Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty – Book Review

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What does the figure of the mother evoke in us? How does an engagement with this figure expose the persistence of colonial logics and global inequalities? Yianna Liatsos reviews Mothers by Jacqueline Rose.

In our current pandemic social imagination the fantasy of the domestic sanctuary and the idyllic family life it contains is steadily unravelling. From the more serious headlines about the rise of domestic abuse, to the comic relief of tiktok videos depicting before-and-after-Covid snapshots of heterosexual cis women working from home while mothering offspring and husbands alike, there is a growing recognition that our current health crisis, like all past crises, has a disproportionately adverse effect on the lives of women. This, at least, is how the story of mothers circulates in the Global North, implying that Covid is an interruption of an otherwise steady reality where women live “normal lives” that are less stressful or desperate. Like many of the texts on motherhood that flooded the market in pre-Covid times, Jacqueline Rose’s book Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty dispels the myth of this normalcy on several levels, by concentrating on the damaging affective load that mothers are made to carry.

“Mother is, in Western discourse” Rose writes on the opening page of her book,

the place in our culture where we lodge, or rather bury, the reality of our own conflicts, of what it means to be fully human. It is the ultimate scapegoat for our own personal and political failings, for everything that is wrong with the world, which it becomes the task—unrealisable, of course—of mothers to repair. (1)

The gist of Rose’s argument is that there are two types of guilt that plague Western motherhood (discourse) and mothering (practice): there is the guilt the mother feels over never managing to uphold the ideal that is projected onto her by an ever-resilient and adaptable patriarchy, with its penchant for standing guard over social norms; and there is the guilt that the mother herself absorbs and embodies when, in spite of her intimate familiarity with a tragic past, she takes on the romance of motherhood, thus “inscribing her denial of history, her own flight from suffering, across the body and mind of her child” (183). For Rose, both types of guilt are associated with cultural norms that result in suffering—the former internalised by the individual mother, the latter transmitted from mother to daughter across family genealogies. The book, which is divided into 3 parts—“Social Punishment,” “Psychic Blindness” and “The Agony and the Ecstasy”— elaborates this insight through different textual and sociohistorical foci. We follow Rose’s readings of Elena Ferrante, Sindiwe Magona, Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Simone De Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf,  William Shakespeare, and Euripides, among others, as well as her reflections on motherhood in Ancient Greece and Rome, in the United States of Black Lives Matter, in the Brexit-pursuing UK, in post-war Naples, in one-child policy China, and in post-apartheid South Africa.

The mix of topics is dazzling and the writing is beautiful, consistent with Rose’s typical lyrical and moving expression. The book’s bookending chapters (“Now” and “Inside Out”), where Rose respectively discusses the plight of refugees in Europe and the transmission of intergenerational trauma in her own family, stand out as the most hard-hitting regarding both the agonies and the stalemates they describe. In the first chapter, Rose addresses how right-wing elements of the British media have piggybacked on news about the refugee crisis and unaccompanied minors in the Calais Jungle, to foster xenophobia by demonising foreign women. A particular favourite scapegoat is the black African woman, who is represented as coming to the UK in pursuit of “health tourism,” giving birth in Britain to take advantage of the NHS and subsequent child allowance scheme. Rose notes how in spite of British charities reporting that hundreds of pregnant foreigners avoid antenatal care at their peril, precisely from fear of being reported to the Home Office, the derogatory stereotypes of illegal foreigners as a scourge on the national economy, culture and welfare have continue unabated. To the Niobes and Virgin Marys of the world, adored suffering mothers whose torment is redemptive precisely because it is seen to be born of misfortune rather than injustice, Rose counterposes these mothers who are depicted in the right-wing media as aggressively and cunningly defying borders and laws alike. Rose describes these subversive motherly figures as embodying the unsettling arrival of the proverbial chickens coming home to roost, an un-homely return for the willfully amnesiac West, whose historical consciousness is as vacant as its museums are full with evidence of the cost at which its riches have been had. Rose’s suggestion that “Motherhood can, and should, be one of the central means through which a historical moment reckons with itself” (17), stands out for me as one of the most compelling observations her book makes, precisely because it reads women’s generative power as a visceral instinct that anarchically exposes persisting global inequalities and unpaid historical debts.

In her concluding chapter, Rose turns to her own domestic archive to go further back in history and describe how traumatic memories have haunted her own family across generations, thus inadvertently echoing Marianne Hirsch’s writings on the affective charge of postmemory.  We read about her maternal grandmother surviving Chelmno extermination camp in the Second World War; her mother denied a medical education by parents who wanted to secure their daughter’s future by marrying her off at a young age to a doctor; her father surviving torture in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp; and Rose herself adopting an abandoned baby girl from China. By drawing affinities between her family’s struggle for survival across generations and the wounds family members inflicted on each other, Rose reveals the nuanced and unsparing understanding that intimacy demands and affords. Rose goes on to give this filial perspective historical capital when, at the end of her final chapter, she discusses Magona’s 1998 novel Mother to Mother—a fictionalized personal account of Evelyn Manquina’s life, the mother of Mongezi Manquina, who was granted Amnesty by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission for his 1993 murder of white American student Amy Biehl.  Like Rose’s own family history, this fictionalized mother’s story restores her own and her family’s historical dignity, by simultaneously “tracing the inhumanity of the apartheid regime,” while nonetheless insisting on the value and “complexity of her inner mind” (205-6).  Neither the mother nor her son are innocent—the passive victims of institutionalised racism—or guilty—the exemplary neoliberal subjects making free choices for which they need to be held accountable. Here, much like in her first chapter, Rose’s writing turns to mothers’ stories in order to restore a badly needed complexity and open-endedness to clear and conclusive public discourses about “us” and “them.”

The ethical complexity and weight of the first and last chapters is not as easily detectable in the ones in-between, which juxtapose specific authors and contexts in a manner that reduces their singularities to a common theme of suffering. Morrison’s Sethe (in Beloved) is compared to Euripides’ Medea for committing infanticide (in the “Loving” segment of Part 2); post-natal depression in Plath is discussed in relation to its “pandemic” presence “among the poor blacks” of contemporary South Africa (186); De Beauvoir’s assertions of the alienation a mother experiences “in her body and her social dignity” (132), is conceived as a “path of a new ethics” that “puts us in touch with the stranger” in every form, inspiring protests against cruel immigration and deportation policies (140). It is this rhetorical “us” that troubled me as I read Rose’s book—an “us” that invites the reader to overlook the gnawing awareness of the stark material differences among the mothers referenced in the book, both real and fictional, and to ignore the radical disparity among mothering experiences historically and today. At the end of her book Rose invites mothers to conceive of themselves as a collective with the potential of “bring[ing] the world to an end as we know it” (208).  Rose goes on to assert “I suspect, certainly for mothers, this would be no bad thing” (208).  This concluding call to arms is a welcome corrective to the “neoliberal intensification of mothering” she names and critiques early in her book (17-8).  Nonetheless Rose here appears to overlook the fact that many mothers who have been conquered, displaced, and exiled in modern history, have already experienced their world end to no great advantage. If a collective ethic can emerge from the perspective of these mothers, it may not be one that embodies the radical freedom that Hannah Arendt attributes to the principle of natality, whereby, as Rose herself notes, “every new birth [becomes a] supreme anti-totalitarian moment” (79). Instead, these women, who have found ways to raise their children in the aftermath of systematic destructions of their societies, may show “us” a  way of moving past the facile melancholia we suffer over the crises we have brought onto ourselves—environmental, economic, sociocultural. To paraphrase Rose, these mothers may help us bring the fantasy of freedom as we know it to an end, and with it, the need to scapegoat the Other for exposing our inherent vulnerability and interdependence.

Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty by Jacqueline Rose was published by Faber and Faber in 2018.

Yianna Liatsos is a Lecturer in English at the University of Limerick, Ireland.  She has published essays on critical theory and post-apartheid literature and her current research is in narrative medicine and identity.

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