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The rapper accused her of triggering his addiction and substance abuse and took every opportunity to denigrate her in his music. Yet, despite the hostility, mother and son were able to make amends and forgive each other.

There is no doubt Eminem is a complicated person. 

His twenty-five-year career has essentially been defined by feuds and clashes and violence and toxic male aggression. Yet, even amid the madness, he has always maintained the ability to lay bare his vulnerabilities and acknowledge his weaknesses. Nothing illustrates this complexity better than his fraught relationship with his mother, Debbie Nelson. 

Eminem didn’t have the best upbringing. Being raised in abject poverty — with his folks dealing with their own share of addiction and relationship troubles — scarred the young rapper just as he was beginning to carve out his identity in this world. As such, he harbored plenty of resentment for his mother and father and had sworn he would break the pattern when it came to his own daughter

Of course, reality doesn’t often pan out the way you hoped it would, and so the Detroit rapper had to stand up and address his failures head-on. Through this personal journey, he could re-discover his relationship with his mother and the place she occupies in his life. 

A disturbing relationship marked by drug addiction, lawsuits, and estrangement 

(Photo by Nicky J. Sims/Redferns)

Debbie had only been eighteen when she gave birth to Marshal Mathers III. Eminem’s dad, Marshall Bruce Matthers Jr., abandoned the two of them as soon as he was born, leaving the young mother to raise Eminem by herself without any support system. The mother-and-son duo faced destitution and eviction at every turn: moving from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, every year in search of financial stability. The young mother was in no position to carry the arduous responsibility of parenthood on her shoulders, but she worked hard to make ends meet, even if the outcomes weren’t always satisfactory. 

Unfortunately, her childcare abilities weren’t up to her son’s liking. As is the Eminem modus operandi, the rapper badmouthed his mother and her parenting choices in the charged lyrics of his 1999 track ‘My Name Is,’ saying that his mother did “more dope than” he did. The lyrics continued: “I told her I’d grow up to be a famous rapper / Make a record about doin’ drugs and name it after her.”

Naturally, Debbie was totally blindsided by Eminem’s admission, and she later sued her son for $10 million for defaming her character. At the time, Eminem’s team responded by saying that his music only reflected the truth. “Everything he has said can be verified as true,” the statement said. Eminem’s lawyer also said that the lawsuit was a “result of a lifelong strained relationship between [Eminem] and mother” and that it was pretty “painful” to be sued by your own mother. Still, Debbie didn’t rescind her lawsuit and was later awarded a $25,000 settlement, $23,354.25 of which went to her lawyer. 

The animosity between Eminem and Debbie didn’t subside, though. In 2002, Eminem released a new tune, ‘Cleanin’ Out My Closet,’ in which he accused Debbie of suffering from Münchausen syndrome by proxy, a disorder in which a caregiver makes up an illness or injury in a person under their care, such as a child. If this wasn’t enough, he made more references to her substance abuse in the song ‘My Mom’ where he rapped: “My mom loved Valium and lots of drugs /That’s why I am like I am ’cause I’m like her.” He also wrote how she continuously added Valium in his food multiple times and would threaten to throw him in the basement if he didn’t eat his meal. 

My mom/ There’s no one else quite like my mom /I know I should let bygones be bygones/ But she’s the reason why I am high on what I’m high on

Eminem on My Mom

He eventually forgave his mother and understood the sacrifices she had made

It’s an absolutely appalling accusation to hurl your mother’s way. Furthermore, if Debbie had really committed those offenses, it’s an equally horrendous thing to be inflicting on your son. It’s hard to distinguish who’s telling the truth and who’s lying when the atmosphere is so incendiary, but Debbie did try to provide a context in her 2008 memoir My Son Marshall, My Son Eminem. She said, “At first I went along with it for Marshall’s sake – if I made one mistake as a mother, it was giving in to my eldest son’s every whim,” alluding to how she may have added Valium to his food but only at his insistence. She also added how it was an uphill battle to care for her son, given her wretched circumstances. Just because she made some terrible decisions of her own doesn’t mean Eminem should have taken the liberty to slander her at every opportunity. 

He never knew his father, and I did all I could to make up for it. I wasn’t happy when he made up a whole new life for himself – what mother wants to be known as a pill-popping alcoholic who lives on welfare?

Debbie Nelson on My Son Marshall, My Son Eminem.

Eventually, with time, Eminem did come to forgive his mother. There’s only so much room for hatred and anger, and when the years weigh down on you, you begin to realize how everyone goes through a hard time. In his 2013 song Headlights, Eminem discussed forgiving his mother, questioning if he had taken his resentment “too far.” He also shed light on his father’s role — or lack thereof — in exacerbating the relationship between himself and his mother. If he hadn’t abandoned the family at such a critical juncture, they wouldn’t have had to endure so much hardship. At the end of the day, the 49-year-old “loves” his mother, and she’s “still beautiful” to him. She “did her best” to raise him and his brother Nate, even though the “cross” she bore was the heaviest of all. 

But regardless, I don’t hate you ’cause, Ma / You’re still beautiful to me, ’cause you’re my Ma […] All you did, all you said, you did your best to raise us both /Foster care, that cross you bear, few may be as heavy as yours.

Eminem on Headlights

Let go of bitterness

Eminem clung onto much rage for his mother in the first forty years of his life that he and his mother still remain a little “estranged” to this date. It’s okay to feel a grudge, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t call out people for their dangerous behavior, but as you get older, consider whether the antagonism is worth your time. Our priorities shift, we become wiser, and we tend to forgive ourselves and each other for the past. The bitterness will only deter you in your journey, haunting you every step of the way till you’re ready to combust. Instead, free yourself. It feels good to look forward to the future and not have any regrets about the past. So if you have the opportunity to rid yourself of the bitterness, take it. 

Lead with Empathy
“I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” – Maya Angelou