This TV movie about child abuse was way ahead of its time.

Today I was thinking about a TV movie I saw back in the 1980s that has haunted me ever since. I decided to watch it again tonight (you can watch the entire movie on Youtube–it’s in seven parts; I have posted the first part). It’s called Mary Jane Harper Cried Last Night and was first aired in 1977. Susan Dey (of Partridge Family fame) played an abusive, alcoholic mother to a 4 year old girl and she becomes completely unhinged. The movie is extremely triggering and may be upsetting to some.

There are several things about this movie that I found quite interesting.

— Rowena (Susan Dey) seems to have every symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder–but a case could also be made that her symptoms could well be untreated severe PTSD caused by the abuse she suffered at the hands of her own parents. This movie illustrates why I think BPD is really severe PTSD caused by chronic childhood abuse and could make a good case for that.

— Rowena’s parents are both textbook examples of malignant narcissists. Her mother is cold, rejecting, gaslighting, and blames her daughter for her unhappiness, as well as pathologically envious of the attention she receives from her father, who sexually abused her (and apparently still does).

— Rowena’s psychiatrist is a narcissistic jerk who coldly dismisses her from a breakthrough therapy session at the moment she recalls and re-experiences a long forgotten memory of being locked in a closet as a small child. This turned out to be an extremely cruel (and unwise) thing for him to do.

— In the almost 40 years since this film was made, not much has changed. The child protective system is still hit and miss at best and often tragically incompetent.

— It’s a fascinating and convincing study of the way the pathology of abuse infects succeeding generations.

The movie, being made for TV, isn’t perfect. There are a few holes in the plot and certain scenes just seem contrived. I also can’t help thinking of “Dean Wormer” from the movie Animal House whenever John Vernon (the head doctor) is onscreen. But the acting, especially by Susan Dey and the little girl who plays her daughter Mary Jane (Natasha Ryan), as well as the caring doctor who stands up to the Powers That Be and tries to protect Mary Jane, is top notch.

15 thoughts on “This TV movie about child abuse was way ahead of its time.

    • I hope she got a long time in prison but also get some decent psychiatric help. That woman was seriously unhinged, but who wouldn’t be with parents like that? I felt so sorry for that poor little girl. 😦


  1. I remember that movie. I was really young at the time but for some reason watched the movie. I remember crying uncontrollably too. It has stuck with me forever.

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  2. I saw the entire movie. I think I may have seen it years ago but I don’t remember it that well so it was like seeing it for the first time. You think the mother had BPD? I don’t know what symptoms she had of this except dependency and, at the end, a psychotic episode. That shrink was a trip. All the adults around her were really disassociative. It’s sad that she tried to get real help but the people around her prevented this. They hugged the status quo as it poisoned them. It’s good that this brave film helped people to know more about child abuse.

    Did you ever see a TV movie called “Shattered Spirits?” It’s about an alcoholic father and the pathology that develops in his family as they tried to deal, each in hir own way. An intervention takes place that is the way every intervention should be but probably isn’t. Worth seeing.

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