A psychoanalyst once summed up glibly the two approaches: Freudian—your mum was mean to you. Kleinian—you think your mum was mean to youby Anna Blundy / December 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
For me the problem, I assumed, was my foreign correspondent dad. I never lived with him, but he came, bringing presents and excitement, stories of wars and natural disasters. My study is full of these souvenirs—a pot of dust from the eruption of Mount St Helens, a shell casing from Beirut, a machete from Nicaragua, a battered gun holster from Israel. And then he went, leaving a hole pretty much the size of Nicaragua.
When I was 19 he was killed in El Salvador and, sleep deprived, manic and drunk, I arrived in analysis a whole five years later. So the Freudian cliché, “If it isn’t one thing it’s your mother,” didn’t particularly resonate.
However, now that I have patients myself, I see how afraid people are of biting the hand that fed them, of confronting the idea that their mother was not perfect or even that she was actively abusive. A friend of mine messaged me the other day. He’d found a therapist and had been for an initial consultation. “But I just don’t know if I want to start with the whole mother-blaming thing, especially when she’s got Alzheimer’s,” he wrote.
Two years ago a patient started with me on the understanding that we would not talk about her mother. “Mum was a perfect angel,” she told me. “None of my problems have anything to do with her.” The angel had died 10 years earlier and, as the patient’s hyperbole immediately flagged up, had in fact been pretty demonic. Her daughter was so frightened of the guilt she would feel in criticising her and the imagined punishment that might leap out of the grave, that it was months before she really began to paint a picture of a woman who had probably been unwell herself and ran an unforgiving household.
Freudian and Kleinian theory are both heavy on the influence of mother on baby (a psychoanalyst once summed up glibly the two approaches: Freudian—your mum was mean to you. Kleinian—you think your mum was mean to you.) In reality, the early developmental life of an infant is usually spent with mother and, whatever she does, she will have an enormous impact on the life of baby. Donald Winnicott developed the idea of a “Good Enough Mother,” one doing her best and not catastrophically damaging her child, in an attempt to assuage the guilt perceived—wrongly, I think—to have been meted out to mothers by earlier psychoanalysts.
Actually, none of the theorists from Freud to today’s thinkers have the faintest notion of blaming mother or, indeed, anyone else. The aim of both theory and practise is to understand. And if a mother has been abusive, like the angel mentioned above, is understanding forgiveness? Well, the patient began to re-imagine mother as someone under a huge amount of stress, desperately trying to cope with an alcoholic husband, many children, little money and no support.
Because we weren’t blaming her mother, in the end there was nothing to forgive. She was also able to break the family silence on the issue and talk to her brothers honestly about a difficult childhood long since brushed under the carpet and ignored.
In the case of my friend, the fact that he’s worried about mum-blaming suggests that there are a lot of mum issues he’s afraid to face and understand. In a way, blaming would be easier, because it palms off responsibility.
Of course, none of this stops me wearing my T-shirt—a picture of Freud with his cigar captioned “Your Mom.” Though not when I’m seeing patients…