Zami: the impact of maternal and societal neglect on the developing self

Maternal neglect, the absence of care, is also a potent and destructive force, as the black feminist poet and author Audre Lorde describes. In her autobiography, or what she calls her ‘biomythography’, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Lorde, 1982), Audre Lorde reveals how the socio-economic context within which maternal care takes place cannot be ignored; the mother struggling to raise her children in situations of limited resources and a hostile environment may herself feel too depleted and persecuted to offer her children the emotional and physical care they needed. She explores the pain of both mother and child, and the mirroring between the society that overlooks the mother and the mother who neglects her child in turn. The excluded and exiled mother turns her own shame and rage onto her child, wreaking revenge in the private realm, in response to her humiliation within the public realm. Not only arc mother and child often overlooked altogether, but when they arc seen it is through a distorting lens. The colour of their skin shapes how they arc viewed within white society, in ways that arc not congruent with their own sense of themselves. The scared black woman can be viewed as the angry black woman, the timid child as unfriendly, or ‘other’. This process is alienating, on both a social and psychic level. The self that is seen and responded to is not the self that is experienced from within, leading to a more or less constant state of distrust, disconnection and confusion. This self-alienation and misrepresentation is so disturbing and frightening that it can lead to violence; Ralph Ellison describes this starkly in his powerful portrait of the life of a young black man in 1950s Harlem, Invisible Man, discussed in the Introduction, and the tragic series of misconceptions and misrepresentations he endures.

Audre Lorde’s mother is a woman of colour, away from her country of origin, the Caribbean island of Carriacou, raising a young family in a segregated and discriminatory New York City. She is left with intense and buried rage and a terror of letting her guard down. She is in a place where care is absent, where home and mother arc no longer available to her, and is in turn brutal to her daughters, especially when they don’t conform to expectations and threaten to bring shame on the family. In this way the daughters, especially the inquisitive and imaginative youngest child, Audre, arc silenced, if not fully hidden. Lordc, in turn, spends much of her young life yearning for maternal care and understanding, to no avail. She recounts the neglect she endured, alongside beatings and verbal chastisement. Lordc recalls her painful, unmet needs for her mother’s comfort, but remembers how, despite her brutality, her mother offers her lyrical words, snippets of songs and phrases from her birthplace that feed her imagination and offer a form of sanctuary.

Lorde’s rage against this blindness speaks to an early environment in which her emotional states could not be named or reflected back to her, both because of her mother’s refusal to allow her to express pain and because of the racism and censorship of wider society, that overlooked them both. Many imprisoned women could tell a similar story today; their lives of pain and trauma have to be borne and suffered in silence, communicated through encoded expressions of pain, sometimes written on their own flesh. Their rage and trauma remain largely invisible, disguised and hidden.

Anger, absence and hunger: the pain of neglect

Lordc describes how society cannot tolerate female anger and forbids its expression. Silencing the voices of women can be experienced as a repeated violation and act as incendiary to actual violence. She shows how for her, as for so many women with childhood trauma who face racial and cultural oppression, anger becomes a potent but hidden force, whose open expression is prohibited. She describes her own hunger to be seen and heard and the need for anger to be expressed.

It is considered unacceptable for women to express anger, particularly if these women arc mothers, because of deeply held gender stereotypes and cultural norms relating to the sanctity of motherhood (Wclldon, 1988); and if these women arc black mothers, this censure is even greater. Women who have experienced early neglect and abuse, and who face current hardship, can feel overwhelmed by feelings of rage, frustration and desperation. It is not surprising, then, that when anger’s expression is forbidden it goes temporarily underground, only to erupt explosively against those closest and most helpless to withstand assault - their children. At such times, these children become sources of persecution, as the mothers sec them as witnesses to their inability to provide: as insatiable monsters who insistently demand to be offered that which cannot be given, such as food and comfort (Kruger & Lourcns, 2016).

Hunger plays a central role, as both a psychic and a physical state, and can trigger violence in the mother-child relationship. Like the internal representation of a malevolent absent mother, the pain of hunger is savage and frightening. It is a toxic presence, a wild and ferocious force that can lead to violence.

Both anger and hunger can be felt in the guts as wrenching, churning pain; this physical state is felt to demand a physical release. This is an important feature of its primitive potency, in that it seems to bypass reason or thought. An important consequence of this is also that the child, consistently faced with an angry, withholding or traumatised mother in response to expressing her need, takes this in, incorporating it into herself (G. Byrne, personal communication, 2016). She associates it with the badness of her need - so what is taken in is not food but hatred, fear, helplessness. The baby introjccts her mother’s toxic feelings, and what is withheld becomes not an absence but a potent, malignant presence.

Women faced with this pervasive feeling of neglect arc not only at increased risk of unleashing feelings of rage on their children and themselves, but can also find themselves searching all their lives for the sense of care and experience of being properly seen, understood and wanted. In her prose and poetry, Lordc describes the intensity of this unmet need for her mother’s love and nurture in her poem ‘From the House of Yemanja’. In it, she describes her mother’s longing for a lighter skinned daughter, who was not her. This left her starved of her mother’s affection and desperate to be recognised by her, black as she is, in the image of the mother goddess Yemanja. Lorde refers to her unfulfilled drcams for her mother’s recognition and love, saying she is ‘forever hungry for her eyes’ (Lordc, 1973: 235).

The metaphor of hunger is clear here, as Lordc remains searching: hungry, angry and unseen.

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