to defuse some pretty intense situations—like taking her daughters on a beach vacation after her divorce and using fake names when they played Scrabble. Instead of crying with her daughters, she finds a way to make them laugh. (It may help when you face addiction issues and divorce to be one of the funniest people in the world.)
The last section of Burnett’s book publishes a selection from Sunrise in Memphis, a novel Carrie drafted—and went on her road trip to research—before she died. Carrie asked her mother to complete the book. Its publication here keeps Carrie’s memory alive.
Carrie and Me reminds us that the everyday things—the conversations and support—mean so much. In my mind, I hear Burnett telling me to go call my mom right now and tell her how much I appreciate her.
And I should probably give my grandma the book I bought her for Mother’s Day.
Tyler Gillespie writes in Chicago. You can find him tweeting (@TylerMTG) and on his Tumblr (TylerMTG.tumblr.com).