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The flip side of Mother’s Day: Bad Momism in literature.

May 9, 2011

Snow White's Evil Queen: One bad mother.

This may be a day late and a dollar short, but I came across a Mother’s Day blog on bad parenting in famous books this morning, and I want to play, too. Rest assured, in case you’re wondering, I did remember to call my old Ma yesterday.

In fact, I like this game so much I coined a name for it: Bad Momism. You can find Amy Wilson’s photo slide show/essay at the Huffington Post, where, unlike too many HuffPo slide shows, it actually features extended captions explaining why the literary mom in question is one kind of monster or another.

Wilson’s selections are persuasive, if not especially imaginative. Of course there’s the religious maniac mom from Stephen King’s Carrie. The neglectful and self-centered Adele, from Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here. And Beth Jarrett, the coldest of maternal fish, from Judith Guest’s Ordinary People.

Perhaps the most creative of Wilson’s choices is Charlotte Haze, the Mom who stands between Humbert Humbert and the object of his desire in Lolita. I think it’s a bit of a stretch — she’s just a lonely, horny middle-aged woman in the ’50s who can’t imagine this handsome European would be more interested in her pubescent daughter — but it’s a provocative, impressive stretch, I’ll grant.

I’m also impressed by Wilson’s decision to include only a single memoir, given the dominance of the form over the past 15 years, and its reliance on crazy, deranged, drug-addicted, abusive, absent, self-obsessed and generally awful, evil, dispicable parents of both genders. Her pick: Her Last Death, by Susanna Sonnenberg, who’s mom seduced her boyfriends, gives her daughter drugs and, you know, so forth and so on. The usual.

I marvel that Wilson had the discipline to leave out Joan Crawford’s wire-hanger performance in adoptive daughter Christina’s Mommie Dearest, which predated the current memoir craze, coming out as it did in 1981, but anticipated all its major attributes — from bad parenting to brave struggle to overcome to doubts about whether it is really fiction or nonfiction.

Apologies to Mary Karr, Jeannette Walls, Robert Goolrick and other literary memoirists worth reading, there’s more fun in looking for Bad Momism in fiction. And of course the ancient Greeks will never be beat at this game, as at so much else. Who could top Medea, who killed her children to spite their wayward father Jason?

Then there all all those evil, selfish or neglectful moms in fairy tales, from the Evil Stepmother (always a favorite) in “Snow White,” “Cinderella” and other stories, to the mom in “Hansel and Gretel” who has the father abandon the children in the woods to starve.

Otherwise, spectactularly bad mothering is easy to spot in both literary and popular fiction. Here are a few of my favorites:

Becky Sharp, the anti-heroine of Vanity Fair; Corinne and Olvia, the mother and grandmother in V.C. Andrews’ gothic incest potboiler Flowers in the Attic; Eleanor Iselin, not only a hateful mom but also a traitor to her country in Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate; Mary Jones from Sapphire’s Push (better know under its movie title, Precious); Zinnia Wormwood from Roald Dahl’s Mathilda (which gets extra points for being a children’s book!); Gertrude, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet; Sophie Portnoy from Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

I’ve only scratched the surface, Bad Momism being a frequently recurring motif in literature of all kinds, which would come as no surprise to Herr Freud. Discuss among yourselves, and be sure to let the rest of us know some of your favorite fictional poor excuses for a good mother.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. PJ Parrish permalink
    May 9, 2011 3:38 pm

    My vote goes to Scarlett O’Hara. First she bitches about how getting pregnant made her fat then she lets her kid fall off a horse. Indifference is its own form of cruelty.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 10, 2011 12:20 pm

      You know, right, that the psychiatrist who wrote The Three Faces of Eve also wrote an essay in which he analyzed Scarlett O’Hara and diagnosed her as having a severe personality illness that I think we would now call borderline personality disorder, although it may have been even worse than that. I read this in college, shortly after the invention of writing.

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 12, 2011 10:48 am

    I have a Borderline Crazy Collie.

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