Natalie Wood’s daughter Courtney, was just seven years old when her mother died by drowning off the coast of Catalina Island on Nov. 29, 1981. Leaving her and her eleven-year-old sister Natasha, motherless overnight.
Now 49, Natasha Gregson Wagner is sharing the story of their family’s grief and healing in her memoir More Than Love, and the HBO documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, airing May 5 on the network.
Part of that story is how Courtney, 46, the daughter of Wood and husband Robert Wagner, once struggled with drug addiction and how she found her path to sobriety. “Courtney is somebody who lives in the truth and her recovery demands that of her,” says Natasha. “She is not ashamed of her struggles. She has gotten to a place where she has compassion for herself and forgiveness.”
Courtney and Natasha were raised by Robert Wagner along with his older daughter Katie Wagner (the daughter of Wagner and his second wife Marion Marshall). “Our bond is stronger than any kind of glue,” says Katie. “They were just eleven and seven when Natalie died. I stood by my dad’s side and we loved them as best we could.”
For more on Natalie Wood and her daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner pick up a copy of this week’s PEOPLE.
Here, Courtney shares details of her own journey, including the pain caused by the tabloid speculation that their father Robert Wagner failed to save their mother that night.
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“From as far back as I can remember my family was so happy and engaged with each other. I can remember feeling the love and happiness in the air. It radiates in all the photos and I think that’s one of the reasons Natasha wanted to share this story, to share the magic that existed between my parents.
“My sister did a beautiful job capturing what a fierce, professional, loving person my mom was. I am so proud of Natasha and I know my mom is too.
“My Dad and sisters experienced a true tragedy together, and were each traumatized, but we had each other to make living bearable, and found ways to move on.
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“Having gone through something like that together I always felt especially bonded to my dad and Katie and Natasha. It made me feel especially angry for all the terrible things said about my father. I was furious at the accusations being said about him, it felt incredibly disrespectful especially knowing the source of where these accusations came from. It was so transparent that certain people exploited my family like this and it makes me very protective of my father. I love him so deeply so and it has gone on for so long that I still can’t believe they actually write such untrue things.
“For me I found ways to numb the rage and heartbreak I experienced throughout my life. I self medicated with drugs and it actually worked for me for many, many years. For a long time I had no intentions to give that up for anything, but life was going on without me. Both my sisters had children and it was getting harder and harder to mask the shame and guilt I had because I knew it was breaking my father’s heart and that was something I could no longer do. And so, with many bumps in the road, and a lot of hard work, I pulled myself together.
“I thank god and all my angels that I am a part of this beautiful documentary my sister made. It touches my heart deeply, and it feels so rewarding to see, and be a part of, what a beautiful job Natasha did.
“I’m so, so, so proud of her and I know my mom is beaming in the light of this triumphant story. I just know she is.”
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind premieres Tuesday, May 5th at 9:00pm ET/PT, exclusively on HBO.