Filmmaker, producer and speaker Gayle Kirschenbaum has taken several challenging and interesting situations in her life and created films that are engaging and poignant. Her documentaries are extremely personal in nature, and although there is humor and wit to be found, Kirschenbaum, 64, does not shy away from difficult topics. Her film “Look at Us Now, Mother!” deals with Kirschenbaum’s strained relationship with her emotionally abusive mother. She moved to a place of forgiveness toward her mother, and has since been helping others to heal their hurtful relationships. Her relatable manner and powerful message has resonated with people through her TEDx Talk and virtual workshops on “No More Drama With Mama.”
Jewish Journal: What was your mother’s reaction to the idea of making the film?
Gayle Kirschembaum: I asked her if she would go on camera to work on our relationship. And I wasn’t at all surprised that she said yes, because she has a very thick skin and loves all kinds of attention.
JJ: Why do think the film resonated with people?
GK: Oprah [Winfrey] says you should be your authentic self, so maybe it’s that. The film is very authentic; it’s not a vanity piece. There are parts that people can relate to, and stuff comes up for them. I think I responded to a need. So many people out there are suffering. They can be married, they can have children, multiple homes, wealth … but they are in pain. They haven’t released it or forgiven that person, alive or dead.
JJ: How did you evolve from a place of pain and resentment to forgiveness?
GK: It started when I lived in Los Angeles and in the midst of so much pain, I met a woman who had a horrific childhood. And in her healing, she became the facilitator of a psychological board game that I was invited to participate in. The only thing I remember was throwing the dice and when it landed, she told me to stand up, close my eyes and imagine my mother as a little girl. When I did that, I saw the suffering and pain she went through. Then the facilitator said, “Now imagine yourself as a little girl.” And then she said; “Now you come together.” That was life changing.
JJ: So that was a transformational moment in terms of how you looked at the situation?
GK: Yes. I ended up reframing how I looked at my mother. Not just the lack of love, but how I was scapegoated growing up and felt like I was living in enemy territory. As soon as I would see my mother, I was like a wounded child again. I changed my expectations. The key is managing expectations, and that’s what I’ve done.
JJ: How has your relationship changed since the film?
GK: We have grown even closer. It might be hard to believe, but Mom has thanked me for the film. She’s become a bit of a “momstar” and has been cited several times. One woman pointed at her and said, “You are the mother in the film. You’re the most likeable bitch.” [My mother] loves this. My mother is one of the smartest people I know. She is great with investing, a businesswoman, an avid reader and my best story consultant. I have hired many professionals and I will take her. She has a great sense of story and the ability to read a piece about her showing her nasty side and be objective in her feedback. I get her. I understand her wiring. She has no censor, which can be entertaining and offensive.
JJ: It sounds like understanding and compassion is a big part of being able to enjoy a closer relationship.
GK: It is. I know how important it is for her to be the center of attention. Sometimes it is tiring. I look at her as my adult child who is desperate for love. As a sensitive person I can empathize with her. She is going strong at 95 and I have tremendous admiration for her. I told her she should donate her body to science, as she is a phenomenon. She is quite a role model. OK, not in the area of emotional intelligence but hey, I have enough of that for two people. Feeling lucky and blessed to have this time with her. Getting ready for our next travel adventure. South America, here we come.
JJ: Tell us about the work you do on the topic of forgiveness and relationships.
GK: I do virtual workshops because I’ve found that people feel safe and comfortable being in their own home. I’ve also spoken at conferences, and in a variety of situations. People in the mental health field have been drawn to the film, and I’ve spoken at a mental health conference. The film’s message has also been popular in the Jewish world and in the area of women’s empowerment.
“I ended up reframing how I looked at my mother. Not just the lack of love, but how I was scapegoated growing up and felt like I was living in enemy territory. As soon as I would see my mother, I was like a wounded child again. I changed my expectations.”
JJ: It sounds like people have really connected with the idea of forgiveness.
GK: When we don’t learn how to forgive, it affects everything in our lives. I got so sick making the film that my hands got covered in plaque. I saw the best doctors and nobody could help. I wound up helping myself by changing my way of thinking — with positive thinking, meditation and affirmations.
JJ: What role does Judaism play in your life?
GK: The way I was raised, Judaism was actually a huge turn-off to me. I was a sensitive, artistic person growing up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood where people were judged by their money or what people did for a living. I was surrounded by people who cared about fitting in, having nose jobs, straightening curly hair. I wasn’t especially fond of my rabbi, who wasn’t the spiritual leader I was hoping for.
JJ: Did your feelings about Judaism change over time?
GK: It did. The first time I went to Europe, I met other Jews and they weren’t competitive at all. They were friendly and helpful. I felt part of a tribe. Then I went to the Soviet Union and met Russian Jews who were intellectuals. I connected with other Jews and from then on, I felt a huge sense of pride about being Jewish. There are many incredible things about Judaism. Although I’m not religious, I’m spiritual and I feel very, very proud to be Jewish.
JJ: What’s next for you?
GK: I’m currently writing a memoir about my journey.
Allison Futterman is a writer living in North Carolina.