EXCLUSIVE: Mom Says Eminem Was Shy Boy

Although her son has called her a horrible mother who drank and took drugs and deserves to burn in hell, rapper Eminem's mother doesn't take it to heart.

"He's got a persona to live up to, an image," his mother, Debbie Nelson, told Primetime's Jay Schadler.

Nelson says that she doesn't take her son's rage-filled lyrics literally. Even when he sings, "You selfish bitch, I hope you f---ing burn in hell for this s--t," she says it doesn't bother her. "That's just artistic expression," she said. "He's very sad on the inside. He is hurting a lot. And I can see it. I can see through my son. I know him like the back of my hand."

Her son's violent, resentful lyrics have also been good for his record sales, Nelson says. "The minute you start becoming destuctive and being different — you know, kill your mother, rape this one and kill that one — I mean, people love it. The more he went in that direction, I mean, he was selling just like crazy. I mean, everybody wanted more."

Nelson, who brought a $10 million defamation lawsuit against her son in 1999 but ended up settling out of court for a few thousand dollars, said she is sure he still loves her. Part of the reason he continues to say horrible things about her in his music, she said, is commercial: "He's got everybody else pulling him in different direction: managers, different people, telling him what to say. And money is power, you know."

Tough Times, But No Drugs or Alcohol, Mom Says

Nelson was just 17 when Eminem, whose real name is Marshall Mathers, was born. She admits the family went through some tough times. By the time Marshall was 2, she fled an abusive marriage and started a tough life as a single mother. "We'd get into homes, fix it up and they'd sell it out from under us, so it was kind of tough," she said. "I went from paycheck to paycheck."

But Nelson denies that she was the kind of mother depicted in her son's music. He has accused her in his lyrics of being an alcoholic, smoking marijuana and abusing prescription drugs — all of which she denies. "None of that is true," she said.

Eminem's reputation as a rapper is built around his raw depiction of grim realities in his life, including what he says was a difficult childhood with a bad mother. Nelson stops short of calling her son a liar, but insists that what she says is true. "That is what I'm saying, but I don't want to call him a fake," she said.

The rapper declined Primetime's request for an interview and chose not to respond to his mother's comments.

Nelson has said in the past that she is an excellent mother, but she conceded to Primetime that she would give herself only nine points out of ten as a mother, "because no one is perfect." In 1996, the Michigan Department of Social Services alleged that Nelson "exhibits ... almost paranoid personality" and accused her of abusing Marshall's younger brother, Nathan. He was temporarily removed from her custody but eventually returned under state supervision.

Says Eminem Was a 'Momma's Boy'

Nelson says her son was a shy, imaginitive boy when he was little, who loved play-acting at home and dressing up as Batman and Robin. "He was a Momma's boy. He always wanted to be with Mommy," she said.

Also, she said, he showed evidence of rhythm and musicality from a young age — by bouncing. "Marshall was very different. Marshall had always liked to bounce. He liked to bounce a lot. I mean, sitting on a chair against the wall, on a couch, in a car.... A lot of people thought that he was maybe retarded in school, because he'd bounce off his desk."

Although Nelson insists that at this point she is immune to her son's lyrics, she said that some of his actions have had an impact on her: for the past several months, she said, he has prevented her from visiting his daughter. On one of his albums, he had rapped that she would never see her granddaughter, with the threat: "She won't even be at your funeral." Nelson admits being hurt that she cannot see the girl.

But a card her son sent her in 1998 suggests that this might be just the latest turn in a tangled mother-son relationship. In the card he wrote: "Mom, I know that we fight a lot at times, but it doesn't mean that I don't love you. Happy Mother's Day. I love you, Marsh."

"That's Marshall!," Nelson said.

This story originally aired on Primetime on Nov. 21, 2002.