Monday, October 31, 2011

Emma Donoghue's Room - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Re-experiences Closeness and Loneliness



Room, the 2010 novel by Emma Donoghue is the story of a mother confined in a 12X12 shed for seven years. She creates a world of wonder for her now five-year-old son Jack out of the meager resources available to her.  This is a story in the tradition of the 1997 Italian film Life is Beautiful and Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road.  All three of them are about a parent navigating a threatening and horrific world with his or her son – Life is Beautiful is set in the holocaust, The Road in a post- apocalyptic landscape and now Room, in the narrow confines of a shed, pits a mother against a jailer upon whom she is totally dependant.  Each narrative describes a grim and beautiful task, that of protecting a child against the obvious threats of an evil world.  In so doing, each of the parents preserves the human nature, the joie de vivre, and the integrity of their child from a soul-killing world.  I can’t help but wonder about this theme resurfacing in these three popular works in part because each of them also resonates with the everyday and very complicated task of raising a child in our current environment, one that appears benign (especially in comparison to these three universes), but one that actually contains insidious threats posed by everything from fast food, internet porn, and school bullying to our own distraction from the task of parenting by all the demands in our adult worlds. 

Room does, indeed, create a universe similar to the other works; however, it struck a very different set of emotional notes for me.   In this book, instead of primarily identifying with the parent, I found myself immersed in the world of the child.  This is partly because the other two works are about a father and son – and it is easier for me to identify with a father than a mother – but mostly it is because this story is told from the point of view of the five year old.   

I think the story worked for me because of my reaction to it.  It evoked in me longings – longings for closeness with my mother.  The mother in this story is never named – she is just Ma.  When Jack learns that she has another name, he rejects it as foreign and never includes it in the narrative.  Jack’s Ma is not just his Ma, but mine.  The closeness that he shares with her is the kind of closeness that I once had with my Ma and that we necessarily, and not without a great deal of pain and angst on both our parts, had to give up. 

Not surprisingly, then, it was in the giving up of the closeness that takes place in the book that I found myself wrestling with the author.  As she introduced plot elements that led the mother and son to move away from each other – more specifically as the mother moved away from Jack, I found myself wanting to argue with her.  I wanted to say to her, “Look, this wouldn’t really happen this way.  This woman has dedicated herself, despite considerable difficulty, to this child.  And she will continue to do that indefinitely.  Just because the situation has changed does not mean that she will be any less unwavering in her devotion.”

This criticism comes not from a theoretical or intellectual psychoanalytic perspective (though I kept trying to figure out a way to cloak it that way), but from my own five-year-old self’s wish to not lose his mother and his sense of closeness to her, or more precisely, her devotion to him.  When they are in Room together, Ma spends all of her time with Jack.  The other creatures in his world are Bed, and Wardrobe (where he sleeps), the characters in the stories he reads and Dora and other characters from TV (itself another presence in the room), and the jailer whom he never sees, Old Nick.  Though I had a brother and a sister, and my father was a presence in my home, in some ways they paled - they became as shadowy and partially alive as Bed and Wardrobe – in comparison to my Ma.  The intensity of the connection with my mother is like no other I have felt in my life, until I had a son of my own. 

In my life, the separation from my mother came from both sides.  She moved away at various points in my development for various reasons of her own, but I also moved away from her – especially during adolescence and later in my development.  Part of the violence of my movement away was the wish to get some distance from a relationship that felt so intense that at times it felt like it threatened to engulf me.  And, from the perspective of myself as a mature, more or less well-organized adult, the wish to create distance that I direct feels under my control; when my mother wants to be closer it is her wish to be closer that is uncomfortable, not the distance between us.  And it is from this perspective that the book, though certainly flawed in a variety of ways, worked for me because it un-worked me.  I felt betrayed by Jack’s mother as she moved away from seeing the world through her son’s eyes and instead articulated her own wishes and needs.  As she moved more and more into her own skin, I became more and more upset with her.

The most painful part then, for me, of this coming of age tale – and it is a coming of age tale for both the mother and Jack, as weird as it is for a five year old to be coming of age – is the separation – the pulling away – of the mother from Jack.  And this, in turn, is because it causes a type of regression in me.  I am no longer the relatively mature adult, but instead my five-year-old self emerges, a self that longs for his mother’s closeness, or, more accurately, from Jack’s perspective, simply expects it to be there.  When she pulls away from me, I feel helpless, scared, and concerned about myself – in the form of Jack.  When Ma creates a plan that requires Jack to act, I am certain that he is not up to the task.  And when he demonstrates competence, I feel like the plot is strained.

My regression is induced by the book’s narrative.  Psychoanalysis is intended to induce a similar regression; one that is intended to help us remember what our earlier life was like.  Of course, it can never be as it once was.  I can read from Jack’s description what his mother is thinking and feeling even though he doesn’t have access to that – he really is five, while I am just remembering what it was like to be five.  But remembering what it was like creates an opportunity for me and for analytic patients.  We have the emotional immediacy of something occurring now – not in the distant past – and we know now, and feel now, the other side of the coin – that we not only want to distance ourselves from closeness (in this case) but we also desperately desire it and are puzzled by the autonomous strivings of those on whom we depend.  Like my patients, when these competing and complementary desires become alive to me, I can work on reconciling them in whatever way I will.  But this reconciliation will not involve simply denying one half of it – my desire for closeness – but will involve integrating that desire with my own desires for autonomy, desires that mirror the desires of Ma.

Ultimately, Ma's movement away, which leads to my movements away, can lead to a position where I am more comfortably autonomous, but also more comfortable expressing my needs for closeness and connection.  Especially when the kind of firm base that Ma’s attention has provided to Jack and to me is exposed by her absence, but also her reasonable, if intermittent availability, we can learn to grieve the loss of the closeness, and also to embrace the freedoms the autonomy affords.

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