Making a mess

Adam Phillips

  • Mother, Madonna, Whore: The Idealisation and Denigration of Motherhood by Estela Welldon
    Free Association, 179 pp, £11.95, November 1988, ISBN 1 85343 039 0

It is a paradox of some interest that though psychoanalysis was, from the beginning, about the relationship between justice and love, there is no explicit description in Freud’s work of what constitutes a good life. And this is one of the many things that distinguish him from his followers and critics. It was also, of course, part of Freud’s disingenuous rationalism to assert that psychoanalysis could never be any kind of weltanschauung, that it was exempt from traditional moral questions like whether virtue can be taught, or whether we need to know what we are doing in order to be good. Confronted, however, with patients who claimed to have been seduced as children by parents or other adults, Freud very quickly came up against his own personal preferences – which he would later call resistances – and the normative standards of his culture. There were clearly certain things which were deemed absolutely unacceptable for adults to do to children and these could only be adequately described in terms of sexuality. Freud’s first patients, though, were mostly women who claimed to have been seduced by their fathers. It is Estela Welldon’s point in this often sympathetic book that maternal incest may be more pervasive than Freud was able to recognise.

Psychoanalysis began, however, with the really very puzzling question of the difference between adults and children: that is, the significance of the link between desire and the capacity for reproduction (a link, of course, complicated by the manufacture of increasingly efficient methods of contraception). Children, Freud realised, desire – but without possibility. They are, as Winnicott once famously said, all dressed up with nowhere to go. With the advent of psychoanalysis the growing child has continued to model himself on the adults, while the adults are theoretically modelled on the child. After the disappointments of the Oedipal drama, adults are children manqués. Because Freud also realised that the lives of both adults and children were dominated by the work of wishing (and one advantage of this is that we can usefully ask of any psychoanalytic theory what wishes it tries to satisfy), Freud discovered not only the actuality of incestuous seduction, but also the child’s fantasised wish to seduce and be seduced by the parents. Psychoanalysis was, initially, a phenomenology of malign – that is, inappropriate – seduction. And since it began in relation to the parents it was not clear what the (relatively) non-incestuous varieties might be. ‘Seduction’ has always been a dirty word in psychoanalysis, and there is even now a paucity of psychoanalytic accounts of good seductions, despite the fact that psychoanalysis is able to address that most disabling of symptoms, the unwillingness to seduce or be seduced. The present horror and righteous indignation about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, which Welldon’s book forthrightly examines, should not be allowed to leave such things in the dark.

In the Three Essays on Sexuality Freud described, for both sexes, a perverse core to the personality as the essence of an infantile sexuality which was by inclination keenly seductive. But the notion of seduction with which Freud started, and the concept of perversion to which it led him, inevitably brought with them the more traditional idea of a True Path. To seduce is to lead away, and a perversion, by definition, deviates from a norm, though the crucial irony of Freud’s account in the Three Essays was that perversion in childhood was the norm. Was perversion, in fact, perverse? In Welldon’s account, perversions are the consequence of ‘faulty mothering’. They are expedient solutions to a traumatic personal history, distortions of what, in a better world, is a potentially more satisfying and straightforward developmental process. Psychoanalysis, as Freud conceived of it, however, was always a critique of the straightforward life, and indeed of any tyrannical intimations of perfection. It was exactly his sense of how equivocal a process a life was that drove him to some necessary complications which Welldon’s approach leaves to one side. For example, the case-histories she presents are used simply to illustrate her theoretical proposals. Her patients’ lives have a misleading inevitability, an absence, from the analyst’s point of view, of accident or genuine perplexity. It begins to seem that having a life could involve not making a mess. A familiar psychoanalytic knowingness sets in which is singularly unimpressed by loose ends.

For Freud, the story of a life was always the story of a life in disarray. By 1905 he had evolved, in a sense, two theories which were in many ways at odds with each other and whose legacy of useful contradiction is alive in contemporary psychoanalysis. On the one hand, in the Three Essays, he devised a rudimentary developmental theory of oral, anal and phallic stages which gravitated towards the Oedipal drama and gave what he considered to be empirically verifiable shape – a story-line, perhaps even a purpose – to the bemusing project of growing-up. This involved unifying the perverse parts of the personality towards their putative aim of ‘genital maturity’. On the other hand, in the Dream book and the Joke book, Freud constituted an unconscious that was ‘timeless’ and whose ingenious desire and insistent linguistic opportunism rendered any notions of predictability (or development) redundant. The patient is cured in psychoanalysis when, among other things, he continues to plan for the future knowing he is unable to do so. This conflict between knowing what a life is and the sense that a life contains within it something that makes such knowing impossible is at the heart of Freud’s enterprise.

In British psychoanalysis, with the work of Melanie Klein and Anna Freud, who were not British, and Winnicott, Bowlby and Fairbairn who were, it was the developmental theory, which Welldon uses, that was taken up, often at the cost of the Freudian unconscious. A confluence of peculiarly disparate traditions, British psychoanalysis was never witty or wordly-wise. It tended to favour counter-erotic progressivist notions of growth and maturity rather than, say, Wilde’s profoundly Freudian quip that only mediocrities develop. It struggled, in fact, and still struggles, to sustain itself as an empirical tradition based on ‘observation’ – when psychoanalysis is patently fantastic – and it has repressed the spectre of Hume as part of its ignorance of its own history. Psychoanalysis began with Freud, but something that might now be called psychology did not. And we need to know something of all this both in order to reinstate a generous scepticism in British psychoanalysis, and to provide a sufficient context to understand such a provocative book as Mother, Madonna, Whore. Though listening, for some reason, is something psychoanalysts have written little about, this is clearly a book written out of an impassioned listening to people with frightening stories to tell: and for a serious psychoanalytic book it has a reassuringly sensational title. But the explanations it contains are sometimes too costively neat.

‘The clinical evidence,’ Welldon writes in the epilogue to her book, ‘supports the maxim “never underestimate the power of a mother.” ’ Freud’s version of psychoanalysis, in Welldon’s view, did not give sufficient attention to the powerful influence of mothering, which, she emphasises, ‘can scarcely be overemphasised’. I should have thought there was now no more risk of psychoanalysts underestimating mothers than of their plucking the heart out of the mystery. But the mystique of the vague, modish word ‘power’ in this context casts a false spell on the discussion. Turning Freudian psychoanalysis inside out, Welldon finds in the child’s mother the ‘power’ that was once vested in the child’s unconscious. What is inside the child is, in this account, at least potentially good – meaning acceptable to the child – but what is outside, the mother, is seen as problematic. Only bad mothers produce hard-core Freudian children. From Welldon’s point of view, it is not the human condition as constructed by Freud that is innately perverse and therefore insistently troubling: but perversion carried over into adult life is the consequence of what is grudgingly called, in this tradition of psychoanalysis, ‘maternal failure’. Perversion becomes eroticised home-sickness. And though this developmental account is consistently illuminating, it can also be seen as a theoretically-elaborated grievance against a mother (fathers, as in the perverse scenario itself, tend not to get much of a look-in). Mothers, in fact, do not let their children down, even though both mothers and children are keen to see it this way: they simply live their lives.

It is not clear why so many of our notions of accountability – and often intelligibility – depend so exclusively upon a capacity for blame. But judgments cannot be disowned by saying one is not making judgments. Despite Welldon’s disclaimers, language cannot be policed by spurious notions of analytic neutrality. If psychoanalysts are to sanctify the past – which always runs the risk of deadening the future – and mine it for ‘causes’, then questions of responsibility need to be given more than the short shrift they get in this book. It is not enough to have it baldly asserted that the use of a word like ‘perversion’ in this context implies no moral judgment, or that perverse mothering is simply something one might learn to diagnose. ‘To treat patients,’ Welldon writes, ‘you must act on evidence not presuppositions,’ but – to ask what is surely by now an obvious question – how does one know what constitutes evidence, except on the basis of presupposition? With this naive empiricism – continual recourse to ‘facts’ and clinical evidence and the supposedly non-moralistic use of terms – Mother, Madonna, Whore forgives mothers through understanding, but blames them by implication.

It is Estela Welldon’s contention in this book that some mothers, for very good reasons to do with their own histories, can let their children down by turning them into perverts. It is because of ‘inadequate mothering’ that perverts ‘are prevented from a very early age from achieving sexual, emotional maturity’. Exactly what sexual, emotional maturity is in psychoanalysis is not altogether clear, but generally speaking one rarely meets anybody who has achieved it. And descriptions of it usually produce a plethora of vague clichés about rich, fulfilling mutuality or fantasies of wholeness that are full of holes. Certainly in the perverse relationships described in this book there is an absolute absence of any shared pleasures. Certain kinds of mothering, Welldon believes, make such pleasures impossible. And these particular kinds of mothering she regards as characteristic forms of female perversion. Society’s idealisation of mothering, she suggests, has rendered these female perversions invisible (men have usually been considered to be the perverts and women simply the victims). But the absence of nursery places, for example, or even the advertisements for washing-powder, suggest quite the opposite: the culture is rife with the disparagement of mothers. It is, nevertheless, an interesting point that the so-called perversions are parodies, often frightening ones, of ‘good’ mothering. But by narrowing the focus onto mothering – even though she makes a strong and convincing case for these being multigenerational patterns, and for the importance of ‘socio-psychological aspects’ of the question – Welldon, in a sense, de-politicises a useful psychoanalytic insight. Perversion is not only a compulsively enacted critique of mothering: it is also a furtive critique of the culture, a sexualised cartoon of the repertoire of relationships the culture makes possible. And the culture is made, on drastically uneven terms, by both men and women.

The ignoring of women by giving them victim status has not been helped, in Welldon’s view, by psychoanalysis, which has, at least until recently, used a paradigm of male sexual development for both sexes. Freud, ‘though a genius’, Welldon writes, ‘was, as a man, unable to convey a full understanding of the complexities in the libidinal development of the two genders’. It was part of Freud’s ‘genius’ to show us that psychoanalytic theory is made with sentences, not with ideas. The nice qualification does nothing to undo the clumsy sexism of the sentence and its ludicrous assumption. How would anyone know if they had a ‘full understanding’ of such things? And perhaps more worrying, given the history of psychiatry since the turn of the century, what would they be doing with it if they thought they had it? Welldon exhorts us to ‘return to basics. We must begin with the female body and its inherent attributes.’ This presumably means that there is a land beyond History, called Biology, where the Basics live. Here femininity is constituted by the mystic proximity of two fantastic ghosts, the mind and the body.

Women, Welldon claims, ‘have special problems ... in getting to know themselves’. This must be true, given how determined men have been to exempt them from the available rituals: but it is a project to which special problems do, of course, attach themselves. The problems set the terms for what is to be known. But Welldon’s explanation, if it can be called that, digs a traditional grave for women. It mires them in Nature: ‘To acquire self-knowledge of their own womanhood in a way that is separate from their motherhood seems to many women a luxury that is impossible to achieve, perhaps because both their minds and their bodies are so much more involved than would be the case for men.’ It is indeed difficult not to conceive of the differences between the sexes in sado-masochistic terms, the familiar language of better and worse. But dispiriting stereotypes are merely reinforced by this kind of barely literate pseudo-mystery. Mother, Madonna, Whore is studded with assertions about the differences between the sexes, ranging from the excitedly banal – ‘There is a wide and spectacular difference in the sense of temporality in females’ – to the manifestly false: ‘The menopause is an exclusively female predicament.’

All this serves to obfuscate the fact that in this book Welldon has made one simple but significant new contribution to the psychoanalytic study of female perversion. And this requires, as she rightly points out, the acknowledgement of a possible difference between the sexes which more orthodox male-orientated Freudian psychoanalysis has tended to ignore. It is, of course, like all formulations of difference, a provisional, circumstantial and historically-determined artefact, and not, so to speak, a revelation.

‘The main difference,’ Welldon writes, ‘between a male and female perverse action lies in the aim. Whereas in men the act is aimed at an outside part-object’ – meaning a symbolic body-part, not what we think of as a person – ‘in women it is usually against themselves, either against their bodies or against objects which they see as their own creations: their babies. In both cases bodies and babies are treated as part-objects.’ This revenge, in the interests of safety and control, against what Welldon calls the mother’s ‘abuse of her power’ evokes a perverse response in the child. But the sexes turn the tables in distinctively different ways (and by a rather unpleasant irony Welldon turns the tables on the conventional view by making women seem more powerfully, more influentially perverse than men). The mother who colonises her child and stifles gestures of autonomy and difference breeds in him or her a virulent and sustaining resentment against any later object of desire. The child will be left, as an adult, with an often unconscious craving for the dead-end justice of revenge. Contempt will keep him or her safe from an intimacy that always threatens to belittle and trap them. But whereas ‘perverse men use their penises’, in Welldon’s view, ‘to attack and show hatred towards symbolic sources of humiliation, usually represented by part-objects ... in the woman’ perversion ‘will similarly be expressed through her reproductive organs’. Women turn against themselves – and their children as part of themselves – the hatred that men are able to turn against other people. This echoes, of course, the more conventional visual-aid theory of sexual difference: that because women’s sexual organs are internal (which is not entirely true) they are more inward, whereas men are anatomically more outward-bound. This limited repertoire of imaginative speculation always suggests the repression of strong fantastic alternatives. But Welldon is persuasive that the boy humiliated in childhood takes revenge – perhaps also unconsciously seeks a solution to his predicament – by becoming what we think of as a pervert: the humiliated girl takes revenge by becoming a mother – in order, as Welldon puts it, to ‘revenge herself against the fate of being a woman’. Perversion for both sexes is then reactive to the mostly unconscious exploitation by mothers of their children’s dependence. Welldon is forceful and convincing in her claim that what perverse men do to women, perverse women do to their babies: they ‘desire to engulf the other person, to dehumanise the object, and to invade, take complete control of and merge with the Other.’ It is a disturbing picture because it is in exaggerated form a description of something ordinary: the need to eradicate, rather than the capacity to enjoy or be inspired by difference.

In Freud’s great paper of 1915, ‘Instincts and their Vicissitudes’, he suggested that an instinct was subject to four main kinds of transformation: ‘Reversal into its opposite. Turning round upon the subject’s own self. Repression. Sublimation.’ If all four are available to both sexes, why should it be the case, as Welldon’s thesis implies, that women should specialise in the second, and so, by constraining their repertoire, limit their possibilities for satisfaction? Why, if it is true, do women tend to disparage themselves, when men with comparable histories disparage others? After a thorough review of the psychoanalytic literature, Welldon opts for a plausible, roughly historical explanation which is marred by the vagueness of its terms. ‘Perhaps if women had a longer tradition of belonging to the power structure,’ she writes, ‘their attitudes to men and children would not be governed as they are now by a weakness which they strive to turn into possessiveness and control.’ Relative powerlessness may produce tyrannical mothering, but it is also true that contemporary psychoanalytic notions of autonomy often sound like legitimated versions of the wish to dominate.

With that paradoxical combination of intense excitement and emotional impoverishment perversions have become the negative ideals of development in psychoanalytic theory. Compulsive, repetitive, requiring accomplices, perversions involve, the theory tells us, an attempted denial of the differences between the sexes and the generations: and they reveal rather starkly the ways in which sexuality includes the wish to damage and dehumanise. The implied alternatives to all this are part of the therapeutic aim of psychoanalysis, which at least takes seriously the very real developmental difficulty of allowing the existence of other people. But these possible alternatives also reveal the curiously idealistic, perhaps misleadingly ambitious version of the good life that psychoanalysts after Freud have constructed. No one should underestimate, as Welldon’s book makes clear, the misery of the driven, damaging life. But no one should underestimate either that psychoanalysts have designs on their patients. Some of their designs are very interesting.

‘Motherhood,’ Welldon writes, ‘is sometimes chosen for unconscious perverse reasons.’ This may be true, but what is a good reason for having a child, and who is to say? Descriptions of motherhood like this are themselves chosen for all sorts of reasons. And psychoanalytic theory has always been the double – the not-so-secret sharer – of the symptomatology it has attempted to explain. But psychoanalysis does not have to be an omnivorous interpreting machine, or another colonial adventure. At its best, it is a way of keeping the questions of childhood alive.