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.
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