Why I loved my toxic mother
Lotte Berk was a charismatic fitness guru in the Sixties, with legions of fans. But she was also cruel, callous and neglectful, says her daughter, Esther, who tells Kate Burt how she learned to forgive
Tuesday 19 October 2010
My mother had a wicked sense of humour," recalls Esther Fairfax. "Her classes were such fun – imagine yourself at the bar: knees bent until you could hardly hold it any more. Then she'd ask: 'How's your sex life?' We'd be falling about laughing, while some poor girl was unable to move. There was a sort of masochistic, humorous, mischievous atmosphere – I hope I do much the same in my classes."
Fairfax is talking from her home studio in Hungerford, where she teaches the keep-fit regime her late mother, Lotte Berk, gave to swinging London in the 1960s. The tough, ballet-inspired regime was innovative and the novelty of it, combined with the sparkle of Berk's personality, soon drew a following – Britt Ekland, Joan Collins and Barbra Streisand were among her fans.
Berk, who died seven years ago aged 90, was an elegant Jewish-Russian refugee who fled Nazi Germany with husband Ernest and an infant Esther, leaving behind a glittering modern ballet career and a wealthy lifestyle in Cologne. Although, in London, she and Ernest – a dancer/choreographer – toured prolifically, Berk's potential as a soloist was never fulfilled as it would have been in Germany. Then she invented the Lotte Berk Technique. It's a riches to rags to riches story, with a professional legacy lovingly passed from mother to daughter.
Or rather, it should have been – except, explains Esther, now 76, it's not quite like that. She asks: "Do I miss my mother? Ha! Not at all!"
The woman who was sometimes her best friend was frequently her worst enemy. At various points – like the time Berk threatened court action to prevent publication of her daughter's first book about the exercise method she'd proudly taught her. Or how she made Esther feel so ugly she developed bulimia; admitted to feeling so ashamed of her that she once said they weren't related; or sent her, age eight, to live with another family for a year so she could have an affair with a neighbour – one of many liaisons, with men and women, which Fairfax knows all about because her mother "shared everything". "Our relationship was like a tug of love and war," Fairfax says. "She should never have had children – she was an extremely selfish woman. Not maternal at all." One early memory is a family outing, boating on the Thames with both parents.
Suddenly, Fairfax recalls, the boat was covered with blood. An ambulance was called. Lotte nearly died. She was haemorrhaging from an illegal abortion, one of seven she had following pregnancies by other men. "Oh, my father knew all about them," says Fairfax matter-of-factly. "He always knew. Sometimes my mother would move in with a lover for a while. Sometimes we'd all live together – my father, too. He was besotted. He'd rather have had her living with another man in the house than not have her. She seemed to have that effect on most men."
It was a frequently cruel mother-child relationship. Berk, "a cross between Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich" in black Yves Saint Laurent trouser suits, spent hours flattening Esther's nose, "to stop it growing into a Jewish-looking one". And the young daughter of the family with whom Esther was sent to live used to beat and bully her. Esther would beg her mother to let her come home, but her pleading was ignored.
Despite all this, it was in her adulthood, says Fairfax, that her mother really hurt her. She recounts her delight at the first time she went to one of her mother's celebrated classes, in London. By then a young mother of two boys, Fairfax was living in Dorset with her alcoholic husband, John Fairfax, the poet and founder of the writers' retreat the Arvon Foundation.
Lotte promised to send the train fare and throw in lunch. Esther wanted to look the part – living in such poverty, her appearance hadn't been a priority – and so she bought a second-hand M&S skirt.
At her mother's class, Esther watched with pride as Lotte worked the room.
"She had this wonderful way about her," she says. "You just felt so attracted to her. She was so nice to be with at times and had a lovely spirit. But she had the devil as well. And you never knew which you would see."
However, after the class, Esther was confused to be introduced to the students as "Mrs Fairfax". That was, until Lotte explained: "I couldn't introduce you as my daughter while you were looking like that."
"It was devastating," says Fairfax. "I had gone to such lengths to find four shillings for the skirt. I went home and cried my eyes out." The tug of love and war went on – though Berk did teach her daughter her exercise regime, which did wonders for Esther's confidence. When she suggested to her mother that she would like to teach it in a local village hall, Lotte was delighted. But when Esther's classes led to a "how-to" spread in a woman's magazine, Lotte's attitude changed. "All hell broke loose," recalls Fairfax. "She said I was stealing her method. I had just wanted her to be proud of me."
Esther decided to give up the very thing that had given her some self-belief, not to mention much-needed income. "I did it so that we could retain a good relationship, to show I was not in competition with her."
Feeling trapped in an unhappy marriage – and broken by her mother – Esther gradually became suicidal and when her daughter woke up in hospital following an attempt, Lotte was there, demanding: "How could you? I haven't slept. I couldn't even put my make-up on. I can't let my students see me like this."
Having failed to kill herself, Esther decided to live – with a lot of support from the Samaritans. And she accepted that sacrificing her exercise classes hadn't improved the mother-daughter relationship at all. "I felt bereft," she said. "I got no respect from her – which was all I wanted and when it didn't happen I suppose you could say that the worm turned."
Not only did Fairfax start the classes again, she found a publisher keen to put out a book about them. Terrified of telling her mother, she left it until the last moment. Then Lotte tried – but failed – to block the book and immediately rushed through her own tome.
"But," says Fairfax, with a small smile, "mine came out first." Then came a letter from Lotte, expressing her disappointment and rage. It concluded with the line: "This is the end of Mother and Daughter." They didn't speak for two years.
Finally, Lotte came back to her. But the relationship had changed forever. "I began to see how needy she was. She had always liked to tell me how many compliments she'd had and what so-and-so had thought of her. It was her way, I suppose, of being able to keep up this feeling of being loved and wanted. She did need an awful lot of love."
Before Lotte died, she developed dementia. "She needed me very much in the later stages of her life," says Fairfax. "One day, she said to me: 'It's your turn to look after me now that I'm old.' I remember thinking very strongly: 'You didn't look after me as a child. I don't want to look after you now you're old'. The relationship had become very destructive and I found it difficult to be that caring. But when she got further into dementia, I changed. I became much more compassionate. And I used it as a way of being able to forgive her – not that I ever blamed her – but I wanted it to be OK when she died... and it has been."
Fairfax teaches a one-hour Lotte Berk Technique class at 9.30am every morning. "I'm the only one in the country teaching it," she says proudly. "I was really grateful in the long run having had Lotte as a mother. She was a very interesting woman – intelligent, witty, charismatic – and naughty.
"There was a lot to her. Sure, she had the cruel side and certainly that affected me badly because I loved her – and wanted her love – so much. But at times, I think, I was her best friend, and she was mine."
'My Improper Mother and Me', by Esther Fairfax, is out now in paperback (Pomona, £7.99). To order the book for the special price of £7.50, including P&P, go to www.independentbooks direct.co.uk or call 0870 079 8897
The bad parents club
The celebrated children's writer created dozens of fantasy worlds for her young fans, but her daughter, Imogen, wrote a scathing autobiography "A Childhood at Green Hedges", portrayed Blyton as having spent the majority of her time writing, with little time for Imogen and her sister, Gillian, only wheeling them out for publicity purposes. "My mother was arrogant, insecure and without a trace of maternal instinct. Her approach to life was childlike and she could be spiteful, like a teenager," she wrote.
Unable to have children herself, Crawford adopted five from 1940 onwards. It was alleged, by her eldest child, Christina, that she and Crawford's son Christopher were abused by the actress. Christina Crawford later wrote a memoir, "Mommie Dearest", a year after her mother's death, exposing the abuse she claimed she experienced in her childhood. It was made into a film starring Faye Dunaway and depicted, among other things, Joan's hygiene obsession, her alcoholism – and the occasion on which she donated all her daughter's birthday presents to an orphanage.
Mother of the actor Ben Kingsley, who only recently revealed in interviews that he felt rejected throughout his childhood years due to his mother's inability to connect with her children. "It was very difficult to read my mother," he said. "She had a circuit missing. That made her distant. And somewhat baffled by her four children – two girls and two boys. Thinking perhaps it would all go away soon and life would be simple again. Adulthood? Whoa. She couldn't handle it."
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