Of Men and Their Mothers: Challenging Freud's Theory

by Patricia McBroom

For at least a century, western psychology has been telling men to reject closeness with their mothers in order to achieve manhood.

The process was one of Freud's classic theories and a cornerstone of psychoanalysis. Some say this rejection is a necessary step in the development of masculine identity.

Now, in the first anthology of its kind, a Berkeley sociologist has brought together a series of memoirs that call this well-worn theory into question.

Titled "Our Mothers' Spirits: On the Death of Mothers and the Grief of Men," the book presents 42 writers exploring the bond between mothers and sons.

Set in the context of a mother's death, the essays include writings by well-known American male writers such as John Updike, John Cheever and Wallace Stegner, along with original works by lesser known authors. The stories cover a range of mother-son relationships, from intimacy and appreciation to alienation and bitterness. Collectively they expose the extent to which psychological and spiritual health in men, especially in the later years of life, depends upon their ability to retrieve the love and closeness they once felt for their mothers.

"These authors take a giant step beyond the patriarchal assumption that it is through the histories of their fathers that men define themselves," said Professor Emeritus Bob Blauner, the book's editor and a pioneer in the field of men's studies. Blauner began teaching a Berkeley course on men and masculinity in 1976, which has become the longest continuing course on men's lives at a major university.

"Men don't have to psychologically separate from the mother to be masculine," said Blauner. "Everyone must leave home and become their own person, but you don't have to over-react and reject the mother."

The extent to which Blauner's point of view breaks with cultural tradition is hard to over-state.

Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex is a governing metaphor for masculine development, and the adult man who maintains a close relationship with his mother runs the risk of being stigmatized as a "mama's boy." Even academic theorists have been affected by this negative stereotype.

Feminist writers have used Freudian theory in explaining how a boy's developing gender identity produces separation from the mother (as well as from a feminine side of personality), and many argue that it lays the foundation for male dominance. But apart from this negative imagery, little attention has been paid to the mother-son bond after adolescence.

"We have many more books on mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, even fathers and daughters, than we have on mothers and sons," said Blauner.

"There is nothing that honors a life-long bond between them or that explores the difficulties of this relationship and its potential rewards," said Blauner. "This is the first anthology to do that."

The book's essays also suggest that the felt conflict between manhood and a close loving relationship with the mother is limited to mainstream white culture. It is not shared, said Blauner, with African-American or Asian men-at least, not according to these essays.

"Black men-as exemplified in the essays by J. Herman Blake and Henry Louis Gates-never seem to have shifted identification away from their mothers," said Blauner. Yet, they grew up to be effective men in the world."

Blauner's own path back to the mother he had rejected in his 20s took almost 40 years. A "mama's boy" (the title he uses for his essay), Blauner had experienced a close, loving relationship with his mother until he was in his late teens. The effort he put into distancing himself at that point literally rewrote his memory of the early relationship.

In his 50s, Blauner found a note he had written to his mother when he was 16, an affectionate, tender note asking his mother to wash his hair when she got off work.

"It was an eye-opener," said Blauner. "I had not only 'repressed' the memory of the particular event, I had forgotten how long I had been a mama's boy and, more important, how much in those days I loved my mother.

"Writing this so many years later," the essay continues," I can still feel some of the shame I must have felt at being so closely tied to my mother, as well as the feeling of emptiness and yearning for the father who had retreated into the shadows of our family life."

Throughout his 20s, 30s and 40s, Blauner sought identification with his father. His course on men ignored the mother bond. Like Robert Bly, author of Iron John, Blauner saw "only the father as the ghost whose loss has not been acknowledged, whose abandonment of his sons haunts the male psyche."

Meanwhile, he could barely tolerate more than a day or two in his mother's company. Quickly irritated by her habits, uncomfortable with her proximity, viewing her as "not very interesting," Blauner paid perfunctory visits.

Then, in December 1982, his memory was awakened in a sudden shock. He learned that his mother was in the intensive care unit with a heart attack. She might die.

"I started to shake with fright. Then I began to cry, sobbing that I didn't want her to die because I still needed her; I needed her to be my mother. For the first time in decades, perhaps in my entire lifetime, I felt how deeply I loved my mother, acknowledged it without reservation," Blauner writes.

For the next three years, until her death in 1986, Blauner saw his mother many times and it was different-no longer tense or irritating.

His last note to her, written to welcome her home from another visit to the hospital which she never left, ended with the words: "You're a wonderful mother and a wonderful person and I love you very much." He never saw her alive again.

Not all the authors in the book were fortunate enough to experience a spiritual reunion with their mothers before they died. Some of the mothers died when their sons were very young; others committed suicide or received euthanasia. Several of the authors were unable to surpass regret and alienation. The stories of Cheever, Henry Miller and Nelson Algren are laced with anger, bitterness and an inability to forgive their mothers.

But most made some measure of a return to psychological identification, a process that often went on for years, even decades after their mothers' deaths.

"The journey of return to the mother is a man's mid-life task," writes Blauner. "It can take place either before or after her death."


Copyright 1998, The Regents of the University of California.
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