Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Patriarchy and the Family: The Birth of Pleasure by Carol Gilligan

[I actually wrote most of this blog entry in June.]

My thesis director mentioned that Carol Gilligan had done some work on mothers and sons; unable to figure out what on my own, I e-mailed her. She directed me to her recent book The Birth of Pleasure, particularly the second chapter. There are, incidentally, only three chapters in the book, but in the end I read all of them, as I found the book as a whole relevant to not only my thesis but my relationship with my fiance as well. In fact, The Birth of Pleasure provides insight into the entire patriarchal structure that affects (my) family life; I would like to share my thoughts on that here.

First, re: my relationship with my fiance: Gilligan writes that women in relationships seek certain "resonances" if they are to speak freely (17): a sense of their confidant's understanding of and responsiveness to their ideas. For example, in the last chapter of The Birth of Pleasure, Gilligan gives an example from the Michael Ondaatje novel The English Patient in which a relationship ends - terribly tragically - because a man, Almasy, cannot provide the words that the woman, Katherine, needs to stay. Instead, she feels that "in his silences he had left" her. Katherine asks Almasy questions, looking for reassurance of his love for her that would come from his negative responses to them: "If I gave you my life, you would drop it. Wouldn't you?" "If I leave you, who will you go to? Would you find another lover? [...] Deny it, damn you." But he says nothing. Later, he realizes that it was those moments that caused their problems: "She had always wanted words. [...] She loved them, grew up in them. Words gave her clarity, brought reason, shape. Whereas I thought words bent emotions like sticks in water" (182-183).

In that respect, Katherine could be me.

Gilligan also writes of Freud's work with his female patients and his insight into their
needs which, once met, solved their physical and psychological problems: Women need "a sympathetic sounding board" so that they can speak again with "a voice that had receded into silence" (225) at the hands of their gender socialization. Patriarchy, Gilligan explains, defines femininity as "a willingness to compromise oneself for the sake of relationships," as women do by lapsing into silence; girls, on the other hand, "are given more leeway with respect to femininity until adolescence" (17), at which point relationships become possible that would require it, according to that patriarchal definition of femininity.

I actually wonder whether I ever underwent the break between my "true voice" and my "actual voice" myself, since I don't remember the shock that Gilligan describes as accompanying that break. Further, I don't accord with that patriarchal definition of femininity either. I do not often verbally compromise - "I don't pull any punches," as I like to say - nor do I often remain silent. As Jane Austen's heroine Elizabeth Bennet says, "I must speak as I find." And indeed, as is also the case for Elizabeth, those characteristics have interfered with my ability to maintain relationships with the men in my life. Their complaints have generally been not that I think that I am right most of the time but that I actually am. I have even had therapists "diagnose" me as such when I have sought counseling for problems in my interpersonal relationships.When I reflect on my childhood, I cannot find in it any marked gender socialization one way or the other. I deeply credit my parents for that, but - or perhaps I should say because - I have found it impossible to understand or respect mainstream - that is, patriarchal - societal notions as a result.

Meanwhile, masculinity, according to patriarchy, is "an ability to stand alone and forgo relationships" (16), but boys' "initiation [...] into the codes of masculinity intensifies around the age of five" (17). Gilligan posits that boys' socialization takes place at an earlier age than girls' because of parental concerns about sons' "ability to hold [their] own on the playground" that their "expression of tenderness or vulnerability" would somehow threaten. Those concerns lead parents to encourage their sons to suppress such expressions, and thus parents impede their previously close relationship with their sons (16) - despite the fact that "One confiding relationship, meaning a relationship where one can speak one's heart and mind freely, has been found to be the best protection against most forms of psychological trouble, especially in times of stress" (15). In that respect, Gilligan's idea here reminds me of bell hooks's argument in The Will to Change: namely, that men also need to be able to express their feelings and feel acceptance of them as well. Patriarchy, though, as Gilligan notes, is not a matter of "the oppression of women by men" but "literally [...] a hierarchy--a rule of priests--in which the priest, the hieros, is a father. It describes an order of living that elevates fathers, separating fathers from sons (the men from the boys) and placing both sons and women under a father's authority" (4-5). And so "The opening into a confiding relationship is blocked by fears that if [one reveals] parts of [oneself] that are deemed unmanly or unwomanly, [one] will sacrifice the love and intimacy [one desires] so intensely" (143). Thus patriarchy oppresses all of us.

Thank goodness that I read this book before my son turns five this fall!

But really, Gilligan's book offers another description of how to enact feminist mothering of sons (and I'm proud to say that they're methods that I'm already enacting with mine): Don't shield your son from your feelings, and don't ask him to do the same from you with his, as either would place a barrier between you (16). And yet I worry that my control over my son's gender socialization is already slipping away from me. Lately I have noticed him expressing more and more awareness of what patriarchal masculinity forbids to him; he manifests that awareness by discussing what he wants to do with his future daughter (!), since he already feels that he cannot any longer want it for himself: He says, "I will buy her flowers," for instance.

Alex has been in one kind of child care or another since he was six weeks old, so of course some of his socialization has come from those environments. And most of the time that child care has been unavoidable, particularly when I was working full-time during the first nine months of his life and then finishing my Bachelor's and working on my Master's degree much of the rest of the time. But now that we're living with Dennis, I could've managed to keep Alex at home for at least a year; delaying the rest of my graduate education would allow me to keep him home even longer. Would the sacrifice be worth it, though, or would his patriarchal gender socialization take place nonetheless - perhaps especially because to some extent it already has? Or would my keeping him away from "normal" gender socialization prevent him from functioning well in society, as is so often the case with home-schooled children? And, as suggested above, would that be a bad thing or a good thing?

Of course, the ideal approach would be to enable my son to learn the "rules" of our world and also how to evaluate and resist them while not preventing me from living my life for more than just him - which would be part of my teaching of him about resistance to those rules. I worry about how possible such a feat can be, though - especially after reading this book.

Gilligan tells of a patient, "Dan," who, every time he experiences pleasure, immediately afterward recedes into absence from relationship. "Maybe I didn't want it to last," he says. "I didn't know what to do with it" (41). In fact, Dan suggests "that he is more comfortable feeling miserable than he is feeling happy; to feel happy and open, he says, 'makes me feel vulnerable'" (43).

Even after Freud realized what he did about women's needs, his own gender socialization interfered: He could not align himself with women against the rest of the profession and the world (227). He could not allow them their own knowledge. As a scientist and a man, he instead had to claim knowledge. He "aligns himself with Oedipus the king, the solver of riddles [...] the tyrant who usurps authority" - women's authority (228). "The enemy of freedom," Gilligan writes, "is not structure but totalitarianism, which sets out systematically to destroy freedom, co-opting voice and confusing language in a public enactment of terror" (233). She explains that "Both love and democracy depend on voice--having a voice and also the resonance that makes it possible to speak and be heard. Without voice, there is no relationship; without resonance, voice recedes into silence" (232).

Gilligan calls it "the birth of tragedy": "The alignment of knowledge with fathers." At that point Freud replaces reality with fantasy, "the young woman speaking about her experience of an incestuous relationship with her father" with "the young boy, fantasizing about an incestuous relationship with his mother": the Oedipus myth (229). And perhaps it really is "only" myth, "only" fantasy, that manifests itself in so many representations of the Oedipus complex in literature and film - such as the story of Cupid and Psyche from Apuleius' novel Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, which Gilligan relates as follows: Venus, Cupid's mother, envious of the young woman Psyche's supposed resemblance to her, calls for Cupid, "and kissing him long and intensely with parted lips, she beseeches him in the name of the maternal bond to punish that 'defiant beauty'" by making her "fall in love with the most wretched of men. Cupid takes off for the high mountain ledge" where Psyche awaits, "but when he sees the beautiful and terrified young woman who looks like his mother, he predictably falls in love with her." But Psyche has to follow Cupid's rules that his relationship with his mother makes necessary: She cannot ever look at him or know his identity (23-24). (Can you imagine being expected to accept not knowing who your husband is - and that when you didn't even get to choose him yourself?!) When she finally does break his rule, he leaves her and returns to his mother (40). What a surprise.

Ultimately, Gilligan sees the myth of Cupid and Psyche as revolutionary - even feminist - because in the end it involves the transformation of a world that otherwise forces "both men and women [to] suffer losses that constrain their ability to love" (46). However, it is Jupiter, "Cupid's father and the chief of the Olympian gods," who at his son's request creates "a world" in which he removes "the ligaments of patriarchy, making [Cupid and Psyche's] relationship 'no longer uneven' and freeing their love from the threat that Cupid will leave Psyche if she does not obey him" so that Cupid can have the woman of his choice (156). However, I must point out that these circumstances - that Cupid and Psyche's world is separate from the one in which patriarchy continues to reign supreme and that a male created this other world to serve another male, his son's, interests - do not bode well for Gilligan's definition of the myth as feminist. Further, Venus' order that Cupid make Psyche fall for "the most wretched of men" - which turns out to be himself - also accords with my understanding of society's attitude toward the sons of "controlling" mothers such as Venus, as I discuss at length in my thesis. Again, what a surprise.

So Freud silences women, co-opting their voices and replacing their ideas with his own, replacing women's concerns with men's. As Gilligan explains:

Freud receded from the psychically intimate, pleasurable, and fruitful relationship that he had established with his women patients. The rush of discovery Freud experienced in these relationships and the deep human sympathy he felt with the women had become associated with danger and vulnerability, including the risk of appearing gullible or intellectually naive in the eyes of fathers. With the death of his father, he became the father, identification replacing a lost relationship, and with this replacement, Freud became the hero of his own tragic story. (230)

Thus for men (and male gods), as well as women, it is the vulnerability that they dare not risk that keeps them from connecting with one another, from understanding one another. What is required to take that risk? Trust. Trust, Gilligan writes, makes it "possible to open oneself freely to another and to find the other again after the inevitable breaks in connection. It is the condition for living with change." And what, then, is required for trust? Words. Words that "hold a promise not necessarily to stay married but to stay in relationship" (232) - that is, "being in sync with another person," as distinct from "relationships" (9), which, as above, tend to instead entail "dissociation [...] the psychic mechanism that allows survival in patriarchy" (11). The promise is not "the goodness of the [person] or the relationship" though; rather, "it is the ability of the [people in the relationship] together to repair the breaks in their relationship," and that is what is necessary to build "a safe house for love" (31). The words that communicate that promise, Gilligan finds, are: "I will never lie to you, I will never leave you, I will never try to possess you" (232).

And they are dangerous words. It is difficult to say such words knowing that there are reasons why you would leave someone: adultery, abuse - the other person's violation of those words. It requires trust to say them, as even an awareness of the implicit contract that they involve - that is, if one breaches the contract, then the contract is broken, and neither is bound by it anymore - doesn't reduce the fear of pain and loss that would come with that unbinding. Thus we have a vicious circle: We cannot trust without hearing and believing the words that we must trust one another in order to say. And if, like me, you do not pull any punches - if you do not compromise well because you have been hurt or even abused - these ideals are even more difficult to achieve.

Then there is the story of "Phil." Phil is another of Gilligan's patients; he worried that giving himself to his wife "Sonya," rather than just his financial support, as he explains, "would soften me, or maybe it would take the focus off my business. Most of our discussions, [...] she has been a great listener. She listened to me about the business a lot" (50). So Phil had bought into the patriarchal definition of masculinity. But Phil doesn't know what Sonya really wanted: him "being present, caring about what's going on with the family and with" her (50). Sonya explains further:

I really wish we could be best friends. That's what I think a marriage--a happy marriage--should be. . . . And a friendship to me is a mutual thing, so if one person starts acting weird, then the other person can say, you know, "What's wrong with you? What's going on?" Or whatever, and then you could readjust. But if that doesn't happen, then I can see that I could start walling off. (51)

And indeed Sonya did feel "that she could not speak and be heard" (51) - the patriarchal assignment for women - and thus, like Phil, she "began to wall herself off as well" (51). She had an affair - "the ultimate nightmare," Phil says, because it could have caused him "to never have the opportunity to show her how I really feel and to be a family man, to open my heart and to love her." But even to do so now, Phil "wants a guarantee that if he opens his heart to Sonya, she will open herself to him" (53).

Dan and Phil remind me a little of some of the sides of Dennis that I've seen.

Of course, the danger comes, as I've described here, from patriarchy, which, "by establishing hierarchy in the heart of intimacy, is inherently tragic." And then Gilligan offers a possible explanation for the pervasiveness of the Oedipus myth (or, as I discuss in my thesis, the Monster Mother trope): "like all trauma survivors, we keep telling the story we need to listen to and understand. At the same time, we look for ways to break what quickly becomes a vicious cycle" (7-8) - a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it were. Gilligan explains how Freud writes in his essay "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" that "we repeat a traumatic experience, or whatever version we tell ourselves of the tragic story" as "an attempt at mastering loss--the fantasy that it will come out right this time. [...] Knowing the end of the story, knowing the tragedy, we have vowed never to repeat it. And yet of course we repeat it over and over again, until we know it by heart" (163). Thus, Gilligan writes, love is "a courageous act," for:

To free love and pleasure from the trappings of a manhood or womanhood that holds them captive means to undo dissociation by risking association--knowing what one knows, feeling one's feelings, being naked in the presence of another by removing the protective clothes of masculinity and femininity, however they are culturally designed. (18)

And there is that risk again, that need for trust.

At one point in the book, Gilligan quotes some advice that she gives to the father of a five-year-old boy that ultimately is, in my opinion, the crux of the whole book. She writes:

If you are going to be open and in relationship, you are vulnerable. I mean, that's just it. The only way to stop, not be vulnerable, is to close yourself off. At that point, you're vulnerable to a whole set of other things. But in terms of the openness, the vulnerability, if you have that, then you can make some choices around it. Otherwise, if you lose that, you have no choice. (68)

Again, it is patriarchy, I note, that gives us no choice. So I don't really think that, as posited above, the Oedipus myth is meant to help us cope with a past trauma; rather, as Gilligan also writes, "the Oedipus complex is about: sexualizing the intimacy [between a mother and her son], placing it under taboo, linking freedom with leaving women and going off with men, and making any woman who resists this separation a virtual Jocasta, Oedipus' 'unspeakable mother'" - even though she also points out that really, "Jocasta didn't resist" that separation (74). Thus patriarchy created that mythical family's trauma, just as it continues to traumatize families today, as I've discussed here.

Feminism, on the other hand, does allow the choice to stay in relationship. Or, as Gilligan puts, it, "love erodes patriarchy" (73). And that's why patriarchy finds feminism and the unfettered love that it advocates so dangerous. As Gilligan quotes from "philosopher and constitutional-law scholar" David Richards's Women, Gays, and the Constitution, even two hundred years ago "feminism was more controversial than abolitionism" (14).

Likewise, feminist parenting of sons is also controversial, particularly among parents themselves, as I discuss in my thesis. As Gilligan writes, "Within a patriarchal society and culture, mother and son are a potentially revolutionary couple. If the mother resists sacrificing her relationship with her son for the sake of his initiation into patriarchy, the patriarchal plot cannot go forward" (135). Gilligan also points out some of the ways that allowing boys to remain in relationship can feel dangerous when she shares Tom's story of his 5-year-old son Jake, whose focus on "what is happening emotionally in the room [...] is separating him from the other boys, and he is losing his position in the group" (66). It's the age-old question of whether it's in children's best interests to fit into a problematic society or to resist those problems and remain at the margins. When it comes to drugs, there's no question of where we as parents stand, but this matter feels different somehow.

Gilligan also shares stories of the mothers of these young boys talking about

the freedom they feel with their sons to feel their feelings, a freedom often signaled by a mother's discovery that her son can know her anger without turning on her or leaving her, know it as an emotion in the way they know her love. For a woman, for any woman living in patriarchy, it is extraordinarily freeing to go back or forward into a time when love is not split from anger, when the universe of emotion returns as a world in which she can move freely, where she is not bedeviled by a split between good and bad women, one loving, the other angry--images of women that are surreal, that come from the unconscious of men. Which may be why these mothers' experiences with their sons are so powerful--why Clara speaks of such intensity of feeling, real rage and also the most intense love--because it signifies such release. There is no way to love freely, to experience freedom in loving, when you cannot feel your feelings, and anger is just that, a feeling. (71)

Women being free to engage in all of their emotions - even anger, which is usually unacceptable in patriarchal femininity - is one more danger though, as it violates the patriarchal definition of femininity as self-compromise, as above. "It is not surprising to discover that young boys can teach us about knowing and loving," Gilligan explains, as in interacting with them, "we remember what children see before they are taught how to see" (109). Mothers in particular can remember that, since they were adolescents when they were inducted into patriarchy, unlike fathers. A mother "in turning toward her son" is therefore "turning away from the values and the judgments of patriarchy" (72). Perhaps that, rather than society's disapprobation of such mothers' sons, is the real problem for patriarchy. Perhaps that is the reason for the Oedipus myth.

  • Apuleius. Metamorphoses. J. Arthur Hanson, ed., trans. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989.
  • Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice, 1813.
  • Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. James Strachey, ed., trans. London: The Hogarth P, 1961.
  • Gilligan, Carol. The Birth of Pleasure. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2002.
  • hooks, bell. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York: Atria Books, 2004.
  • Richards, David A.J. Women, Gays, and the Constitution: The Grounds for Feminism and Gay Rights in Culture and Law. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998.