A week or so ago, I was plowing my way through an article by Jacqueline Rose on the huge significance mothers have in psychoanalysis. On the one hand, Rose was wondering whether it was fair to place such a burden on mothers, whether they really were the place that the buck stops as far as some fundamental things about our identity are concerned, and on the other hand she was intrigued by the way that knowledge seems to wither and die around mothers; they are not, she seemed to suggest, open to taming by knowledge the way most other natural phenomena are. Now this was one heavy article and if nothing else became clear, it was apparent that over the past couple of years I have lost my tolerance for obtuse prose. Even a year ago, I might have made the effort to get to the bottom of what it was saying, but for the time being I read it, somewhat perplexed, thought I maybe had the gist, wasn’t sure, kept thinking I’d read it again and allowed my attention to wander elsewhere.
And isn’t it funny how these things happen. Yesterday I was reading the title essay in the collection by Irvin Yalom, ‘Momma and the Meaning of Life’, and found its perfect counterpart. Yalom is writing in his sixties, his mother’s been dead for ten years, but his resentment rumbles on. ‘She was vain, controlling, intrusive, suspicious, spiteful, highly opinionated, and abysmally ignorant (but intelligent – even I could see that),’ he writes. ‘Never, not once do I remember sharing a warm moment with her.’ And yet what provokes him into writing the essay at all is the recurring dream he has of being a young child, about to embark on a fairground ride into the House of Horrors, and searching for his mother in the crowd of onlookers. When he catches sight of her he waves his arms and calls out: ‘Momma! How’d I do, Momma? How’d I do?’ Yalom can’t quite figure it out. ‘I fought with Momma, defied her, screamed at her, avoided her, and, finally, in my midadolescence, stopped speaking to her altogether.’ So why should it be that, towards the end of his life, he is still dreaming of catching her attention. He wonders: ‘Can it be – and the very possibility staggers me – that I have been conducting my entire life with this lamentable woman as my primary audience?’ Can it really be, Yalom marvels, extrapolating outwards from this piercing desire for his mother’s approval, that despite everything about their relationship, he still turns to her ‘for the meaning of my life’s work?’
This is, I think, exactly what Jacqueline Rose is talking about. Yalom is an extremely experienced psychoanalyst, one who can explain the nature of his fraught relationship to his mother in a dozen different ways. He can intellectualize about his needs and her needs until kingdom come. But no matter how old or eminent or wise he may be, there is still a part of him that longs for his mother’s approval, utterly regardless of empirical data, experience or understanding. And so, in the essay, he describes how he lies back in his chair and returns to the dream, in order to (as he calls it) squeeze its secrets out. What happens next, the fantasy he creates to settle the matter, I found quite remarkable. Yalom allows his mother to give him a right ticking off. He was always ashamed of her, she chides him, then he stopped talking to her and deprived them both of a relationship, after all she had done to ensure he had a good education, all the work she’d put in to earn money, the care she’d taken of him and the rest of the family, and worst of all, there were never any thanks. In his imagination, Yalom allows himself to be put in his place, mumbles his thanks with genuine gratitude and not a little shame. But the sticking point concerns his books, the dozen or so books he has written that his mother brags about, barricading herself into her nursing home chair between their piles. The problem seems to be one of ownership. Yalom knows he wrote those books, but his mother has other ideas. ‘These are my purpose,’ she tells him. ‘I worked for you – and for them. All my life I worked for those books – my books.’ Yalom is unnerved by this. He sees it as an indication of his mother’s unwillingness to let him go and live his life in freedom. The mistake of ownership of the books is an indication of a more sinister merging, whereby what’s his is never his, but must return, at least in part, to the mother, as a kind of permanent tax on his existence. This seems to be the crux of the matter, the reason his mother still appears in his dreams, and he tells her (as kindly as he can) that he wants her out of them. Inevitably, his mother gets the last word: ‘Your dream? That’s what I want to say to you. That’s the mistake, Oyvin – your thinking I was in your dream. That dream was not your dream, Sonny. It was my dream. Mothers get to have dreams too.’
And that’s where the essay ends; mother and son reconciled to some extent, but still confused over the basics, over what belongs to whom. I found this a very evocative little story, not least because it ends so enigmatically. What does it all mean? What is this point of connection, of intermingling between mothers and children that can’t be thought about, or that can’t be thought out, into the open, into a clear resolution? It’s not about the rights and wrongs of relationships, about who did what to whom; Yalom lets his grudges go very easily when it comes down to it. No, it seems to me to be about something we might call a bond. The bond, between two creatures of the same flesh. It’s not something that is easy to think about, any more than the earliest days of life, which are filled for mother and child with each other. That bond is the first thing we know, before we have any words or thoughts or clear feelings to know it with, so it’s no surprise that it’s almost impossible for a son or daughter to comprehend in any abstract way. But what comes with the bond is tremendous loyalty; a loyalty that remains true to the notion of the bond and its conditions regardless of what happens in life. Hence Yalom is still waiting for his mother’s approval, still longing for her gaze that brings him the security and the strength he needs, even at 60, to be sure he is living his life with some meaning.
If you ask me, that bond of loyalty is the most overlooked, underestimated and misunderstood element in the whole confusing history of family relationships. Parents fail to trust to it; look at Yalom’s mother in his fantasy, still aggressing him for some proof of his love for her, still haranguing him with all that she can’t let go because she doesn’t trust him to remain fundamentally loyal. It’s the King Lear moment, and many a parent has succumbed to it, I don’t doubt. And children worry about the price the bond might extract, the way it might hook them back into a regressive state of dependence and similarity. Yalom can’t quite see that it’s okay for his mother to think those books are hers; that it doesn’t diminish his ownership in anyway. He’s not convinced that they may share the same current of creative energy whether in books or in dreams, and remain independent, but from the outside we can see it’s perfectly possible. Someone should have told them both that their loyalty to one another was never in question, and that if they agreed to trust to it, it could come without cost or condition. Of course, they might not have understood that in words, needing to feel it, but the bond would have continued in any case between them, enigmatic but indestructible.