So when you’re born a pauper to a pawn on a Christmas Day, and then suddenly your daddy’s not a pawn and you’re not a pauper anymore, do you get more presents on your birthday, or less, or what? Hard to say, but Hailie Jade Mathers, who turns seven December 25, already has a whole Toys “R” Us worth of stuff, not to mention an indoor pool to swim in (at least that’s what her great-grandma, Betty Kresin of St. Joseph, Missouri, who hereby wishes Hailie happy birthday and Hailie’s dad Merry Christmas, says), so she’ll probably do OK. Word is that her daddy maybe spoils her a little, and why not?
“If Hailie wanted a hamburger at one o’clock in the morning, he’d go get it,” Great-Grandma Kresin says. “If Hailie wanted to go to a movie, Marshall (her dad, born in St. Joseph himself) goes with her; he doesn’t have a nanny do it. They just have to sneak in through the service door.” He even has her name and picture tattooed near his right shoulder.
“He lets her play with the neighbors, and has cookouts,” Kresin continues. “He loves children. I think if he had his way, he’d have a lot of children. He always wanted to have a family.” As a matter of fact, she says, Hailie’s dad has also been taking care of another little girl lately. “Marshall adopted one of Kim’s sister’s kids,” Kresin explains.
Kimberley Anne Scott is Hailie’s mom; her relationship with Marshall has been a little rocky, seeing as how he pulled an unloaded gun on her once when he caught her playing tonsil hockey with some doofus ex-nightclub bouncer. Plus he has this habit of enlisting Hailie to help him record hilarious and obnoxious and highly moving songs where he murders Kim and stuff, but the couple seem to be back together now. “I think it’s for Hailie,” says Kresin, who won’t absolutely confirm that the pair have reunited. Kim’s sister’s daughter is two years older than Hailie, Kresin explains. So is the adoption legally binding? “She’s got his last name,” Kresin answers. “What would you call it?”
Marshall and Kim and Hailie and Hailie’s cousin—plus Marshall’s aunt Betty and uncle Jack, who help out with child care—are all said to live together in a great big house in Clinton Township, Michigan, a lovely suburb situated around three branches of the Clinton River. Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker live in town, too, as do about 95,600 other people, according to the 2000 Census. (92.8 percent of them are white; 4.7 percent are black.) Marshall, who is just 30 years old (and contrary to his previous predictions isn’t yet in the nursing home pinchin’ nurses’ asses while jackin’ off with Jergens), reportedly paid more than a million and a half for the mansion.
It’s part of a gated yuppie community called Manchester Estates; the subdivision is located near Cass Avenue (named for onetime slave-owning Michigan governor Lewis Cass), more or less in between 18 and 19 Mile roads—i.e., about 10 miles north of where Marshall grew up. The title song from his new movie goes like this: “I’m free as a bird/And I turn and cross over the median curb/Hit the burbs and all you see is a blur.”
He moved from his last house because the city of Sterling Heights wouldn’t let him build a 12-foot fence to keep kids from littering his lawn with M&M wrappers. But Manchester Estates is working out better. Marshall’s neighbors like him a lot. “I personally have dealt with Marshall. I know Marshall. We live right next door, so we see him all the time,” says Cathy Roberts. “He is a wonderful performer, he is a wonderful father, he is an awesome neighbor—you can imagine—and he is a great person.”
“He’s normal, down-to-earth, and puts his pants on the same way everyone else does,” Roberts continues. “A very, very good father.”
“Couldn’t ask for a better neighbor, that’s all,” agrees Mary Russo, who has grandkids. “He’s been really good around here. Sorry, I know you guys don’t want to hear that.”
“He’s introduced himself to my husband and we see him around the neighborhood trick-or-treating. He always waves when he goes by. They’re real friendly,” says yet another neighbor. “He plays with his little girl. He never lets her out by herself. He scooters around the block with her on her bike. Now he’s teaching her to ride her bike without training wheels.”
At Halloween, according to the Detroit News, Marshall’s lawn was decorated with haystacks, yellow chrysanthemums, and three smiling scarecrows. Neighborhood kids come over and shoot hoops with him.
But at the center of his universe, there’s his little girl, who likes watching The Powerpuff Girls with her dad and jumping on the trampoline. She started making friends in town not too long ago, thus reportedly squelching any plans the family might have had to move to California. Pretty much every afternoon when Marshall’s not on tour, he heads over to the school where Hailie attends first grade, and brings her back home. (Word is that Marshall’s leasing a Benz, but foreign cars in Metro Detroit are ill-advised, of course. Around town, he opts for Fords.) Though Hailie’s dad could no doubt afford to send her to Cranbrook, he makes fun of the famous Bloomfield Hills private school toward the end of his movie; no hypocrite, he sends her to a public elementary—albeit one located at the end of a quiet, secure, secluded little street, where paparazzi or stalkers or anyone else out of the ordinary would stick out.
Though no one will divulge whether he cooks up brownies for the school’s bake sale, sources say that Marshall’s been known to show up for PTO meetings. The school’s Web site, in fact, boasts that 99 percent of parents attended fall conferences. “Parent involvement is directly associated with student success,” the Web page says; parents are asked to read with their children for 15 minutes every evening, and to “also please work on math facts.” (“Everywhere I go, a hat, a sweater hood, or mask,” Marshall rapped this year. “What about math, how come I wasn’t ever good at that?” But sometimes parents learn from their kids.)
“The Elementary Schools Student-Parent Handbook” for Chippewa Valley Schools prohibits weapons and unauthorized medication and “boom-boxes,” as well as tank tops, halters, and “pants not worn at the waistline.” “Verbal threats or assault may result in suspension and expulsion,” the handbook informs. “Any behavior or language, which in the judgment of the staff or administration, is considered to be obscene, disrespectful, profane and/or violates community held standards of good taste will be subject to disciplinary action.”
“With the right of expression comes the responsibility to use it appropriately,” the student-parent handbook concludes. Which might sound familiar to Hailie’s dad, given the words concluding this Hartford Courant review by Eric Danton: “He raps on The Eminem Show about freedom of speech as an inalienable right, but Eminem seems unwilling or unable to accept the accompanying responsibility.”
Eminem, of course, is Marshall’s alter ego. And sometimes Eminem goes by the name Slim Shady. And sometimes he plays a movie character who shares a name with the protagonist of John Updike novels about suburban midlife crises. In 8 Mile, when Rabbit’s buddies are doing their ceremonial Devil’s Night-style arson on the eyesore shell of an abandoned Motor City crack house, he salvages a torn, burnt snapshot of a happy (black) nuclear family, gets all choked up, and says, “When I was little, I used to want to live in a house like this.”
When Marshall Bruce Mathers III was tiny, his maternal grandma Betty remembers, “The little boy would give me letters, and say, ‘Could you give them to my daddy?’ ” He never met his dad, who left when he was six months old. And he hates him for it, says so in his songs, and imagines kids who listen to him feeling the same way: “He’s a problem child, and what bothers him all comes out/When he talks about his fuckin’ dad walkin’ out/’Cuz he just hates him so bad that it blocks him out/If he ever saw him again he’d probably knock him out.”
Marshall didn’t call his grandma on Thanksgiving, she says, but that’s OK; she heard he was in the studio till 4 a.m. Besides, she’s got 12 other grandchildren, and she didn’t hear from all of them, either. “He’s an excellent grandson. I’m very proud of him,” she says. “You get him offstage, and he’s so polite—he says, ‘Yes, Grandma, no, Grandma.’ And he never talks bad around his little child. He’s still kind of shy.” Betty’s doctor recently asked her for an Eminem T-shirt.
She’s met other fans, too. “I had a person who was abused growing up tell me not too long ago, ‘ “Cleanin Out My Closet,” he wrote that for me,’ ” Kresin says. “He’s not just making up words. I can relate to the songs, too. When my grandmother [who raised her] wasn’t switching me till I was black and blue, she used to put me in a spooky closet full of mothballs, and lock me in it.” She says she’s been looking for a ghostwriter to help her finish a book about all this.
Deborah Mathers-Briggs—Betty’s daughter and Marshall’s estranged mom—was due to be born on what would eventually be Hailie’s birthday, Kresin says. Instead, she wound up being born on January 6, just like Kresin’s grandmother. “Debbie was born on her birthday, and I feel she was under a curse. My grandmother is shoveling coal now; God doesn’t want her, and Satan won’t have her.”
In 1972, Debbie gave birth to Marshall. And Kresin wound up raising Marshall—who was born the same year as her son, his uncle Ronnie, who first introduced him to rap music—when Debbie couldn’t, or wouldn’t. “I had a baby and a grandson at the same time,” she recalls. “It was like having twins.” Sometimes when they were acting up in the backseat of the car, she’d scold them; Marshall would “start chanting, ‘If we don’t stop, we’re gonna have to walk! If we don’t stop, we’re gonna have to walk!’ “When Debbie would take him up to Michigan and leave Ronnie in Missouri, Kresin says, both boys would feel empty and beg to see each other at Christmastime.
Kresin says she thinks Debbie took her “hurt and bitterness” out on Marshall. “When you have verbal and mental instead of abuse that’s physical, you can’t really see it,” she says of the boy’s upbringing. “If it’s snowing in New York, and your mom tells you again and again that it’s 80 degrees out, you’ll believe it.” In the early ’90s, Ronnie committed suicide, and Kresin says Debbie blamed it on Marshall.
“She put my poor little grandson on such a guilt trip,” Kresin remembers. “She told him that Ronnie was trying to call and call when Marshall was out rapping. Which isn’t true, because I was with Ronnie the entire time! She said, ‘I have some bad news for you—Ronnie’s dead, and he wouldn’t be dead if it weren’t for you,’ ” Kresin says. Marshall wound up taking an overdose of Tylenol on the day of the funeral and couldn’t go. (Debbie—who Kresin says is “in hiding, up north”—could not be reached, and Eminem himself was unavailable for comment.)
Deborah Mathers-Briggs, for her part, has insisted she never abused drugs, that she actually spoiled Marshall and never raised her voice to him when he was growing up, and that she sacrificed to support him and his 16-year-old brother Nathan (who still lives with her). She told the BBC that her relationship with Marshall started imploding when she also took in his girlfriend Kim, who was 12 at the time; she said Marshall, who is two years older than Kim, didn’t move out until he was 25. A couple years ago, she even sued him for defamation and put out a CD single called “Set the Record Straight.” The case was settled before trial by Marshall paying $25,000.
“He was an excellent son,” counters Kresin. “He never said anything bad about Debbie, and it’s coming out now. It’s his way of healing.” (Possible examples: lyrics about how he doubted his mom’s breast-feeding abilities due to her lack of tits, how his mom took his bike away ’cause he stuck his guinea pig in the microwave, how his mom always taught him the important lesson of “goddammit, you little motherfucker, if you ain’t got nothin’ nice to say then don’t say nothin’,” how all bitches is ‘hos even his stinkin’-ass mom, and how he never meant to hit her over the head with that shovel.) “I love that boy,” Kresin says. “I’ll defend him till the day I die.”
And if his relationship with Kim is any indication, he seems to be reliving part of his grandma’s life. Starting at age 15, Kresin was married to, but repeatedly split up then reunited with, the same man. “He was the boss of me, and he was cruel to me,” she says. “And I’d never heard the word divorce.” Kim and Marshall were married in St. Joseph in June 1999; Eminem filed divorce paperwork in August 2000; they made up in December 2000; Kim filed for divorce in March 2001; and now they’re apparently back together. Last time around, they wound up agreeing on joint legal custody of Hailie after a months-long battle, and a Macomb County court recommended Eminem pay $2740 a week in child support, $156 a week in health insurance, and 90 percent of health care costs.
Too many fathers are absent from the lives of their children,” Al and Tipper Gore write in their feel-good tome Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family, published last month. “We believe that most single mothers do an excellent job of raising their kids, but it must be acknowledged that families are almost always better off with two loving parents present in the home, sharing both the work and the joy.” In early editions of Baby and Child Care, they say, Dr. Benjamin Spock warned against “trying to force the participation of fathers who get gooseflesh at the very idea of helping to take care of baby.” But these are different times, and what constitutes a family is changing. The Gores’ book is organized around a bunch of examples—their sole in-depth discussion of fatherhood, in fact, immediately follows their story about the Logan family, a white gay couple named Josh and John raising two adopted sons of color.
Forty pages later, Tipper talks about getting upset at the dirty words on an album her daughter brought home, then co-founding the Parents’ Music Resource Center, leading an effort to put warning labels on objectionable albums, and writing a book called Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society. Which might partially explain why Eminem has a song where he tells Tipper “fuck you.”
But in “My Dad’s Gone Crazy”—a track prominently featuring Hailie’s looped vocal—Eminem concedes, “I don’t blame you, I wouldn’t let Hailie listen to me neither.” And by now, there should be no doubt that he’s obsessed with the exact same transformation-of-American-family issues that Al and Tipper are obsessed with. For one thing, he’s probably written as much about being a father as any popular songwriter of the past half-century.
Who else is there? John Lennon and Stevie Wonder and Bobby Goldsboro and Harry Chapin and that creepy “Butterfly Kisses” guy had a song or two each, maybe. John Prine, Art Alexakis of Everclear? Not out of the question. But Eminem came out of hip-hop, where the prevailing attitude about fatherhood was stated by the great Spoonie Gee, over 20 years ago. “When I got into my house and drove the female wild/The first thing she said is let’s have a child,” Spoonie postulated in 1980’s “Love Rap.” “If I had a baby I might go broke/ And believe me to a nigga that ain’t no joke.” Give or take isolated instances of parental pride from, say, Will Smith (who don’t have to cuss to sell records but Hailie’s dad does) or Coolio or OutKast (but not Big Daddy Kane), that’s where rap music remains.
And in 2002, for some reason, pop-icon pops have been especially visible. Ozzy became the latest in a long line of TV fathers-know-worst, right up there with Dan Conner and Homer Simpson and Tony Soprano. Michael Jackson, whose greatest hit ever had him insisting “the kid is not my son,” made a spectacle of himself on a Berlin balcony. Liv Tyler’s old man played Santa on Lizzie McGuire. And a People magazine cover even proclaimed, “Jon Bon Jovi: Secrets of a Rock Star Dad.”
Hearing about all those other papas, though, sometimes gets Betty Kresin’s goat, especially when congresspeople pick on Marshall. “I just think, well, they don’t know my grandson. Have you ever seen my grandson take Hailie to the fourth or fifth floor of a hotel room—like, well, I won’t mention any names—and dangle her out the window?” she protests. “Did you ever see him bite the head off a bat or a dove?”
In a way, though, the real precedent for Eminem’s handy tips on modern parenting might not be a fellow dad at all, but rather his fellow Michigander Diana Ross—the one who wailed in the Supremes’ “Love Child” about how she “started my life in an old, cold tenement slum/My father left, he never even married mom. . . . We’ll only end up hatin’ the child we may be creatin’ “; the one who, in “I’m Livin’ in Shame,” hid her life from her embarrassing mother, “who had a grandson two years old I didn’t even show her.” Is Detroit the real deal, or what? Though Eminem’s mom probably won’t pass away making homemade jam.
“Ninety-nine percent of my life I was lied to,” he complained in an early lyric. “I just found out my mom does more dope than I do.” His songs went on to tell us how he felt like someone else since hanging his original self from the top bunk when he was 12, how his brother and sister never called him until they saw him on TV but now everybody’s so proud he’s finally allowed to set foot in his girlfriend’s house, how he yelled “you fuckin’ homo” at his dad’s funeral, and how he won’t let his daughter attend his mom‘s funeral.
A couple of which stories, one can possibly conclude, might even be true! But mostly, ha ha ha, he’s just playin’, ladies (and America). You know he loves you. “If my music is literal, and I’m a criminal, how the fuck can I raise a little girl?” he asks. Which isn’t to suggest he doesn’t have issues. Has anybody mentioned how oedipal his first movie is—how he and Kim Basinger are always falling all over each other, even in bed? Weird. Still. “How the fuck you supposed to grow up when you weren’t raised?”
And by that, he doesn’t just mean himself; he means his audience—all those little hellions feeling rebellious, embarrassed their parents still listen to Elvis. He never knew he’d get this big; never knew he’d affect these kids, never knew they’d slit their wrists. He’s a role model: “Don’t you wanna grow up to be just like me/Smack women, eat ‘shrooms, and OD?” White America, he could be one of your kids—little Eric looks just like him, and Erica loves his shit. “How many retards will listen to me, and run into the school shooting when they’re pissed at the teacher?” He’s the one they can look up to better, so tonight he’ll write his biggest fan a “fuck you” letter.
He only cusses to upset your mom, he says, so kids hide his tape like bad report cards. Then they get drafted: “All this terror, America demands action/Next thing you know, you’ve got Uncle Sam’s ass askin’/To join our army, or what you do for their navy/ You’re just a baby, getting recruited at 18.” But since he makes “fight music for high school kids,” at least the grunts will be well trained. He’ll take seven censored kids from censored Columbine, stand ’em all in line, add an AK-47, a revolver, a nine, and that’s a whole school of bullies shot up all at one time. “I was put on earth to annoy the world/And destroy your little four-year-old boy or girl.”
Or maybe not. Last year, though nobody much noticed, he decided to donate part of his pay-per-view special’s ticket proceeds to Boys and Girls Republic, a suburban Detroit school whose mission is “to help at-risk youth, one at a time, become contributing members of society.” The Republic, though, refused Eminem’s gesture, opting to avoid endorsement by a performer whose lyrics seem to run counter to the school’s sense of nurturing.
Drawing on statistics from the Census Bureau, Center for Disease Control, Department of Justice, and more, an (admittedly probably not entirely unbiased) organization called the Father’s Rights and Equality Exchange computed a few years back that kids from fatherless homes are five times more likely to commit suicide, nine times more likely to drop out of high school, 10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances, 14 times more likely to commit rape (“this applies to boys, of course”), 20 times more likely to end up in prison, and 32 times more likely to run away from home. But by all sane measures, current workfare and child-care laws are stacked starkly against single mothers; think of Bowling for Columbine‘s Flint, Michigan, mom, working two minimum-wage jobs while her six-year-old son finds his uncle’s gun and accidentally shoots a classmate. And as Queens College political scientist Andrew Hacker pointed out earlier this month in his New York Review essay on the Gores’ new book, single-mother families “now account for more than a fifth—21.9 percent—of all households with children, over double the proportion of a generation ago.” Even more surprising, Hacker notes, is the increasing number of families in which no mother is present. Single-father households “now make up 5.7 percent of all those with children, almost five times the ratio for 1970,” Hacker writes. “Fathers now make up 20.1 percent of all single parents.”
While he’s yet to quote any such statistics verbatim, it’s impossible to listen to much of Eminem’s music and not conclude that he’s thought a lot about what they add up to. “It’s a sick world we live in these days,” he says. Think of little Eric, who’s gonna jump off the terrace because the people who should’ve been watching him apparently aren’t parents. Or Em’s number one fan, Stan: “I never knew my father neither/He used to always cheat on my mom and beat her/I can relate to what you’re saying in your songs/So when I have a shitty day I drift away and put ’em on.” Next thing you know he’s on the freeway with his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk, and he just drank a fifth of vodka. So Slim Shady suggests counseling, but doesn’t get the letter to him fast enough to change Stan’s life, which Slim has somehow decided is his responsibility.
Frankly, Eminem seems convinced that the state of a lot of America’s youth is his responsibility right now. Or his fault. Or something. No wonder his grandma thinks Marshall wants a whole brood of kids. If he’s not Michael Jackson (and they sure do seem to share certain neuroses: about how sex is kinda icky, for instance), maybe he’s Bing Crosby in The Bells of St. Mary’s. Except where Bing said if you hate to go to school you may grow up to be a mule, Eminem says he can rap so fuck school, he’s too cool. But that’s just a minor detail.
And it’s not hard to understand why he’s so determined to properly raise the one kid who really is his responsibility. “How do I rate myself as a father?” he pondered on WKQI-FM’s Mojo in the Morning show in Detroit earlier this year. “My Aunt Betty’s screaming 10, 10; I don’t know, I do the best I can. On a scale of 1 to10, like a 20.” And OK, maybe that doesn’t take into account the time he told both Kim and Hailie that he was taking Hailie to Chuck E. Cheese’s, then instead took her to the studio to record “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” the goofier of his two Kim-murdering classics. (But hey, have you ever hauled rugrats to Chuck E. Cheese’s? Flying pizza slices everywhere! It’s hell on earth.)
And anyway, that was ages ago; times have changed. “I look at Hailie and I couldn’t picture leaving her side/Even if I hated Kim, I grit my teeth and I try to make it work with her at least for Hailie’s sake/I maybe made some mistakes, but I’m only human/But I’m man enough to face them today.” He loves his daughter more than life itself, he says in the sappy ballad with her name in its title; she’s maybe the only lady he adores. But his insecurities could eat him alive. “I’m a responsible father, so not a lot of good I’d be to my daughter, laying in the bottom of the mud/Must be in my blood ’cause I don’t know how I do it/All I know is I don’t want to follow in the footsteps of my dad, ’cause I hate him so bad/The worse fear that I had was growin’ up to be like his fuckin’ ass.” There’s a hellhound on his trail. “I sold my soul to the devil, I’ll never get it back,” he says in “Say Goodbye Hollywood.” “It’s fucking crazy, ’cause all I wanted was to give Hailie the life I never had.”
And here he is in 8 Mile‘s title track, talking about his little sister from the movie, played by Chloe Greenfield (“Yo, she’s the cutest girl in the world, besides Hailie,” he told Mojo), who, while working on the film, he invited home for a play date with Hailie so she could know him better: “Ain’t no tellin’ what really goes on in her little head/Wish I could be the daddy that neither one of us had.” He’s always wishing life could be more normal. In “The Way I Am,” he hopes “you freaks” would at least have the decency to leave him alone when he’s out feedin’ his daughter.
Ever wonder why people are so determined to reach for white picket fences, supposed normalcy, a nuclear family? Well, try growing up without one. My own parents both died when I was a kid (mom: uterine cancer; dad: suicide), and my stepdad walked out on Christmas Day when I was in high school. Before that, I’d spent over a year at the St. Vincent and Sarah Fisher Home for Children, just up the Farmington Hills road a piece from the Boys and Girls Republic. Got married at 21, had three kids by the time I was Eminem’s age, got divorced (very amicably, fortunately) a few years later. Sherman, who’s 11, likes Eminem the most. He was psyching himself up for an early-Sunday-morning peewee hockey practice in Bucks County last month, listening to “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile (“Lonely roads, God only knows/He’s grown farther from home/He’s no father/He goes home and barely knows his own daughter”), and said, “Eminem makes being a dad sound hard!” So I answered, “Yeah, Sherman, and Eminem only has one kid!” But Sherman was right. And so is Eminem. And Sherman also has a point when he can’t figure out why some people get so upset about so many things Eminem says (even on the clean versions that Sherman’s allowed to listen to, not that I’m naive enough to think kids can’t hear whatever kids want these days), after everybody already heard him tell Stan outright that he’s saying that shit just clownin’, dawg.
“My little girl knows me even if nobody else does. She knows that, at the end of the day, Daddy is not what he says in his songs,” Eminem told Megastar last year. “There may be part of me that’s like that, or that gets angry and wants to say those things, or maybe wants to actually do those things. But when I’m with my little girl, I’m not like that all. I’m Daddy to her.”
So hopefully the guy who jokes about grown-ups sucking his wee-wee back in pre-school wasn’t too fucked up by his childhood. Thing is, I have a feeling he’s not clownin’ at all when he criticizes parents who let their 12-year-old daughters wear makeup. For Hailie, that’s five years away. He says hip-hop was never a problem in Harlem, only Boston, after it bothered fathers of daughters starting to blossom; what happens when Hailie starts to blossom? What happens when she starts to date? In two years she’ll be in third grade, when a song by her dad says Slim Shady used to sniff glue through a tube and play Rubik’s Cube. And in three years she’ll be in fourth grade, and by then kids have the Discovery Channel so of course they’re gonna know what intercourse is. And in 2012 he’ll “be 40 with a 40 on the porch tellin’ stories/with a bottle of Jack, two grandkids on my lap/Babysitting for Hailie, while Hailie’s out gettin’ smashed.” At 17, if you haven’t already done the math. Happy birthday, Hailie. And papa, don’t preach.
Additional reporting by Daniel King
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 24, 2002