In his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, the Irish author Frank McCourt wrote that “the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood.”
Is it the same for literary or fictional mothers — as in, the Mommie Dearest character? Is the nurturing, lovvy-huggy mother “hardly worth your while?” And by extension, is the profane or violent mother worthy of a book or movie?
I’m basing this on all those Mommie Dearest characters, real and imagined, past and present, on page and screen.
Why? Because the very word “mother” carries such sacred resonance and reverence. From our greeting card stores to the advertisers’ billboards to some heartwarming made-for-TV movies, mothers are love. Mothers will bail you out of jail and declare that, bank robberies/child molestation/gang membership/white-collar embezzlement aside, they still love their own child.
So what happens when this is not so? What happens when the person who gave us life is also the source of most or all of our life’s pain?
In real life, we’ve got a therapist’s couch or, worse, a whole bucket-load of intergenerational trauma and family conflict and painful emotions.
However, in book and movie land, we’ve got a ready-for-the-page plot.
The mean Mama is the ready-made dramatic conflict between what’s supposed to be and what actually is. Therefore, the mean old Maman or Mammy becomes the ultimate ‘whodunnit.’
“What happened to the maternal instinct?” We ask. “What went wrong here?”
This also applies for non-fiction works, in which the flawed or rabid mother drives the narrative arc (or ‘plot’) in memoirs like Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors.
In her novel, The Light of Evening, Irish author Edna O’Brien wrote:
“Such is the wrath of the mothers, such is the cry of the mothers, such is the lamentation of the mothers, on and on until the last day, the last bluish tinge, the pismires, the gloaming, and the dying dust.”
Put simply, the monster mother makes and carries the story and gets the readers talking.