The Sins of the Mother: Genetic Clues to Courtney Love

020606 article book appelo The Sins of the Mother:  Genetic Clues to Courtney LoveFor years, Linda Carroll kept quiet while her offspring, Courtney Love, filled tabloids brimful with brimstone tales of victimization by a wicked mom who forced her to live in a chicken shed. Now, in Her Mother’s Daughter, Ms. Carroll tells her own bizarre story and puts Ms. Love’s in fascinating context. It turns out Courtney’s extended-family romance is even more dramatic than her film and concert work. A breezily readable, Oprah-worthy saga of self-redemption, Ms. Carroll’s book sheds light on Courtney’s strange gift—and raises questions, meanwhile, about the genesis of identity.

Young Linda was so echt-hippie that Jerry Garcia personally introduced her to LSD on a risky wrong-way ride up San Francisco’s snaky Lombard Street: “I’m going up—it’s how the crow would fly,” said Jerry. Linda liked LSD but wasn’t an alkaloid Icarus. Her addiction was to self-seeking. Most hippies were similarly hooked, but Linda had a better excuse: She grew up without a single blood relative. Paula Fox (yes, the same Paula Fox that Jonathan Franzen claims is a better novelist than Bellow, Roth or Updike) had given baby Linda up for adoption in 1944, when Ms. Fox was 18, penniless and alone.

Linda was adopted by a wealthy couple, Jack and Louella Risi, who kept Ms. Fox’s identity a secret. Louella filled Linda with Catholic guilt, and Jack sexually assaulted her. The coming-of-age chapters go on too long, but they deliver a haunting fairy-tale sting. Linda grew up posh on a dead-end street aptly located near Lone Mountain.

Linda’s own bad, brief teenage marriage left her with trouble child Courtney. Linda and her new baby fled north to Oregon with an ambitious trash man, known to her friends as “the garbage Adonis.” She’s since had many more husbands and lovers—maybe not many by her cohort’s standards, but more than she can describe without making it all sound confusing. Not even her current husband—17 years and counting—registers fully as a character.

It’s been a messy life, funded by the Risis’ bequest—not millions, but enough cash so that Linda could answer a 1973 ad in The Whole Earth Catalogue and schlep her proliferating brood to a total-loss sheep farm in New Zealand. Her four other kids adapted to the chaos; Courtney went berserk, yo-yoing between Oregon, New Zealand, reform school and Portland punk clubs until Linda emancipated her at 16 and signed over a slice of the inheritance.

Like Satan in Paradise Lost, Courtney is the star of Ms. Carroll’s book. She’s an impressive character, setting fires at a tender age, messing malevolently with her little sister’s mind, playing pianos with her fists, hallucinating angels, injuring the family dog. (Courtney’s future husband Kurt Cobain murdered a cat as a kid—those two didn’t need heroin to go to hell. By the way, Ms. Love’s manager, Peter Asher, says Her Mother’s Daughter contains “scurrilous falsehoods”—but cites none.)

Ms. Carroll puts Courtney’s “internal torment” down to “biology.” She writes, “her nightmares, her irrational fears, her aloneness—arranged themselves like glass pieces in a kaleidoscope.” Actually, Courtney’s imagination did some of the arranging. In first grade, she found a best friend, a Swedish exchange student named Ingrid. One day, Ingrid turned evil. Courtney begged her mother to talk to the teacher, which she did. The perplexed teacher told Linda that Ingrid did not exist.

In clean storybook prose, Ms. Carroll shows how Courtney came to think of herself as less a fixed personality than an artistic creation, a series of character studies. That’s the way Linda felt too, but Courtney went further, because instead of growing up an alienated adoptee, she grew up apart from an otherwise warmly cohesive clan. A photo from the book shows Courtney beaming in front of her lovely, hand-built cabin on the site of the former chicken coop. So … there’s more to the story: No, she wasn’t locked up in a chicken coop, but she did live solo in her own cabin behind the house, for the protection of the other kids—and Linda.

(Kurt Cobain lied about living under a bridge as a kid, but like Courtney, he did live apart from his family—physically and psychologically. Only when Kurt and Courtney met did they feel at home—as he put it, “the king and queen of the outcasted teens.”)

One day Courtney phoned out of the blue to say she was expecting Linda’s grandchild, Frances Bean Cobain (who’s now 13). News of Frances prompted Linda to hire a Reno detective to track down her own biological mother.

And that’s how she found Paula Fox. Their three-month epistolary courtship and reunion are the high point of Her Mother’s Daughter, though oddly brief in the telling. Ms. Carroll should have analyzed Ms. Fox’s autobiographical writing and traced parallels between her scary, prizewinning children’s books and Courtney’s sinisterly childlike dirge-ditties. Paula Fox is more important than Courtney, who hogs the book’s spotlight.

God is a cruder novelist than the exquisitely refined Ms. Fox: The foreshadowing is as ham-fisted as Courtney’s piano playing. As a child, Paula was coldly dumped in a foundling home by her mother, Elsie, then retrieved for a traumatizingly itinerant life, bouncing between Manhattan, Florida, Cuba, New Hampshire and Hollywood.

Paula told Linda that she’d given her up for adoption because “I thought you were me, and I was my own mother. I thought that by releasing you at birth, I would ensure you would not have to go through the pain and bewilderment that I went through.” And yet the legacy of loneliness, the impulse to become a one-woman diaspora, passed on to Courtney.

Decades before Ms. Love made movies and manhandled Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar, her great-grandmother Elsie was writing god-awful movies, partying hard with her cousin, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and getting dumped in a lake by Humphrey Bogart for being a bitch.

Her autobiographical inquiry, Ms. Carroll believes, shows that it’s all about nature, not nurture. The instant she glimpsed Paula Fox, it was kismet: She said, “Did I make you up?” Ms. Fox was no fiction, but a biologically fated soulmate. You can’t make a natural connection happen; you can’t fight a disconnection, as between Elsie and Paula, or Louella and Linda, or Linda and Courtney. This philosophy conveniently lets Ms. Carroll off the hook for her scrambled life (and her daughter’s), and it also makes for a fabulous read—like a fable.

But it’s not all fate. Against all odds, Paula Fox made herself into a literary light; Linda Carroll forged a career counseling couples; and homely, people-repelling Courtney Love became a magnetic diva of stage and screen. If neurotics build castles in the air and psychos live in them, what do you call somebody who fantasizes about a mansion and then lives, dreamlike, inside a real one? Maybe it’s her nature to defy nature. Kurt Cobain called it “the will of instinct.”

Seattle Weekly writer Tim Appelo has been Entertainment Weekly’s grunge reporter and video critic, Amazon.com’s Bestsellers Editor and a contributor to The New York Times and The Nation.