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French psycholanalyst André Green is the originator of the “dead mother complex.” The dead mother complex is sometimes not readily identifiable, as it “emerges during transference.” A repetition of infantile depression brings on transference depression; the subject is often not able to recall its origins. An object usually sparks the onset of depression, and causes mourning. The reasons for the mourning can be numerous. However, the causes are “not admitted by the maternal object.” Therefore, in analysis, the hypothesis must be deduced with a degree of uncertainty.
The psychoanalyst’s chief observable consequence is a coldness, something that seems hard and unfeeling when counter-transference occurs. This happens because of a withdrawal (decathexis) by the mother that the child is unable to comprehend and thus upsets his or her entire world. To cope with the pain, the child creates elaborate defense mechanisms. This is how the “dead mother complex” develops. Unable to reconnect with the mother, the child focuses instead on some object that stands-in for that mother. This is not a conscious choice. The child may then “murder” the object upon which he has transferred his pain, but this destruction occurs without any hatred on the child’s part. The reason this seems to occur calmly is because the “maternal affliction” denies any expression of aggression, as this would “risk augmenting maternal detachment.” However, now the structure of the object-relation has been injured, but the emotional energy (cathexis) is desperately retained. Silent destruction prevents the child from reconnection to an object relation, by which he or she could resolve the conflict. This creates openings for other connections that construct a shield, that protects the “kernel of the conflict.” The only remaining feelings from the initial object connection are a “dull, psychic pain” and an inability to emotionally connect with anything or anyone. Both love and hate are now impossible; feelings of any kind are not received or given. The “dead mother” looms over all, but is not consciously represented and the child (or subject) is essentially “a captive in mourning to her.”
A sign for the psychoanalyst that dead mother complex is present in the patient is the subject’s inability to understand or explain his reason for his detachment from emotion. The subject, after suffering repeated episodes of infantile depression, now experiences a loss meaning, a lack of desire, and feelings of inability to repair the mourned-for object. Rationalization, sometimes elaborate ones, may obscure the source of the conflict. The blame the child assigns is to a “failure of subjective omnipotence” in his or her personal relationships. He or she compensates by assigning omnipotence to areas not as directly connected to the original object.
The psychoanalyst will not see good results using Oedpial analysis, as this analysis does not get to the heart of the “complex of the dead mother.” Her role in the subject’s state of mind is an unconscious one, and as such, she is difficult to identify. She only uncoverable when signs of her are missing.
The subject has repressed almost everything in the dead mother complex: the mother’s touch, her words, the subject’s emotional connections to her before the period of mourning began. This repression seeks to bury literally everything about her that would indicate she had ever existed at all. It is the absence of meaningful connections that the psychoanalyst should be aware of.
The brain has created these protective mechanisms for three reasons. First, it must protect the ego through “secondary hatred of the object.” This may result in a unrelenting search for pleasure or through searches for meaning regarding displacements. Secondly, attempts to “reanimate the dead mother” occur by developing overwhelming interest in her. Finally, the subject competes with “the object of mourning in a precocious triangulation.”
After studying these cases in the analysis, André Green concluded that there is a “framing structure for the ego.” The ego first hides the “negative hallucination of the mother.” The dead mother complex prevents the pain of vacuity but in doing so, it prevents the subjects’ capacity to bond.
Source: International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, ©2005 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.
In Andre Green's words, the dead mother concept
...refers to an image which has been constituted in the child`s mind, following maternal depression, brutally transforming a living object, which was a source of vitality for the child, into a distant figure, toneless, practically inanimate, … [The] dead mother…is a mother who remains alive but who is, so to speak, psychically dead in the eye of the young child in her care.`
There is a quest for this lost object, but every time something new comes to fill this space, the "dead mother" is felt and an emptiness comes to the person, making true feeling impossible. Consequently, those with this "dead mother complex" have difficulty experiencing real love. Ironically, the individual seeks solitude because it affords the illusion that the "dead mother" has left him alone. But, of course, all of this makes the chance of real pleasure difficult. So, the individual constructs inner worlds that remove him from the trauma.
This complex leaves some incapable of new experiences because there is a loss of meaning for them and the sense of an inability to "fix" any relationship because there is only a vacuum left. Often a repression occurs in the individual ego which buries the mother; certainly, there is a negativity.
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