In Union, South Carolina in 1994, a young woman — white, church-going, apparently loving mother reported to police and the world, that her two adorable boys had been car-jacked by a black man. She tearfully plead in front of cameras for this black man to release her children. Finally, after long, tense days of interrogation, she finally admitted to having killed these kids, driving them unimaginably into a lake and letting them drown in the back seat of the car. She might have gotten away with it, too, because she fit the model of a perfect Southern lady mother — neither too educated nor too little educated, dress-wearing, Bible-quoting, knickknack collecting, and outwardly demure.
I submit to you that Southern motherhood is both powerful and dysfunctional — sometimes demure, sometimes outspoken, but always given great license even when no one should give it any. Southern women may not all be feminists, but the culture has carved out a significant power, however martyred, to the cult of Southern motherhood. I submit that power over small children is no substitute for power over one’s adult self, one’s emotional life, one’s economic destiny, and that some women I’ve seen or heard of down South wield this power like a sledge hammer — the problem is that the only thing that sledge hammer can really hit is the heads of their children, bashing out brains.
I am not providing statistics here, only anecdotes. However, I do have some tales to tell of Southern motherhood gone horribly wrong. No names are offered, so if the picture isn’t yours, make no assumptions that it might not be your next-door neighbor:
1) I know of one mother who had a beautiful teenage daughter. This girl was not astonishingly intelligent, but she had good enough looks to almost, not quite, be a model. In high school, her mother had no particular ambitions for this girl. They lived in a trailer park near the Gulf of Mexico. The mother had a job at Wal-Mart — one of those low-paying jobs that Wal-Mart is trying to fight getting sued for, even though the store most certainly did practice a pattern of wage discrimination against women. She was busy a lot. They talked about Jesus but never read the Bible, never went to church for more than a special occasion. This girl was enrolled in school, but the mother never cared much what grade the daughter got.
As she grew older, she became prettier — too pretty for her own good. The mother was too busy to care much about the parade of boyfriends, paid no attention to drug and alcohol use, turned the other way when the girl was out late, never asked questions, never talked about AIDS or birth control, never gave her standards by which to evaluate the quality of any boyfriend or boyfriends, just let the daughter careen brakeless down a steep hill.
This girl moved in with a man — what a Christian who was dedicated to traditional church teachings would call living in sin. The mother raised no objection, even though the man was much older and was without visible means of support — an unlicensed electrician. Three months later, the daughter was pregnant, and this man tossed her out on her ear.
She turned to her mother for help. The mother suddenly chose this moment to raise a traditional Christian-sounding sentiment. She told this eighteen year-old girl that abortion was murder, that it was against their religion. Note that she had never once told her that it was against the Bible to sleep with a man out of wedlock, to do drugs, to do any of the other bad things that she had ever done in her whole short life. So given what her mother said, this girl carried the baby to term and kept it. Had she remained unpregnant might have ended up, given her looks, despite her education, the receptionist at a well-heeled business in a town like Baton Rouge, which while not a perfect life was far better than what she already knew in the trailer park in the small, dirty town.
However, because the mother, the Southern Mother, said so, this daughter had a baby with a man who is bad news, she lives in the trailer with her mother, who sometimes helps with the baby, but no better than she helped the mother of her grandchild, the daughter-newly-made-mother works two thankless jobs, one of them at the oppressor of women Wal-Mart, and she has no ambitions. Her youth is effectively gone. Her looks remain. For how long? We don’t know. The mother has contributed much to their destruction by indifference to consequences in all cases but one.
2) I know of another mother, again — this might be your next door neighbor. She has done what the mother did in Bastard Out of Carolina — she has chosen her abusive boyfriend over the daughter he abused. She sided with him when the cops were called. They made no arrest. The girl is in a safe place now, but because her mother has made her feel so guilty over the years when it suited her to put hooks in the child, she has the girl thinking that if she moves back in, if only the boyfriend dumps her, which he inevitably will, all will be well again. What she doesn’t see clearly is that this is something that has happened before in her mother’s life — she abandoned her children for another man’s love. She will find someone to cling to again — I can’t bring myself to imagine this woman is capable of love — and this poor girl will be cast aside again.
Are there good mothers in the South? Of course there are plenty. Are there also bad mothers in the North? Yes. But the berth that is cut here down south seems to be a wide one. Mothers are generally trusted. Mothers are not always worthy of the trust. People think of the institution of motherhood as sacred, but it is only as sacred as the women who practice it.
I can’t help but think that Susan Smith and the two anonymous mothers I told about here would have been capable of being better at mothering if they had first learned to harness and rudder their own personal power — psychological, spiritual, economic, and political. In the South, motherhood is encouraged, celebrated in superficial ways that show superficial respect. It is often the only power that women think they have.
Motherhood is no substitute for self-direction. Self-abnegation is inherently unreliable. The unacknowledged self sometimes pops up in monstrous ways — three cases in point.