By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“Jena didn‘t want me around,” she says. “From the time she was 12, she wanted me out of her life.”
Brander, who was earning $3,500 a week from production as Jena’s dialogue coach in addition to the $1,000 Debbie was paying her to act as Jena‘s guardian, took it upon herself to make sure her new charge got what she wanted.
“I went to the executive producer and said, ’Would you mind putting a thing on the call sheet that says, ”No babies allowed on the set,“‘” says Brander, “because that was the only way I could think of to keep Debbie away. So they actually did: ’No Babies, No Dogs.‘ So we took that call sheet home that day. ’Mom, come and look! You can‘t come down to the set because they don’t allow babies!‘”
Jena also began laying down the financial law: She would give Debbie $30,000, which she expected to last six months. Though Debbie says she specified the time frame herself, figuring “six months was long enough for me to get on my feet,” she went through the money in three months. She asked Jena for more; Jena was reluctant.
“I said, ’Honey, I haven‘t got a job yet, I’m doing my best, you can at least help me move‘ [back to Las Vegas]. She did. Begrudgingly. Everything was begrudgingly. ’Fine! I‘ll give you this. Send me the receipts, I want to see what you’re spending the money on.‘ Can you imagine having your child speak to you like this?”
In order to keep control and remain a responsible mother, Debbie says, she had only one choice: to stop the emancipation.
By September 1999, Jena was in Toronto, filming the HBO movie Cheaters with Jeff Daniels. It was the first time she was on her own (with the emancipation signed but not finalized, the studio allowed a crew member to be named titular guardian), the first time she was playing a naughty girl instead of a wan victim. After several months away from her family, however, Jena decided it was time for a visit.
“I hadn’t seen my sister in a really long time, so I said, ‘I would love to fly you guys out here, to spend a weekend with me,’” Jena says she told Debbie. “So, she comes out, I think everything‘s fine, everything’s great, she leaves that Monday, and the next week I get a call from Lesley, saying that ‘Your mom has gone crazy. She said when she was up there she read your diary.’”
Debbie asserts that she “accidentally tripped on her diary.” Though she says the issues (which she declines to detail) were “normal teenage things,” the fact that Jena had confided in a journal instead of her mother was proof that she was in “serious trouble.” Debbie‘s way of putting out this fire was to call everyone in Jena’s life -- her team -- and tell them what she‘d read.
“I went to them and I said, ’What are we gonna do? Jena‘s hurting, she needs some help,’” says Debbie. “And they said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t tell Jena you read her diary.‘ I never intended on telling her that. Never . . . Her manager and her personal assistant, they are the ones that told Jena. They went behind my back, they went without my permission and told Jena, in the middle of shooting the movie, and I told them, ’We are not going to discuss this until this movie is over, because I am not going to ruin it for her.‘”
Which is, of course, what happened. That the ruination was perhaps deliberate, that Debbie was heaping on Jena the hurt that had been heaped on her, that she was erecting a wall of doubt between Jena and her handlers, and even Hollywood -- one can find any of these ideas plausible. Or one can believe Debbie, who swears that she was “scared to death and didn’t know what to do.”
Jena says that, at the time, she was crushed. “She went through her phone book and told everyone she knew that I was, like, a drug addict and that I was anorexic and that I was a sex addict and that I believed in the devil, and all these horrible things, and she proceeded to tell all these people, but yet didn‘t inform her daughter that there was a problem, and I really -- I was really unhappy with that.” She says this with the equanimity of someone who has been badly burned, and has learned that the resulting scar tissue has rendered her impervious to this particular type of pain.
Debbie had other ways of hurting her. Whether driven by greed, desperation or rage, she tried to withdraw in excess of $80,000, basically every liquid asset she and Jena had. With both Jena’s business manager and Debbie calling Chase Manhattan, requesting that the other be taken off as signatory, the bank temporarily froze the accounts. Furious, Debbie flew back to Toronto and showed up on the set, demanding to see Jena, who became so upset that shooting was stopped until she composed herself. Afterward, Jena says, she had her mother “distracted” while she got on a plane to New York. Debbie went on a tear for the next 48 hours, trying to force her way into the room of Jena‘s guardian, threatening to sue HBO, and telling anyone who would listen what her plans were for Jena.
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