May 1, 2001

All About My Mother... And Myself

As a television news reporter and anchor for the past 23 years, I’ve always been conscious of the need to try to maintain a neutral, unbiased and objective attitude toward the subject matter. There’s a long-running debate about whether anyone can be truly objective, but I’ll leave that to the J-school theoreticians. I have simply learned to catch myself when I start getting too attached to one side or another, and give myself a good slap before an irascible editor does it for me.

After years of telling other people’s stories, I got a prolonged itch to use my skills to explore something personal. My mother’s story was the obvious choice for a documentary. Her solitary journey as a child, from Puerto Rico to New York at the height of the Great Depression, and her comic-tragic struggle to put together and star in a vaudeville dance troupe seemed as compelling an American survival/success story as one is likely to find.

But, how to remain objective about it all? How to tell my own mother’s story without doing a phony vanity piece or—at the other extreme—a cruel exposé where one wasn’t needed? It was a delicate balancing act. In the end, I decided that if anyone were to be exposed to the harsh light of my scrutiny, it would have to be me—my reactions, my resentments, my sense of pride and, through it all, the theme of how my mother’s life impacted me.

For this documentary, being objective meant not letting myself off the hook when it came to my complex feelings about my mother’s larger-than-life adventures as a vaudeville-era bombshell. In essence, being objective meant being subjective. I literally turned the camera on myself, interviewing myself through the use of mirrors. I did this alone, with the door shut, so as to make it easier to be real and take the mask off the TV journalist. Talking into the mirror, with the camera on, became a form of self-analysis. At first, it was really difficult to do…then it became hard to stop. In the end, the documentary turned out to be as much about me as about my mother. As it turned out, the exploration of the mother-daughter relationship was the universal theme that moved people.

We all have one thing in common; we were not around when our parents were very young and endured their formative emotional experiences and often traumatic events. Yet those experiences affected how they raised us and therefore go a long way toward making us who we are. Family mythology—and all families seem to have a version of it—is the public relations press kit of a family’s past. Subjecting it to any form of investigative reporting can be unsettling to anyone and everyone in the family. But by saying “I feel” this or that, I was able to express previously repressed feelings about my mother’s past without putting her on the defensive.

In doing my self-interview, I was also able to appreciate what I had been putting other people through all these years. As journalists and documentary makers, we often approach subjects with a certain sense of entitlement to the information we are intent on gleaning. We often assume the search for the truth is a lofty goal that trumps the need for the subject to protect their secrets and self-delusions. Left unrestrained, we can turn into self-righteous inquisitors. By subjecting myself to my own tough questions, I got an unforgettable lesson in how difficult it is to offer up any aspect of one’s personal life to the general public. The process was an important reminder that as journalists, we’re like doctors. First, do no harm.

Initially, my mother was not thrilled with what you might call the “honesty quotient” of the documentary. But she grew to relish the material after seeing what a positive response her warts-and-all life story elicited from the audience. In essence, I was telling her that I love her for who she really is, not for who she would sometimes like the world to think she is. In turn, the positive response to the documentary showed my mother that other people are willing to love her and admire her grit, courage, endurance and sense of humor, precisely because they know some of the messy details that any interesting life is bound to have. In the end, it was a fascinating journey and I’m so glad I did it. Anita Velez: Dancing Through Life has a running time of 31 minutes and can be viewed at www.movieflix.com under the documentary category.

 

Jane Velez-Mitchell currently anchors and reports at KCAL-TV, Channel 9 in Los Angeles, where she has worked for the last 11 years. She spent three years following and interviewing her mother for Anita Velez: Dancing Through Life—her first foray into the documentary genre—but she has been writing, producing and reporting in the television news business for more than 20 years.

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