O mother, mother what have you done?



The following reflections by Jane Haynes, on psychotherapy and mother figures, stem from a presentation at the ‘Maternal Seminars’ at the Philadelphia Association, founded in 1965 by R. D. Laing. She combines her own experience as a psychotherapist with the views of some of her patients, and traces the figure of the mother across literature and film.


R.D. Laing, the anti-psychiatrist, never tired of sitting cross-legged on the floor and gazing around a room of ‘disciples’ and asking, “Whose womb would you like to have been born out of?” Startling as his question is, it is by no means a novel one as God challenges the suffering Job: ‘Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?’ Laing’s question has remained indelibly with me, and what follows here are a few spontaneous, even involuntary responses, gathered from men and woman about their relations with their mothers.

My mother was a good mother. Intelligent, generous, not especially tender, devoted. She always looked good, not much money but a real sense of quality. She read (awful books but she read them). She arranged flowers and cooked.

I walk into the room and she is sleeping. I go to her side and she is sleeping. I lie down beside her and do not want to wake up.

I remember my Mum as being dizzy and confused and then suddenly she’d turn and be sadistic and tantalize me and then I couldn’t decide if her dizziness was just a front to draw me in.

I tried to think about my mother, but I turned into a puddle.

I think of a bloody battlefield, she was the champagne-drinking conqueror and my father wandered behind her like the Stasi.

When I came home for the holidays sometimes my mother would come in when I was sleeping in the night and sit at the end of my bed with a glass of wine and cry. I think she is probably an intelligent woman but I also think she has wasted her life and I have no idea who she is.

Love, respect. I don’t see her often enough. She’s Jamaican. She was there when I came into the world and I want to beside her when she dies.

Feeling blue today after talking to my mother yesterday. I try not to take
on her negative energy but it is hard. And she is already claiming time from me when I get back, which is of course understandable, but she doesn’t make the prospect of a visit at all enticing. She is lonely, ill and my mother, which are all problematical.

Why did you leave me?

Their divorce overshadows everything. [Gulps] Just remembered my mother gave me a copy of David Hockney’s book when I was about 17 and said “I hope you will be as famous as he was,” but she died too quickly to know.

My mother obsesses that I don’t think she’s good enough. She can only comfort me when I am on the edge of emotional collapse. I don’t want her judgment I just want her to hug me and say, “It’s OK. I love you.”

I wanted to remember my mother warm and alive. In the middle of the night the undertakers came and covered her body with a white sheet. Only then I dissolved. After the body had gone I became fixated on the fact that I hadn’t brushed her hair before she left. When I came down the next morning I found her glasses on the table by her bed. Her death was a huge event for me, and now I realize that I hadn’t separated from her before she died, although I had been so independent. But then I discovered that I hadn’t ever emotionally separated from her.

The archetype of the Mother reigns everywhere, or is it just my brain focusing on mother rather than father since I began to think about writing this article? Last summer I was returning to London on the Eurostar and during the journey became aware of a grandmother, mother and small daughter sitting at the next table engrossed in a game of cards, which I identified to be Happy Woodland Families. My own nostalgia was aroused for that happy family of childhood that, reconstructed now through memory, had rarely existed within my own fractured family context. But nostalgia relates not only to the memory of what was lost and can never be returned, but also to what has never been. Oh! As a small and lost child, to have had a mother who so contained the harsh realities of our random lives; a mother whose maternal engagement resembled J.M.Barrie’s Mrs. Darling. And, yet to be aware that an ingredient of successful mothering depends upon her flexibility and attention to age-appropriate behavior, and for the adolescent child the rummaging-in-the-bed-linen Mrs. Darling would be an impinging nightmare!

Mrs Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were as nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When you wake in the morning, the naughtinesses and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind; and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.

Nobody can deny that being a mother is an impossible task and how often in my consulting room do I quote: ‘They fuck you up your mum and dad/They may not mean to but they do’. Not so much in anger as in a humorous acceptance of the impossibility of the task. I was recently attending a yoga lesson and rather belatedly absorbed the first symbolic meaning of the lotus flower, which of course is an exotic and rarefied version of our more common water lily. I have always been struck by the symbiosis between the water lily’s ugly, sprawled roots with muck, or the water equivalent of dung. Now, I resonate to the idea that the elevation of the lotus flower is linked to the fact that while the flower’s roots exist in muddy (primal) waters it is this compromised environment that gives birth to and sustains the beautiful adult maturity of the flower. The image also works for me as a symbolic model of the containing mother, the idealized mother (and father!) of our yearnings and the optimum development of the self/child to grow beyond the primal and to realize individuation. Jung also wrote often about the archetype of the Lotus. Once again I want to emphasize that such a trajectory is an ideal and in the physicality of our lives it is a constant struggle not to be swamped by those threatening and primal roots of our origins.

Whether I watch films by Ingmar Bergman, or Hitchcock, ‘She’ is there and more often feared rather than loved. In Hitchcock’s Psycho, protagonist Ed Gein’s psychotic personality seem to be interpreted, even if it was not Hitchock’s conscious intention, via Gregory Bateson’s theory of the ‘Double Bind’, which was also such a seminal influence on Laing’s evolving theories of the mother’s role in the schizophrenic personality. The film, which is based on an infamous murder, documents the possible consequences of how a malignant and Oedipal internalization of a pathologically narcissistic mother can lead to unthinkable, unspeakable acts of dehumanization. In ‘real life’, Gein possibly murdered and dismembered more than ten women – skinned, severed and preserved the victim-women’s body parts and is alleged to have worn their preserved breasts, turned their pelvises into lights, and used their skin to make lamps. Paul Anthony Woods, writing about Ed Gein, also suggests that he had an incestuous relationship with his mother. It is the subtle differences between the age-appropriate engagement of Mrs. Darling with her nursery brood and the impingement of the ‘devouring’ or ‘narcissist’ mother that are critical to the development of personalities that as an act of fate and biology are delivered forth from such a womb as Mrs. Gein.

Laing, who was also familiar with the work of Edward Lorenz in the sixties, also used to remark that nobody ever has an idea without there being several linked ideas, taking place simultaneously, somewhere else. Psycho appeared in 1960; Laing’s The Divided Self was also published in 1960. While Bateson’s theories on the ‘Double Bind’ and its links with schizophrenia had been refined during the late fifties. Chestnut Lodge, in Maryland USA, was also the private psychiatric hospital where many pioneering psychoanalysts practised in the late fifties and sixties and was a facsimile of the institution in which Hitchcock’s Spellbound took place.

In another film that explores the ‘Double Bind’, The Master, the noun ‘mother’ is mentioned five times in the first twenty minutes. A few weeks ago I watched a brilliant and extraordinary documentary, The Condemned, about ‘Lifers’ in a Russian high-security prison, where it seemed that membership was based on having committed at least two murders, or multiple rapes and murder. Its director, Nick Read, writes: ‘My intention was to make a film about a community living on the very edge of the known, civilized world – to point a torch into their dark corner – and explore the concept of evil.’ What did these seasoned criminals frequently allude to, to express nostalgia for? Their mothers.

It is not only Laing and the sprite Peter Pan who blamed mothers for universal ills. In an emotional crescendo, Shakespeare’s hero Coriolanus howls, “O mother, mother what have you done?”

A form of revengeful narcissism causes Coriolanus’ fall from hero to exile that Shakespeare leaves us in little doubt is related to his over-bearing and narcissistic mother, Volumnia. It is this characteristic flaw which is responsible for his ‘Fall’ when the triumphant Coriolanus refuses to expose his bloody wounds in the public forum as Roman custom demanded. (You will find descriptions of these wounds in Plutarch’s Lives but there is no equivalent account documented of his relationship with his impinging mother.) Shakespeare was not keen on mothers: often they are most present by their absence. He doesn’t manage ‘a good enough one’, let alone a loving mother, anywhere. Hermione almost succeeds, but perhaps it is Queen Constance in King John who, driven to the edge of sanity by the murder of her child, is the exception:

Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost: I am not mad: I would to heaven I were!
For then, ’tis like I should forget myself: O, if I could, what grief should I forget! 
Preach some philosophy to make me mad, And thou shalt be canonized, cardinal; for being not mad but sensible of grief, My reasonable part produces reason.
How I may be deliver’d of these woes, And teaches me to kill or hang myself: If I were mad, I should forget my son, Or madly think a babe of clouts were he: I am not mad; too well, too well I feel The different plague of each calamity.

When I was editing a book on the death of Princess Diana I had to produce the Panorama interview with her from the BBC archives to convince my co-editor that I had not imagined Diana’s public disclosure that she was in the habit of self-harming and because her thighs were invariably concealed they were the chosen limbs. Quite possibly, these wounds, which she did choose to disclose in the media ‘forum’, were associated with her abandonment by her mother, who left Diana trying to console her small brother, when she disappeared from their lives without warning. Diana probably went on invisibly crying for her mother all her life. Diana’s mother, Frances Shand Kydd, did file for the custody of her children but then her own mother, Lady Fermoy, testified against her daughter and in favour of her son-in-law and an enforced reign of terror and childhood trauma began. To begin with, and perhaps later on in her marriage too, Diana was crying because she was abandoned and didn’t know why. Coriolanus was driven to despair and the betrayal of his country when his mother compromised his integrity – both as a man and a hero. The consequences were that both of these iconic victims were publicly traumatized forever.

This cycle of maternal tragedy took on another poignant layer when I read Diana’s Will, on the Internet of all places, and in which her last will and testament reinvests her mother’s authority: ‘Should any child of mine be under age at the date of the death of the survivor of myself and my husband, I appoint my mother [my italics] and my brother Earl Spencer to be the guardians of that child and I express the wish that should I predecease my husband he will consult my mother with regard to the upbringing …of our children’. Yes, the ironic belief that ‘mother’ knows best is often a nostalgic one.

Flesh wounds can heal in a way that psychic wounds, although invisible, often do not. They have the capacity to eat their way into the brain, throughout their victims’ lives and erode self-esteem. It is true that some words are immortal and it is usually the critical and insulting ones. I am amazed how often – in my consulting room – seemingly innocuous words from childhood, like ‘stupid’, ‘idiot’ and ‘clumsy’ continue their bite. There should be a recipe book for cooking, bottling and pickling the elusive essences of self-esteem. Absent mothers, wronged mothers, impinging mothers, blind mothers, obsessively vain mothers all suffocate their young. It is a more sophisticated form of what other animals are sometimes provoked to do. But who doesn’t, at times of heightened vulnerability, long for the mother of their dreams, and a few of us may even have one. After all, even Peter Pan never stopped wanting one: ‘As Peter said to Wendy, if only she could teach his lost boys to tell stories, they too might return home.’

Jane Haynes is a psychotherapist based in London. Jane's book, ‘Who Is It That Can Tell Me Who I Am?’ (with an introduction by Hilary Mantel) is published by Constable (2007).