Mother-Son Incest and The Myth of “Overprotective”

I was floored when I recently watched the French film Mon fils a moi (My Son, 2006.)   The depiction of an intrusive, controlling, abusive mother who lashes out at her 12 year old son, Julien as he enters puberty and attempts to differentiate himself is so spot-on from my own life that I could have been looking in a mirror.  Which is rare; there are few honest films that present mother-son incest without gimmicks or victim-blaming.   A part of what the film captured so perfectly was the pervasive dread of living in an extremely unsafe and oppressive environment, being afraid to go home and afraid of the footsteps coming down the hall, sitting through miserable family dinners hoping no one will blow up at you…  I think it’s easy to forget just how bad that was, how small and powerless we really were back then.   Yet I realized after reading various reviews of this very honest film that few people saw it as I did.  Instead they tended to express an incomprehension and quest to sympathize with or even justify the abusive mother with a series of pat excuses, euphemisms and clichés.  But in fact these are the same responses people typically give when presented with this type of abusive mother, which is why is it’s so disturbing to me.

Chief among these are speeches about “a mother’s love,” and the idea that this woman abused her son because “she just loved him so much!”  But there was no love on evidence in this film, possession is not love.  What I saw was a woman who could occasionally express seemingly “nice” behavior so long as she was in complete, meticulous control of her son’s life and identity, and was able to project this definition onto him via her actions.  Likewise my own mother projected the image onto me that I was always a lost, stupid child who didn’t know what he was doing, and if I tried to correct her, that actually I’m a teenager, a young adult who had normal motivations for someone my age, she would become enraged.  In the extremely punitive environment of my childhood, my mothers infantilizing explanations for my behavior were setup as a way to avoid more abuse.  So long as I could accept and go along with the idea that I didn’t skip school, I just accidentally overslept and missed the bus each time; that I didn’t have an eating disorder, I just sleepwalked and ate; that I didn’t experiment with drugs, I just laughed for three hours nonstop because one of my friends online said something funny: that I couldn’t be using someone else’s razor, because at 19 I still didn’t need to shave: if I went along with all of that nonsense, then I wouldn’t be yelled at, mocked, or beaten again.

Being taught you will be abused unless you go along with what other people project onto you is a terrible life lesson.  It is what I saw in the film too; as long as Julien didn’t try to assert his identity in any way, she could be slightly tame.  But otherwise the mother (like my own) was constantly slapping and shouting at him, if he changed his hair, picked out his own clothes, or tried to protect his privacy and personal space while he was naked and getting dressed.  In the film, a disturbing scene was highlighted several times, where the mother would engage her 12 year old son as her dance partner in the living room, which drives home the theme of covert incest that was at play here, as she was making her son her surrogate spouse and partner, keeping him from what he really wanted to do, like spend time with his girlfriend, mates, and some relatives who actually encouraged him to be himself.  As the film went along, his mother isolated him from all of those people one by one, not even telling him that his beloved grandmother died until after the funeral out of vindictive jealousy.

Many people refer to this as “overprotective,” which I think is incredibly misleading.  For one thing, parents should protect their children in a healthy way that involves cooperation and increasing respect for the child’s autonomy.  Such as protecting them from being abused or bullied by adults–including teachers, grandparents, and most of all themselves–by working through what issues they have from childhood that they may be re-enacting in the present.  They should also protect them from being bullied by other children, be they siblings, kids in the neighborhood or at school.  Sane mothers and fathers can do this consciously, actively without trying to keep their child locked up at home but through empowering and respecting their child’s individual pace of development.  There is no such thing as “too much” of that real protection.

But what is called “overprotective” has nothing to do with actually protecting the child, but is all about the parent abusing the child via controlling behavior that is designed to protect the mother’s own emotions and assert false ownership over the child’s body and mind.  When the mother is mentally ill, and reclining in her own fears, obsessed with her own loneliness and trying to meet her needs via controlling, manipulating, and feeding off a child that is abuse, it is not “protection,” and such a mother will not be protecting her children from real harm.  In fact I think a better term would be “Over-projective” rather then protective, because that is what the mother is doing, projecting, not protecting.   And it needs to be made clear that these abusive acts should not be thought of as normal or reasonable.   As for my situation and the one in the film, it’s palpably insane to refer to teaching your son to accept sexual, physical, and emotional abuse as ‘protection.’   I wrote more on that topic in an entry last year.  

My mother was always telling me nice-sounding lies blended with a good deal of wishful thinking.  I recall for my 8th birthday party, I had invited a boy in my class whose mother was a friend of hers.  But despite my attempts to socialize, he just didn’t like me; I intuited that and dealt with it, but when it came down to it my mother said to me “He really wanted to come to the party, but he’s going away that weekend with his father, and he sent along this gift for you!”  My mother could not handle my disappointment or sadness, she was always attacking me for it or denying it in one way or another.  By protecting herself from my emotional reality and my potential disappointments in life she denied me validation, comfort, and closure so many times.  The object here, again, was not protecting me, as her lying, delusional, and condescending behavior caused me a lot of harm and distress, it was all to her own benefit.  I was also put in the position of trying to protect her from my emotions, by staying silent or lying about how I was doing, and she welcomed that.

One response that I read to this film contained the preamble “on account of her distant husband…” as if that is a justification for the behavior of the mother.  I also find it kind of strange because several times throughout the film, the husband attempts to reach out to his wife but is rebuffed.  Yet that sentiment echoes the repetitive motif of the covertly incestuous parent, who repetitively gaslights and triangulates their child about how unkind their spouse is to them.  Whether the information has accuracy or not, it is still not a healthy or acceptable way for an adult to ‘handle’ a marriage they don’t like.  And actually, the film presents a situation identical to that in my own home, where the mother is the dominant figure in the relationship and household, clearly having chosen a passive husband because he won’t interfere with her insane, abusive behavior.  Despite the cliché I so often see where the mother in an abusive family is always painted as a fellow victim alongside the children, I know that was not true in my case.  My mother was not a victim of my father, not coerced or “talked” into the abuse by any man; she did it because she wanted to, she did it even when no one was looking and she willingly, happily cooperated with everything.  There was no physical violence in my parent’s marriage, and my mother probably put down my father’s feelings, thoughts and interests far more then he did hers.

When people see an example of father-daughter incest, there are no messages of sympathy for the father, most people don’t look at the wife or try to find reasons to excuse his behavior such as saying “he just loved his daughter so much!” or “on account of his frigid wife…”  No, it’s painted as what it is; twisted, psychotic and malicious abuse.  Likewise mother-son incest is not a case of “too much” of good things (whether love or protection), it is abuse plain and simple and doesn’t begin as genuine concern, kindness, respect, or love.  Unlike what is sometimes presented in fiction, in the reality of a healthy relationship, there is no “slippery slope” that randomly leads to abuse and incest; if it’s there, it was always there.  And the son isn’t equally or even partly at fault; it is all on the mother.   Abuse is a cycle, both men and women who go on to abuse others whether sexually, physically, or emotionally were abused themselves, but that is not an excuse.  Having children is a conscious act and how you choose to treat them is a conscious act, whether to break the cycle or not, and men and women are equally responsible for how they treat their child.  Abusive mother’s don’t deserve special sympathy and treatment simply for being mothers, and we have a right to be angry at our mother’s regardless of the excuses or reasons that they or society attempts to give for their behavior.

—–

More On Mother-Son Incest:

The Last Time My Mother Sexually Abused Me

The Insinuations, Labels and Lies That Tried To Steal My Life Away

Open Letter To My Former Mother

About proudlysensitive

Gay male survivor of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
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18 Responses to Mother-Son Incest and The Myth of “Overprotective”

  1. popcorn says:

    Caden… I love you for being able to be so direct, authentic and extremely intelligent.
    I think this is so true and I applaud and admire your courage.
    Thank you♡♡♡

  2. It grieves me to read what you have gone through. I’m so sorry. When you wrote:

    “and was able to project this definition onto him via her actions. Likewise my own mother projected the image onto me that I was always a lost, stupid child who didn’t know what he was doing, “

    I was reminded of something Lloyd deMause wrote in his paper The History of Child Abuse published in the Journal of Psychohistory.

    “There are two main psychological mechanisms that operate in all cases of child assault_physical, sexual or psychological. They involve using the child as what I have termed a poison container, a receptacle into which one can project disowned parts of one’s psyche, so that one can manipulate and control these feelings in another body without danger to one’s self.

    Psychoanalysts since Klein have termed this primitive projection process “projective identification,” but the term is so unwieldy that I have begun to use the word “injection” instead, following the image of injecting poison with a syringe. Parents who use their children as poison containers are actually addicted to them, since they solve so many of their intrapsychic problems through manipulation of their children. Truly empathic love for children in the sense of wanting them to grow up as independent individuals is actually a late historical acquisition.”

    I was stunned when I read that paper which I’ve linked above under the title. I had no idea how common this kind of abuse (what you’ve experienced) had been throughout history. Children have historically been nothing more than property and poison containers, and incest was very common. As a mother, I can’t even fathom wanting to bring harm to my child. It’s completely unnatural.

    You have my deepest empathy and sympathy. I’m so glad you have this outlet to lance the wounds and release the poison. I truly admire your courage.

    *hug*

    • Thank you N℮üґ☼N☮☂℮ṧ. You bring some good points. The concept of injection is also very interesting in this context, because attacking someone with these predatory definitions is very potent emotional poison and like a drug it can cause a great deal of physical symptoms such as dissociation and disorientation given how difficult it is for the child to understand that their mother would maliciously hurt and manipulate them for reasons unrelated to the child.

      thanks and take care,
      -Caden.

      • Caden, It seems so surreal when I read about the horror you’ve been through, especially as a child who had no voice or choice but to be depended on his mother. Someone you should have been able to put your full trust in. A trust that was profoundly betrayed. I have read several of your blog postings and they brought me to tears. I was at a loss for words and felt physically ill. By you having the courage to share, you help others to purge the poison of their own childhood trauma.

        In admiration,
        Victoria

        • Victoria, thank you for leaving me such kind words. You’re right, I should have been able to trust my mother and being so horribly violated by her robbed me of a great deal of my life.

          I didn’t say so earlier, but I feel a need now to explain that I’m not comfortable with Lloyd Demause. I read his work years ago, and I agree about the cycle of child abuse going back through history and the importance of the evolution of child-rearing techniques. But in the work on his website and in the mailing lists, etc. there is a lot that strays very far from plain knowledge about the cycle of abuse and ventures into outdated and very abstract territory that I don’t endorse (for instance essays saying that Nixon and other politicians “suffered from castration anxiety” and using other murky Freudian forms.) I also did not feel my experience validated from the way he discussed mothers, who I definitely don’t find blameless for the abuse they perpetuate. I remember reading a glowing book review by Demause where he endorsed phony ex-gay conversion therapies and a very insulting, hypocritical thesis by a straight author claiming that all homosexuality is caused by abuse and that gay people are inherently more ‘promiscuous’ then heterosexuals. I found other signs of homophobia sprinkled throughout Demause’s work and for all of these reasons I stopped reading him. I’m sure you mean no harm with these quotes/links but it made me uncomfortable (i,e, kind of triggered) this time and I don’t really want to see it on my blog again.

          take care and thanks for understanding,
          -Caden.

  3. CHope says:

    Caden,

    You have a message that everyone needs to hear. You are an amazing person and have taught me so much about myself as an abused child, a mom with young boys and as a human being. I often direct people to your blog, privately and on my blog, because you have a wealth of knowledge that is so powerful and so healing.

    I know I always apologize for the hurt you’ve gone through, but I really am sorry. Your mom really didn’t even try to reach out to you to love you. It makes me so sad that you were deprived of something that ALL children should get from at least one parent, love and nurturing. What’s worse, she took advantage of you, manipulated you and abused you in ways that are just downright despicable.

    Thank you for causing me to deal with my past and for encouraging me through your understanding and wisdom to be a better mom.

    Thank you, my friend.

    • Thank you so much C-Hope, for reading and for your support. I really appreciate it, and I’m so glad I could be a catalyst for some parts of your own healing journey. You’re right, children deserve love and nurturing and it’s tragic when instead they are used and brushed aside like I was.

      take care,
      -Caden.

  4. bunnyfeet says:

    Caden, this is your most brilliant post to date, IMO. Very, very valuable. Thank you for your insight . Please know that many are reading your posts, even if we don’t comment.

  5. Sad Sister says:

    Thank you.
    I have this going on in my own family. I am big sister and I always felt isolated and rejected by my mother and to a lesser extent brother. Now I see that was all about him and not me at all.
    I am sickened and pained to watch it unfold. For years I have tried to liberate him from this destructive dynamic but her manipulation runs very deep.
    She started grooming him from a young age and ‘got rid of’ both our father and I when he hit puberty (things are so clear in hindsight). If it was a father-daughter relationship, questions would have been asked long ago, but not here, not with this.
    His life, what little there was, has now fallen apart and she has him all to herself, the bond now unbreakable and she couldn’t be happier, he couldn’t be more miserable.
    I’m now at the stage where I have to start living for myself and have to stop fighting a battle I am destined to lose. The hardest thing I have ever had to do is to walk away, to stop fighting.
    Congratulations on having the strength to walk away, I can only hope my dear brother has the strength to do the same one day.

    • Sad Sister, thanks for sharing your story. I’m sorry your mother created such a toxic bond with your brother and tried to shut everyone else away from him. That’s a horrible fate, and I hope he can get away someday. But it’s true, I’ve had to discover myself that you can’t really save anyone else; the healing (and the idea that they deserve more then these abusive relationships) ultimately comes from the inside. If you tried, then that is all you can do and focusing on self-care instead sounds like a good idea.

      thanks and take care,
      -Caden.

  6. Alaina says:

    Hi Caden,
    This is an excellent post. I also cannot stand the word “overprotective” and how dismissive it is—the notion that it’s just too much of a good thing, that it’s about love and a mother’s misguided parental instinct, when it has nothing to do with “parenting” and the child’s interest. Your line about when a mother is mentally ill and reclining in her own fears was so bang on and well-put. The term is so harmful and invalidating. The child is not protected but rather crushed. A lot of my mother’s behaviour has been labeled as overprotective but I wonder where the “overprotection” was when there were clear signs of my diminishing mental and emotional health… So many excuses to justify having swept all that under the carpet, to find “normal” reasons to explain abnormal behaviour, but a truly “overprotective” parent would do everything to make sure their child is okay, including not choosing to believe the (compliant, people-pleaser, obedient, nervous) child who insists she’s fine, instead of a concerned guidance counsellor, friend of the child, other relatives and complete strangers…. No, what I experienced, and what probably most children of parents explained away as “overprotective” experienced, had nothing to do with protection and everything to do with possessiveness and feeding their own needs/wants. I could go on and on, saying “if I was truly overprotected, this wouldn’t have happened, that wouldn’t have happened….” It’s a complete misnomer… Their motivation in “protecting” me in one way but not in another had absolutely nothing to do with me… not to mention of course what we most needed help and protection from was our family’s behaviour and the corrosive effects of their behaviour…. and that’s of course the deep down reason why my parents chose to believe their “everything is fine” daughter rather than the reality in front of them. They want to keep their secrets and keep feeding themselves, and if you don’t play the game, you’re thrown off the bus, “protection” nowhere to be seen… you’re on your own… and the truth is out… no, it was never love, no it was never protection… and so much the better now to know that at least—I’d rather be off that bus, even if the truth hurts…. Anyway, thank you for writing this. I’m so sorry for what you’ve experienced; it’s so disgusting, horrendous and deeply sad, but I’m so glad that you can see it for what it is and write so accurately about it, for yourself and for others reading. It helps. Thank you. (ps. this is Alaina from EFB—we’ve talked a few times)

    • Hey Alaina (I thought it was you from EFB when I saw the name, good to see you.) I’m sorry people also termed your mother’s possessive, vampiric behavior “overprotective,” it is so invalidating, and such a shallow defense of wholly unacceptable behavior. I know what you mean, I was also groomed, pressured into saying I was ‘fine’ all the time, but it was irresponsible for people (my parents, the school, etc) to listen to that when my behavior said otherwise and obviously abused, suffocated children can’t always talk freely. And yeah, when she can’t control and feed off you anymore, it’s readily apparent that there’s nothing else there–no love, no protection, no genuine concern. But I also prefer truth to the lie, and even though my mother fought against my independence with all her might, she’s gone now, and for the better.

      thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts,
      take care,
      -Caden.

      • Alaina says:

        Thanks for taking the time to respond, Caden. It’s so sad how much of the world stands by, doing nothing, passing off abuse as okay, watering it down with terms like “overprotective”. Half the battle of healing must be just in recognizing that what happened was wrong… or maybe it’s the whole battle. How else is a child supposed to know it’s wrong and they didn’t deserve it unless there’s someone to tell them so? So much of society focuses on not being a victim. Everyone loves an “against all odds” story of the triumph of the individual over their circumstances but sometimes (or maybe often times) those stories seem to be an inadvertent way to comfort a too-complacent, abusive society into believing that it’s up to the victim, that a person of character will fight their way out and the abuse, re-abuse and invalidation is somehow taken as part of a heroic journey, in which the person becomes a better person for having to fight through it but imagine a world in which what is wrong is recognized and called out and dealt with and one’s energy does not have to be spent swimming against the current.

        • I agree Alaina, there is a societal tendency to want to read ‘inspiring stories’ from a few ‘exceptional people’ instead of actually changing the world so that everyone can have an easier time, be spared abuse or have the resources to leave it. I’m definitely in favor of much deeper change, so that children’s emotions and rights will be respected by the majority in society and people won’t be locked in closed-off toxic families with nowhere else to go. People shouldn’t have to struggle endlessly for years to fight off the toxic emotional messages they learned in childhood. Yet that is how it happens, and you’re right, just learning that it was wrong, and all the shame you received with the abuse was a lie is such a big battle. Especially when people view a lot of the abuse with a bizzare attitude of “Who could blame the mother for that? Don’t we all do that sometimes…”

          thanks for sharing,
          -Caden.

  7. Diversity is Art says:

    Wonderful post.
    Just wanted to correct one thing, there is no understand for father-daughter incest, the mother is always to blame, the daughter is blamed too, the father is considered a man who is just acting on his urges or has a cold wife, this is common. Male rapists are defended in general. Not that male survivors don’t have a set of problems of their own and victim blaming and all horrible things.

    • Thanks, Diversity. My point here is that the same sectors of society who will rightly, unconditionally condemn the incestuous/abusive father will often give excuses for the incestuous/abusive mother (and that goes for both mother-daughter incest and mother-son incest.) Of course many in the wider world are ignorant and abusive about father-daughter incest too and there is no comparing pain. It is however my experience that there is less awareness and sensitivity towards male survivors (and less knowledge about the reality of female abusers) in the sectors of society that are already educated and aware about what female survivors face. Male survivors do have our issues, but those issues are not less then what female survivors go through, and are not less common either.

      The non-offending parent in an incest family is also sick and bears a great deal of responsibility towards the child who they are neglecting and abandoning (so do other adult family members to some extent); however the non-offending parent is definitely not the reason the incestuous parent does what they do, that comes from childhood since abuse is a cycle and abusers were once abused themselves. But children (and adult children) are told all the time that they are less then their mothers, that their mothers ‘had it worse’ then they, and that they need to forgive their mothers. And that is so wrong.

      take care,
      -Caden

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