Saturday, September 26, 2009

In Praise of the Mama's Boy: The Case of the Telltale Eyeglasses

Mother's boy, also called mama's boy, is a term for a man who is excessively attached to his mother at an age when men are expected to be independent (e.g. live on their own, be economically independent). A mother's boy may be effete or effeminate, or might be perceived as being macho, might have a personality disorder, such as avoidant personality disorder, or might be schizophrenic, so that the mother acts as a caretaker. In any case, a mother's boy cannot maintain a healthy partnership with a woman.

Being mother-bonded is sometimes seen as a sign of weakness, and has a social stigma attached to it in many places, although in other places it may be more acceptable or perceived as normal. A mother-bonded man is seen to give control of his own life to his mother, in exchange for a sense of security. If the mother has more than one son, then she will have, at the most, one mother's boy, usually the eldest son. The relationship between mother and mother's boy is thought to be "symbiotic": the mother enjoys controlling her mother's boy.

Alternatively, in recent years, some have begun using the term in a milder sense, merely meaning a man who is emotionally attached to his mother. Though this sense of the phrase is still uncommon compared to the original pejorative intent, mothers in particular may state their pride in their "mama's boy" sons. It is also occasionally used to describe an infant or toddler son who is unusually attached to his mother, even crying or resisting when the father attempts to care for him. In this sense, the 'mama's boy' designation carries little stigma, but is simply an observation of the young child's primary attachment.

The term "mama's boy" has a pejorative connotation. But why? What's wrong with a man who is close to his mother?

I used to have a friend named Brad Dolinsky who lived in my apartment building. He was an army captain from New Hyde Park, New York. I remember Brad Dolinsky, on one occasion talking on the cell phone to a friend, saying that his girlfriend thought he was a mama's boy. "Am I a mama's boy? Do you think I am a mama's boy?" Brad Dolinsky was clearly a superior person, whatever his relationship with his mother. I saw Brad's mom and dad once; they came to visit. "We're Brad Dolinsky's parents," they said to the front desk clerk; "he lives in apartment 600."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a mama's boy. You’d have to be a pretty formidable woman to intimidate Eleanor Roosevelt, and FDR’s mother Sara was just that. Franklin was her only child and she was quite protective of him. She even homeschooled him -- on the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, New York -- until he went to boarding school, and when he was admitted to Harvard she followed him there. She was upset when Franklin got engaged to Eleanor, but when he got married against her wishes, she committed herself to controlling both of them. Sara picked out the newly-married couple’s first house, had it decorated, and bought herself a house just three blocks away. In 1908 she gave them a townhouse in Manhattan which conveniently connected to her own townhouse –- it had adjoining doors on every single floor. Franklin later admitted he had been terrified of his mother his whole life.

Douglas MacArthur was the youngest of three sons and apparently his mom didn’t want to deal with empty nest syndrome when he left for the United States Military Academy at West Point: she camped out in a hotel room overlooking the Academy grounds for two years. Supposedly she even bought a telescope so she could make sure he was studying instead of getting up to shenanigans, but that smells like an urban legend to me. But one book does say that he met with his mother for at least half an hour every night after dinner, and if he couldn’t get away, she would meet him so they could walk and talk on school grounds instead.

One biography, William Manchester's "American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur," tells us that MacArthur "was a well-born victim of Uberangstlichkeit, a mama's boy who reached his fullest dimensions in following maternal orders to be mercilessly ambitious." In his early thirties, MacArthur, extremely solicitous of the well-being of his mother Pinky, kept her with him on the post at Leavenworth. Describing MacArthur's life in the Philippines in the 1920s, Manchester remarks, "Always in the background lurked the formidable figure of General MacArthur the Elder's widow, eleven thousand miles away but very much present in spirit." There she used supposed ill health to manipulate her son. Manchester continues, "Up and about, the old lady threw her redoubtable energy into a campaign for her remaining son's further rise in rank. It was time, she decided, that the War Department made him a major general."

There is circumstantial evidence that my friend Craig Dye was a mama's boy. Craig and I worked together at the law firm of Hogan & Hartson in Washington, DC. Craig was brought to the firm by Espe Rebollar, with whom Craig had worked at a previous place of employment. Craig and Espe had a special bond from the outset of Craig's employment at Hogan, in early October 1986. The two had lunch together often during the first several months of Craig's employment, and Espe championed Craig's career advancement at the firm. The two protected each other in what seemed to be a symbiotic, mother-son like bond. Espe was several years older than Craig and was matronly in appearance. Oddly enough, the first time Craig asked me to go to lunch with him, in June 1987, he invited Espe to come along with us. The three of us had lunch in Pershing Park. Perhaps Espe was a protective presence for Craig. Earlier, in February of that year, I had asked Craig to go to lunch with me but he refused; when I invited him to lunch he said, "I like your glasses, Gary" in an affectedly effeminate tone.

Craig said that his mother was a teacher. "My mother was hard on me," he said more than once. Perhaps his mother inculcated a drive in Craig to be "mercilessly ambitious." Craig was academically talented; he earned a master's degree in international relations, and was later accepted to Harvard Law School. His academic pursuits contrasted with the world of his father, who had worked in a steel mill. Craig had grown up not planning to go to college, anticipating that he would get a job in a steel mill, like his father.

Craig had tried to enlist in the Air Force -- in apparent emulation of his (maternal?) grandfather, a member of the German Luftwaffe -- but was refused because of poor eyesight. The U.S. Air Force decision to refuse Craig's enlistment must have been a narcissistic injury for him, and a psychologically castrative experience at that. When I knew him, Craig wore contacts. No pair of eye glasses were going to detract from that shayna punim of his, no doubt!

Craig's macho personality fits the profile of the "Douglas MacArthur" type of mama's boy. His sexual conquests of women may have been a reaction formation to a contrary trend. My former psychiatrist Dr. Abraha said that Craig was probably a latent homosexual. But then, Freud believed that all people were bisexual--which raises the question: precisely who is not a latent homosexual? Craig was convinced that I was in love with him, in a true Schreber-like paranoid delusion. Craig believed that I had purchased a pair of eye glasses in February 1987 in order to sexually impress him. A pair of eye glasses? Has anyone ever seduced another person with a pair of eye glasses? In fact, I had dropped my previous pair on the tile floor in the men's room at the firm, and the plastic frame broke.

Mark this well -- I used to work in the same organization as my mother, but I never had lunch with her.

I suffer from a schizoid personality disorder, and early in my life I internalized my mother as an anti-libidinal object.

Salman Akhtar's extensive review has shown that rejection, traumatic overstimulation, and neglect in the first two years of life are common in the history of schizoids. The schizoid condition was first described by the Scottish psychoanalyst Fairbairn in the 1940s. Fairbairn found that his patients had withdrawn from parents who were overtly rejecting. They preferred to live in a rich, imaginary world. Many fiction writers are schizoid because the ability to create a vivid inner world in one's head gives one a head start at writing fiction. The downside is that the schizoid's sense of other people is impoverished.

Not hatred, but love is the problem. Fairbairn observed that the child with the rejecting or disappointing parent develops an internalized image of the rejecting parent, called the anti-libidinal object, to which he is desperately attached. The rejecting parent is often incapable of loving, or preoccupied with his or her own needs. The child is rewarded when he is not demanding, and devalued or ridiculed as needy when he expresses his dependent longings. Thus the schizoid's picture of 'good' behavior is distorted. The child learns never to nag or even yearn for love, because it makes the parent more distant and censorious. The child then may cover over the incredible loneliness, emptiness and ineptness he feels with a fantasy (often unconscious) that he is self-sufficient. Love and anger get hopelessly intertwined. Fairbairn argued that the tragedy of the schizoid child is that his conscience has been warped: he believes his love, not his hatred is the destructive force within. Love consumes. Hence the schizoid child's chief mental operation is to repress his or her normal wish to be loved.

Perhaps, I am pathologically attached to the image of a cold, unresponsive mother. In that sense I am a mama's boy -- but a sad one, indeed.

1 comment:

Gary Freedman said...

Around December 23, 1986 (my 33rd birthday) I dyed my hair, which was turning gray. I was feeling old.

This contributed to a rumor in the Computer Applications Department at Hogan & Hartson, where I worked at the time, that I was a homosexual who was in love with Craig and desperate to win his attention.

In Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice the aging character Gustav von Aschenbach dyes his hair to attract a young adolescent boy, Tadzio. Daniel Cutler, literati that he is, used to refer to Death in Venice -- which I saw as an allusion to my dying my hair to attract Craig Dye, who was 6 years younger than me.