Warren doesn't believe his mother was bipolar. "There were periods she would attribute to neuralgia. I think they refer to it now as migraines. But I think my mother did have terrible headaches, and how much of these periods of extreme criticism and extended berating of us would be attributable to that would be hard to tell."
He said a difficult childhood may also have contributed to it. "My mother had this tough upbringing." Leila's mother had been institutionalized for mental illness.
"Our mother always presented this totally sunny disposition to the rest of the world," Warren said. "So there was this contradiction between public and private behavior that I'm sure was hard for Doris or myself to fully understand as a kid."
But Doris said it was clear that she was the primary target of her mother's wrath. "I never heard the words, 'I love you,' " she said. "I never had a story read to me. Rarely was I tucked into bed. Nobody ever said, 'Call us when you get there so we know you're safe.' There were so many times I just wished some fairy godmother would come and understand me or like me -- whisk me out of there or something."
One Christmas in Washington, in a moment of adolescent drama, a sixteen-year-old Doris angrily threw a letter from a boyfriend into the fireplace. Dried greens in the fireplace then burst into flames, flared up and scorched the mantle. Eleven-year-old Bertie decided to take the blame because she and thirteen-year-old Warren knew the punishment would be so much worse for Doris.
"We got enormous approval from my dad," Warren said. "We never could quite get it from our mother. That wasn't just Doris, that was me, too. It probably didn't extend to Bertie so much, being the youngest. Every child seeks approval from both parents. Neither Doris nor I would get much from our mother. It was tougher on her, being the oldest."
And Warren was a boy. "It was a Victorian thing," Doris said. "Your job was to make them look good, even walk a couple of steps behind them."
Younger sister Roberta Buffett Elliott of Carmel, California, agreed with Doris that Leila was much tougher on her. "Warren was a boy, and boys, in my mother's viewpoint, were more valuable than women.
"Men were supposed to be smarter. In a marriage, if the woman was smarter, she'd better hide it. Men had to go out in the world and earn the living. They had more power, and women were expected to smile and keep quiet.
"My mother never criticized my dad," Bertie said. "It's hard to imagine a marriage where you'd never feel critical, but if she did, I never saw it expressed. So I think that even though my brother was criticized, too, that it was against a background of men succeeding and being somebody and being important. My mother helped Warren by getting up early and making his breakfast so he could do paper routes. In a sense, she had higher expectations for him, so I think that would be very empowering. For a woman it was like, 'Oh, don't you dare have those expectations, because you're a woman. You can't do those things. You have to be in a lesser role.' So I think it would be more damaging to Doris than to Warren."