[Marxism] Blaming mother

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 23 12:23:12 MST 2012

Shaky Ground
Adam Phillips

Autism: Parents, Doctors and the History of a Disorder by Chloe 
Princeton, 360 pp, £24.95, November 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 15046 8

What Is Madness? by Darian Leader
Hamish Hamilton, 359 pp, £20.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 241 14488 6

The term ‘autism’ was first used in 1910 by Eugen Bleuler, but 
initially designated the symptoms of schizophrenia. Autism as a 
diagnostic category was introduced in 1943 by Leo Kanner, a 
pioneering child psychiatrist who ran the Behaviour Clinic for 
Children at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In a now famous 
article, ‘Autistic Disturbances of Affective Contact’, Kanner 
described 11 children who had in common ‘an inability to relate 
themselves in the ordinary way to people and situations from the 
beginning of life’. Kanner believed that they were suffering from 
an innate structural deficit in their brains but, as Silverman 
rightly emphasises, his scrupulously attentive accounts of these 
children ‘left the possibility open for multiple interpretations’. 
Kanner noted two other things about the children, both of which, 
unsurprisingly in retrospect, caused a great deal of controversy: 
that they all came from ‘highly intelligent families’ that were 
extremely accomplished and successful, and ‘in the whole group 
there were very few really warmhearted fathers and mothers.’ 
Though Kanner later retracted some of these observations, the 
offensive term ‘refrigerator mother’ was born in the popular press 
and the blame shifted from the parents to the mothers alone (there 
was no mention of refrigerator fathers). ‘Most of the patients,’ 
Kanner wrote,

	were exposed from the beginning to parental coldness, 
obsessiveness, and a mechanical kind of attention to material 
needs only. They were objects of observation and experiment with 
an eye on fractional performance rather than with genuine warmth 
and encouragement. They were kept neatly in refrigerators which 
did not defrost. Their withdrawal seems to be an act of turning 
away from such a situation to seek comfort in solitude.

Blaming mothers is easy – an open door. Kanner’s theory was taken 
up, even though most of these assertions aren’t true – the parents 
of autistic children for sure aren’t markedly colder than the 
parents of other children – because it makes autism intelligible 
as a retreat from an intolerable external reality, and it also 
makes us all a bit autistic. It’s also in its way pragmatic and 
optimistic: if autism is genetic, or a brain issue, it would seem 
that little can be done, and certainly very little by the parents 
themselves, but if it is a parenting issue then parenting can be 
improved. Instead of requiring neuroscientists autism could be 
suitable for psychotherapy. If warmth was required, perhaps warmth 
could be supplied (‘warmth’ is always a key word in mental health 
literature, though it is never clear whether this is a concession 
to common sense or just a filler when the science runs out of 
explanations). Kanner put autism on the map; he drew attention to 
children who had previously been, by definition, virtually 
impossible to engage with. All the controversies that Silverman 
tracks in her book were inspired by Kanner’s research. By 
asserting that autism was an innate brain dysfunction, while 
suggesting that it might in some sense be caused by the cold 
mechanical caretaking of gifted but remote parents, Kanner set the 
terms for the debate.


Laing's message was effectively conveyed in Milos Forman's 1975 
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", based on Ken Kesey's novel. 
After watching the video, I was rather stunned by the level of 
misogyny in the film. Louise Fletcher's Nurse Mildred Ratched is a 
grotesque figure who constantly reminds Billy, the stuttering 
mental patient, that she is friends with his mother and is not 
above informing her about indiscretions inspired by the 
free-spirited Randall McMurphy, played unforgettably by Jack 

After having sex with a prostitute that McMurphy smuggled into the 
hospital on Christmas Eve, Billy's stutter disappears. When Nurse 
Ratched observes the aftermath of the preceding evening's drunken 
celebration, she tells Billy that his mother will be shocked by 
his misbehavior. This leads him to cut his own throat and McMurphy 
to attempt to strangle hers. As his hands tighten around her neck, 
squeezing out her life, we see mental patient Christopher Lloyd 
looking on in glee, mouthing the words, "Yes, yes!". I distinctly 
recall that audiences found this scene to be positively cathartic. 
Finally, the forces of sexual repression and straightness would 
get their comeuppance. It is also interesting to note that 
Ratched's sadistic attendants are exclusively African-American.

full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/madness.htm

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