Part One: Spells and Curses
The Scottish Rite Temple, San Francisco, 1988: I remember the first time I heard Robert Bly tell the story of Iron John. I remember when the hero learns of a key that can unlock the cage that imprisons the wild man. And I remember the groans that escaped from a thousand men upon hearing that the key was under his mother’s pillow.
We all knew intuitively what this was all about. On average, we were aged around forty, just entering midlife, charter members of the Baby Boomer generation. Many if not most of us had grown up in the suburbs. Later, in Chapter Eleven of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence, I would acknowledge this curious, if privileged, predicament:
If assumptions of emotional scarcity are based on the nearly exclusive mother/child relationships in modern families, then these dynamics exist in the extreme in America. After World War Two, when young couples left the inner cities for the suburbs, they also left their networks of extended families. With husbands away at the office, isolated suburban mothers had only their children to share their emotional lives. Baby Boomers matured in possibly the most extreme Oedipal conditions in history, expecting all emotional needs to be met from the scarce resources of one person. Such unrealistic demands led to massive disillusionment, and soon the Boomers experienced the highest divorce rates in history.
The more one’s erotic energy is bound up in longing for an idealized parental fantasy image, the less he will seek pleasure in those emotional and erotic forms that are actually available. He develops an infinite longing for material goods, food or drugs...Phillip Slater (writes): “A man hooked on fame or power will never stop striving because there is no way to gratify a desire with a symbol… an emotional long shot that will never pay off. They will work their lives away to achieve a love that is unattainable.”
At those men’s conferences we became accustomed to working with father wounds. We’ve become familiar with the two most fundamental modes of fathering under patriarchy: Uranos, who represents the distant, abandoning father, and Kronos, our image of the abusive, intolerant father who eats his own children. To learn more about these basic mythic images from Greek culture, see my article Sacrifice of the Children in Pan’s Labyrinth.
But we still have difficulty acknowledging our mother wounds, even though they profoundly influence our erotic nature and our capacity for relationship.
Our memories are permeated with Mother. Our bodies begin in hers and remain attached to hers by means of the scenes, feelings and habits that compose our life. Memory, and therefore Mother, affects us continually.
For a young child, the mother is partly the center of the world and partly an atmosphere that affects everything that matters. We are and always will be “stuck” in Mother because she is the ground of the experiencing soul. Only the thinnest of membranes separated us, and it was permeable. A mother literally knows her child from the inside out. Michael Meade writes that the fetus, with its transparent skin, absorbs everything from the mother “in an extended feast of subjectivity.” This includes her affection but also her emotional wounds and unfulfilled desires, all of which we may well pass on to our own children.
Mother and fetus merge so thoroughly that all embryos appear female for the first six weeks in the womb. A shock occurs there when a rapid release of hormones causes a male fetus to grow. (For the rest of his life, shocks will tend to precede and accompany meaningful changes. This is the biological precursor to the process of initiation, and the reason why culture must meet it with ritual.) This connection will affect all subsequent relationships. She lives on in the memorial rooms of the soul as the happiness and fear of childhood, family, home, and the earliest desires and pain. She is like a dominant chord, a permanent stain, the warp of the carpet structuring us as we are.
As original ground of soul, she is also final ground, burial ground in symbolisms worldwide. She goes on triumphant as her sons and her heroes fall. And so we bring fear to her, respect and deep mourning. The great size of these emotions finds its equivalence in the figure of the Great Mother, all those goddesses, stepmothers and witches who mother a man with care and advice, all the while threatening to smother his free spirit. Perhaps she wants him to remain a child. Crudely or delicately, she cannot help touching in some way upon the son’s masculinity. You may want to read my series on Mexico’s Mother Goddess.
Jung speaks of the “loving and terrible mother” who brings cherishing and nourishing kindness, orgiastic emotionality, and the depths of death and the underworld. The bad mother archetype may connote what devours, seduces – or poisons.
He introduced the concept of individuation, but from what or whom does the ego emerge, other than from her? And what of the mythologies that give us heroes – role models – of men who can only know who they are when they no longer feel enmeshed in the world of the feminine?
She is “lovingly tender yet cruel like fate.” As the narcissistic mother, she holds on and smothers, consuming a child’s feelings, turning him into a surrogate mate or making everything about her. “I only hope,” she may say, “that your children give you as much heartache as you’ve given me!”
Does that sound too literal? One of the effects of such mothering (or at least the selective memory of such mothering) is his inability to distinguish the literal from the symbolic. Was that a memory of her voice, or something he has imagined? Does it matter? What is real?
The term mother complex refers to the emotional memories distilled into our most intimate habits of feeling to which we cling as if for survival. Here, the archetypal Great Mother overlaps with and gets confused with the human mother as she was experienced by her child. This is all mother memory ruling a man’s life. She is the continuity of patterns we have lived with for so long that we have become them, thereby living in the ground of her body, still. My likes, dislikes and addictions seem so secretly mine yet attest to my origins in her. But let’s be very clear about this: We are not blaming actual, individual human mothers here. We are talking about the mother complex.
Again: We are not blaming actual, individual human mothers here. We are talking about the mother complex.
Jung says that the mother experience is archetypal, yet it is so intensely personal that we all “load that enormous burden of meaning, responsibility, duty, heaven and hell, on to the shoulders of one frail and fallible human being…who was our mother.”
And if these issues are so huge, we remember that they occur within the wider context of patriarchy, where absence of the father (literal or emotional) places an even greater burden upon the mother, who very often must try to raise a son with no positive masculine role model. And what if she has been victimized by men? Who can blame her for teaching him a very wounded idea of what it means to be a man? You’re just like your father! (It’s not a complement.)
Is it any surprise that he seeks out that fathering in sports coaches – or in gangs, or the military. Certainly not to the older men who would send him off to sacrifice himself in a twisted attempt to honor the “Fatherland.”
She dotes on her darling boy. But perhaps she also sees a six-foot adolescent beast with infinite hunger, no manners and anger issues. Who can blame her for putting him under a spell? Meade writes, “When I tell stories about mothers to groups of men, we all seem to fall under a spell ourselves. The atmosphere in the room becomes heavy; sometimes the room even starts to spin. Thoughts become murky and unclear…We can no longer remember what we started out to look for.”
The territory feels different from that of the father and the son. Usually the blow from the father can be named, stated in a single sentence that carries the shape of the blow. That’s why we speak of the curse of the father. But sons encounter the mother wound more as if they have fallen under a spell. While the father’s curse often has a verbal component (often beginning with “you-messages” such as You behave this way, or else!, or You will never amount to anything), even a specific spot on the body, the mother has a profoundly preverbal, even preconscious effect.
We fall into moods; we can’t focus; we struggle to know what we feel. We feel empty, stuck or trapped, especially in trying to communicate with a lover, unconsciously comparing her with mother, either favorably or unfavorably. This idealized mother – and the home she symbolizes – is either the perfect haven or a demoness we must escape from. We can spend a lifetime searching for that home, that place (the original meaning of nostalgia), and when we find it, we may not be able to tolerate it.
We spin round and round the same issues, only to arrive at that place where anything we say is the wrong thing. It’s like trying to walk through thick pea soup or deep snow. We find ourselves back in the womb (or the tomb), without any clear sense of boundaries between ourselves and others. We may blow up into rage or retreat into the silent treetops of pornography.
Indeed as I have written here, James Hillman argued that, denied access to our cultural consciousness, the goddess Aphrodite has cast her own spell over the diminished imagination of Western culture, reappearing in images of the female body. Since we can no longer find her in ourselves, since we can no longer embody her in art and ritual, we search for her in one of the few places she is allowed: images of the erotic.
Just as the father’s curse fell on the area where the son was seeking blessing, writes Meade,
…the mother’s spell falls on an area where the son can find something charmed, a giftedness, an inspired area of inheritance. If he avoids dealing with the spellbound area, he also avoids learning something about the charm and the grace and even the fate that are in his life.
How is the spell of the mother activated? Leaving home, separating or any attempt at ending something. Coming home. Consider our “complex” fantasies, positive or negative, about returning home to the parents for the holidays. Intimacy or isolation; new relationships and retreats from them; rituals of sustenance that Mother once presided over, such as meals. Men as well as women can struggle with anorexia. Once activated, the spell becomes gigantic and takes over everything. Things grow out of proportion, because proportion implies conscious awareness, and denying its presence only increases its appetite. He feels that he must leave, like all the American heroes before him.