Cher Taught Me Everything That My Mother Couldn't
My friends who grew up in religious homes tell me that there wasn’t a moment they “learned” about God — it just felt like something they had always known, like how to sleep, or breathe, or blame their farts on the dog. I felt the same way growing up, except about Cher. I have memories of adults patiently teaching me all sorts of important life skills, like how to count past 10, or how to ride a bike, or that Ronald Reagan and Santa were not the same person. But I don’t remember anyone ever explaining to me who Cher was, or teaching me the lyrics to her 1965 hit, “I Got You, Babe.” It’s like it was all just inscribed in my DNA.
My family didn’t go for religion; I only attended Hebrew school because my mom thought it would help me make friends, the same reason she made me play youth soccer (she was wrong, both times). But the belief that the artist formerly known as Cherilyn Sarkisian deserved our admiration and attention was absolute in my home, as close to a faith as my family got. My mom loved Cher, and I loved my mom; ergo, I loved Cher.
And for a long time, there wasn’t much more to it than that. It wasn’t until my 20s, when my relationship with my mother began to fray, that I started to wonder what Cher actually meant to the both of us.
My mother and Cher were born near the beginning of the Baby Boom, Cher in 1946 and my mom in 1950. By the time she was 15, Mom was already looking for an escape from the life that her family had planned for her, which mostly involved finding a guy who lived within a 10 block radius of their house and marrying him. She obviously wasn’t alone in being dissatisfied with the status quo; that was kind of the hot hobby of 1965. But while her friends sought solace in the music of bad-boy bands like the Rolling Stones, my mom looked elsewhere. She wanted someone who could promise that there was more out there for women like her. She turned on a TV and found that someone in Cher.
Cher had not wanted the life she was given by fate, so she created a new one. My mom decided that she could do that, too.
Mom and Cher looked a little bit similar, which was certainly the initial hook. For my Jewish mom, the era’s blonde-haired-blue-eyed beauty ideal was depressingly impossible to achieve, but the popularity of dark-haired, dark-eyed, Armenian-American Cher suggested to my mother that someone, someday, might find her beautiful. Her high school photos reveal a girl piling on the mascara and ironing the curls out of her long brown hair — all, she told me, in emulation of Cher.
But her obsession went beyond surface similarities. Cher and my mom both came from the kind of complicated backgrounds that people in the early ‘60s pretended didn’t exist: my mom’s own mother died when she was five, leaving her to be raised in Queens, New York, by a dad overwhelmed by grief and a stepmother who never seemed too interested in her. Cher was raised by a single mom at a time when that alone could make you an outcast. She and her mom moved often and scrambled for money. Cher had a learning disorder that made it difficult to read; she wasn’t diagnosed until she was an adult, so she struggled in school and eventually dropped out. With all the uncomplicated ease and unearned confidence of a 16-year-old, she moved to Hollywood to become a star. She’s quoted in Connie Berman’s cheapie 2001 biography as saying of her teen years, "I couldn't think of anything that I could do ... I didn't think I'd be a singer or dancer. I just thought, well, I'll be famous. That was my goal."
To my mother, society had jumped straight from telling women to be happy housewives to telling them to be happy to live braless, barefoot, and in a van, an idea that she was suspicious of — do that, she thought, and you’d just end up broke, exhausted and probably still waiting hand and foot on some man, like you would have if you’d stayed in Queens. But looking at Cher, my mother saw hope. Cher had not wanted the life she was given by fate, so she created a new one. My mom decided that she could do that, too. In 1971, the year the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour premiered, my mom packed up a backpack’s worth of goods and booked it to Europe, determined to put Queens, her family, and the hurt they both symbolized, in her rearview.
By the time I was born, in 1982, things were different for both Cher and my mother. After a few years of declining musical popularity, Cher had come to Broadway, appearing in the Robert Altman-directed production of a play called Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. People were incredulous about her dramatic abilities, but it was the beginning of an acting career that would net her an Oscar before the end of the decade. My mother had, at some point in the previous years, wavered in her commitment to becoming a continental cosmopolitan, and moved back stateside. Seemingly unsure of what else to do, she married an on-and-off boyfriend, had me, and got a house in Connecticut. Suburban life was a bad fit for both of my parents, but especially my mother. No one in town seemed to share her loud New York City accent, or her taste for glamorous silk blouses with big shoulder pads, or her passion for adventure travel, or her big hair, which she blow-dried into puffy, dyed auburn perfection every morning. She struggled to make friends. She filled her time constantly scrubbing the floors and sinks in our house, leaving the skin around her long, perfectly manicured nails red and torn-up. She and my father fought constantly. As soon as I could talk, I became my mother’s confidante and learned far too soon how sad she was, how angry. She had tried so hard to have a happy life. But she didn’t know how.
Cher sounded like exactly what she was: a twice-divorced, 43-year-old woman who had seen some life, known some pain, and still decided to go on.
My parents split up repeatedly throughout my childhood, finally divorcing when I was seven, in 1989. 1989 was also, as any serious Cher fan knows, the year she released Heart of Stone, her first major musical comeback. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Cher’s lyrics often had her playing a coy ingenue, still figuring out the ways of love, or inhabiting stereotypes that ranged from quaint to offensive (“Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves,” etc). But on Heart of Stone’s songs — especially the huge hits, like “If I Could Turn Back Time” — Cher sounded like exactly what she was: a twice-divorced, 43-year-old woman who had seen some life, known some pain, had some things not turn out the way she planned, and still decided to go on.
This was lost on me, of course, but not on my mom. Her life was suddenly full of things she had never anticipated — coordinating with other divorced moms to swap childcare duties, going on first dates at age 39. Now the breadwinner, she began teaching English as a second language at night at our local high school, a job selected because she could take me with her instead of paying a babysitter. When she listened to Heart of Stone, she was looking for reassurance — that if Cher could try to make a life with the wrong person and end up confused, lost, and on her own, it could happen to anyone.
To say that I — a seven-year-old who believed that Freddy Krueger was real and lived inside our toilet — did not understand the gravity of the situation would be an understatement. I thought the early days of my mom’s divorce were fun. I loved going to the high school at night and analyzing the strange messages the teens had carved into their desks (“David Has A Boner,” etc.). I thought it was fun that we spent a lot of time driving around town to nowhere particular, because I didn’t understand that my mother just couldn’t bear to hang around the house where her marriage fell apart. I thought we were two cool girls having fun with no angry dad around to cramp our style anymore. I thought my mom was tough, a hero. I had no idea she was scared.
In Cher, my mother saw proof that it wasn’t ever too late to start over.
My mother loved Cher so passionately, connected to her so deeply, that she once confided to me that she thought maybe they had known each other in a past life, in ancient Egypt (white ladies in the ‘90s always thought their past lives were in ancient Egypt). She couldn’t think of an earthly explanation for the way she felt about Cher, but I could. In Cher, my mother saw proof that it wasn’t ever too late to start over. Cher was always going back to the drawing board to reinvent herself, long after the people who’d thought she was corny in the ‘70s had retired — I mean, for god’s sake, she dueted with Beavis and Butthead in 1993. When my mom looked at Cher, she saw proof that there was no such thing as a life that was permanently ruined. There was just an opportunity for another comeback.
My mother’s attempts to come back were rocky, though. According to her, all the men she met were weirdos, all the women she befriended two-faced, all her bosses morons. She expressed her frustrations in elaborate, nearly Faulknerian feuds with coworkers, neighbors or fellow PTA members over conflicts that she could barely remember. She started to tell me that her life existed as a warning to me, a living list of mistakes I should avoid.
Lesson 1: Don’t listen to idiots who tell you that your mother’s outsize personality and ability to find high drama in even a trip to Target are problematic. Instead, look to Cher. For her, a forceful, dramatic personality wasn’t a liability; it was an asset, the thing that took her from making her dramatic acting debut in 1982 to winning a Best Actress Academy Award in 1987, for Moonstruck. She beat Meryl! When she won, she accepted her award in a sexy see-through dress, the exact opposite of traditional leading lady glamour. “Everyone told Cher she couldn’t act, but she showed them, and now they’re kissing her ass,” my mother said, so passionately that you’d have thought she was the one who’d won an Oscar. That was her dream, for herself and for me: to work so hard that people had no choice but to give you all the things you ever wanted, and to show up nearly nude to collect them, so everyone could see that you barely even cared.
I had new symbols of hope, and they had nothing to do with that woman, lost in the suburbs, who still blow-dried her hair into big, puffy curls every morning.
As the ‘90s passed, my mother’s mental health issues, which had always existed on the edges of our family life, increasingly became the focal point; she had a hard time regulating her anger or realizing how it hurt me. She tried to control my life in ways that drove me away. She started to lose even her small hopes for the future — that she’d move away to a town she liked more, that she’d find work that made her happy, that she’d meet a man she really liked and trusted again. I felt bad for her, but I also couldn’t live with her in my life anymore. Acting out a family tradition, I left her behind in the mid-2000s, the way she had left her family behind decades before. My mom and I lost each other.
We lost Cher, too. Mom had stopped talking about her as things got worse in our relationship; and when we first broke off contact, in my mid-20s, the last thing I cared about was listening to some old-time pop diva. I wanted every trace of my past life gone. I had new symbols of hope, and they had nothing to do with that woman, lost in the suburbs, who still blow-dried her hair into big, puffy curls every morning.
When I talk about my relationship with my mother, and the rot that developed between us, I paint the way things turned out between us as inevitable: she was a monster, and I did the only thing I could do. I do believe that I did the only thing I could have done. But my mother wasn’t a monster.
To be clear, my mother was constantly angry and controlling, obsessive and cruel. She told me that I was emotionally defective, that I was lazy, that I was the cruel one in the family who wouldn’t stop abusing her. She manipulated every boyfriend I ever had to drive us apart; I’m convinced that I am only married today because my mother and I were on the outs when I met my husband. She hurt me so badly, and so often, that the rest of my life, even at its lowest moments, kind of feels like an emotional cakewalk.
She was also the funniest person I knew. When kids in school bullied me, she helped me egg their houses late at night, both of us laughing uproariously as we sped away. She helped me dye my hair green, just because I wanted to have green hair. She spent five hours drinking ginger ales at the bar because I wanted to see Hole perform in 1993, when I was 11 and too young to go on my own. She drove me for hours and hours, to so many extracurricular activities that it boggles my mind. She never let a good report card, or a drama club performance, or a school talent show skit go unpraised. She loved to shop for me, and buy me the kind of flashy, glamorous clothes she felt she had become too old to wear. She took me on spontaneous road trips and we sang Oasis songs at the top of our lungs. I try not to let myself miss her, but sometimes, I do, anyway.
Who the hell releases the biggest pop song of their career at age 52? Cher, that’s f*cking who.
My mother was good and evil, in enormous helpings each, a troubled regular person, but a regular person. She is a sad, angry human being who tried her best. And I left because, despite understanding all of that, I still could not love her.
But I could love Cher. And, I discovered as I got back into Cher in my thirties, when I loved Cher, I could love all the best parts of my mom — the humor and the rebellion, the glamour and the refusal to take anyone’s shit. I could put on “If I Could Turn Back Time” and not just revisit a happy moment from my childhood, but a version of my mom that I couldn’t find anymore — a woman with some darkness who still held out hope for the light.
I am now 36, not that much younger than Cher was when she recorded “If I Could Turn Back Time.” I have also seen some life, known some pain, had some things not turn out the way I planned, and still decided to go on. The Cher song I’m most likely to hear out in the wild at this point isn’t anything from my childhood — it’s 1998’s “Believe,” Cher’s biggest hit, and one of the best-selling songs of all time. A number one single in a dozen countries! Nominated for two Grammys! Who the hell releases the biggest pop song of their career at age 52? Cher, that’s f*cking who. You know this song, even if you think you don’t — it’s a dance track with heavy Autotune, with verses you might not even notice if it were, say, playing over the PA at a shop you were in. But the chorus bursts into classic, full-throated Cher — our lady of infinite comebacks, secular saint of flying in the face of everyone’s expectations — and the song suddenly becomes impossible to ignore. I didn’t notice they were playing it when I was at CVS the other day, while on a late-night Benadryl run. I didn’t hear Cher until the chorus kicked in, at which point I froze. I remembered watching the video for the song with my mom when I was in high school. Cher will never go away, my mom told me then; you and your daughter will listen to Cher together someday, too. I don’t have a daughter. I’m not even sure if I have a mother. “Do you believe in life after love?” Cher wailed as I stood there, planted among the Cheetos and toilet bowl cleaner. I don’t know if I do, Cher. But I’m trying.