‘Think, we had mothers’ Troilus and Cressida.

A box arrived in the post today.  Pretty big, a couple of feet wide and a foot deep, it was taped shut, the corners perfect, no ragged edges. The address was written out in a small, curling hand. I have no real interest in graphology, but the handwriting suggested the script of someone kind and gentle. I read too much into things. Of course. I opened the box, tearing at the brown tape and released a cloud of stale cigarette smoke, furniture polish and lavender perfume; the scent of my grandparent’s home, my childhood home. They died a couple of months ago and my aunt and uncle have been clearing out the house, emptying it of all the objects and detritus that made it a home; slowly, laboriously they are reducing it to a house. They’d sent me some of my grandmother’s dresses and some costume jewelry. Her things lay there, folded and packed carefully, torn loose from their proper place. I closed the box and went to work. Still unable to confront my grief, I prefer to side step it, as if it were an obstacle that I could pass by and forget.


In A Berlin Chronicle, Walter Benjamin* writes about drawing a diagram of his life and that he knew exactly how it should be done, initially his diagram was of ‘a series of family trees’ however after losing that piece of paper, he realized when trying to reconstruct the image in his imagination that rather than resembling trees, more properly the diagram would be a labyrinth. He writes about the ‘primal relationships’ that make up this confounding tangle that produces him.


It’s this Labyrinth, the dead-ends and blind corners of memory and relation that this project is about. It makes sense then to start with the first relationship we mammals have. Though in my case (as it is for many others) that’s not straightforward, my mother was a teenager when I was born and so we lived with my grandparents and her younger brother and sisters – So I was mothered by aunts, my Nanna, Granddad, as well as my mother… But it is my grandmother – my Nanna – that I remember clearly. Her patience, her tender care. I remember being loved and cherished. Safe. A psychiatrist recently told me that it was my relationship with my grandmother that enabled me to survive my childhood and teenage years; years spent living with my mother, away from my grandparents.


Not long ago I watched a documentary about Mitochondrial Eve, the mother of us all, the woman from whom ALL modern humans descend. It imagined her making an epic journey across Africa that resulted in spread of her offspring across every continent. I don’t know if it’s believed that she did make that journey herself, or if it was a metaphor for the future proliferation of her offspring, but it was comforting to think about the connection to her, a mother I imagine to be a benevolent mother, untroubled by complex language perhaps, and therefore incapable of the cruel and excoriating criticisms and barely concealed disappointment that I inspired in my own mother. The caustic, dangerous or neglectful mother is hardly unusual, or new, despite the mythic image of the angelic and altruistic mother with whom we are said to experience infinite plenitude and a lack of all lack (I forget if it’s Freud or Lacan or both that we should thank for that observation), with poster girl the Virgin Mary and her unfailing devotion to her holy offspring (a displaced libidinal urge perhaps?) as the unassailable standard for maternal behaviour.  


In European fiction, the fecund female has often been associated with monstrosity and deviance. This characterisation was established with the creation of Scylla in Homer’s Odyssey: encoded as an emblem of lust, the fecund female and her squawling, parasitic progeny evoke the seemingly uncontrollable nature of femininity, and unsurprisingly, the image functions as a locus of disgust with, and fear of, sexuality and reproduction. The Christian tradition continued the negative reading of fertility; the female body as the site of reproduction is the sign of sin, for reproduction evokes, if not reenacts, the initial fall from grace.  We have the evil stepmothers in fairy tales – Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and the mothers whose own needs come before their children’s – Medea, Gertrude, Addie Bundren, Mrs. Bennett, Corinne Dollanganger etc. etc. etc. And then there are the vain, over-weaning, possessive mothers that love just that little bit too much – Sophie Portnoy from Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, is the perfect example. 


The most dreadful mother in literature to top all others is, for my money, Erika Kohut’s mother, the protagonist of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher. For Erika K, her mother is the epitome of the law. ‘She puts Erika against the wall, under interrogation – inquisitor and executioner in one, unanimously recognised as Mother by the State and by the Family.’ (PT, 3) Erika internalises her mother’s endless cruelties and uses self-harm  – cutting into her own flesh – as a release, or perhaps as an expression of rage, or just to do the job of harm for herself.

Jelinek writes ‘By not encouraging injuries, a mother avoids having to close wounds later on.  Erika’s mother prefers inflicting injuries herself, then supervising the therapy’ (PT, 9). Erika’s mother is a vindictive and controlling sadist and the sadistic mother is perhaps our most primal fear, our trusted caregiver having infinite power over us – literally over whether we live or die.

Deleuze places masochism directly under the auspices of the mother, rejecting the classic depiction of the dominus as phallic or father figure. The three types of mother figure encountered in Deleuze’s maternal scene are the Oral, Uterine and Oedipal.  The Oral mother is perceived as nurturing and providing nourishment (in the Imaginary scene of reading, text and reader could be said to constitute a maternal unity), the Uterine mother describes a prostituted and public sexuality that is available to all and the Oedipal mother is perceived as the didactical disciplinarian. The perfect or good mother is a balance of the three archetypes; when she is damaged, by her own experience of poor mothering, or poverty, violence or mental illness (or all of these factors), the balance is lost.


Wherever we turn it seems the mother figure gets a rough time of it, blamed for all our personal and social ills. It appears to be another stick to beat women with, another demonization (or over-simplification) and for most people their mothers are ‘good enough’ to use Winnicott’s phrase. Ordinary and loving, providing ordinary care.  The mother is a person in her own right after all, doing the best she can with what she’s got. But while I shrink from adding to the tradition of maternal blame and its undercurrent of misogyny, this untangling of self, of following the shadows of memory through the labyrinth of relation, has to deal as honestly as possible with my remembering.  The question I keep coming back to is this: what kind of mother was my grandmother to her own children? Was my experience of receiving tenderness and unconditional love from her very different from that experienced by her own children? How else do I understand our family’s history of abuse and cruelty?


In the end, I’m hostage to a simple phrase, from a simple, ordinary scene. A mother is alone with her daughter. The girl is around 17 or so. Perhaps they look alike; perhaps the girl is a little taller. They are watching TV.

The mother turns to her child and says –

‘You are very, very difficult to love.’

And it’s this that stays with the daughter, fixing her in place, like a beast in a tar pit, struggling for release.


  • I know it’s an intellectual cliché to quote Benjamin – like invoking the gods before launching an expedition across the seas.  Forgive me, I’m nervous, I need the back up.

**  Gilles Deleuze, “Coldness and Cruelty,” Masochism trans. Jean McNeil, (New York, Zone Books, 1991), p.196



  1. Zsolt Alapi says:

    A very moving and wise chronical, Heidi. Superbly written, as always. I forward this to my students to read, some of whom are interested in life writing. I’ve also notified a my colleague, Sabine Walser, who teaches a course in Memoirs. You may know her as the author of the story “Eating Hamburgers” in Writing at the Edge. Looking forward to reading more. Zsolt


    1. heidijames says:

      Thank you, Zsolt. Much appreciated. X


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