Helicopter Parenting, the College Admissions Scandal, and James M. Cain’s “Mildred Pierce”




EVEN BEFORE THE RECENT college admissions scandal, media discussions had centered on the surge of “helicopter parenting,” a phenomenon in which the natural urge to help one’s children becomes actively harmful. The term is now so prevalent, summoning up so much nostalgia for a less intrusive time (We used to walk to school all by ourselves! We packed our own lunches and didn’t see our parents until they got home from work!), that one would think this smothering form of parenting was an entirely new phenomenon. In summer of 2019, when 33 parents were indicted for attempts to “help” their children gain admission to selective colleges and universities, engaging in criminal activities including bribery, cheating, and fraud, discussions about helicopter parenting took on a new urgency. That two of the indicted parents were (white, blonde) Hollywood actresses served to raise the case’s profile, as well as its usefulness as a cautionary tale.

Of the 33 indicted parents, 25 hail from California, and the university at the center of the scandal — USC — has been dubbed in some quarters the “University of Spoiled Children” because of its eagerness to cater to the scions of SoCal’s privileged classes. Yet long before the trials of Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, noir writer James M. Cain, author of hard-boiled murder novels like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), gave us the original L.A. “helicopter” parent in the complexly drawn, eponymous character from his 1941 novel, Mildred Pierce.

In 1931 Glendale, buxom young mother Mildred Pierce, tired of being cheated on by her once-successful but now unemployed husband Bert, brandishes a cleaver at him and tells him to leave. When an affair with Bert’s business associate, Wally, doesn’t pan out, Mildred realizes she has to support her two daughters by going to work, but with no job history to rely on, she gets few offers, and those she does receive she rejects as being beneath her. Finally, a desperate day in a diner results in her becoming a waitress, an occupation she at first fails at miserably but eventually comes to master. All the while, she keeps her low-class job a secret from her two children, especially her oldest daughter, Veda, whom she “doted on […] for her looks, her promise of talent, and her snobbery,” to the point of scraping up money for piano lessons during the Depression because of a “deep, almost religious conviction that Veda was ‘talented.’”

While Mildred is finding her feet as a waitress, she improves her station by selling homemade pies. Through her own hard work, business acumen, and a gifted building from Wally (to help him show losses for the IRS), she starts her own restaurant, which (along with her pie shop) becomes a wild success, especially after the repeal of Prohibition radically changes the business. Meanwhile, Mildred begins another affair, a torrid relationship with a well-heeled loafer named Monty Beragon.

Up until this point, the novel is an engaging — and fairly racy — rags-to-riches story, with a spunky heroine and some interesting historical perspectives on social class, capitalism, California real estate, gender, and pies. The dialogue and pacing are as snappy as any noir, and the erotic tension — as Mildred juggles her competing desires for useful Wally, spurned Bert, and idle Monty — make the book an absorbing read. However, of all the plot threads the novel could choose to follow into its second half (e.g., Mildred’s youngest child dies when she is out with the rich loafer; the rich loafer loses all his money and she begins supporting him), Cain surprises readers by zooming in closely on what becomes the most dramatic relationship portrayed in the book — that of Mildred and her daughter Veda.

A difficult character from the beginning, with a habit of sarcastically criticizing her hard-working mother, Veda has grown into a snobby, self-seeking teen. After a talking-to by Monty, who has taken a not-quite-avuncular interest in the girl, Mildred agrees to pay for Veda’s piano lessons with a local maestro named Hannen, who at first tears Veda down but then decides she might have some talent. When Veda relates Hannen’s approbation to her mother, Cain describes Mildred’s reaction as: “It was as though the Star of Bethlehem had suddenly appeared in front of her,” and she quickly tracks down her ex-husband Bert because “she had to share this miracle with somebody.”

With political and financial conflicts dividing them, Mildred and Monty break up. Veda, now a 16-year-old social climber with a smoking habit (we can only imagine the kind of “influencer” she might be had the book taken place in the Instagram era), convinces her mother to let her quit school to devote herself to the piano, and Mildred regularly “tiptoes” in to watch her practice. In spite of Veda’s constant insults, “[i]t was a picture that never failed to thrill [Mildred]: the beautiful instrument that she had worked for and paid for, the no less beautiful child she had brought into the world; a picture moreover that she could really call her own.”

The rosy piano days do not last long, however. Hannen dies, and Veda is unceremoniously dismissed from her audition with another music teacher named Treviso. The girl responds with an emotional outburst. Convinced that her daughter is the “victim of some sort of injustice,” Mildred, like any good helicopter parent, quickly starts to hatch a new plan, “unable to give up the idea that Veda was ‘talented.’” When the exasperated housekeeper asks why Mildred “[c]an’t […] leave her alone,” Cain provides his heroine with an inner monologue that is thesis-like in its self-justification, listing in numerical order the reasons she can’t, including “this feeling she had about Veda, [which] by now permeated every part of her, and colored everything she did.”

What impels Mildred’s devotion to Veda is the same thing that drives helicopter parents today, including criminally “snowplow” parents like Loughlin and Huffman — namely, social privilege. When Loughlin’s daughter, Olivia Jade, was asked in a radio interview why she was attending USC, given that she had already built a successful “brand” for herself as a YouTube celebrity, she answered, “Mostly my parents really wanted me to go because both of them didn’t go to college” — thus acknowledging the cultural capital that accrues from an advanced degree. For the indicted parents, the pursuit of wealth was not the objective, but rather the purchase of social prestige.

In Cain’s novel, when the majority of the country is struggling financially, Mildred enlists her neighbor, Mrs. Gessler, to help keep her “degrading” job as a waitress secret from her daughter. When Mrs. Gessler voices her disapproval, saying that “Veda wouldn’t do it herself but she’s perfectly willing to let you do it and eat the cake,” Mildred responds, “I want her to have it. Cake — not just bread.” The secrets Mildred keeps, the plans she hatches, indeed much of her behavior — including dating and then marrying Monty because Veda is impressed by his “high-toned” status — are geared to attain greater privilege for her daughter, just as the indicted parents in the admissions scandal falsified SAT scores and created fake crew profiles. For Mildred, the vicarious thrill she gets from assuring Veda’s enjoyment of privilege goes far beyond that of a mere stage mother (at one point, she tells Veda she can buy some new clothes and is only “a little stunned when the bills […] footed up to more than $1,300”), overshadowing any insult Veda might throw at her.

Still, it bears mentioning that, while Mildred behaves in many ways like a “typical” helicopter parent, Veda is not a typical child. Her behavior from a young age can most generously be described as “extreme,” and as she heads into adulthood, her lying, manipulation, and vitriol seem downright pathological. With her musical ambitions on the back burner, Veda starts seeing a local rich boy, pretending to be pregnant in order to get a cash settlement from his family. A furious Mildred asks why she would go to such lengths, and the ever-class-conscious Veda responds that it’s so she “can get away from you, you poor, half-witted mope. From you, and your pie wagon, and your chicken, and your waffles, and your kitchens, and everything that smells of grease. […] From every rotten, stinking thing that even reminds me of the place — or you.”

Though Mildred does eventually kick Veda out, the estrangement doesn’t last long. Six months later, Bert invites Mildred to a broadcast where Veda has become, under Treviso’s tutelage, a singing star. While the reader’s credulity is strained by this development, Mildred’s reaction is not out of character. Despite Veda’s rude behavior, Mildred views the concert as “the coming true of all she had dreamed for Veda, all she had believed in, worked for, dedicated her life to.” In the hopes of rekindling her relationship with her daughter, Mildred goes to Treviso and offers to pay for Veda’s singing lessons, an idea he flatly rebuffs. Treviso tries to talk Mildred out of contacting the girl at all, attributing Veda’s deceitful behavior (the book was published in 1941, before terms like “bipolar” or “borderline personality” were common parlance) to her being a coloratura, declaring that, although she is a good singer, “Da girl is lousy. She is a bitch.”

The denouement of Mildred Pierce returns in some ways to its sexually charged noir beginnings. Mildred and Veda patch things up when Mildred marries Monty, after buying and moving into his own former mansion. A long and uninteresting description of Veda’s performance at the Hollywood Bowl seems to be “the climax of Mildred’s life,” but shortly thereafter she faces catastrophe when her marriage to the spendthrift Monty brings her to the financial precipice once again. Just as Mildred gets up the nerve to ask her successful daughter to “kick in,” Monty’s close relationship with Veda is revealed to be more than a general stepdad creepiness when Mildred discovers them together in bed. Though she is initially calm, “her mind […] on the lovely thing in the bed,” she finally loses her cool when both of them pile on the insults, Veda claiming that she “literally can’t open my mouth in a theatre, or a radio studio, or anywhere, that she isn’t there, bustling down the aisle, embarrassing me before people, all to get her share of the glory.” Whereupon an infuriated Mildred lunges for Veda’s throat.

It is a tribute to Cain’s masterful portrayal of Mildred’s self-sacrificing character, as well as Veda’s increasing vindictiveness, that this physical attack seems almost justified. And yet, the book makes clear, Mildred’s real tragedy is that she let herself get to this point. Veda’s behavior, which her mother has not only forgiven but actively supported, makes Mildred’s parental blind spot stand out in greater relief. The woman who stood up to lovers and husbands, who became a successful entrepreneur in an era when most women stayed at home, is so possessed by her desire to see her daughter climb the social ladder that common sense, logic, and even self-preservation go right out the window.

Felicity Huffman, who pleaded guilty to fraud conspiracy in the college admissions scandal, claims to have suffered a similar lapse in judgment in her “desperation to be a good mother.” At her hearing, Huffman reportedly told the judge that, while driving her daughter to the testing center where she had already paid to have the scores falsified, she “thought to [her]self, ‘Turn around. Just turn around’” — thus signaling that she had at least some appreciation of the self-destructiveness of her act. (Another parent convicted in the case, Gordon Caplan, was “not worried about the moral issue” of falsifying his daughter’s ACT score, but was aware that, “if she’s caught doing that, you know, she’s finished.”) In the case of both Huffman and Mildred Pierce — who also testifies in a highly publicized trial — the result of their behavior is a lingering shame.

While the physical altercation between Mildred and Veda is the culminating event of the plot, the novel still offers a few twists as it concludes. Though at first it seems as if Mildred’s attack has destroyed Veda’s singing career, we soon discover that the girl has been using her (non)injury for money in the same way she once used her (non)pregnancy to get a settlement. Monty and Veda leave for New York together, and it is Bert who returns to play the knight in shining armor during his ex-wife’s darkest moments. “To hell with her,” he says to a grief-stricken Mildred, who has been holed up in Reno waiting for her divorce from Monty. “I said to hell with her!”

If the reader was expecting to see how Mildred manages to survive her grief at Veda’s estrangement, Cain seems at a loss to provide this resolution. “What it cost her to swallow back her sobs, look at him, squint, and draw the knife across an umbilical cord, God alone knows,” Cain writes, with uncharacteristic vagueness in a book notable for its sharp descriptions. Whether Cain agrees that Mildred’s “only crime […] was that she had loved this girl too well,” or intends her inner monologue to be the rationalizations of an unreliable narrator, gets to the heart of helicopter parenting itself. While the consequences for criminal breaches in parenting are more clear-cut today (jail time, fines, community service, family therapy), the uncertain depths of the parent-child relationship that Cain plumbed in his 1941 novel perhaps explain what has to be one of the strangest endings ever written. “Let’s get stinko,” Bert proposes, brandishing a bottle of rye, and Mildred, having already done the impossible by writing off her daughter (if only Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin had gone this route instead), agrees. “Yes,” she says, “let’s get stinko.”

¤

Leah Griesmann’s fiction has appeared in The Weekly Rumpus, PEN Center’s The Rattling Wall, and This Side of the Divide: Stories of the American West, among other publications.

 

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