The Oedipal Hero
by Peter Fritz Walter
In the legend, Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. He however did this unconsciously, for he ignored his parents. The tragedy was triggered by the father, not the son. If we say it was fate, and only fate, we in last resort deny responsibility.
An Oedipal fixation becomes a problem for a little boy especially in case the mother is a home-sitter, a woman who has abandoned any hope to find a viable partner, and thus projects her erotic wishes, while most often unconsciously, on her son.
This may be expressed in erotically seductive behavior, but in most cases this kind of women are actually erotically blocked on a conscious level. The problem here is that the boy won’t leave the home in search of a partner and that the constant emotional demands of the mother trap the boy in a pseudo-incestuous and codependent partner relation where he becomes the ersatz for the partner the mother denies herself to find. The fact that such a relation remains platonic is really insignificant compared to the impossibility for the boy, to build autonomy.
In this constellation, what happens is that the boy’s striving for autonomy either faces explicit demands of the mother to stay close to her, or is charged with guilt and a growing rationalization of the situation that will be expressed by the boy in the wish to protect the mother, to save the mother from any harm she suffered previously with men.
Typically in this entanglement situation, the mother tells her son in all length and width the misfortunes she suffered in her love life, thereby invoking in him a self-defeating judgment about himself, his own maleness.
This negative judgment of the male can be coarsely expressed as: all men are swines.
In my own case of mother-son codependence, all this was aggravated further through the fact that my mother put me in homes where I was cruelly mistreated, without caring too much about the violence inflicted upon me on a daily level. This resulted in a particularly strong contradiction between the life I was leading during the week, in the home, and the life I was supposed to live with her, during the weekend; it gave her a very good basis for justifying her over-protectiveness, and the home sweet home philosophy she spun around it.
I had to be compensated, she reasoned, for the ‘bad home’ in having a nice weekend with her and she would, as always, be ‘very generous’ to me, and it was this so-called ‘generosity’ that she always forwarded as a shield in situations of conflict, when I namely wanted to have greater autonomy.
I was not unconscious of this sordid entanglement, and here I certainly differed from other youngsters in that I was actually so conscious about it that I actively wished to break out of it and repeatedly thought of running away from home.
I was often furious against my mother and had a strong sense of the injustice she was doing to me, but I could not express this anger other than by thinking of myself as being a bad boy. Later on in life, when I was already married, actually not so much later, as I married young, I reproached my mother to have overprotected me in a way to keep me away from life, thereby invalidating my striving for autonomy, and my quest to make love experiences with girls outside home and school.
Her answer in that and other very similar situations was one of furiously and viciously attacking me as an ungrateful nerd who was ‘just like his father and uncles,’ while she had ‘sacrificed herself always’ so that I could have a decent life because if I had been under the tutelary authority of my father, I would have ‘run the streets to find food’. That she regretted the bad experiences I made in the homes but that she had always been much more generous than any other parent, for compensating me a little for the hurt suffered in those homes.
When I asked her, at eighteen, to study in Paris, she replied she was not going to finance my ‘interest for luxury’ and that if I wanted to study there, I should ‘find my money in the street.’
So I stayed and studied in my home town. Similarly for the subject to study. I preferred to become a musical teacher or recording engineer, but she insisted law was the best for me to study. I gave in while I knew that I had a passion for music, and for children, and would have to force myself into law. Which I did for the next twenty years.
Typically, emotional abuse does not imply a sexual interaction between parent and child. In the contrary will the mother carefully avoid touching the boy, and it’s this avoidance of touch much more than anything that rings the alarm bell in the boy’s unconscious.
Why does my mother never touch me, he reasons? And correctly so. Why do these mothers never touch their boys, I thus ask again, as the answer is in the question. Emotional abuse is so much ingrained in patriarchal culture, and the role of the mother-saving Oedipal Hero is so common in our culture that most people never even once reflect about the perversity of such a family constellation!
Easy body touch is not something fostered in this kind of milieu; in the contrary. It is something fostered in healthy families, where parents have a functional sex life.
It is the conflict between the never-talked-about and repressed, and the prudishness that results from this repression, on one hand, and the open or implicit possessiveness of the symbiotoholic parent, on the other, that triggers in the child an unconscious sexual response for the parent.
The for most people uncomfortable truth is that if the incest had been acted out sexually, the psychic tension at the root of the codependence would not pent up and no Oedipal fixation would result from it.
Men have given open testimonials on television who had consenting intercourse with their mothers, and the astonishing result was that they had the most fulfilling sex life with adult females later on in life; often in these constellations the future wife will have an excellent relationship with the first woman the boy enjoyed sexually, his mother. It is emotional incest, not sexual incest that really creates havoc in a boy’s psyche because his biological male identity is gravely impaired through the exclusiveness of his relation with mother; and guilt and shame is the result of it because the boys knows that he should rather look around for a girl of his age or even an older woman, and that it’s time to leave his mother and the nest behind.
I see in this ungainly attitude of narcissistic mothers toward their sons the real core of the problem of emotional abuse because it creates a flagrant contradiction. When the boy wants to go out and look around for friends or a girlfriend, the mother will tend to keep him away from life, arguing he was still too young and unexperienced to just go on his own, that there are dangers involved in such a quest, or perverse strangers waiting to get him around the corner. But when it goes to care for mother because she is sick, depressed, or had a bad day, then boy is big enough to play the gigolo, and to be around mother, and at her feet for any service she may need, and boy is big enough then to understand when mother talks about her past and her ‘bad experiences with men.’
This contradiction creates rage in the boy because he sees that the mother just uses him for her purposes and plays power games with him.
From a bioenergetic point of view, it has to be seen that the Oedipal conflict is traumatic for the child because of the denial of sexual fulfillment it implies, while it triggers so much longing in the child. It’s a real torture for the child, a real trauma, and it has been admitted by psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto (1908-1988) that in most cases children lose their pre-Oedipal memory, which only confirms my assumption that it’s a real trauma as it results in amnesia.
In her book La Cause des Enfants (1985), she writes:
Memory in adults erases all that belongs to the pre-oedipal period. That is why our society has so much difficulty to accept infantile sexuality. In past centuries there were the nurses who knew it. Parents, however, ignored it.
Freud namely found that amnesia, the loss of memory subsequent to the trauma-triggering situation is in most cases a direct indicator for trauma having occurred. Hence, Freud concluded, when we find childhood amnesia in a patient, this can be taken as direct evidence for the etiology of trauma to be affirmed for that situation in question. This is in my view the reason for the strong aggressiveness toward the parent of the same sex, in the Oedipal situation. It’s a visceral reaction of the biosystem that comes from sensual and sexual deprivation and that is caused by the exclusiveness of the parent-child relation in general, and parental and societal prohibition of children having sex with peers, in particular.
Children need and want a sex life, much like adults, while the sexual acts children perform or attempt to perform may be of a lesser complete nature, but this difference does not alter the psychosexual importance of childhood sexuality.
When, as in our culture, children are prohibited from engaging in sexually explicit and healthy peer relations, or relations with adults other than their parents, they will be trapped, if they want or not, in a gerontophilic attraction toward their parents. This cultural setup that is obviously against nature, results in the triangular relationship between parents and one or two children that is so typical for the modern urban family. In this strongly exclusive and triangular relationship, the child is coerced into an ambiguous love-hate relation with their parents; what fuels the child’s aggressiveness toward the parent of the same sex is not, as Freud supposed, a situation of rivalry for the single available sex partner, often coined colloquially as ‘two men desire one woman’ or ‘two girls desire one man,’ but more generally a rage to have been denied the vast realm of potential sex partners, of same or different age, outside of the family!
And the aggressiveness, therefore, of the child is not exclusively directed against the parent of the same sex, but against both parents, while it has to be noted that the child’s organism will not allow the child to gain consciousness of this rage because of survival reasons. The child’s cognitive apparatus will build in a justification factor that leads to the child’s reasoning on the lines of :
Well, I am supposed to love my parents, and be exclusively loved by my parents, as society does not allow me to love other people, and does not allow other people to love me in the same way as my parents love me. Society says it’s dangerous for me, as other people may want to abduct and kill me as they cannot love me in the same pure manner as my parents do.
Here is where the whole system of lies and betrayal starts to distort the perception and cognitive grasp of love by the consumer child, in this bias that society puts up, and that it strongly fuels through its abysmally violent anti-pedophilia debate. And what it leads to is that because children cannot for survival reasons express the rage against their parents and society, they will turn this rage against themselves, and become narcissistic and autodestructive, if not schizophrenic.
Even children who do not develop a pathology will remain with strong guilt feelings, often all their life through, regarding sexuality and all forms of erotic love.
I guess Freud’s reasoning here is true insofar as when the parent of the opposite sex is present, the child can project some of the aggressiveness upon him or her.
But here, contrary to Freud, I assume that because of survival reasons, this acting-out of aggressiveness toward the parent of the same sex, for example through straight talk, or by hitting the parent, is such perilous an action for a child that this will be done only when he or she can be sure of the support and unconditional love of the parent of the opposite sex.
This is a precarious situation for a child in any kind of family, and I believe that generally Freud’s reasoning here was quite theoretical. As a general rule, children do keep true to respecting their parents even to a point of self-denial, except the minority of children who incarnate with a very strong ego and character. I have indeed observed that the number of children of the latter vintage is growing over the last decades, but at the same time, the situation of the child in consumer culture has become more and more tough, and alienating, to a point that children are today as much under state control and supervision as nuclear weapons, foreign embassies, top secret material and spies.
This is a potential root for more domestic violence because to enclose children in homes and schools that function pretty much like prisons is not what a caring state will do who loves their child citizens. This is a major social and political pathology we are facing, if we can face it at all.
In my experience, most people in Western culture blind these facts simply out of their consciousness interface, and this because of sheer fright of the consequences of any vital action to the contrary.