film: when she was bad . . . (1979)

When She Was Bad…

Cheryl Ladd as a mum with a serious problem, and it isn’t just her husband.

This was believable. What Teeny said — “I have to grow up” — that was not an uncommon sentiment among women raised in the fifties and sixties. They did go straight from their parents to their husbands, never figuring out who they were along the way. While she was working, she had a purpose, something that was all hers. When that ended, who was she? Herself last. The pattern of marrying as a way to escape the decisions that come with growing up is well-documented in Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique”. 1979 is late for the phenomenon to still be occurring — then again, maybe second-wave feminism hadn’t sunk in where they lived or affected the way they lived there. Add a history of abuse at her own mother’s hands, subtract real guidance on how to cope until Mary steps in, you’ve got the perfect setup for a continuation of the cycle of abuse.

Also notable: the film did not end with Robbie and Teeny going home together, all cured, no repercussions. It’s implied that Robbie’s traumatic brain injury will have lasting effects on her development, and she does still fear Teeny. In no way are those two riding off into any sunset. We see instead the possibility that Robbie will be able to reconcile the mother she knew with the mother Teeny is trying to become, provided with a safe environment in which Teeny cannot hurt her again. There is no happily ever after. Teeny herself has to do the growing up offscreen: getting steady work, obtaining a divorce, learning to be a person before she’s a mother again.

What of Bob’s role in all this? He’s shown chasing Teeny, but if he cares about his daughter, it’s not in the script. He does more to cover up what’s happening to Robbie and Teeny (yes, both are victims here) than to get them help. Their well-being is not a priority to him. Could Robbie become a priority, in time? Perhaps — if he seeks help of his own — if he stops dismissing his own trouble as worthy of help — if he destroys the false idol of the status quo. As we leave him in his final scene, he’s a waste of a man, and I pity both Teeny and his next wife, especially since it looks like a messy divorce coming. Can you imagine the custody battle, and the judge’s deliberations? “That one smacked the kid so hard she bled into her brain — but that one not only knew, he hid it and viewed intervention as an invasion of his privacy.” I’m not sure I’d give Robbie to either parent until one of them demonstrated lasting change — and the parent who appears more likely to change, in this case, is Teeny, the abuser. Now there’s a sad state of affairs. Highly recommended for human services and social work students, because these cases are so seldom black-and-white. This is a film that presents one case in all its grey glory.

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