The Maternal Return

Some 36 hours after my initial call to the crisis team, two nurses showed up at my door. They had attempted to come round during the night shift, first scheduling a visit at 1am, then waking me up after I fell asleep to say it would be 2am. I said, don’t bother, I can wait until the morning.

The advice given was much of the same as that which I have been offered incessantly over the last few days. I pre-empted their various tick boxes. Everything still fell back on the possibility of a medication review – “you’re on 20mg, you don’t like 40; have you tried 30?” The one good thing to potentially come out of their visit was that I’m now “on their books”. They’re going to share their assessment with my GP and see about getting me some more bespoke talking therapy that can hopefully help me cope with these feelings of attachment and detachment. At least I hope that’s what they took away from our chat. But they were also deeply cynical about the therapy I’ve receiving from my psychoanalyst. I was reticent to describe it in much detail, assuming they’d think psychoanalysis is a crank pseudoscience (but I’m get to see any results from their preferred methods of treatment). For the most part, they seemed sceptical of its open-ended nature, its lack of structure or plans for action. I can appreciate that, and I would like something that supplements what I’m doing with my therapist, although these two processes could likely conflict with one another.

One of the nurses who came round had an awful way of putting it. She said something along the lines of: “It sounds like you’re doing a lot of unpacking and that might not actually be helpful for you right now. Maybe you should take some sort of therapeutic break from therapy.” She added: “At some point, you need to learn to pack that stuff up again.” To my own cynical ear, this sounded like they were recommending a more active repression, which is the last thing I need. But as ever, a close friend here had a much better take of their intentions.

Her responses on Whatsapp went as follows:

Yeah that’s not the best way of phrasing it. But part of this is trying to fathom how to move past something you’ll never understand. […] And that sounds agonising and you deserve to be able to imagine looking forward. And a huge part of that is letting go of the fact you will never resolve anything that’s happened. And that is actually sort of repressing it. But so you can build your life for you. Because you really really deserve to be happy (using that word cautiously with all obvious caveats). […] I think you can learn about your ‘issues’ with people and trust. And be curious about it. Without having to keep [tying] yourself in knots about why you struggle with it. Because seeing you this week it’s been exactly that. Like fast track panic to WHY AM I LIKE THIS vibes.

It is this “rush to understand” that has crashed my mental health. The rapid desire to understand why I struggle so much with interpersonal relationships, with the messy establishment of new ones, with the push and pull of romantic attachment and sexual connection and a desire to never again be alone, which always eventually transforms into social exhaustion, ending with a deep desire for disconnection and an anxiety that comes from not knowing other people as intimately as I would like.

As I waited for the crisis team this morning, I sat outside with a vitamin-packed drink and my pack of tobacco, reading Merve Emre’s annotated edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I don’t know why I suddenly felt the urge to read it. Something about the walking in the book, in which the characters are torn between a repressive and explosive energy. Maybe I hoped to channel something of Septimus’s suicidal tendencies into my own, but instead found comfort in the instability expressed.

In her introduction, Emre discusses Woolf’s penchant for “character-reading”:

To become a writer [for Woolf] was to transform oneself from a reader of character, gazing at those around her with avid, gleaming eyes, to a creator of character, turning those observations into words, conjectures, fantasies. In life as in literature, she bathed ordinary people in the glow of her generous, affectionate imagination; remained attentive to the shadows and shades of their personalities. She did not seek to understand people completely, to master them. She knew all too well the disordered currents of emotion that ate away at the smooth and steady tracts of the mind, that no one, no matter how charming or successful or self-possessed, ever existed as a complete and wholly integrated self.

What emerges from Woolf’s other novels is a total affirmation of this fact. In Between the Acts, Orlando, The Waves, To The Lighthouse, there is always this tension between the horror of an unintegrated self and the reciprocated horror that an integrated ideal of the self can also give rise to. Elizabeth Abel, in Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis, makes this explicit in her reading of Between the Acts, where “the horror of the impending world war … extends Woolf’s critique of the fascist appropriation of the mother’s body.” From Woolf’s feminist standpoint, this fascist appropriation is terrifyingly approximate. The mother is absorbed into the patriarchal body of society at large. (“Society it seems was a father, and afflicted with the infantile fixation too”, she writes in Three Guineas.) But as Abel notes, the rise of fascism, for Woolf, was not so much the total ascendency of patriarchy but rather a reaction to the dwindling of a paternal authority.

Abel goes on to note how this viewpoint ran contrary to Freud’s, and Woolf was closely reading Freud’s Moses and Monotheism whilst drafting Between the Acts. Freud argues that the assertion of a patriarchal society, for better or for worse (and he seems conflicted on this point himself), is the victory of “intellectuality over sensuality”, but in attempting to absorb sensuality within itself, the world succumbs to a crisis of embodiment, which Woolf illustrates through the grotesque analogy of a snake choking on a still-kicking toad:

The snake was unable to swallow; the toad was unable to die. A spasm made the ribs contract; blood oozed. It was birth the wrong way round – a monstrous inversion. So, raising his foot, [Giles] stamped on them. The mass crushed and slithered. The white canvas of his tennis shoes was bloodstained and sticky. But it was action. Action relieved him.

Though Freud seems to want to assist the snake in its digestive process, a process of paternal assimilation, Woolf hopes to smash the whole sorry entanglement. But this image of birth in reverse is also telling, in that it demonstrates how the maternal is not something to be absorbed but a kind of shadow that lingers behind the patriarchal dialectic of fathers being superseded by sons. Abel notes how this is present, too, in Freud’s text, when he argues that Christianity’s emergence from Judaism, the religion of the son emerging from the religion of the father, also recentres (albeit in a secondary role) the sensual role of Mary in a nonetheless patriarchal continuation. Abel writes, “By analogy to Christ’s own sacrifice, which replaces the father it would appease, Mary’s selfless mothering advances maternal authority.” The word “selfless” here feels like a double entendre. The indeterminacy of the feminine self constitutes a kind of ambivalence and ambiguity. Though Freud insists on the father’s return — writing what Abel calls a kind of “apology for Hitler” when he argues that “in the mass of mankind there is a powerful need for an authority who can be admired, before whom one bows down, by whom one is ruled and perhaps even ill-treated … a longing for the father felt by everyone from his childhood onwards” — Woolf instead affirms the indeterminacy of the maternal, albeit contrary to Freud’s own description of its return. “The world that for Woolf had newly consecrated patriarchy”, Abel continues, “was for Freud reviving the sensuous chaos of archaic matriarchy.”

When asking about my own circumstances, the crisis team noted the absence of my own father(s) from my narrative. I described the lingering trauma felt from my own adoption, and the further trauma of a breakdown in the relationship with my adoptive mother. In 2013, she suffered a breakdown, following spinal surgery, which led to a sort of paranoid schizophrenia (though I do not think she was given an official diagnosis). On returning home, having been spurned by local spinal and mental health wards to be the recipient of a lacklustre “care in the community”, her agoraphobia was all-consuming and extended outwards to my father and me. Living at home after graduating from my Bachelor’s degree, any attempt to leave the house was met with an interrogation, as she feared I would never return. She manifested the realisation of this fear through her own actions. I would often escape the house battered, bruised and scratched as she tried to wrestle me from the front door, overreacting to any defensive manoeuvre as I was forced to use my own strength to escape her grasp, desperate for some contact with the outside world. My father escaped for a time, but never fully. He still lives in the house in which my mother’s struggles to leave. I have left and now have no desire to return.

Despite this, I still talk to my dad sometimes, although not often. I do not feel like he is an authority figure but someone who has suffered the same traumas as myself, at least more recently. He, too, is a victim of a twisted authority. Whereas I have escaped, he remains trapped, and I often wonder now if my further decision to leave a long-term relationship – or rather, my eventual acceptance of my girlfriend’s belief that it had run its course – upset him as he realised I had found the wherewithal to move on, which still eludes him. (As an aside, I should add that I have no idea who my biological father is, nor do I feel any particular desire to find out, so unimportant he feels to the narrative of my birth beyond the borrowing of some of his genes.)

My relationship with my biological mum is distant, civil, polite. We occasionally share news about each other’s lives and say hello on birthdays. But my adoptive mum feels like that snake and toad to me. The necessity of crushing that relationship, splattering it all over my life, despite the trauma of maternal disconnection that has haunted me for so much longer, was an action I did not think I was capable of. As I sit in my present, slowly ebbing crisis, I feel similarly torn by this kind of decision, which is not always within my control: What should I affirm and what should I destroy? What am I capable of affirming and what am I capable of destroying? With my own agency diminished, rocked by the waves of present instability and historic trauma, these questions have been turned narcissistically inwards. What am I able to affirm in myself? What am I able to destroy? My self-destructive tendencies, at periodic moments, have almost won out. They continue to intrude as thoughts and images, if only because I feel incapable of affirming anything else. The desire to self-destruct rushes in to fill the void left by what is outside of my control. (This week, I am feeling like a particularly bad Stoic.)

A further anxiety, when confronting by preoccupation with mothers, with the feminine, with the sensuous, is whether this anxiety comes from my own patriarchal frustrations. I am a son, after all — albeit one who feels so disastrously displaced. I have repeatedly explored a sense of gender identity over the last few years, which does not so much emerge from a desire to become woman but from an ardent refusal to be a man. I wonder to what extent my own heteronormativity – my basic attraction to women – blurs into other social norms that, intellectually speaking, I wholeheartedly despise. I long for something queerer than what is expected of me, and the constant interrogation of my own internalised misogyny gives way to a near-constant social anxiety, regarding how I appear and pass through the world. I am a big guy, and though soft and cuddly to those who know me, I fear the assumptions projected onto me from the outside world, the understandable fears so many people – women in particular – may have when in the company of a man and the ways that I may have been conditioned to relate to them.

My adoption trauma triggers this constantly. A foundational disconnection from the maternal gives rise to often anxious and ill-advised attempts to connect with the women in my life. But do I long for a mother figure? Not really. I long for a more sensuous, less fascistic form of community. As Abel writes of Woolf’s Between the Acts, the book “emphasizes the disintegration of the contemporary social fabric, but it refuses integration under the aegis of fathers, and it laments the loss of a concept of mothering that could serve as an alternative source of unity.” I think this captures my own feelings perfectly. It is not an idealised mother I long for – I have no experience of such a thing. But I do long for a sense of unity that I am all too aware patriarchy smothers and chokes on. I long for a community, a kinship, a kind of relationship that is tender and reciprocal in ways that patriarchy so often forecloses. It is a surprisingly difficult thing to achieve, not least because it is wholly other to the heteronormativity I feel otherwise encased within.

Echoing this, Abel notes how Woolf’s novel is “parched”. Mother nature is dehydrated and dies a series of death in the arid lands of modernity. “Relief comes with a sudden providential shower that dissolves the boundaries between author and audience, restoring the human community in a moment of collective lament that both articulates and heals the pain of isolation.” I am reminded, as ever, of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, in which the pull of the sun is a kind of patriarchal authority, under which a newly thalassic world is giving rise to new schizophrenias, new subjectivities. Though the sun activates the lizard brain of each of the characters, it is the water that first brings forth new life from the shadowy maternal depths of the world. So it is for Woolf: “Hence the startling reversal through which rain, rather than sunshine, elicits her conclusion that ‘nature once more had taken her part…’”

Rain takes on the form of “all people’s tears”; rain is the diffusion of a “‘sudden and universal’ character”. “[T]he value of the weather is reversed. What [has been] represented as disaster, a wedge niched into the fabric of human relations, has here become a desired dissolution, a fleeting moment of maternal return, as nature, assuming Mary’s guise, weeps the world’s ‘[t]ears’…” I find myself weeping constantly at the moment, freely, openly, collapsing into a lifelong grief that is triggered by the perpetual promise and denial of the maternal’s return. It is a desire not just for a mother but to be a mother; a desire to be subsumed in new connections and actively produce them, hold them, nurture them, without any hint of paternal authority.

1 Comment

  1. I know I’m a complete stranger on the other side of the internet, but I want to say this for whatever it’s worth.

    I’m a trans woman. Some of the things you’ve been saying in the last few blog posts _really_ sound like things a trans woman would say, shortly before admitting she’s trans. Things I would have said. In particular, I absolutely would have said that I feel more aversion/refusal to be a man than desire to be a woman. Many others to whom I’ve gotten close enough to talk honestly about this stuff would say the same.

    Transition ended up being the correct thing for me to do. It very well could be for you. When I was thinking like this, almost manically introspective, the thing I needed to do was to perform femininity, and to see how it felt.

    I’m sorry if saying this is intrusive. I hope it can help. Regardless, I hope you can find a stable position.

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