The Clare Spark Blog

May 9, 2015

Monster Moms

sweet kaulitz09, Deviant Art

sweet kaulitz09, Deviant Art

Ever since I read Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers (1942) I have been racking my brains for the origins of his diatribe against MOM. Here is how Wylie, later to be matched by the fictional mother in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), or the frequent naming of the welfare state as “nanny state” by conservative journalists, described the transformation of the faultless Cinderella into a (secret) monster:

[Wylie:] “MOM is the end product of SHE. She is Cinderella…the shining-haired, the starry-eyed, the ruby-lipped virgo aeternis,  of which there is presumably one, and only one, or a one-and-only for each male, whose dream is fixed upon her deflowerment and subsequent perpetual possession. This act is a sacrament in all churches and a civil affair in our society. The collective aspects of marriage are thus largely compressed into the rituals and social perquisites of one day. Unless some element of mayhem or intention of divorce subsequently obtrudes, a sort of privacy engulfs the union and all further developments are deemed to be the business of each separate pair, including the transition of Cinderella into mom, which, if it occasions any shock, only adds to the huge, invisible burthen every man carries with him into eternity….Mom is an American creation.” (Chapter XI, p.184)

[Clare:] Here are some of my prior musings upon the origin of the Bad Mother, ambivalently celebrated in film noir and pop culture: First, Freud described the Oedipus complex, in which daughters would inevitably compete with Mom for the favors of Dad. This can’t end well.

Second, the Switch from smiling caretaker to Bitch Goddess, of good Mother to bad: (This is an excerpt from an MLA paper I delivered in 2002 to the Melville Society):

“Extrapolating from his texts (and from the writings of other Symbolists) perhaps Melville’s demonic clouds are related to the “ruffled brow”: the sudden pained and searing glance that mars the happy mother’s smooth placidity when her child vomits, wets his bed, soils his clothing, touches his genitals, blurts out a dirty word: the glance that makes him feel so poisonous to her, he imagines she would like to spit him out…and yet, she molded and branded him in her womb-factory: she is his double and his shadow.  Ever entwined, they are Eve/Cain, the Wandering Jew, Beatrice Cenci, and Pierrot: over-reachers whose self-assertion and gall will be rendered innocuous in the final scene.  The thick black eyebrows of the Gothic villain (like the mark of Cain or Pierrot’s black mask) will trigger the memory of Mother’s distress and her child’s shame.  Romantic defiance, in its identification with the designated enemies of authority, portends only degeneracy and decline; as Melville has shown us, it brings remorse and cleansing punishment, not better forms of social organization.  The cancellation of early childhood “dirt” and parental disapproval (which may be registered as sadness–Mortmain’s “muffled” “moan”–as well as anger), then the return of the repressed in the ostensibly opposed symbols, “archetypes” and “types” of popular culture, undermines emancipatory politics.” [This was an inference only. I have never seen it described in the psychoanalytic literature, let alone by feminists.]

Third, political scientists and historians agree that since the Industrial Revolution, paternal authority in the home has diminished, giving rise to “domestic feminism.” Men would be the absent breadwinner, no longer paterfamilias (, while Mom now (seemingly) ruled the roost, then, in her moralistic way, going on to invent progressivism and its welfare state. Simultaneously, Jesus became feminized, as Ann Douglas pointed out in her overwrought defense of traditional, masculinist Calvinism in The Feminization of American Culture (1977).

Fourth, “splitting” as the Kleinian object relations analysts describe it: Romantic attachments, whether to the family or to other love objects, often entail idealization. The [narcissist], depleted of “narcissistic supplies” demonizes what was once a perfect creature. Which brings us back to Papa Freud, who had already figured this out in his descriptions of romantic love and idealization.

Fifth, and perhaps the most current and relevant. Mom’s are supposed to keep us safe, but I hear reports that pre-teens and teens are suffering from OCD and related problems (e.g. eating disorders) because the world is perceived as just too dangerous. Even omnipotent Mom is helpless against these real-life monsters: jihadism, global warming, race relations gone wrong, etc. Hence the pop culture vogue for zombies, werewolves, vampires, etc. who have nothing to do with the return of the repressed but are signs of objective media-fortified anxieties.

There is no escaping from the Good-Bad Mother (or Father either), for these imagos are reinforced in popular culture, but rarely analyzed in journalism, not even by many feminists.

All attachments are problematic. Get used to ambivalence, and if your parent is gone, my advice is to focus on her or his strengths, not her weaknesses. (

May 12, 2013

I Remember Mama: Betty Spark

Filed under: Uncategorized — clarelspark @ 5:43 pm
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Betty Spark ca.1930s

Betty Spark ca.1930s

Everyone probably has some gripe with her or his Mother, which we are supposed to put aside on Mother’s Day. So today, I am going to remember all the maternal accomplishments of my late mother Betty Spark, a.k.a. Betsy Ross, Rebecca Dorothy Rosen, and others I can’t remember.

My mother’s parents were both immigrants from somewhere in Eastern Europe. She named me after her beloved mother Clara Thumin, whose rabbinic family is shown here (at the bottom of the page).

Clara, who was fluent in seven languages, ran away from her family at age thirteen, I am told, to make her way in America. She met and married Louis Rosen, and together they ran a dry-goods store in Columbus, Ohio. From family stories, Clara was a premature anti-racist, as was my mother Betty.

Here is my mother at her most glamorous, taken probably in the 1930s, the decade when her mother died. She met my father the doctor in New York City shortly after her mother’s early death, and worked for the Republican National Committee under the nom de guerre of Betsy Ross. Later she became a social worker, an investigator of Harlem families who might or might not be eligible for welfare benefits.

My mother was not enthused about domesticity (though she was great at soups and gefilte fish, made from scratch), was even delinquent in many respects, but here is what she taught me anyway:

She taught me to read when I was five years old, and gave me such books as Bible stories for the very young; during one of my many childhood illnesses she brought me stories from the opera, so that to this day I remember reading the plots of such obscure operas as “The Daughter of the Regiment” or “Fra Diavolo.” We always listened to radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera, then sponsored by Texaco,I believe; she taught me arithmetic; she taught me to swim; she taught me to love museums; she had graduated from Ohio State University in three years, so I graduated from Cornell in three and one half years, at which point (after I had taught tough kids science at Jamaica School for a semester) she advised me to apply for a fellowship at Harvard, where I met my future husband Ronald Marvin Loeb, father of my three children, including Daniel S. Loeb (Betty gets some of the credit for Dan’s drive and interest in investing). She was also sociable and fascinated by the lives of strangers, whom she might meet on a bus or anywhere.

But most of all, she taught me to stand up for myself, even when I was strongly on the Left (at least theoretically). I am thin-skinned, so she said “Now, Clare. People are going to attack you. Build a fence around yourself and defend your turf.” My mother was never anything but a capitalist, and yet she was proud of me, wherever I happened to be on the political spectrum. A strong woman herself, given to taking the microphone at shareholder meetings to complain about the lack of women on their boards of directors, she was the embodiment of unconditional love and an exemplar of strong convictions that were not to be hidden from any and all antagonists.

We should all have such mothers, mothers who insist that we be ourselves without losing interest in the lives of other people. She most strongly identified with her mother Clara Thumin’s illustrious Romanian family, said to be rabbis stretching back to the thirteenth century.  I proudly claim that lineage for myself, a secular Jew who reads closely and fights for universal literacy. Thanks forever, dearest Mother.

Thumin family

Thumin family

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