Further exploring various dynamics of the mother and daughter relationship [For the first part in this series click here], we’ll have a look at a scene from Postcards from the Edge (1990).
This film is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Carrie Fisher (daughter of actress Debbie Reynolds). Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) plays the addiction-prone actress daughter of movie star Doris Mann (Shirley Maclaine). Doris is portrayed as overbearing, controlling, manipulative, competitive, narcissistic and self-absorbed; Suzanne is very much in her shadow.
In a particular scene towards the end of the film [click here to watch], Suzanne is doing a voice-over for a film she’s just made. She has a heart-to-heart conversation with her director, fatherly Lowell (Gene Hackman):
Suzanne: The trouble is, I can’t feel my life. I can’t feel it. I see it all around me and I know that so much of it is good. But I just take it the wrong way. It’s like this thing…with my mother. I know she does all this stuff because she loves me…but I just can’t believe it.
Lowell: I don’t know about your mother. Maybe she’ll stop mothering you when you grow up.
Suzanne: You don’t know my mother.
Lowell: I don’t. I know you can make a mother out of anybody. Look, your mother did it to you, and her mother did it to her… and back all the way to Eve. At some point, you stop it and say: “Fuck it. I start with me.” Grow up. Leave your mother.
Suzanne, in saying “I just can’t believe it,” can’t seem to take in (and internalize) what goodness her mother does have to offer. But what is not expressed in this scene is that there are perhaps ways in which Doris does not have such loving feelings towards her daughter, as illustrated further on.
It seems taboo to consider that a mother has anything but purely positive, loving feelings towards her children, but as humans we have a whole range of feelings in all kinds of relationships and situations, and our offspring are not exempt from our anger, hatred, jealousy, envy, resentment and so forth. However, the more that we can accept and acknowledge honestly whatever comes up for us emotionally, the less likely we are to do damage to others unconsciously. If we can put our “darker” sides where we can see them, we can keep an eye on them. There they have less ability to ambush us, taking us (and others) unawares.
Lowell mentions Suzanne’s part of the equation; her task is to grow up (in psychological terms, to truly separate from her mother and individuate). By not becoming more adult, Suzanne is doing her part to maintain the status quo with her mother. As Lowell says, “I know you can make a mother out of anybody,” meaning that Suzanne’s immature behavior elicits mothering on the part of others. While it’s not as easy to do as simply “growing up and leaving your mother,” (it requires work) it does point in the right direction.
In the next scene, Doris ends up in the ER with a concussion, having hit a tree while driving under the influence. Suzanne arrives; her maternal grand-parents are also in the hospital room. We get a glimpse into the inter-generational dynamics that Lowell mentions.
Grandmother: I got a wino daughter and a doped-up granddaughter. I don’t know where you [Doris] get it from. But you [Suzanne]! You’re just spoiled. You’ve thrown everything away. I told you not to bring her up that way. Would you listen? Don’t run to me now…
Suzanne: Oh, shut up, Grandma.
Grandmother: If you’d washed her mouth out with soap when she was little…
Suzanne: I’m simply suggesting that we all try to enjoy each other without having to assign blame.
Grandmother: Listen to Miss Snooty Britches, “assign blame.”
Suzanne then escorts her grandmother to the door.
Doris: If I thought I made you feel like that, I’d kill myself. I suppose she means well.
Here again, there is a supposition that Doris’s mother “means well.” The notion that a mother would not mean well flies in the face of all that we want to believe about mothers. None of us means well all the time. And at times, behavior that seems “well-meaning” can mask ulterior motives or hidden agendas that not even the bearer is aware of. This behavior may also be overcompensation for our darker emotions. However if we can own and acknowledge these shadowy, less than ideal feelings and refrain from acting on them, then the risk of doing damage to others lessens.
Suzanne: She sounds like the voice in your head that tells you you can’t do anything.
“The voice in your head that tells you you can’t do anything” refers to the “savage inner voice,” otherwise known as the Super-Ego. Most often this is a voice internalized from our mothers or other caretakers.
Doris: You don’t really think I don’t want you to do well?
Suzanne: No, Ma.
Doris: You know, dear? I think I’m…I think I’m sort of…jealous of you. And that is because, well…it being your turn and all. I think I find it tough to face that mine is almost up. It’s real important to enjoy your turn. And it would help me a lot if I knew that one of us enjoyed our youth.
Finally, Doris acknowledges her feelings of jealousy towards her daughter which may explain ways in which she hasn’t wanted her daughter to do well. In this scene, it seems unrealistic to have such a quick turn-around towards generosity, but here again, it points in the right direction. The more honest and authentic that we can be about what is truly going on for us makes way for less shame, less defense, and makes room for true generosity (versus generosity which compensates for guilt or shame).