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Victims and Villains: The Legacy of Mother Blame in Violent-Eye American Literature

Joanna Wilson-Scott

And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men. (Whitman 1855, 27)

American literature has long engaged with the subject of violence, yet during the 1990s there arose a number of controversial texts that repositioned the violent individual from the background to the forefront of the narrative, giving him a voice through which he could present his own perspective and continually immerse the reader in his thoughts and feelings about extreme and taboo acts, such as rape and murder. Yet in telling their own story, many of these characters also reveal narratives of causality, in that they present information on how or why the protagonist came to possess a violent disposition. This chapter suggests that trauma is a recurring method of representing such protagonists as deviant aetiologically rather than ontologically, and specifically argues that mothers are frequently used as the principle traumatizing factor, demonized and depersonalized in order to reassert their violent offspring’s humanity. Importantly, however, when neglectful, abusive, or otherwise generally absent, mothers also render their violent offspring as victims. Violent homodiegetic narratives are not unique to the 1990s, with earlier

J. Wilson-Scott (*)

University of Leicester, Leicester, UK e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

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B. Astrom (ed.), The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-49037-3_12

examples including Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952) and Pop. 1280 (1964), and James Ellroy’s Killer on the Road (1986). However, the 1990s witnessed a rise in such narratives, including Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991), Dennis Cooper’s Frisk (1991), Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie (1995), A. M. Homes’ The End of Alice (1996a) and its companion piece Appendix A (1996b), Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996) and Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse (1996). Such narratives are set apart from other texts with violent protagonists such as Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), Robert Bloch’s Psycho (1959), and Bradley Denton’s Blackburn (1993) through the use of the first person, and so in light of the lack of a useful term for such a character and in order to make a clear distinction, I suggest and subsequently adopt the expression ‘violent-eye’ to depict such characters and their narratives, since the emphasis is not only on their perspective, and thus their ‘eye’, but also the self, and thus the ‘I’. Whilst not a universal presence, the traumatizing mother can be found in both types of violent protagonist novel, with her death or absence a crucial element of The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280, Killer on the Road, Psycho, and The Talented Mr Ripley, for example, and her emotional distance, and even neglect, evident in Blackburn and American Psycho. Yet what makes the violent-eye novels relevant to this chapter is not only their clustering within the 1990s, a time when mother blame was meant to have disappeared from social consciousness, but also the fact that violent-eye narration creates a private, confessional, and deeply personal account of the trauma suffered as a result of the actions of the mother, which is somewhat moderated in the third-person, omniscient narration of texts such as The Talented Mr Ripley.

In this chapter, I will suggest that mothers serve an important purpose in narratives with violent-eye protagonists, arguing that their death or absence is of significant consequence. It can be utterly disastrous, presented as a pivotal traumatic factor that sets the child on the path towards violence (e.g., Darkly Dreaming Dexter), can be liberating yet traumatizing to an already damaged or abused child (e.g., The End of Alice), or can simply hint at something untoward. In particular, this chapter will look at A. M. Homes’ The End ofAlice, a profound yet relatively neglected novel within academia, alongside Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, a text more frequently associated with absent fathers but one in which the damage mothers inflict on their sons is thematically central. In addition, the twenty-first century novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter (2004) by Jeff Lindsay will also be analysed, in which the violence of the son is presented as inextricably linked to the death and absence of the mother. Taken together, these texts challenge the assertion that mother blaming, rife in mid-twentieth century American society, had disappeared by the 1980s (e.g., Coward 1997; van den Oever 2012). It is thus asserted that a close analysis of these violent narratives reveals the persistent assumption that mothers make monsters, and that the mother remains a pathogenic, convenient, and highly problematic means of explaining the actions of men and minimizing their culpability within violent-eye narratives.

Before looking in detail at the three novels under study, it is first necessary to explore the legacy of mother blame within American society and to analyse the role the maternal figure plays in humanizing her violent sons and assuaging their accountability, which in turn is intricately linked with her martyrdom due to a repositioning of blame. During the twentieth century, the effect mothers had upon their sons came under scrutiny in the United States, with American women frequently blamed for the behaviour of their boys and the ills of society. Although this chapter focuses on the mother as a site of trauma, it should be stressed that this is by no means intended to assert that mothers invariably cause trauma or that it is only mothers that cause trauma; traumatizing mothers are not a ubiquitous phenomenon, which makes their frequent presence in violent-eye narratives worthy of further exploration. It is true that ‘Bad or ineffective mothers have been a staple in much of world literature’ (Boswell 1996, 10), having moved ‘noticeably toward the center stage in American culture’ (Ladd-Taylor and Umansky 1998, 2), and twentieth-century American fiction certainly seems to mirror psychoanalytic theories, which despite traditionally marginalizing mothers, eventually moved them into focus with the arrival of object-relations theory (Doane and Hodges 1992, 7). Carl Jung stated:

I myself make it a rule to look first for the cause of infantile neuroses in the mother, as I know from experience that a child is much more likely to develop normally than neurotically, and that in the great majority of cases definite causes of disturbances can be found in the parents, especially in the mother. (1959, 17)

Nancy Chodorow echoed this sentiment, stating that ‘The character of the infant’s early relation to its mother profoundly affects its sense of self (1959, 77). As such, the use of the mother in fiction as a catalyst for violence could be interpreted as a form of pop-psychoanalysis, a superficial scratching at the surface of common understandings of the mother as articulated through well-known theories such as Freudianism and the Oedipus complex. Evidence for this can be found in Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, where the violent-eye narrator attempts to interpret his dreams, albeit cynically: ‘Ja, Herr Doktor. The knife ist eine mother, ja?’ (2004, 63). However, this chapter contends that placing the mother at the centre of the traumatic experience serves to situate trauma in childhood in a more profound way than could be achieved through similar use of the father. Traditionally, mothers were associated with the home, the domestic sphere, and as such the image of the mother and child remains more evocative and certainly more prevalent than that of the father and child. Within the coming-of-age novel, however, Kenneth Millard states that an important issue ‘is the way in which finding a place in society is coterminous with finding a satisfactory relationship with the father’ (2007, 15). Whilst initially this seems to severely reduce the relevance of the mother in the development of the child, what it actually serves to do is to reaffirm the assumption of her dominant role within the period of pre-adolescence (that of childhood), by situating the father as exterior to it. Millard continues to state that adolescent sons, in particular, rely upon their relationship with their fathers as ‘a vital means to socialisation’ (15). It can thus be argued that within contemporary American literature, adolescence is frequently dominated by the father, childhood by the mother, and this is certainly prevalent in violent-eye narratives. This is also evident in feminist psychoanalytic theory, as illustrated by Estela Welldon, who observed that the secondary role of the father during the early stages of a child’s life changes in adolescence (1988, 11). To quote Sherry Ortner, ‘Mothers and their children, according to cultural reasoning, belong together’ (1974, 77).

Mothers thus have the capacity to remind us of their sons and daughters as children and not just adults. This is particularly poignant in the case of violent characters who are often demonized as monstrous inhuman others, as it serves to remind the reader of their humanity by evoking their once childlike state and relative innocence. Furthermore, in the case where the mother is neglectful, violent, abusive, abandoning, or otherwise generally absent, the violent offspring is not only rendered human, childlike, and innocent, but portrayed as a victim. However, the use of mothers as the source of trauma in fiction raises two persistent problems, intricately linked yet subtly different: demonization and dehumanization. By the former, I am referring to the mother as rendered ‘bad’, monstrous, or a failure, whereas by the latter I mean the mother as objectified and depersonalized, and both will be explored in more detail below.

Ann Hall and Mardia Bishop assert that ‘the most oppressive label in American culture, “the bad mom”, [is] the postmodern equivalent of the scarlet letter’ (Hall and Bishop 2009, ix). Historically, there has been a tendency to focus on ‘the potential toxicity of mothering behaviours in relation to sons’ (Singh 2004 1194), with mothers having been blamed for a variety of disorders including autism, hypothyroidism, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, epilepsy, schizophrenia and, more recently, ADHD. Indeed, the origins of such expansive mother blame can be found in the 1940s, where four influential theories in particular led to the demonization of mothers as potentially dangerous and harmful, to their children and therefore to society in general. The first was Philip Wylie’s theory of Momism, expounded through his monograph A Generation of Vipers, published in 1942, in which he railed against what he perceived to be the flaws in American society of the time, which included ‘megaloid momworship’ (Wylie 1942, 198) responsible for weakening American men:

Disguised as good old mom, dear old mom, sweet old mom, your loving mom, and so on, she is the bride at every funeral and the corpse at every wedding. Men live for her and die for her, dote upon her and whisper her name as they pass away, and I believe she has now achieved, in the hierarchy of miscellaneous articles, a spot next to the Bible and the Flag, being reckoned part of both in a way. (198)

Wylie is determined throughout the text to argue that women have ‘capitalized heavily’ on the ‘notion that the bearing of children was such an unnatural and hideous ordeal that the mere act entitled women to respite from all other physical and social responsibility’ (1942, 52). Wylie himself perceives childbearing to be ‘no more of a hardship than, say, a few months of benign tumour plus a couple of hours in a dental chair’ (52), a stance that trivializes the suffering women experience during pregnancy and labour whilst simultaneously pathologizing childbearing, equating it with cancer. In the years since its publication, A Generation of Vipers has come to be considered a ‘bewildering, unfounded, and unstructured rant’ (van den Oever 2012, 6), which reached ‘hyperbolic heights’ that included a comparison between Mom and both Hitler and Goebbels.

Yet despite the vitriol, hyperbole, and confusion that characterizes A Generation of Vipers, Momism became a prolific and influential theory from the 1940s up until the early 1970s, at which point it was expanded upon by, amongst others, Hans Sebald, who perceived it to be evidence of ‘an epidemic of perverted motherliness’ (Sebald 1976, 2) involving the ‘situation where a child incurs emotional pathologies because of exposure to a mother who is afflicted by a particular neurosis’ (1976, 1). As such, mothers were ‘exhorted to pay particular attention to ensuring that their sons did not grow up effeminate’ (Thomas 2001, 123), or ‘Momistically impaired’ (Sebald 1976, 5). Although Wylie’s theory is no longer given much credence, with A Generation of Vipers being considered by many as merely incoherent and vitriolic, it nevertheless struck a nerve and had a profound impact at the time. Therefore, not only can the text be considered an example of the sentiments of its era, but it also paved the way for more anti-mother theories to come.

Published less than a year after Wylie’s work, David Levy’s Maternal Overprotection (1943) came too soon to be able to directly address Wylie’s theory of Momism, as Roel van den Oever has pointed out, although it is widely seen to be ‘a substantiation of Wylie’s conjectures’ (van den Oever 2012, 7). Levy placed enormous import on the role of the mother in the development of the child:

If a mother maintains towards the child a consistent attitude of, let us say, indifference and hostility, the assumption is made that the child’s personality is greatly affected thereby. His outlook on life, his attitude towards people, his entire psychic well-being, his very destiny is presumed to be altered by the maternal attitude. (Levy 1943, 3)

The subject of Levy’s work is not, however, the indifferent or hostile mother, but the overprotective mother, capable of creating ‘the infant- monster, or egocentric psychopath’, a development ‘stemmed by numerous reality experiences, but the basic problem arising out of the indulgent overprotected background, namely, selfish, demanding, undisciplined behavior’ (Levy 1943, 161). Conversely, in the same year Leo Kanner (1943) suggested the link between cold and distant parents and infantile autism, later clarifying that ‘Maternal lack of genuine warmth is often conspicuous in the first visit to the clinic’ (Kanner 1949, 422). However, asserting that Kanner’s work had a direct detrimental effect on mothers is potentially in itself a little harsh, in that he was equally critical of the distant father. Instead, Kanner’s role in the demonization of the mother was to lay the foundation for the theory of the cold and distant mother, or the Refrigerator Mom, capable of damaging her children through maternal ambivalence and her role as a bad or inadequate parent. This theory was expanded upon in 1967 by Bruno Bettelheim, who sought to explore whether autism in children was environmental or innate. For Bettelheim, there are two ‘opposite possibilities of what causes the damage’, overstimulation or a lack of stimulation (1967, 399), reminiscent of the polarities of Levy’s over-affection and Kanner’s lack of affection, and indicative of just how difficult it is for mothers to be considered adequate.

The final theory of relevance that arose in the 1940s was that of the schizophrenogenic mother, expounded by Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, who wrote in 1948 that the aetiology of schizophrenia is a result of ‘the severe early warp and rejection [the schizophrenic] encountered in important people in his infancy and childhood, as a rule mainly the schizophre- nogenic mother’ (1948, 265). Since the 1940s maternal blame has further extended beyond biological disorders to the creation of so-called deviant children, with Phyllis Chesler in the 1970s perceiving the schizophrenogenic mother as ‘the mother who produces “promiscuous” daughters, “homosexual” sons, and “criminal” or “neurotic” children’ (1972, 108), a problematic collective that fuses sexual orientation and liberation with criminality. The schizophrenogenic mother was widely accepted as a type from the 1940s until the 1980s, yet has continued to be propagated by some academics, including Janet Sayers; although in her discussion of examples that ‘abound of young men whose schizophrenic and suicidal breakdowns are linked to early loss of attachment to their mothers’ (2001, 225), she fails to provide any examples beyond those of a book by Ronald Laing and an article by Moses Laufer, published in 1965 and 1976, respectively.

So with its origins in the 1940s and proliferation throughout the 1950s and 1960s, it is widely believed that the 1970s saw the end of such theories, with van den Oever purporting that the practice of mother blaming never again reached ‘fever pitch’ (2012, 36). Ros Coward (1997) even indicates that motherhood became romanticized again in the 1980s. While I agree with van den Oever that such theories have diminished, I find evidence in American literature of the 1980s onwards that suggests that mother blaming is still rife, albeit more covert and arguably therefore more insidious. Fictional representations of deviant characters traumatized by inept, morally bad, or absent mothers are not that far removed from ideas of the pathogenic mother, as will be revealed through the textual analysis later in this chapter. Yet beyond the overt danger of rendering mothers as bad or failures is the issue of dehumanizing them, rendering their primary function as that of ‘objects in the subject-formation of their children’ (Horsley and Horsley 1999, 371), ‘a figure in the design [but] out-of-focus’ (Kaplan 1992, 3). In Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003), this is the very thing that protagonist Eva fears when contemplating motherhood: ‘I was mortified by the prospect of becoming hopelessly trapped in someone else’s story’ (2003, 37), demoting ‘myself from driver to vehicle, from householder to house’ (70). Linda Seidel describes the use of the mother in this manner as ‘a plot device to catalyze the men’ (2013, xvi), and this can be seen in Darkly Dreaming Dexter, The End of Alice, and Fight Club, where the mothers are nameless and depersonalized devices used to explain their son’s proclivities to violence.

This two-fold issue of the mother’s demonization and dehumanization is of vital importance, and this paper seeks to acknowledge its persistence throughout the latter stages of the twentieth century and into the twenty- first, in which the mother is still frequently presented as traumatizing and objectified. This objectification is prevalent in narratives with violent-eye protagonists, and through the lens of such literature, I challenge the assumption that the role of the mother has changed significantly from that of the background or margins. Despite Maggie Humm’s claim that matrifocal narratives have increased in frequency, especially in the work of African-American writers such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker (Humm 1994,124), in many other novels mothers are still relegated to the margins, and in violent-eye narratives they often remain the reason for their children’s deviancy. In fact, Shriver’s matrifocal narrative even suggests it, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether or not Eva is culpable. Yet reflecting upon this character, Vivienne Muller states that ‘Likeable or unlikeable, victim or villain, Eva nonetheless reminds us that mothering is never “good enough”’ (Muller 2008, 39). It is still politically correct, according to Linda Seidel, to openly hate the bad mother (2013, xii), and in the literature of violence and voice, mothers still make monsters.

Within violent-eye narratives, in addition to being demonized as maternal failures and dehumanized as objects in the subject-formation of their sons, the mothers of the violent protagonists are invariably absent, and as such I argue that within such narratives it is often this very absence that is of relevance and, thus, illuminating. To justify this claim I will now discuss

The End of Alice, Darkly Dreaming Dexter, and Fight Club, all of which present continuous immersion in the minds of the violent-eye protagonists who are portrayed, to varying degrees, as victims of their mothers. Furthermore, I want to draw attention to the theme and language of rebirth found in these narratives, as this reveals that within such texts mothers give birth twice: once to the child and again to the violent transgressor.

In The End of Alice (1996a) and its companion piece Appendix A (1996b), published in the same year, Homes’ violent protagonist experiences a divide between his life before and after his sexual abuse by his mother and her subsequent suicide, leaving him to feel that his ‘life had been cleaved, irrevocably into a before and after’ (1996b, 10). He is left with a fluctuating sense of self-perception, seeing himself both as a ‘good boy’ (1996a, 120) and a ‘bad boy’ (1996b, 22), linking the former primarily with his adult self, regardless of the crimes he has committed, and the latter with his childhood self, believing he killed his mother: ‘I became her murderer, or so I have always secretly said to myself (1996b, 20). His false sense of complicity is further compounded by the unsupportive environment in which he is placed after her death: ‘That my family, my mother’s family, never again mentioned her by name, never offered any explanation was a detail I took as proof of my own guilt’ (1996b, 10). His sexual abuse by his mother is both traumatic and fragmenting: ‘I am exhausted, broken off, floating. I am a boy, still a boy. Tired boy. Stunned boy. A boy who has just killed some part of himself (1996b, 23). In contrast with a schizophrenogenic reading of the narrative, the narrator does not think that it is his mother that has killed off this part of him, but rather that it is he who is to blame.

As the source of his trauma, his mother can be read as at fault for the transformation of the poor ‘stunned boy’ into the predatory paedophile and murderer he later becomes. After his sexual abuse at the age of nine, he spends the night in a motel room with his mother, but in the morning he wakes to find her gone (although only to the bathroom) and sees menstrual blood on the sheets, further reaffirming his belief that he has damaged her body: ‘My fault. All my fault’ (1996a, 141; 1996b, 24). Decades later when Alice, the child with whom he has a sexual relationship, starts to menstruate for the first time in the motel room they share, she thinks it is a result of something he has done, damage he has inflicted on her body: ‘You’ve done something awful to me’ (1996a, 246). After arguing, he repeatedly stabs her: ‘I can’t stop myself. I have in mind only the beginning and the end (1996a, 250; my emphasis). The death of Alice is the destruction of the female at the onset of puberty and maturity. Whereas the narrator believes that he has hurt his mother and caused her to bleed, Alice bleeds and then he hurts her, a mirror image of the beginning reflected in the end, with the motel as the communal site of trauma. In his view, he has spared Alice from becoming like his mother: ‘In a way I saved her, I hope you can understand that. I spared her a situation that would only get worse. She was a girl, unfit to become a woman’ (1996a, 247). His mother, sympathetic in her own sufferings of mental illness whilst also demonized through her role as the bad mother and depersonalized as the object in the formation of the narrator as subject, evokes the image of a violent paedophilic child murderer as an abused and orphaned little boy. He is thus humanized, with his actions explained although most certainly not condoned. Yet in evoking this image, the mother is positioned as the pivotal traumatizing factor, the origin of his violence and deviancy. He was transformed by her actions and subsequent absence, and thus there is the suggestion that she is to blame, and that both her presence and absence are crucial in his formation.

In Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the first in his popular series, readers are introduced to protagonist serial killer Dexter Morgan who, although the perpetrator of violent actions, is also the victim of childhood trauma. Although this traumatic experience is intricately and explicitly linked with his mother, unlike Homes’ narrator his is a vicarious experience. Dexter is not physically or sexually abused, but rather witnesses the violent murder of his mother in the confines of a shipping container, where he remains for two days sitting in a pool of her blood (and that of at least three other men) along with her fragmented body. His trauma is located not only in her death and subsequent absence but also in her body and its visible disarticulation, which causes the fragmentation of Dexter’s psyche: ‘Something nameless was born in this place, something that lived in the darkest hidey-hole of the thing that was Dexter’ (2004, 253). His mother’s death is thus his birth as a violent and murderous person conflicted with a sense of dualism, and so she effectively gives birth to him twice. It is clear in the novel that the mother figure does indeed serve as the object in the subject-formation of the protagonist, since all we know about her is that she is a ‘somewhat careless’ person, both when it comes to conception, apparently, and in her decision to steal from drug-dealers, which leads to her death (2004, 261). She is therefore not a character but rather a device to remind the reader that the self-professed monstrous

Dexter is a fragmented and broken human. The death of Dexter’s mother proves to be the significant traumatizing event in his life, establishing in him more than just a proclivity for violence, but an actual need to kill. However, the fact that she is murdered in front of him when he is just three years old repositions him from simply monstrous other (albeit a killer with a moral code) into a traumatized little boy, and no amount of paternal warmth or care, which Dexter receives from his stepfather, can correct the damage done by his mother. Dexter’s immorality is thus a result of his traumatizing mother and her subsequent absence; her role as a literary device, demonized and depersonalized in a sacrificial way, makes him human.

As victims of childhood trauma, protagonists such as those of Homes and Lindsay are not wholly demonized, since the loss of their mothers creates a strong sense of sympathy for what would otherwise be unsympathetic characters. I want to look now at a narrative more frequently associated with the dominant theme of the absent father, the father who abandons his son to start a new family somewhere else. This is integral to Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, in which the abandonment not only leaves a void in the lives of the sons left behind, including the narrator, but it also creates a crisis of masculinity. Yet I argue that the absence of the father is not key here, but rather the background presence of the mother, hinted at only through the claim that the men you see at Fight Club are a ‘generation of men raised by women’ (1996, 50), men who are forced to physically and brutally reclaim their masculinity through acts of primal violence and aggression, because they have been effeminized by the absent father and the present mother. In discussing his aetiology as a violent male individual, the narrator in Fight Club places heavy emphasis on his absent father with little mention of his mother—she is practically absent from his consciousness. Whereas even the absent father manages to give advice on how to live, albeit poorly, all the mother contributes is ‘Never buy anything with a nylon zipper’ (1996, 66). However, the comment about the generation of men raised by women, highly reminiscent of Wylie’s generation of vipers, implies that there is more to the mother than meets the eye. In Fight Club she is absent, seemingly irrelevant in comparison with the father. Yet this absence of maternal importance is in fact a significant theme, to the extent that, although physically absent, the mother is simultaneously and symbolically an almost omnipresent mother, permeating the text and reminding the reader that she is relevant. The absent mother is found in Big Bob, the former body-builder whose testicular cancer has reduced him to a castrated, large-breasted, oestrogen dominant, emotionally fragile individual, who provides the narrator with the crucial ability to be both emotionally free and nurtured, offering him the space and ability to cry in his arms and thus sleep well at night. The mother is also found in Marla, the young and troubled woman with whom the narrator’s paternalesque alter-ego Tyler becomes romantically involved; if Tyler is symbolic of the father through his idealized masculinity, then Marla is a symbolic mother, further expressed by the narrator’s direct comparisons of them with his parents.

So here we have this interesting dynamic, this tension between the absent mother and the omnipresent mother. Fight Club reveals that even mothers who are subverted and marginalized can remain pivotal in the lives of their violent offspring, but not necessarily in a positive manner. Mothers who are barely mentioned in the narrative and who are side-lined in favour of the lost father, in fact have an enormous relevance and are even implicitly blamed for the violence of their sons, who are forced to reclaim a primal masculinity to remove the damage of overt motherhood and their own subsequent feminization, emphasized through the narrator’s weakness and obsession with consumerism and domesticity. Men are forced to reinvent themselves through fight club, and the splitting of the narrator’s psyche into two individuals symbolizes a rebirth into an idealized, albeit violent, individual.

The statement in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, quoted at the start of this chapter, serves to remind us of the vital role mothers have in American consciousness, yet interpreted in the context of violent-eye narratives the greatness of these figures takes on a distinctly pejorative element; there is nothing more significant than the mother of violent men. I have attempted in this chapter to argue that within violent-eye narratives, traumatizing mothers remain traumatizing, whether dead or alive, at the forefront of the narrative or hidden away in the background. Whilst these examples testify to the relevance of the absent mother in contemporary American thought, they are certainly not heartening or complimentary representations. In fact, they are quite the opposite - the argument here is that within such narratives even absent mothers, those who are dead or simply forgotten, have an overwhelmingly negative influence on their sons if they deviate from the concept of the good mother during their lives - and as discussed earlier, historically this is neither the affectionate nor the cold mother, but something indefinite and ill-defined in between. Mothers can be bad at their role just by having the audacity to be killed, as in Dexter, or to raise their sons alone and unsupported, as in Fight Club. Shifting away from literature to contextualize this work in a more sociological conclusion, I should state clearly that I am not attempting to discredit these narratives - far from it - but rather to point out the legacy of mother blame that exists in American thought. The more overt ethical issues surrounding violent narratives serve to conceal the issue of persistent mother blame, which in itself is a form of misogyny, since women are effectively being positioned as the root of male deviancy. It is important to highlight this pervasive suggestion and acknowledge its presence in contemporary American literature, since it is only through this awareness and subsequent dialogue that we can even begin to challenge the assertion that mothers make monsters. Blaming women for the actions of men, implicitly or explicitly, is a dangerous, erroneous, and rather tedious habit. There is a problematic tension involved in the importance of understanding violent offenders whilst not shifting blame on to others. It is vital that violent individuals are not depicted as monstrous others but rather as broken, damaged, but ultimately corrigible people, but what hope is there for rehabilitation, or even the assumption that rehabilitation is possible, ifadult violence is presented as the inevitable result of childhood trauma, and that to be traumatized fragments an individual and makes them deviant? Furthermore, what hope is there for the mother if she continues to be blamed for all that goes wrong with her child? Consideration should be given to how society can empathize with the origins of violence without blaming women for the actions of their sons, and literature’s role within this should be questioned, as it has the ability to either compound and propagate the myth of mother blaming or to start seeking answers elsewhere.

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Joanna Wilson-Scott is a doctoral candidate at the University of Leicester, UK, writing her thesis on violent protagonists in contemporary American literature. She has an MSc in Social Anthropology and an MA in Comparative Literature, both from University College London, which combine to inform her research interests of liminality, marginality, violence, water, and voice.

 
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