Medium 9781780491097

If You Can't Trust Your Mother, Whom Can You Trust?

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The main theme of this book concerns the continuing psychic centrality of parents for their children. Several chapters examine an author and his works, outlining that author's relationships with parents, good-and-bad, and making descriptive comments about these based both on information gleaned from the author's life and writings as well as from observations found in autobiographies, biographies and critical works. Since these studies in part concern stories of child abuse and deprivation, the book predominantly illustrates bad parenting that seems to have contributed to the child's psychopathology. Yet in most cases there has also been an evocation by the trauma and deprivation of adaptive and even creative reactions--this positive effect also of course largely attributable to concomitant good parenting--and yet there are some cases where little of this seems to have existed and yet the children still turn out to be able to make something of themselves. The conditions that make for psychic health in a traumatized childhood are mysterious and can't always be accounted for.The central mental and emotional importance of the parents in earliest development of the child's body and mind is generally accepted. The continuing lifelong centrality of parental actual and (predominantly unconscious) psychic presences that can motivate emotions, thoughts, and actions, and persist for the rest of a person's life, is frequently not recognized, acknowledged, nor denied. As the author notes, "We spend so much of our lives, especially as middle age and old age approaches, waiting for a magically endowed good parent who will fulfill the promise of our earliest years, waiting, as Becket puts it, for Godot to restore us to our narcissistic beginnings, at least intermittently full of the promise of eternal happy existence."

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Chapter One - Kaspar Hauser and Soul Murder

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CHAPTER ONE

Kaspar Hauser and soul murder

The Bible speaks of a mysterious sin for which there is no forgiveness. I've never known before what that could be. Now I know. The great unforgivable sin is—to murder the love in a human being. You abandoned the woman you loved! Me, me, me! It's a double murder you're guilty of! Murder of your own soul and of mine! You're the guilty one. You put to death all the natural joy in me” (Henrik Ibsen: John Gabriel Borkman, 1896).

Kaspar Hauser's soul murder history illustrates the devastating effects of deprivation and cruelty suffered in childhood. One sees the child's subsequent pathological reaction to feelings that were and can remain too much to bear in consciousness: murderous anger, guilt, and terror. There is an overwhelming need and craving for love and rescue. But the child has nowhere to turn but to the parents—or the parental substitutes—and if the parents are the ones responsible for the abuse and emotional deprivation, the child is left with the dilemma of wanting to murder the parents he or she cannot survive without. This organizes massive defenses: a distancing of all deep feeling and of meaningful relationships, with constant danger of the intense anger breaking through into feeling and action and of it turning inward toward great guilt and a need to be punished.

 

Chapter Two - A Note on Soul Murder

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CHAPTER TWO

A note on soul murder

Brutus: O Julius Caesar thou are mighty yet
Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails.

—Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, V:iii: 93–95

Patient A

The title of this book is a quotation from a young man, A, whom I saw in my practice for a number of years long ago.1 I had previously treated him at a clinic in a municipal mental hospital when doing my psychiatric residency. I am not going to describe his life and problems except to say that he seemed desperate about feeling emotionally tied to a murderously cruel yet pathetically vulnerable psychotic mother who had needed to be institutionalized when A was twelve after she had tried to kill A's younger sister. A's father was passive, irresponsible, and away most of the time. A, as the oldest child, was perhaps saved from the subsequent sorry fate of his younger siblings by his having to (and being able to) take charge of them at an early age. He tried to be a substitute parent who did his best to protect the other children from his mother and, after she was hospitalized, to do his best to look after them. I think his carrying out this active caretaking role helped him to become the only one of the family who managed to turn out to be more than a loser/victim and, despite much neurotic suffering, to have made a bearable (and, intermittently, even a “good enough”) life for himself.

 

Chapter Three - Dickens, Little Dorrit, and Soul Murder

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CHAPTER THREE

Dickens, Little Dorrit, and soul murder

[One becomes aware] of the remarkable number of false and inadequate parents in Little Dorrit.

—Lionel Trilling, The Opposing Self, 1955

Murder and soul murder are recurrent motifs in Dickens's works. Humor and sentimentality are suddenly mixed with violence. There is a persistent repetition of murder in all his novels: from The Pickwick Papers (where it appears in the melodramatic interpolated stories) to the last unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood. The bad parents and (sometimes unrelievedly evil) parental figures that Trilling refers to are there throughout his writings.1 Dickens, although undeniably a great novelist, is not ordinarily thought of as a writer greatly gifted with psychological insight (in contrast to writers like Chekhov or Proust). But Edmund Wilson (1941) points out how acute Dickens can be in revealing the psychology of a murderer. He cites Jonas Chuzzlewit in Martin Chuzzlewit who, after he has killed, is described as “not only fearful for himself but of himself and half-expects, when he returns to his bedroom, to find himself asleep in the bed” (p. 23).

 

Chapter Four - Haunted by Parents: Samuel Butler

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CHAPTER FOUR

Haunted by parents: Samuel Butler

We cannot get out of persecution; the mere acts of feeding and growing are acts of persecution.

—Samuel Butler, Notebooks (1874–1902b)

Samuel Butler (1835–1902)—novelist, composer, amateur painter, and scientist—was certainly obsessed by his childhood and his parents. He seems never to have come to satisfactory terms with their influence on him, and he wrote a great novel, The Way of All Flesh (1903) on the subject. Butler (1874–1902b) knew that an artist revealed himself in whatever he created: “Portraits of Oneself. A man's work whether in music, painting or literature is always a portrait of himself” (p. 115).

Butler was a misanthropic curmudgeon, much given to twisting clichés (e.g., “The best of friends must meet” [Butler, 1874–1902a, p. 533]). He hated the mothers and fathers of this world; like Dickens, he had and sometimes struggled against a hatred of women that had begun toward his mother. In this chapter's epigraph, he is pointing out that he believes in the universality of feelings of persecution and the relevance of devouring (oral) phenomena stemming from early development: feeding and growing seen as consuming the external world in order to maintain ourselves. In his writings, parents tend to try to consume their children. Life, he says, is cannibalistic. This would go along with a Freudian view, but his cynical and bitter novel (although not published until 1903) was written before Butler could have heard of Freud and there is no direct mention of Freud in his marvelous Notebooks.1 But he had a strong interest in unconscious phenomena and wrote what could have been a reference to Freud's ideas: “I fancy there is some truth in the view which is being put forward nowadays, that it is our less conscious thoughts and our less conscious actions which mainly mould our lives and the lives of those who spring from us” (1874–1902a, p. 54).

 

Chapter Five - Swinburne—a Child who Wanted to be Beaten

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CHAPTER FIVE

Swinburne—a child who wanted to be beaten

Each of Redgie's floggings was a small drama to [his sister, Helen.] She followed with excitement each cut the birch made on her brother's skin, and tasted a nervous pleasure when every stroke drew blood. It is certain that Helen felt real and acute enjoyment at the sight of her brother horsed and writhing under the rod.

—Swinburne, “Kirklowes Fragment,”1 1861, pp. 359–360

The English poet, Algernon Swinburne, in his life and writings, provides an example of a child who grew up with and always retained fantasies of being beaten that amounted to obsessions.2 The beatings that he idealized were the ones that were administered to him as a student at Eton, to which he was sent when he was twelve in 1849; they memorably began at the hands of a “stunning tutor” (Swinburne, 1854–69, p. 78).3 In a letter written as an adult, he says of Eton, “I should like to see two things there again, the river—and the flogging block” (quoted in Fuller, 1968, p. 25). Here he linked two of his obsessive preoccupations, swimming and flagellation. Fuller adds: “Flagellation was to haunt his poetry, his novels and his letters; all his life he was to be drawn back to it, as it were, longingly” (p. 25). The biographer's “as it were” is perhaps an unconscious attempt at mitigation. Fuller describes the longings unequivocally enough. She quotes from a manuscript of Swinburne's called “Algernon's Flogging,” part of a collection called “The Flogging Block” kept in a section of the British Museum for books reserved from use by the public:

 

Chapter Six - Jules Renard: Soul Murder in Life and Literature

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CHAPTER SIX

Jules Renard: soul murder in life and literature

At every moment Poil de Carotte returns to me. We live together, and I only hope I die before he does. (Jules Renard, Journal, 1887–1910Bb, p. 72)

The question, appropriate to early childhood, of whether life without mother is possible remains a lifelong burden for soul murder victims. This burden is clearly evident in the autobiographical writings of the great French author Jules Renard, a playwright, novelist, and memoirist whose work has been comparatively neglected in the English-speaking world. Renard was haunted by his parents. His autobiographical novel, Poil de Carotte (1894), tells of his tormented childhood. He describes his father and mother (called in that book, M. and Mme. Lepic). His mother is dishonest, sadistic, and malicious. Her favorite object of persecution and brainwashing is the youngest of her children whose intensely red hair has earned him the nickname Poil de Carotte (Carrot-top).

Jules Renard was, like Poil de Carotte, the last-born of four children. His father, François, became depressed after the death of his first child, a daughter. Years later he told the young Jules that after that loss he could not care as much about the other children. Renard quotes a dialogue with his father in his Journal: “[Of] his first daughter: “‘I used to run up the stairs, to see her a moment sooner.’ ‘And me?’ ‘You? Oh, you came without my wishing it.’ ‘It doesn't hurt my feelings’” (1887–1910b, p. 133).

 

Chapter Seven - Kipling, his Early Life and Work—an Attempt at Soul Murder

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CHAPTER SEVEN

Kipling, his early life and work—an attempt at soul murder

The celebrated Mrs. Pipchin was a marvellous ill-favoured, ill-conditioned old lady. Forty years at least had elapsed since the Peruvian mines had been the death of Mr. Pipchin: but his relict still wore black bombazeen, of such a lustreless, deep, dead, sombre shade that gas itself couldn't light her up after dark, and her presence was a quencher to any number of candles. She was generally spoken of as “a great manager” of children; and the secret of her management was, to give them everything that they didn't like and nothing that they did—which was found to sweeten their dispositions very much. She was such a bitter old lady—all her waters of gladness and milk of human kindness, had been pumped out dry.

—Dickens, Dombey and Son, 1848, p. 96

Soul murder can be overwhelmingly or minimally effective; it can be partial, or attenuated, or chronic, or subtle. Kipling's case involves his desertion by good parents in childhood and their replacement by bad, persecutory guardians.1 He remained haunted by the good parents who became bad when they deserted him and by the bad parents who took their place.

 

Chapter Eight - E. M. Forster

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CHAPTER EIGHT

E. M. Forster

For it is not that the Englishman can't feel—it is that he is afraid to feel. He has been taught at his public school that feeling is bad form. He must not express great joy or sorrow, or even open his mouth too wide when he talks—his pipe might fall out if he did. He must bottle up his emotions.

—E. M. Forster, 1936, p. 5

Edward Morgan Forster (1879–1970) was brought up in a household of women, dominated by his mother Lily. His father, who seems to have been predominantly homosexual (his son was exclusively so), died of tuberculosis shortly after his son was born. Beauman (1993) makes a convincing case that Lily Forster was well aware of, and resented, her young husband's attachment to his cousin, Ted Streatfield. He had insisted that Ted accompany him and his wife on their first trip to the Continent. Lily apparently disposed of every written trace of Streatfield after her husband died, but Beauman feels that she burdened her son with intimations about her husband's errant sexuality. Forster may also have had the (unconscious?) fantasy that his powerful mother had destroyed his missing (therefore bad) and weak (“like you,” as she persistently told her son) father. Beauman (1994) points out that there are no good fathers in Forster's novels. There are not many good mothers either. Most of his good characters are not married.

 

Chapter Nine - Elizabeth Bishop: The Moth and the Mother

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CHAPTER NINE

Elizabeth Bishop: the moth and the mother

The caterpillar on the leaf
Repeats to thee thy mother's grief.
Kill not the moth nor butter fly
For the Last Judgement draweth nigh.

—William Blake, 1803

Moths

Before describing the life and some of the works of Elizabeth Bishop, I want to present something of the psychological resonances evoked by a ubiquitous insect, the moth, that I intend to make relevant to my description.

Moths can evoke the destructive and the vulnerable: specifically, both destructive and vulnerable parents and the children who are drawn to, have identified with, and are haunted by them. The moth can serve as an allusion to, and perhaps be an unconscious symbol of, the mother. I illustrate this with a clinical example and a literary one—the latter featuring the great American poet Elizabeth Bishop. Her life story contains soul murder and illustrates the complexities that adhere to both the pathological and the potentially creative consequences of early parental loss and rejection.

 

Chapter Ten - King Lear and the Multiple Meanings of “Nothing”

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CHAPTER TEN

King Lear and the multiple meanings of “nothing”

The unborn have knowledge of one another so long as they are unborn, and this without impediment from walls or material obstacles. The unborn children from any city form a population apart, who talk with one another in, and tell each other about, their developmental progress. They have no knowledge, and cannot even conceive of the existence of anything that is not such as they are themselves. Those who have been born are to them what the dead are to us. They can see no life in them, and know no more about them than they do of any stage in their own past development other than the one through which they are passing at the moment. They do not even know that their mothers are alive—much less that their mothers were once as they now are. To an embryo, its mother is simply the environment, and is looked upon much as our inorganic surroundings are by ourselves. The great terror of their lives is the fear of birth—that they shall have to leave the only thing that they can think of as life, and enter upon a dark unknown which is to them tantamount to annihilation. Some, indeed, among them have maintained that birth is not the death which they commonly deem it, but that there is a life beyond the womb of which they as yet know nothing, and which is a million fold more truly life than anything they have yet been able even to imagine. But the greater number shake their yet unfashioned heads and say they have no evidence for this that will stand a moment's examination. Who has ever partaken of this life you speak of, and re-entered into the womb to tell us of it? Granted that some few have pretended to have done that, but how completely have their stories broken down when subjected to the test of sober criticism. No. When we are born, we are born and there is the end of us.

 

Chapter Eleven - Clinical Example of Becoming Able to Transcend (but not Eliminate) Being Haunted by Parents

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

Clinical example of becoming able to transcend (but not eliminate) being haunted by parents

Patient G, a talented and successful man—married and the father of two children, is nearing the end of his analysis. He has become able to hold onto and feel responsibly how much he wants to keep his (now dead) mother as the center of his emotional life. His father had died when he was a young child. This “haunting” by his mother (and, as with Hamlet, by his absent father) which began in his childhood and continued in his manhood (when she was alive and her usual indifferent cool self) seems to have been the central cause of the unhappiness that had originally brought him to seek treatment. He felt that he had predominantly hated her since his traumatic and emotionally deprived childhood. Yet he had always lived close by her, visiting her often and phoning her frequently. And he had also, especially after she died when he was in his early twenties, idealized her—made easier by her having been “beautiful, brilliant and, unlike my father, successful in her work.” In the course of his analysis he had realized that he was still expecting her to begin to love him and for his father to return. He had so longed for his mother's love when he was a child. He had continued to live (even after her death) with a powerful (mainly unconscious) almost delusional promise that in their next contact it would be discovered that she had always really loved him—and then they would live together always in an emotional world of two. She would be the only one for him, and he would be the only one for her.

 

Chapter Twelve - Child Abuse and Deprivation: Soul Murder

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CHAPTER TWELVE

Child abuse and deprivation: soul murder1

I assume that actual overwhelming experiences in the course of a child's development have a different—and a deeper—destructive and pathogenic effect than do the child's inevitable fantasies of being overwhelmed by aggressive and sexual impulses, fantasies that involve the mental images of even the most loving and caring parents. (It is not controversial that the experiences of early deprivation are potentially devastatingly pathogenic.) The clinical writings of some Kleinian theorists give the impression that the child's actual experiences hardly matter. There ought to be no disagreement about the pathogenicity of experiences as against fantasies; the crucial clinical problem is: how do experiences of overstimulation and deprivation influence the motivating fantasies of an individual (cf. Fliess, 1956, p. xvii).

“Soul murder” is my dramatic designation of a certain category of traumatic experiences—those instances of repetitive and chronic overstimulation alternating with emotional deprivation that are deliberately 2 brought about by another person. The term is not a diagnosis; it applies primarily to pathogenic circumstances rather than to effects. The phrase “soul murder” should be familiar to readers of Freud because of its use by the paranoic Daniel Paul Schreber, whose Memoirs (1903) were the subject of one of Freud's well-known case histories (1911c). My interest in soul murder started with a series of papers (Shengold, 1963, 1967, 1971) about patients who were suffering primarily not because of unconscious fantasies of cruel and unloving parents and of having in their childhood been seduced and/or beaten, but that they had as children experienced beatings, torture, and sexual abuse by adults, often by their parents or parental substitutes. Freud had originally ascribed neurosis to such traumata in childhood, and then found that many (not all) of the events his patients “remembered” were products of fantasy. He thus discovered primal universal fantasies such as those involved in the Oedipus complex. My patients, who had lived out Freud's early theories of neurosogenesis, could not easily be classified as belonging to one or two diagnostic categories. Although they shared certain characteristics, they differed in many ways—including variations in the severity of their symptoms and inhibitions. Their stories of the abuse and torment they had suffered as children reminded me of some lines from Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman (used as an epigraph to Chapter One above), in which a character accuses Borkman of having committed a crime against her that cannot be forgiven, the crime of having murdered her soul, of having killed her capacity for love and for joy. I recalled the use of “soul murder” in the Schreber memoirs and Niederland's series of papers (1959a, 1959b, 1960, 1963) which describe the cruel and bizarre childrearing ideas and practices of Schreber's father that provided the environmental determinant of the soul murder.

 

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