Mamma Mia

Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty BY Jacqueline Rose. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 256 pages. $26.

The cover of Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty

Every once in a while the psychoanalyst comes across certain deep beliefs in one of their analysands—a knot in the unconscious that sets a pattern and compels the analysand to act a certain way, again and again. Like the deep state, or the giant web of dark matter structuring the universe, there’s no way to tell exactly when or how it’s at work, or if it’s even there. When this knot emerges in analysis, it is visible only for a moment before ducking back under. The analyst’s job is to draw attention to its importance in shaping behavior—a role that is at once surreal and inconceivably simple.

In her new book, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, the theorist Jacqueline Rose argues that mothers are one such unacknowledged knot in our political unconscious. Using psychoanalysis as an interpretive tool to bring this knot to the surface, Rose suggests that mothers carry a psychic and symbolic burden for the rest of us. Mothers, especially single and nonwhite mothers, are the ones who take on the burden of their children’s suffering—and not just within the family itself. They are also at the heart of our most fraught political issues, used as props by the left and the right alike. Vulnerable single mothers are often held up as a reason not to provide welfare—as a degradation of the institution, rather than an impetus for it. In the recent crisis over family separation at the US southern border, the voices we most often heard in news reports were those of mothers. Their suffering and fear became the authoritative political line, so that on top of everything else, they had to become poster children (poster mothers?) for the movement.

Rose has spent her career trying to untangle these contradictions. Like much of her previous work, Mothers probes the psychoanalytic reasons for political and economic conditions. “Why are mothers so often held accountable for the ills of the world, the breakdown in the social fabric, the threat to welfare, to the health of the nation . . . ? Why are mothers seen as the cause of everything that doesn’t work in who we are?” Rose asks. The questions have political referents—she introduces the book with examples of migrant women being blamed for taking advantage of the UK welfare system in order to justify austerity politics, an echo of Ronald Reagan’s infamous attacks on “welfare queens.” But Mothers, which began as a wide-ranging essay in the London Review of Books, answers mostly with a constellation of stories collected from current events, literature, and ancient history, interspersed with lines from D. W. Winnicott and Melanie Klein. A section about mothers in contemporary Britain is followed by one that dips into Greek history and plays before sidling through authors such as Adrienne Rich and Virginia Woolf. One chapter is devoted entirely to Elena Ferrante.

Why mothers, specifically? Rose sees the feminine in general, and mothers in particular, as a key problem for politics. In the book’s opening, she writes, “Unless we recognise what we are asking mothers to perform in the world—and for the world—we will continue to tear both the world and mothers to pieces.” It’s not just mothers at stake in how mothers are treated: Motherhood is the stubborn roadblock that we all seem to run into on the way to a just and sustainable world. Whereas Marxism and its cousins rely on the strength of class identity as a unifying force, feminism, at least the psychoanalytically inflected version Rose practices, depends on disrupting femininity as a category or an identity. Workers identify as workers, which helps them unify as a working class. But women, when they recognize themselves as female political subjects, are for the first time allowed to assert that their internal lives might be at odds with the political role they’re being asked to play.

Martha Rosler, First Lady (Pat Nixon), ca. 1967–72, photomontage. From the series “HouseBeautiful: Bringing the War Home,” ca. 1967–72.
Martha Rosler, First Lady (Pat Nixon), ca. 1967–72, photomontage. From the series “House

Beautiful: Bringing the War Home,” ca. 1967–72.

Introspection and political activism have traditionally been opposed to each other. Throughout her career, Rose, however, has argued that integrating the two is the only way activism can move forward. In the introduction to her 1986 book, Sexuality in the Field of Vision, she writes, “Fantasy and the compulsion to repeat—these appear as the concepts against which the idea of a more fully political objection to injustice constantly stalls.” What analysis and feminism can add to politics is a dissolution of the harsh dichotomies that sometimes motivate us but more often stand in our way. Feminism, she suggests, “is in a privileged position to challenge the dualities (inside/outside, victim/aggressor, real event/fantasy, and even good/evil) upon which so much traditional political analysis has so often relied.” This is why psychoanalysis and feminism mesh so well: Psychoanalysis’s main work is to break down the dichotomies that hold us captive.

Mothers follows a similar template. Rose begins by laying out the framework in which mothers are trapped. When we put mothers onstage at the center of political crises such as family separation, mothers are used as objects. The greatest psychic violence done to mothers, Rose writes, is a refusal of their subjectivity: “In most accounts of motherhood explored so far, something is missing or being pushed aside. Nothing less, I will now suggest, than a mother’s right to know her own mind.” As long as we keep using mothers this way, she suggests, it’s a sign we’re not reckoning with them as political subjects.

Babies have the same problem. They’re terrifying because, in Adrienne Rich’s words, each one “is testimony to the intricacy and breadth of possibilities inherent in humanity.” Society moves quickly to close the anarchy of this moment, primarily through the mother, who is forced to live only for her infant and to teach it, gradually, the rules of society. Not to do so would be torture: “Bringing up a child to believe it is a miracle is not an act of love but a form of cruelty,” Rose writes. How, she asks, is it possible “to acknowledge a new birth as the event that it is, without immediately divesting the newborn of its humanity”? For her, this is not only an intimate, individual dilemma for mothers but a political one. Turning to Hannah Arendt, who attached the terror of birth to the motivation for totalitarianism, Rose argues that authoritarian societies are inherently terrified of the newborn, who is not yet imprinted with political rule, and attempt to control it, lest, she says, quoting Arendt, “with the birth of each new human being a new beginning arise and raise its voice in the world.” A society afraid of subjectivity, then, is always prone to totalitarianism.

How the integration between introspection and politics might actually work is undertheorized in Mothers. But near the end the book gets somewhere, when Rose finally turns to her own mother, a postwar housewife whose family had been in a concentration camp and who made Rose and her sisters clean every surface in the house every morning. This is the most revelatory moment in the book. Reexamining her mother’s experience through a psychoanalytic lens, Rose writes:

It has become commonplace to describe my mother’s generation as housewives without feminism. . . . But the point is mostly made without any allusion to the legacy that must have played such a key role in driving them mad. Certainly, no one seems ever to have explained to this generation of housewives and mothers . . . that they were not, and should not feel, guilty for a war whose every lingering trace the bright, glittering home in which they had settled down was meant to wipe away for ever.

By granting her mother subjectivity, Rose is able to rewrite the conventional judgment of this generation of postwar housewives. Their cleanliness and domestic pride, both in the US and the UK, which has been cast for decades as patriotism, is reinterpreted by Rose as an acknowledgment—conscious or unconscious—of the horror of the war rather than a nationalistic refusal of it. “My grandparents in London wanted nothing more than to be safe in their new surroundings, for their two daughters to bear no trace of the atrocity that irredeemably scarred their own lives,” Rose writes. How much more sympathy she has here than we usually do for uptight, morally stringent midcentury homemakers, usually depicted as the libidinally repressed generation that didn’t fight for themselves. And she achieves this insight by erasing the wall between interiority and political action.

For all Rose’s efforts, the book lacks a contemporary feel—the curse of a brilliant theorist writing a trade book. She doesn’t speak the language of young feminists, or democratic socialists for that matter. It’s easy to be suspicious of her explanation of the unconscious as the source of harshness toward mothers when the real, broad policies of austerity politics and capitalism are at hand to pin the blame on. Rose doesn’t do enough to initiate new readers into a psychoanalytic framework that operates in centuries rather than decades. Still, Mothers has brilliant moments, where a psychological reading brings us closer than ever to locating the gap between a politics that struggles with subjectivity and a subjectivity that struggles with politics.

Ultimately, the book is using mothers to try to answer an existential question: Why are we always thwarting our own best efforts to organize the world? Perhaps our perpetual failure is a result of our tendency to objectify mothers and to make them scapegoats. We put into mothers both the desire for survival and the guarantee of death: “To be a mother is to struggle to save—while also knowing that you will fail to save—your child. To be faced with the prospect that the world is not getting better, that there will not be a better life for the lives you have made.” As long as mothers are imprinted with the existential anxiety of the future, we won’t get anywhere. If we want to improve the world, we have to stop seeing them as political equipment. In other words, we all have to stop running from our mothers.

Nausicaa Renner is the digital editor of Columbia Journalism Review and a senior editor at n+1.