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27 May 2015

Why do we assume there is an evil mother behind every violent man?

As the coverage of Jan Jordon – allegedly killed by her son, Jed Allen – shows, our culture too readily blames mothers when men and boys commit heinous crimes.

By Glosswitch

Jan Jordon was not a perfect mother. Nonetheless, had she not been stabbed to death last Saturday, her parenting flaws – her alleged alcoholism, the fact that two of her children had been taken into care – would not be common knowledge.

As it is, Jordon, who died alongside her partner and six-year-old daughter, apparently at the hands of her adult son, has been given a posthumous trial by media. The verdict, announced by papers such as the Telegraph and the Daily Mail, has been unanimous: Jordon is guilty of the kind of mothering that leads to just the kind of crimes her son committed. No wonder Jed Allen did what he did.

What first appeared to be the story of a violent man’s brutal attack on those closest to him has become the tale of a little boy lost, subject to the whims of his selfish, uncaring mother. According to Mark Cane, “a former soldier who had a four-year relationship with Miss Jordon from 2001,” Jordon was “the best mum and the devil in disguise at the same time”: “Jed saw a lot of dysfunction. I imagine he snapped with his mother and couldn’t take her any more.”

Speaking to the Telegraph, a former landlady, Jane Ilott, recounts several incidents during which Jordon appeared too intoxicated to care for her offspring. The paper also shares a note of apology sent by Jordon’s mother to Ilott:

“An apology to you all for Jan’s behaviour all round on Tuesday afternoon. I am absolutely gobsmacked by her and ashamed,” it says. “She was way out of order making a spectacle of herself. I am so sorry for that particularly as your grandchildren were there.”

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There are no further details regarding the incident. It is utterly meaningless information unless the intent is to reinforce an impression of Jordon as inconsiderate and an embarassment to her family (which of course it does).

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Consumers of the latest news reports require quick answers and straightforward conclusions – up to a point. We want to know what led Jed Allen to kill; it was, it is suggested, because his mother drank. Do we want to know why his mother drank? That is less interesting. Jordon is not a real person, merely a cause. She is the archetypal Bad Mother whose existence serves no other purpose than to seal her children’s fate. Mothers are origins, points of blame, not actual human beings interacting with others within a broader network of social, economic and cultural constraints. Men do that, even murderers do that, but mothers must stay still.

In his thoughtful review of Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, Malcolm Harris describes a phenomenon which his own mother termed “cherchez la mom”:

When we need to find something to blame for a tragedy, mothering becomes the de facto central influence in a child or adult’s life. This process almost never goes as far as weighing the social circumstances that constrain a mother’s choices. […] We’re not giving moms credit when we pose them as the decisive factor in a child’s development, we’re sticking them with the bill.

The power of the mother seems all-encompassing, at least when her children do something wrong. And yet, should it even exist, it is a strangely hopeless power. It does not benefit us, nor anyone else. It merely holds us in check, forever. As Adrienne Rich put it, “reading of the ‘bad’ mother’s desperate response to an invisible assault on her being, ‘good’ mothers resolve to become better, more patient and long-suffering, to cling more tightly to what passes for sanity”. Invariably, we fail (although not as badly as Jan Jordon did, we hope).

Embroiled in the act of mothering and judging others as they mother, it is easy to ignore the degree to which mother blame is central to how we make sense of the world. It is one of those essential shortcuts, not to any absolute truth, but to accommodate a reality that is far more complex than we would like to admit.

Cherchez la mom is everywhere: in art, literature, philosophy, religion, psychiatry. The mother – as woman, as not-quite-person – does not have a subjectivity worth exploring in its own right, hence the violence of her sons can be loaded back onto her without any further repercussions.

Classical mythology may be packed with brutish men waging pointless wars for stupid reasons, but it is only the bad mothers – Medea, Clytaemnestra, Jocasta – whose actions are believed to spread poison.

In fairy tales, a good mother is a dead mother, her space filled by the wicked stepmother whose ambitions are despised.

Twentieth-century psychoanalysis sets the infant in opposition to an all-powerful, dominant mother figure who must ultimately be rejected in favour of the father. If the neglectful mother harms her child, so too does the attentive one who refuses to let go, or who lets go too late. As the film Psycho reminds us, a mother does not even need to be alive to be stage-managing her son’s descent into misogyny and violence. The very thought of her is enough.

It is not that mothers do not harm their children in real life but, as the psychotherapist Shari L Thurer puts it, “the indictment of parents (usually mothers) in the psychological literature has been so automatic, so nasty, so massive, so undifferentiated, and so oblivious of the limits of a mother’s power, that it precludes a sensible assessment of any clinical situation. A sympathetic evaluation of the social context of the mother is virtually ignored in nearly all accounts of parenting”. Or, as Harris argues, “a sentimental focus on the importance of good parenting lets the rest of society off the hook”:

It encourages us to cherchez la mom when things go wrong instead of looking at larger social factors. It takes a village to raise an abusive young man, and our village raises a lot of them. 

Mothers do have a tremendous capacity to affect their children’s well-being. But what about a world in which male violence is both encouraged and excused? In which the nuclear family is fetishised and seen as the only acceptable unit for raising children, with no allowance made for community mothering and a broader sharing of carework? In which fathers who slaughter their children are described as “loving” but mothers killed by their children are compared to the Devil? In which mothers are treated as plot devices as opposed to fallible human beings? What happens when we have to make sense of a world like that?

Most mothers are, I think, terrified of the power they appear to have. I remember leaving the hospital with each of my newborn sons, amazed that the staff were allowing me – me! – to walk out of there with such precious, fragile, unformed life. In The Mask of Motherhood, Susan Maushart describes how many new mothers have fearful, shameful dreams of harming their babies: “each of us worried secretly about our ‘deviance,’ convinced that we were the only ones who had ever felt this way”.

Yet in a culture steeped in mother blame, in which, as Naomi Wolf writes, pregnant women are told in a variety of ways “your baby needs to be protected from you”, is it any wonder that we learn to fear our own selves and to seek out mothers who are, we feel, most definitely worse than us? Is it any wonder we favour the simplistic narrative, since that’s the only one there seems to be?

But mothers are neither Gods nor Devils. Whatever we do, we are not responsible for all that our children are. Jan Jordon’s children needed the care of others, just as other children need support right now; other mothers are struggling while we pontificate on what makes them “good” or “bad.” We should spare Jordon our ill-informed condemnation and be there for them.