Wrestling With the Witch

Editor’s note: This post is part 1 in a 3 part series on the Mother-Son dynamic. Click here for the other posts in the series.

The other night I had a dream: I was running down a dark street. I had a lot of money in my wallet, and knew it was dangerous to be in that part of the city. Some young gang members started running beside me. I was afraid they would hurt me. I ran faster but found them to be completely uninterested in me or my money. Suddenly I found myself on the front porch of a house. A hideously ugly, unkempt woman Breaking The Mother-Son Dynamicappeared, speaking horrible words and snatching at my money. I managed to escape. But I knew I hadn’t “wrestled” with her and won. I had merely run away. Something told me I would have to face her again in the future.

In dreams and fairy tales, as in life, Man wants Woman—beautiful, sensuous, desirable Woman. He runs away from the “ugly sister” or the “hideous damsel” or the “witch” who appear in fairy tales and dreams often as princesses. Yet many old tales feature scenes in which a young man must embrace the less than attractive, usually aging woman as part of his rite of passage into manhood. He must not be afraid of her grotesqueness or the possible power she may possess. Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast opens with just such a scene; because the prince shuns the hag, she turns him into a grotesque monster.

For men, the source of this aversion to the witch is usually the relationship to Mother. Try as they may to repress the witch within, many mothers eventually reveal that side of themselves. We see it in the resentful, aging mother who envies her son’s first date and eventually his young wife. Many mothers try to hide this, putting their best foot forward, looking their best, bestowing loving smiles all around. But then they feel a craving to eat their young children, much as many mothers have nibbled on their babies’ toes while saying, “I could just eat Mama’s little darling up.”

In her dissertation Medusas Daughters: A Study of Womens Consciousness in Myth and Poetry, Karen Elias-Button writes:

The Great Mothers maternal force has often been characterized as grasping, even paralyzing, its effect sometimes damaging . . . This dark side of the mother, whose face is Medusas own, has found its way into male mythology and psychology as . . . the Stone Mother . . . whose powers must be permanently destroyed to enable the male hero to attain maturity.

This witch, or Stone Mother, existed in everybody’s mothers except our own—or so we may have thought as children. By late adolescence and early adulthood, we knew how terrible our mothers could sometimes be, but we dared not let that knowledge seep into our consciousness and certainly not into our language. Our mothers were always shining paragons of virtue, idols whose images we would suffer no one to sully. If we got into fights, we knew that insulting the other person’s mother was the quickest, surest way to provoke him. “Your mother wears army boots!” was one of the milder expressions of bygone days; a more vivid insult appears in the movie The Exorcist when the devil tries to anger the priest by saying, “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” And in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, a man tries every way he knows to rile Malcolm and finally succeeds when he says something about his mother—so Malcolm smashes a beer bottle over his head.

Trying to hold on to an image of Mother as all-good is natural. But the darkness inside Mother must also be made part of our conscious awareness. If not, then we push the witch into the dungeon of our unconscious, where it is at risk of being projected onto flesh-and-blood women who at worst we burn at the stake and at best we simply ignore. Sometimes the all-bad witch-Mother is the dominant image a man carries through life. If this witch resides in the forefront of his consciousness, he becomes witchy himself: sarcastic, critical, perfectionistic, envious, or jealous—all of it witchy and hideous.

Until a man can admit to himself that his mother isn’t all sweetness and light, he will carry the witch inside him, refusing to embrace her or to wrestle with her. He will never acknowledge that he not only loves his mother but hates her as well. He will never be whole. If men don’t wrestle with the witch in their mothers, when the witch in their wives or lovers needs confronting, they won’t do it. Instead comes the passive-aggressive “Whatever you say, dear.” And that witch will eat him alive. And an easy job she’ll have of it too, because there will be no bones—particularly backbone—for her to break her teeth on.

But as the fairy tales would give us to understand, the act of embracing the witch sometimes transforms her into a wise old woman, known as a crone, who is more willing than we ever guessed to guide us to the interior princess. After all, the witch has special powers; she knows the way through the dark forest that separates us from another part of ourselves.

Once when my mother came to visit Grace and me at the farm in Asheville, she decided to let her worst side, the hideous witch, be fully present during the visit. She was controlling and passive- aggressive. At times she seemed ready to throw me into a boiling pot on the stove.

I realized that I had never fully let myself see this side of my mother. I always thought of her in the way that most people think of her: a loving, funny, charming Christian lady. In my other books I talked about how she raised us, and how she sucked out my energy to fill her own life and that I became her surrogate husband because my father was absent. But I had not, somehow, put the responsibility of this on her. I had carefully explored my father in my writings, listing his many failings, analyzing our relationship closely and, I realized now, unconsciously blaming him for making my mother turn me into a man before my time. Maybe if he hadn’t been absent (so my thinking went), that never would have happened.

But during this visit to our farm, I knew that the time had come at last to face the witch in my mother. She knew it, too; as I said earlier, Mom was well along in her recovery, and she had pointed out that I hadn’t yet found peace with her in the way I had with my father. The wrestling match began. I confronted her about the control- ling, manipulative behavior I’d experienced from her the day, and decades, before. It was not a pretty sight. She yelled. I yelled. She got up to walk out but then sat back down. She verbally attacked me, and then listened to me, heard me, and loved me. Finally we embraced. It was amazing. Both of us were aware that I had never spoken to her that way, face-to-face, in my life. In contrast to my usual non-confrontational way of being, I realized that in the last several months I’d been in two other rather ugly, unpleasant but highly energizing shouting matches with a couple of women—Grace and my mom. During those episodes I hadn’t really cared whether those women thought I was a “nice guy” or not. They certainly didn’t think that—and, lo and behold, I didn’t die.

After we cooled off from our confrontation, Mom told me that when she was my age, she had wrestled with the witch in her mother. She had told her that she had never felt loved by her. The same kind of exchange had resulted: anger, tears, and words flowed out of them for nearly a full day. After that my mother felt loved by her mother. Interestingly, Mom said that although she had never raised her voice to her mother before that day, she did so many times in the years to come. They argued, fought, confronted each other—and as a result my mom felt seen, heard, and loved.

Facing the witch breaks loose a whole new kind of energy in a relationship, and it often ends up bringing people closer. A colleague of mine has said many times that he can’t trust anyone he can’t fight with. I’m beginning to understand what he means.

Men, you can do this even if your mother has died; you just have to be able to articulate her witchiness. The payoff for fully understanding a relationship with a mother who has already passed on is as great as if she were still alive. Much of the work in breaking the Mother-Son Dynamic is not going to lead a man to directly confront his mother. This work is to be done in journal writing or creativity of any kind, talking with the men in your men’s group, writing letters that will never be sent, etc.

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John Lee

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John Lee has been a leader and author in men’s health issues for over a decade. Lee began his career as a professor at Austin Community College, the University of Alabama, and the University of Texas. He has written 18 self-help, psychology, recovery, creativity, or relationship non-fiction books that explore men’s health issues, like alcoholism and co-dependency. In addition to literature, Lee has advocated for the maintenance and improvement of men’s health in magazines, like Newsweek and on shows such as Oprah and 20/20. In 1986, Lee co-founded Primary, Emotional, Energy, Recovery (P.E.E.R.), a training program for counselors, social workers, and psychotherapists. Two years later, he founded and directed Austin’s Men’s Center, a counseling center that specializes in men’s issues. In the late 1980’s, he opened his own private practice in Austin, Texas specializing in men’s issues, relationships, adult children of alcoholics, and co-dependency. His latest two books, The Anger Solution and When the Buddha Met Bubba, are on sale now on Amazon.com. More information about John Lee can be found on his web site http://www.johnleebooks.com and on his daily blog at http://openingtheheartnow.blogspot.com.
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