One of the most controversial and successful recording artists of today lived in Williston, N.D., for a year.
Marshall Mathers III, best known as Eminem, spent most of the first year of his life in this northwestern North Dakota city, where his father was the assistant manager of an elegant hotel. Although the infant was not fully aware of what was happening, I believe the results of the marital turmoil that occurred between his parents had a significant and lasting impact on his development and, eventually, on his music.
Personally, I am deeply disturbed by the words and innuendos in many of Eminem’s songs, but I also need to acknowledge the incredible success and influence he has had in and on the music industry. Billboard magazine named him "Artist of the Decade" for the first 10 years of the 21st century. During his career, worldwide sales of over 200 million records have made him one of the bestselling recording artists of all time.
Eminem was “the bestselling music artist in the U.S. of the 2000s and the bestselling male music artist in the U.S. of the 2010s.” He has won eight Grammy Awards and, in 2002, received the Academy Award for best original song for “Lose Yourself.”
Marshall Bruce Mathers III, nicknamed Mick, was born Oct. 17, 1972, to Marshall Jr. and Deborah (Briggs) Mathers, in St. Joseph, Mo. Marshall Jr., who went by his middle name, Bruce, worked for a wood veneer company and was given the opportunity to take over his father’s position as assistant manager of the elegant Plainsman Hotel in Williston. Marshall Sr. was experiencing serious heart problems and was advised to retire, and two months after Mick was born, Bruce and his family relocated to Williston.
Much of the information about Mick’s early years comes from the book "My Son Marshall, My Son Eminem," written by his mother. Since both her son and her ex-husband contested much of the information in the book, I will limit what I include to incidents that can be verified or indicate that it is what she wrote or implied if it cannot be verified.
Debbie Briggs married Bruce in 1970 when she was 15 years old, largely to get away from her alcoholic and physically abusive stepfather after he had attempted to molest her. Bruce, a 1969 graduate of Williston High School, also drank to excess and used drugs, but he was a welcome refuge from her life at home.
Soon after Debbie, Bruce and their infant son moved to Williston, Debbie found part-time work as a cashier at the Red Owl grocery store, and Bruce not only continued to abuse alcohol but, according to Debbie, began to become physically abusive. Debbie claimed that Bruce’s mother never liked her, but that Bruce’s father became her defender when he discovered that Bruce had been beating her.
However, on Sept. 8, 1973, Marshall Mathers Sr. died, and Debbie said Bruce’s attacks on her got much worse. She also wrote that after receiving a severe beating when Mick was 14 months old, she gathered together a few belongings and, with her young son, boarded a train back to St. Joseph to live with her aunt, Edna. Mick never saw or communicated with his father again. Marshall Mathers Jr. died in 2019.
I believe that because Mick had no father figure in his life, he craved attention and often got into trouble with adults. Debbie wrote that, when Mick was a child, he threw tantrums to get his way. She also stated that because of his actions while she was at work, she got fired from several different jobs.
In school, Mick was a loner and struggled with his classes. Much of his time was spent reading comic books, drawing cartoon characters and writing poetry. Mick hoped to reconnect with his father and wrote several letters to him, but Bruce did not respond to any of them, much to the disappointment of his son.
Debbie and Mick moved to Roseville, Mich., near Detroit, and in 1981, when Mick was 9, he attended Dort Elementary School. Since he was the new kid in school and also shy, he soon became the target for the school bully. Often, when he came home, his mother noticed bruises and scratches on him, and she discovered that one of the bigger kids was tormenting Mick, both verbally and physically.
One day when Debbie went to pick him up after school, he didn’t show up, so she entered the school and found him unconscious in a pool of blood. Debbie rushed Mick to the hospital, and the doctors told her that her son suffered from a cerebral concussion with cerebral bleeding. They also said that he "would never be the same again" and may need to be institutionalized. However, Mick did recover, but the doctors told Debbie that he would need to wear a football helmet whenever he went out to play.
Because he often had nightmares and would wake up screaming, doctors told Debbie that he was suffering from acute post-traumatic stress disorder. Debbie enrolled Mick in several different schools, but he told her that he was being bullied at each of them, so she ended up home-schooling him.
Debbie and Mick then moved back to Missouri, where her son was able to attend school. He struggled with most of his classes, but excelled in art, and the poems he wrote won awards. Debbie’s younger brother, Ronnie, who was the same age as Mick, introduced him to hip-hop music. Mick then made the decision that he was going to be a hip-hop artist.
Debbie and Mick returned to Michigan, and Mick joined together with other friends and formed a group that put on concerts, where he used the stage name “M&M.” One day, when he was 15, Mick brought home a girl named Kim Scott, who said she was 16 and needed a safe place to stay because her stepfather had attempted to molest her. Since Debbie had a similar experience at the same age, she agreed to let her stay at her house.
It turned out that Kim was a very mature-looking 12-year-old, and according to Debbie, Kim was able to turn Mick against his mother. Debbie wrote that Kim stole from her, destroyed things she valued and played dirty tricks on her.
Debbie returned to St. Joseph when she learned that Ronnie had died and an investigation revealed that he had died by suicide, although she suspected foul play. Debbie claimed that, while she was there, Mick called and said much of her new furniture had been taken back by the store. According to Debbie, Kim had called the store, pretending to be Debbie, saying she could no longer make payments on the furniture, which was untrue, and Mick had allowed it. In her anger, Debbie told her son that she wished it was him lying in the coffin instead of Ronnie.
She claims to have apologized, but apparently, Mick never forgave her. Because of what she said in anger, things were never the same between Debbie and Mick.
In 1999, Mick and Kim were married. Mick, using the name Eminem, released his first album, "Infinite," in 1996. His second album, "Slim Shady," came out in 1997, and Slim Shady became his alter ego. His career took off in 2000 when he signed with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath Entertainment.
In 2001, Mick released the single “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” in which he lashed out at both of his parents, especially his mother. The song contains the lines, “Remember when Ronnie died and you said you wished it was me? / Well, guess what, I am dead, dead to you as can be!”
Debbie sued her son for $11 million and walked away with only $1,600. For Mick/Marshall Mathers III/Eminem/Slim Shady, the chapter of the book on his early life was closed.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org.