Behind every great pop icon there’s a mother. In Justin Bieber‘s case, her name Pattie Mallette. And with over 2.4 million Twitter followers and 290,000 likes on Facebook, it’s clear she’s already developed a following of her own — particularly after her autobiography Nowhere but Up: The Story of Justin Bieber’s Mom hit the New York Times bestseller list. In the book, the still-youthful mom recounts her tough early years growing up in Ontario, Canada. Those years included experiencing sexual abuse as a child and teen experimentation with alcohol and drugs, particularly marijuana and LSD. She also got involved with petty theft, vandalism and drug dealing. It all contributed to feelings of depression that led to a suicide attempt. It was during her stint in a psychiatric ward that she embraced Christianity.
But her problems weren’t over. After getting out of the hospital, she rejoined the same circle of friends, including a relationship with Jeremy Bieber through whom she soon became pregnant. She resisted pressure to have an abortion. She gave birth to Justin on March 1, 1994 at the age of 17. Though Jeremy Bieber was a supportive father, he and Pattie did not marry and she essentially raised him as a single mother struggling mightily to make ends meet.
Needless to say, things have turned around for both she and her now-famous son. These days, she devotes much of her time to helping struggling young people understand that — no matter their present difficulties — with faith and perseverance, things do get better. She elaborates on her story and her message in the new teen edition of Nowhere but Up which went on sale on July 2nd.
I recently caught up with Pattie following a Q&A she had with a group of young people at the New York base of Covenant House, an organization that for decades has served as a sanctuary for homeless teens. The group assembled definitely related to her struggles and seemed to draw enormous encouragement from her current success.
JWK: Between writing books, speaking at places like Covenant House and being a rock star’s mom, you juggle a lot of balls in the air.
PATTIE MALLETTE: Yes, I do.
JWK: Nowhere but Up was a big New York Times bestseller and now you’re out with a version aimed squarely at teens. What do you hope they get out of it?
PM: I’m hoping the teen readers get a sense of hope and inspiration to get through whatever difficult circumstances come their way. I mean, I went through a lot of abuse and a lot of really difficult things growing up — depression, anxiety, attempted suicide — and I really think that a lot of teenagers today can relate.
JWK: Because you have been through so much, was it a difficult decision to literally turn your life into an open book?
PM: It’s hard to be vulnerable in front of the whole world because everyone’s a critic — but I know why I’m doing it and I just have to keep remembering why I’m doing it.
JWK: Why are you doing it?
PM: I really want to help people. I really want to give somebody that hope that they need to keep going. I’ve had incredible responses so far. People are saying “You saved my life! I was suicidal!” They’re showing me their arms and where they used to cut (themselves) and they don’t anymore “because of you and because or your story and because of your courage. Thank you so much for sharing your story.” And that’s why I wrote it. That’s what keeps me going.
JWK: Your story begins with you being abused as a child and your teen years were also very difficult.
PM: My dad abandoned me when I was about two years old. So, he wasn’t around to protect me the way I needed to be protected. I started getting sexually abused from the time I was about five years old to the time I was ten. It really messed with my sense of self worth and my sense of all that was good with the world, almost. You know, I suffered with a lot of depression and anxiety after that. It really messed with me. So, unfortunately, I know that far too many people today — especially young people — can really relate. So, that was really important for me to include that stuff.
JWK: As you mentioned, you were suicidal at one point.
PM: Yeah. Getting into my teen years, I was filled with so much shame and pain that I got really involved with drugs and alcohol. I was hanging out with the wrong people and getting involved in the wrong relationships and everything just sort of spun out of control. So, one day I was 17 years old and I ended up trying to commit suicide and I ended up in the hospital. As a teenager, that was a really scary thing.
JWK: How old were you when you met (Justin’s father) Jeremy Bieber?
PM: I met him when I was 14 or 15.
JWK: How old were you when you got pregnant?
PM: I was pregnant when I was 18. We were sort of on-again/off-again for a few years. We had a really toxic relationship. We were teenagers and we were just both young and had been through a lot of broken stuff together.
JWK: Did he have a drug problem of his own at the time.
PM: We both struggled with drugs and alcohol at a young age.
JWK: Is it true that when you were pregnant with Justin that you faced pressure to abort him?
PM: There were definitely people very close to me that were pressuring me but I just knew that I wanted to do whatever it took to be a good mom. I thought about the other options and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to go through with any of them. So, I just thought “Well, I don’t have a choice. I need to do whatever it takes to be the best mom that I can be.”
JWK: The suicidal situation was before you were pregnant?
PM: Yes. Six months before I got pregnant I was in the hospital for trying to commit suicide.
JWK: And it was then, as I recall, that you had a religious experience that led you to Christianity.
PM: Yeah. Before Justin was born, when I was in the hospital at 17 when I tried to commit suicide, I had a man come in to visit me. His name was John. He was the director of the youth center that I used to hang out at. He would come to the hospital and he would bring me food and, you know, talk to me. I would just listen to whatever he had to say because he would bring me McDonald’s and all kinds of food. He would just really encourage me. He said “You know, when you hit rock bottom, you have nowhere to go but up.” So, one day I was just desperate and I cried out and I just said “God, if you are real then I need you to show me what you have planned for my life because I’m not doing such a great job and, if you have something better, then I need to know what that is.” And so, in that moment, I had an encounter and it sent me on a path of teaching and it’s something that I could never, ever shake.
JWK: But you did have some lapses after that.
PM: Yeah, absolutely. I wasn’t all cleaned up by any means. It’s been a messy faith. It’s been a journey.
JWK: But it was the beginning of the change in your life.
PM: Yes, it was the beginning of the change.
JWK: I’ve had depression is my past as well. Do you see the scars from your past as blessings now? Are they gifts that help you relate to other people?
PM: You know, in the moment, everything is really painful, obviously to go through those kinds of things, but I don’t know that I would go back and change it just because it made me who I am today. It also helps me to be able to use my story for good and help other people.
JWK: As indication of how much your life has come together, you’re actually producing movies now.
PM: Yeah, I produced a movie short called Crescendo…It’s got (11) international film festival awards. It’s doing really great.
JWK: Becoming a movie maker seems like quite a turn in your life. How did that happen?
PM: I’m also producing on a full-length feature called Day One. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve just been connecting with the right people and letting them know that I’m interested in doing this.
JWK: How did Crescendo and Day One, particularly, come about?
PM: Crescendo came actually through (Movie to Movement founder) Jason Jones. I’m friends with him and he thought this would be a good fit because the goal was to raise $10 million for crisis pregnancy centers. Because I lived in a pregnancy center the whole time I had Justin, he knew I’d be able to relate.
JWK: How about Day One, your first full-length feature? What’s that about?
PM: It’s the true story behind an organization called To Write Love on Her Arms. It’s the true story…Renee. She was an addict and she wanted to go to rehab. It’s the story of her healing. What happened was there…there were five young adults that lived in a house with her trying to detox her for five days before they put her in this rehab center…She used to cut nasty things on her arms and (one of the guys) wrote a blog called To Write Love on Her Arms and it turned into this great big organization. It’s pretty exciting.
JWK: When can we expect to see that?
PM: Hopefully next year at some point.
JWK: You’ve also in the midst of starting your own foundation called Round 2. Can you tell me about that?
PM: The idea behind Round 2 is that, when you get knocked down you get knocked down in Round 1 of life, there’s Round 2. So, we’re gonna be helping people that have been through really hard-to-overcome situations like suicide attempts, self harm and drug and alcohol addiction…So, our first initiative is called Speak Up, Listen Up. We’re encouraging people to share their story with other people and to listen to someone else’s story so that we can not only not keep things inside but also encourage other people. I know some people need counseling but not everyone can afford it. Our first idea is to help fund counseling for those that can’t afford it.
JWK: Is there a website for that?
PM: Round2.org. It’s just in the very beginning stages.
JWK: What was it like being a single mom raising Justin Bieber? As someone with musical talent of your own, did you realize he had such abilities while he was growing up?
PM: Yeah. He’s always been super talented. I always had instruments around the house and I would write different songs and he would play on the little bongos and sing along and stuff. The thing is though when he was growing up he was always more interested in sports than he was in music.
JWK: So, he was well rounded.
JWK: I understand you’re still friends with his father.
PM: Yeah, we’re friends today. Justin’s dad has been in the picture since he was a baby. He’s been there. I raised him. He lived alone with me. I had full custody but his dad would see him.
JWK: What’s it like to see your son become a superstar? How has that affected your life?
PM: It’s been a whirlwind but I think one of the greatest things about where Justin’s at today is I get to use the platform for good. I’ve been sharing my story since before Justin started his career but now I get the chance to put it in a book and to get my story out to so many more people than I would have before. That’s the best thing — that I get to use my platform for good.
JWK: Aside from opening your life and laying it bare for the public, was it difficult for you to dredge up and remember all the difficult things you’ve been through?
PM: Some parts were difficult but it was really good. It was cathartic. Writing and rewriting and editing and reediting, it was a good process.
JWK: The media loves to build people up but sometimes it seems to take even more delight in tearing them down. As a mother, is it difficult for you to watch and hear son be criticized and attacked in the press and online?
PM: You know, I think it’s hard for any parent to see anything negative said or done against your child and, when you can’t directly do something about it, it’s hard.
JWK: Where do you see yourself in five years?
PM: I would like to be producing more movies and traveling, doing some speaking and still making a difference in people’s lives. No matter what projects I’m taking on, I want to (do) things to help other people.
JWK: How’s it feel to have so many people following you on Twitter and liking you on Facebook?
PM: It’s amazing. I mean having over 2 million Twitter followers…is such an honor…It just means so much to me that I can use my pain and turn it around for someone else’s gain.
JWK: It’s seems clear to me that you’re happy now, that you’re in a good place now.
PM: I’m in a great place now. I’ve been through a lot of healing and that’s the whole point of this book. It’s not to say “You too can have a successful son!” It’s to say “Hey, there’s hope and there is healing no matter what darkness that you’ve been through or that you’re going through.”
For more from John W. Kennedy, visit his blog Faith, Media & Culture.