Mothers, madness and melodrama

by Gretchen Bisplinghoff

from Jump Cut, no. 37, July 1992, pp. 120-126
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1992, 2006

Our cultural concepts of madness are gender based. Practicing psychiatric workers as well as people in general share basic beliefs as to what constitutes abnormal behavior but their definition varies according to gender. Socialization differs between the sexes, which in turn shapes people's attitudes as to what is deviant. What operates is a double standard — a double bind. As Janet Stone notes,

"All of this is part of the dilemma system that women face every day. What is considered positive, admirable conduct in a man and in people in general is wrong and unnatural in a woman. To make matters worse, the standards by which people are believed, accepted, promoted and elected are the standards for men and for 'people.'"[1][open notes in new window]

Research shows that the psychiatric work force considers male attributes the norm and female attributes deviant. Boys learn the proper attributes of the "masculine" role during socialization while little girls internalize "feminine" qualities, including passive docility. A study of standards held by psychiatric clinicians revealed that their definition of normal behavior follows the stereotypical patterns of sexual role-playing in which the male role operates as the normal healthy "person." The female role consists of incorporating abnormal traits in terms of mental health; thus woman is not in good mental health if she follows the traditional female role.[2] However, if the female attempts to adopt those "healthy" male traits — to become assertive, active, confident, etc. — her behavior then conflicts with her proper role and thus is also considered abnormal.

These psychiatric workers' background depends heavily on the pervasive impact of Sigmund Freud's work in the United States. Freud's main contribution to the treatment of mental illness lay in foregrounding sexuality as a basic element in personal development. His descriptions became prescriptions. In his descriptions of psychic life he unconsciously included explicit cultural interpretations about the proper behavioral attributes for women. Freud set up a diametrically opposed system, which focused on the boy's acquisition of patriarchal rights through the Oedipal struggle. He characterized the girl's development in terms of negation, defining that development in relation to the boy's power (his penis) and thus always describing the female by what she lacks. By couching this interpretation of childhood development in sexual, i.e., gender-determined, terms, he established psychological diagnosis as biologically determinant. As recently as 1983, Baruch, Barnett and Rivers report that they are "distressed at how persistent the tendency is to link women's lives mainly to their biology, both in explanation of their lives and in prescriptions about how they should live."[3]

In my ongoing study of the madwoman in Hollywood melodrama from the 1940's through the 1980's, I have found a remarkable consistency in the presentation of female characters' illness. Freudian precepts have become widely diffused in popular culture. Here, based on a masculine health ethic, psychological diagnosis supports the working out of traditional role-playing. In cinema, this role-playing requires female characters to come to accept their proper position in life as determined by their sexual identity. My deviation from this role results in a diagnosis of abnormality. I found that films dealing with mentally ill women repeatedly focus on the illness' relation to female sexuality. In particular, the illness relates to the process of motherhood. In the following discussion, I'm going to look at the central importance of Freudian concepts of motherhood as these can be related to the image of female mental health in melodrama.

The films deal with this issue in terms of all phases of the motherhood process. First and foremost, the melodramas stress that the woman must choose to be a mother (avoiding diversions such as a career) in order to avoid mental illness. Then she must become pregnant and deliver a healthy, normal baby. Finally, she must devote herself to raising the child properly, taking special care that nothing happens to the child. At each stage of this scenario, incorporated Freudian theory sends disturbing, sometimes contradictory, messages about motherhood. The demands placed on a screen mother set up extremely narrow boundaries for her mental health. Although the message is that the female must adhere strictly to her role as mother, she often cannot avoid the pitfalls and loses her sanity.

Following this ideology, a woman's ability to bear children dictates that she must have children in order to fulfill her "normal" destiny. A woman's "natural," correct role follows function. She can reproduce. Therefore, she should. She should focus her energies toward this "ultimate" proof and embodiment of her womanhood. The mother in Freudian, patriarchal ideology sacrifices her self, her individuality, to nurture others. She must display "maternal 'instinct' rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than the creation of self."[4] The central elements of her femininity are defined as "constitutional passivity, masochism, and narcissism."[5] Reacting against these predetermined elements of motherhood is seemingly abnormal for the female psyche.

Furthermore, according to this kind of psychology, the "normal" functioning of a woman's brain depends upon the condition of the uterus. Any bodily change of a sexual nature, such as pregnancy, destabilizes the mind. The normal female bodily cycle is seen as dysfunctional. A woman's mind remains continually at risk throughout her life as it depends for its well-being on the dictates of a "diseased" system. Thus, the psychological disorders of women even appear within "proper" social manifestations of sexual roles. As Ann Jones documents:

"In any case, whenever there was frustration of 'all those instinctive yearnings for...husband and children; all the outgoing of longing for all that is implied in home, the care of it, and all connected with it,' there the gynecologist (another new scientist) was bound to find a 'nervous, capricious, irritable, and hysterical' woman suffering from uterine derangement of one kind or another.' Women who tried to study or to follow a profession diverted blood to their brains in the mental hyperactivity that characterized the insane; menstruation ceased and disease resulted. And any woman who tried to avoid motherhood, woman's 'supremest function,' was sure to end in disease."[6]

Hollywood films adapted Freudian precepts to approach the subject of mental illness. Popular culture's Freudianism represents a simplified version of psychoanalysis, but one which reproduces many of Freud's major positions, including much of the misogyny.[7] Particularly in relationship to motherhood, as E. Ann Kaplan points out,

"film is perhaps more guilty than other art forms of literalizing and reducing Freudian motherhood theory."[8]

Interpretation of dreams, the psychiatric couch, reliving and exorcising the childhood trauma, etc., became central representations of the psychiatric world in early melodramas[9] such as SNAKE PIT, SPELLBOUND, and THREE FACES OF EVE. This depiction continues in such mainstream representations as MARNIE, I'M DANCING AS FAST AS I CAN, FRANCES, and FATAL ATTRACTION. (The madness of Alex Forest directly relates to her sexual identity — her aggressive sexuality results in unwanted pregnancy.) Even when there appears to be surface changes (the female psychiatrist in I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN no longer makes overt Freudian pronouncements about her patient's condition), the underlying message concerning the main character's gender-based mental identity has not altered.

In their discussion of the madwomen films of the 40s through 60s, Marsha Kinder and Beverle Houston point out that

"madness is frequently linked to motherhood, the experience which supposedly makes or breaks a woman."[10]

After the birth of her child in TENDER IS THE NIGHT, Nicole says,

"It shows I'm normal, doesn't it?"

Often when particular reasons for the female's madness are not specifically given, as in IMAGES, characters allude to "deficiencies" in the area of motherhood. These include "past regretted abortion, sorrow over the inability to have children."[11] Films exploring the theme of possible hereditary insanity often focus on the woman who rejects a "normal" life of having children within marriage because of the possible consequences to her future offspring. Unfortunately, this loss also strikes her mind. In KING'S ROW, she sacrifices herself for her future children's sake.

However, as previously mentioned, the Freudian definition of motherhood demands self-negation. Thus, women's self-sacrifice appears as the norm in Hollywood melodrama. Also, these films ennoble the mother's personal sacrifices. In the name of motherly love she gives up her own needs, such as a career. In the name of motherhood she will even give up her child "for its own good." Stella Dallas, who stands in the rain outside the house in which her beloved daughter is marrying the "right" man, embodies this quintessential mother. Her face pressed up against a fence, she watches until a policeman comes to move along the lower class element She chooses to give her child a better life by giving the daughter up, a mother's ultimate sacrifice (still a current message, given Beat Midler's remake of STELLA DALLAS). Within the context of film mothers' "normal" extreme sacrifice, to define excess as leading to madness seems contradictory. How much self-sacrifice is too much within the mother role? This problem of balance recurs again and again.

The first stage of the process, pregnancy, is presented in film as a "delicate" time, which subjects women's minds to the uncontrollable influence of bodily changes. Symptoms of emotional instability, often consisting of unexpected weakness and wide mood swings, indicate the "normal illness" of film pregnancy. The female in a "delicate condition" constitutes a familiar figure in films. Often the first indication by which a husband learns of his wife's coming "blessed event" is an otherwise healthy woman's unexpected fainting spell. Another common signal appears in a normally placid, content wife's sudden, strangely emotional outburst Susannah's pregnancy in RAINTREE COUNTY is portrayed as the catalyst that triggers her mental collapse. Pregnancy brings on her nightmares and paranoid attacks on her husband. She begins condemning her own worthlessness in hysterical outbursts:

"Then you punish me, Johnny. Go on, beat me, hurt me! You're too good for me, Johnny."

Films thoroughly document the consequences of infertility for a female character. Pressures on a woman to fulfill her natural duty can result in "hysterical" pregnancy, an exclusively female symptom of otherwise hidden mental disease. In FREUD, a lecturing psychoanalyst points out,

"Hysteria comes from the Greek word for womb. To this day doctors believe it exists only in women, if they admit it exists at all."

In this film, in his practice Freud confronts a case of hysterical paralysis and blindness. He later feels he has completely cured the patient by the use of hypnosis, which caused the woman to relive part of her childhood trauma. He reports to his colleague that Cecily is cured; she moves "as freely and gracefully as a young deer." She manifests the first sign of deeper, more profound psychic disturbance in her enactment of a hysterical pregnancy and childbirth scene. She first appears knitting "booties"; she later goes into "labor." However, according to Freud, "she isn't pregnant, nor could she be." He later interprets these actions as representative of her relationship with the two male authority figures of her father and Freud — those men that she unconsciously wishes to have children with.

The need for children causes Myra Savage in SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON to deny the loss of her stillborn son. She gradually loses touch with reality by keeping him alive in her mind. She has a "gift" which keeps her in touch with him. She reports that "his" wishes propel her actions. She tells her husband Billy, who tries to help her live with the loss, that Arthur wants recognition for her as one who possesses a "true" gift. In order for the world to recognize her professional abilities as a legitimate medium, she and Billy (with Arthur's guidance) devise an elaborate kidnapping scheme. She calls it "our beautiful, perfect plan... Remember when we conceived it?" She refers to their activity as a "little lie," a means to an end, as just "borrowing" a child. Throughout she refers to Arthur's closeness, his continuing presence, his maturing through the years: "Remember what Arthur was like at that age..." Though Billy reluctantly goes along with the actual execution of her plan because of her desperation, he tries to make her face the reality of Arthur's death and their criminal actions.

However, her mind refuses to accept the finality of her loss; it has been too great a blow. Billy finally leaves the little girl where the police will find her. The police then arrive to question the couple. They ask for Myra's help in uncovering more "information" on the case. As she enters her trance, the world in which she is a mother, she slips completely back to the moment of her "failure." She sits lamenting: "They won't let me see him. All that waiting, all that time and nothing to hold." Then gradually she calms, making a small shape of a cloth, wrapping it in the end of her shawl and gently rocking it in her arms. Creating the image of the baby she never held, she whispers, "Wait for me precious, hush, hush..." In that crucial moment of destroyed promise and fulfillment that determines the present, Myra loses a son, and consequently her mental balance, apparently forever.

The inability to produce "normal" children also ends in tragedy for the mind of Marina Greg, a former actress, in THE MIRROR CRACK'D. She suffers two mental breakdowns as the result of a "disastrous" childbirth. When she finds that she can't have children, she and her husband adopt two. These, however, are not her "natural" children; thus, they never appear in the film. When she gives birth to a deformed, retarded child (an "idiot" according to her husband), she suffers a menial breakdown.

At the film's opening she is attempting a comeback, apparently after the passage of some years. At the festive gathering at the location where her new film is to be shot, she is introducing her company to each other and to the locals when her mind suffers its second shock. She stops and stares fixedly at Bellini's depiction of Mother and Child, a cultural icon embodying the idealized mother-child relationship. As she gazes, a fan reveals that she had unknowingly caused the tragic birth; she was such a loyal fan that years before she left her sickbed (with German measles) to meet the actress. Marina's memory of the birth, followed by the revelation of the stupid, senseless, act that caused its tragic outcome, prove too much for her mind to bear. Her suicide soon follows. The mirror that cracks represents the image of a woman whose mental well-being depends on the birth of a child.

In the narrative line, Marina's mental collapses first destroy her original career and then any possibility of a comeback. The film focuses on her failed role as mother, with its resulting consequences for her mind. Her career becomes invisible as work just when she is just starting to prepare for the future project. Pregnancy and a career cannot co-exist. Marina's "disastrous" maternity, which ends in madness, results directly from her career involvement with the public. Her availability as a public figure exposes her to assault. By pursuing a career, she loses everything. Thus those who choose a career, who choose to postpone, or not have children, court madness.

Buddy in THE BELL JAR wants to give Esther "a nice life" with "lots of kids":

Esther: "I like kids, yes, but I thought I might be a writer."
Buddy: "You can write, you can write when the kids are in bed. I'll even help you wash the dishes. That's a promise."

Esther decides to pursue her dream. In college, she wins a poetry award, then goes to New York on a scholarship to lend "intellectual elevation" to a woman's magazine. At the magazine, however, the editors humiliate her for her aspirations. They coerce her into producing reports and fiction for mass consumption. For the remainder of the film she fights insanity, while expressing the belief that she is "going" to be a poet someday. As in THE MIRROR CRACK'D, Esther's work on her career as a poet doesn't exist in the film itself (except for a very few lines of voice over). She asserts that, unlike other women who are the place the arrow (man) shoots from, she is "going to be the arrow." But in the closing line of the film, she acknowledges the failure of her choice: "If I am the arrow, I cannot fly through darkness."

Also the central element of Norma Desmond's madness in SUNSET BOULEVARD is her fixation on her career to the exclusion of a family. As Joe Gillis, the voice-over narrator of the film, points out: "She's crazy when it came to that subject [of her career]." Her ambition excludes the "normal" role of devotion to family life with one man. This self-absorption results eventually in total insanity. Her three marriages all failed; a dead chimpanzee represents her only "child." A central, haunting image of the film, the burial of the dead chimp — "seems to summarize the sterile state of a world which floats adrift from the normalcy of a society normally governed by the institution of marriage, and the relations of family life."[12] The film stresses the emptiness of Norma's life without those relationships that give a woman's life stability. When Joe removes the last vestige of her hope for a comeback by cruelly revealing the truth about other people's expressions of interest in her career, her mind disintegrates into mad delusions. Such a career/childbearing dichotomy which results in madness continues in more recent portrayals of seemingly "liberated" couples.[13]

However, also at risk with those women who suffer mental breakdowns because they do not produce progeny are those who lose their minds because they don't do anything else. They indulge in the process to excess. The mother's overproductive sexual organs, her "uncontrolled fertility" 14 also pose a "horror" to a woman's mind. Because these women have no lives outside of family relationships, their only actively "creative" outlet appears to be childbearing: "All (they) want to do is sit in a corner and give birth" (PUMPKIN EATER).

Although Mrs. Armitage's six children in PUMPKIN EATER threaten her relationship with her present husband Jake (he's "tired of living in a nursery"), she becomes pregnant again. He "slaves his guts out" for this "army of kids." In this process he becomes a successful screenwriter. She "slaves" at home-cooking, sewing and caring for the children. However, she is "getting worse all the time." She finally breaks down while shopping in Harrods, so Jake arranges for a "good" psychiatrist for her before going on location. As Jake prepares to leave at this very difficult time, he finally says that he has to go because, "It's my life." She replies "Where's mine?" The mental stress of constant childbearing proves too great. However, motherhood itself is still validated, because she returns to her role in the family at the film's end after submitting to abortion, sterilization and psychotherapy.

After the birth of a child, films focus on the mother-child bond and stress the necessity for the woman to be completely absorbed in rearing her child. However, dangers are also clear for such an immersion, especially for an "amateur" working from instinct and intuition. Presentations of mothers who regress totally into the mother-child relationship illustrate the very fine line between (and contradictory messages about) the commitment presumably required to raise normal, healthy children, and absorption that is depicted as dangerous. The woman who devotes herself to this interaction can be defined as abnormal if she relies upon her children for self-definition (as in PUMPKIN EATER, WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, RAINTREE COUNTY and others). This seeming paradox directly reflects the psychoanalytic view, which exalts childbirth as the final proof of feminine maturity. However, it also establishes the foundation of mother love in regression: lack of identity. Only the mother's erasure of her mature self can establish the mother-child bond-she regresses to a naturally intuitive, childlike state herself.

"The explanation for this paradox, according to the psychoanalysts, was that only through regression could a woman overcome her girlhood penis envy. The regression allowed her to unconsciously accept the baby as the symbolic 'gift' of a penis, compensating her for her own long-resented 'castration.' Conciliated at last, the woman is able to accept her femininity and submit without envy to her husband's love."[15]

The woman thus is encouraged to exist on the same level of dependency as her children. According to the psychoanalysts she can be expected to regress to "a psychological replay of her own infancy by the experience of motherhood,"[16] and will thus respond readily as the obedient child to the authority figures in her life.

The repeated use of a doll as part of the visual imagery of the madwoman codes her within her role as mother at her most regressive. The repeated choice of the doll image (SNAKE PIT; RAINTREE COUNTY; FREUD; WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?; SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER; SISTERS; A SAFE PLACE; FRANCES; etc.) automatically operates to place the woman within the female role at her most regressive-in both childhood and motherhood. The representation of Susannah's illness in RAINTREE COUNTY directly relates to her collection of dolls. The most pivotal to her mental health is a partially burned doll directly linked to her childhood trauma. In the stresses of pregnancy, she immediately begins to sleepwalk, searching for her lost doll. After the birth of her son she continues to regress to the time of her childhood trauma. She begins reacting with paranoia to everyday occurrences. She finally tells her son that she's going "to do something for Daddy." Gathering up her doll, she takes it with her into the swamps, where her drowned body is found the next day. Her regression leads finally back to complete erasure of self.

Mabel in WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE has only one refuge from the chaos of her life-her children. She and Nick battle constantly over standards of behavior in their home. However, his orders have the societal weight of his position as head of the family. He uses physical force to enforce them. She resists primarily through identifying with her children. "She finds herself in them, even saying 'the only thing I've ever done in my whole life is make you guys.'"[17] She begins adopting their "childlike" spontaneity in social interactions. She finally defines herself through them within their play.

At one point in WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE Mabel allows young children, including her own, to run around without clothing in the spontaneity of play at a party. The film's authority figures interpret her identification with the children as concrete evidence of Mabel's insanity. Unlike Nick's outbursts, "Mabel's eccentric behavior is defined as crazy and she is punished accordingly."[18] Nick represents the male-dominated authority figures who determine the boundaries of sanity within the power structure of the patriarchal culture.

This relationship with her child defines the mother figure. Thus, she must constantly guard that nothing happens to the child. The greatest blow to her identity is loss of a child. The direct cause of the breakdown which leads to the institutionalization of the main character in THE CARETAKERS, Lorna Melford, is the death of her child. In THREE FACES OF EVE, four months after Eve lost a baby, her husband takes her to see a psychiatrist for headaches and "spells" of amnesia, mental problems of maternal guilt and instability apparently triggered by the loss. Obviously, any direct attempt by a mother to harm her own child offers the most immediate, decisive proof of insanity. In THE THREE FACES OF EVE, the problems of the "sweet, rather baffled young housewife" Eve White, are perplexing to the psychiatrist, but he does not suspect serious illness until she attacks her child Bonnie.

After several weeks of therapy, Eve White had seemed better, had fewer headaches and "no spells that she knew of' (according to Alistair Cooke, who introduced this "classic" case). However, the "alarm" about the true nature of her condition sounds a year later. Her husband confronts her with bills for purchases of which she has no memory, threatens to slap her face for "lying," and leaves the room to pack the clothing items for return. Bonnie's scream brings him running back to the living room, where he throws Eve to the floor to stop her from strangling the child. After he checks Bonnie, he stands over his wife, telling her to stay down on the floor: "I'll kill you, you get up." She slowly turns her face to the floor, lowering herself back down onto her arms. The scene then fades into an immediate consultation with the psychiatrist. Here Eve Black, the true perpetrator of the violence, first appears.

"Psychoanalytic theory identified two broad categories of bad mothers — the rejecting mother and the overprotective mother, mirror images and equally malevolent" — in terms of their effect on both mother and child.[19] These categories and effects appear onscreen. In THE THREE FACES OF EVE, the housewife's two opposing personalities literally embody a dichotomy of female sexuality within one character. They also represent the poles of abusive and over-involved motherhood. The "trouble-making" Eve Black is visually coded within her sexually aggressive role (as is Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD and Alex Forest in FATAL ATTRACTION).

Julia Lesage, in her article, "S/Z and RULES OF THE GAME," describes how culturally coded elements and details of a character's existence tend to go unnoticed as part of the "realistic" film portrayal of a character. However, they delineate the boundaries of our understanding of this character's behavior. As she points out:

"In film as in theater, directors carefully control costuming so as to present a certain kind of person appropriate for a certain role. Both film and theater depend on fashion stereotypes or the semic code of dress."[20]

Eve Black's stereotype of the "loose" woman (and the common stereotype of the "nymphomaniac" madwoman) is explicitly coded. The presentation of various states of revealing dress are culturally interpreted as mirroring a woman's sexual attitudes. These form the basic elements for defining her mental stability.

Eve Black's low-cut red dress (she wants the doctor to have her red dress when she dies because he's the only one who knows what it meant to her) functions in direct contrast to Eve White's plain, fully covering shirtwaists, blouses and skirts. Of course, standards, including industry censorship, concerning dress have changed a great deal since 1957. However, films such as DARK MIRROR, IMAGES, SISTERS or THREE FACES OF EVE use direct opposition of character portrayals to guide interpretation of the madwoman's appearance and behavior. In addition, authority figures' response to the character throughout the films shape this interpretation. Eve Black's behavior toward Bonnie first indicates the seriousness of her mental condition. Then during one visit to the doctor she puts one foot on the edge of his desk, tilting her chair back as she literally lets her hair down. She invites him to forget his wife for one night to go dancing with her. She then proceeds to turn on the radio to demonstrate various seductive maneuvers with her hips designed to entice him into "sneaking out" a back door with her. This self-indulgent, overtly sexual behavior immediately results in institutionalization.

However, neither of these personalities are deemed qualified by the authority figures to continue in the role of mother. Eve White loves her child ("I'd die before I'd hurt Bonnie") to the exclusion of her own needs. She makes key decisions about her life based solely upon their effects on Bonnie. She refuses to return home during treatment for fear of harming Bonnie. Her husband then leaves her. She says she's not "fit for anything"; her death will be better for Bonnie. The doctor diagnoses Eve White as a "dreary little woman," who is such a "defeated" personality that she's not "qualified" to fill the role of mother. Eve Black is not "fit" either; she's a "rollicking and irresponsible playgirl." She openly flaunts her sexuality without regard to procreation. She refuses to acknowledge her family responsibilities. She denies that Ralph is her husband. More importantly, she rejects Bonnie as her daughter ("not while I'm in my right mind she's not"). Eve can only be cured and reunited with her daughter when both of these personalities die and the third, "pleasant young" Jane, finds the "right" man to marry. The mentally ill, screen mother's condition threatens her children. The responsibility for "failures" in children's lives falls primarily at the feet of the mother. When the bad mother neglects her child, both the neglected child, particularly the vulnerable female, and the mother may fall prey to madness. Kinder and Houston point out,

"When the madwoman is a killer, her evil nature is clearly associated with her sex. It is...traced to the mother-child relationship (as in THE BAD SEED, STRAIGHT JACKET, and WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN); where the mother is responsible for tainting or destroying her perverted child ..."[21]

In BERSERK, the daughter of Monica Rivers, owner of a traveling circus, becomes a maniac killer because her mother continually neglected her daughter for circus work, her career. Thus, women who try to pursue a career while raising a child endanger their children. In films such as SNAKE PIT, FREUD and MARNIE, the neglectful mother (because of career, remarriage, other pregnancies, illness, etc.) routinely appears as one of the things responsible for the madwoman's condition.

However, again, madness associated with the image of the neglectful mother is equaled by the havoc wrought by the overly-involved mother (SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER; WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE; NOW VOYAGER). This character immerses herself so deeply in the mother-child relationship as to exclude social reality, defining herself entirely within that regressive relationship. Surrounded by her Venus flytraps, "a devouring organism aptly named for the goddess of love," Violet Venable in SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER is obsessed with preserving the "perfect" memory of her son's life. Violet and her son were inseparable. She recalls that they were a "famous couple"; she was "the only one who could satisfy him." She refuses to accept the truth of her son's sexual orientation and appetites.

In order to erase the truth forever, she must silence her niece, Kathryn, whose destiny she controls as if Kathryn were her child. Kathryn witnessed Sebastian's death and the trauma caused temporary amnesia. Mrs. Venable has had her institutionalized in an asylum since that terrible day. She is now preparing to bribe the hospital personnel and Kathryn's family into authorizing a lobotomy. Her plan ultimately fails when the doctor takes an interest in Kathryn's case. Through hypnosis Kathryn recalls the way in which Sebastian used her as beautiful "bait" to lure the boys he coveted, as he had used the young Violet. However, this ended with his death at their hands.

These revelations become more than Violet's mind can stand. The mother who attempted to be all things to her son becomes mad as his former wife becomes cured. The mother mentally joins the son again, to the exclusion of the rest of the world. Violet addresses the doctor as Sebastian: "Oh, we are lucky, Sebastian, to need no one else. We have one another-just the two of us."

Medical and legal authorities have long pointed out how difficult it is to define insanity. However, descriptions of the parameters of mental health on the basis of gender pervade the culture. One source lies in Hollywood melodrama from the 40s to the 80s, which stresses the central importance of motherhood (an increasingly stressful role in today's society) while simultaneously establishing that within its contradictions lies madness.


1. Janet Stone and Jane Bochner, Speaking Up (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977), p. 4.

2. Phyllis Chesler, Women and Madness (New York: Avon, 1972). pp. 68-69.

3. Grace Burch, Rosiland Barnett and Caryl Rivers, "Happiness is a Good Job," Working Woman 8, No. 2 (February, 1983), 76.

4. Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born (New York: Bantam, 1977), p. 24.

5. Kate Millet, Sexual Politics (New York: Avon, 1969), p.262.

6. Ann Jones, Women Who Kill (New York: Holt. Rinehart and Winston, 1980), p. 161.

7. Monique Plaza, 'The Mother/ The Same: Hatred of the Mother in Psychoanalysis," Feminist Issues 2, No. 1 (Spring, 1982), 75-99.

8. E. Ann Kaplan, "Motherhood and Representation: From Post World War II Freudian Figurations to Postmodernism," The Minnesota Review 29 (1987), 88.

9. Images of psychiatrists in film are discussed in Krin and Glen Gabbard, Psychiatry and the Cinema (University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 1987).

10. Marsha Kinder and Beverle Houston, "Madwomen in the Movies: Women Under the Influence," Film Heritage 11, No. 2 (Winter, 1976), 2.

11. Marjorie Rosen, Popcorn Venus (New York: Avon, 1973). p. 359.

12. Sylvia Harvey, "Women's Place: The Absent Family of Film Noir," in Women in Film Noir, ed E. Ann Kaplan (London: British Film Institute, 1978), p. 33.

13. Kinder and Houston, pp. 10-11.

14. Barbara Creed, "Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection." Screen 27, No. 1 (January- February, 1986), 44'

15. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English, For Her Own Good (New York: Doubleday, 1978), p. 201.

16. Ehrenreich and English, p. 202.

17. Michele Russell, WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE," Cineaste 7, No. 1(1975). 35.

18. Kinder and Houston, p. 12.

19. Ehrenreich and English, p. 205.

20. Julia Lesage, "S/Z and RULES OF THE GAME." Jump Cut, No. 12/13 (December 30, 1976), p.48.

21. Kinder and Houston, p.3.