The Legacy of Absencing

The transformation in the psychical life, at the moment of the mother’s sudden bereavement when she has become abruptly detached from her infant, is experienced by the child as a catastrophe; because, without any warning signal, love has been lost at one blow . . .. [which] carries in its wake, besides the loss of love, the loss of meaning. (Green, 1996, p. 150)

What results from this catastrophe is what Green called the dead mother complex. The mother is alive but psychically dead to her child, and in some ways the baby psychically dies with her. Even beyond infancy, the loss of a good, responsive world– one that provides protection, continuity, and recognition that we matter– challenges our ability to believe in anything. And when meaning is lost, what is left? What is the legacy of this kind of loss?

Therapist and memoirist Linda Joy Myers has reflected on her efforts to break the cycle of mothers abandoning their young daughters that was repeated through generations of women in her family.  Recognizing the potential for repetition in her own life, she has consciously devoted herself to avoiding this legacy. Like others who have consciously made an effort to understand the source of the absence that plagues them (such as Jane Fonda or Paul Auster, who I will discuss in later posts), Myers came to understand the history of forces that propelled her mother’s absence. Her mother became more than a bad, abandoning, absent part of her, which in turn helped her mourn.

Consciously is probably the key word here, because it is the unremembered and unresolved–those experiences that cannot be spoken or even thought– that exercise so much power in repetition. In Ghosts in the Nursery, Selma Fraiberg and her colleagues (Fraiberg, Adelson, & Shapiro, 1975) observed how the unremembered is reenacted, that parents are likely to unconsciously reenact their own early unresolved traumas with their children, scaring their children in the ways that they were scared, creating absence in ways that it was once inflicted on them, identifying with their own abusive parents as if possessed by hurtful, nonrecognizing ghosts. It is all done unconsciously, from a state of absence that once came from outside of them, was done to them, and which now lives inside.

Ed Tronick’s still-face experiments   have had an important influence on our being able to recognize the moment-to-moment impact of a parent’s responsive presence or disengaged absence with his or her child. His videos show the immediate impact of parental absence (while the parent is present) on an infant’s wellbeing. After failed efforts to reengage the mother, finding only absence, a blank stare, unable to find itself in the mother’s eyes and mind, the baby joins the mother in absence, in psychic deadness. Offered nothing, it has nothing. Tronick points out that disconnection and reconnection–rupture and repair– is not only a normal part of development, it promotes growth. But what happens when the reconnections just aren’t reliable enough, can’t be internalized and integrated as expectable, trustworthy aspects of one’s experience?

An Example

John Lennon’s story presents a strange and startling illustration of how absence can become a legacy. When John was five his mother Julia gave him up to an aunt, after the aunt threatened to call social services on her—the reasons for the threat are unclear, but his mother complied. His father abandoned him early and was not a presence in his young life. When John was a teenager, Julia was hit by a car and died. In a later interview he said he’d lost her twice: first at the age of 5, and again at 16.

Even though his mother had stayed in his life, apparently this was not enough to repair the internal wound of absence. The impact of the absencing he experienced was profound if we can judge from some of his music. At the end of the song “Mother” , he screams wrenchingly, in rage and longing, for both of his parents, over and over again. (Lennon wrote this song while undergoing primal scream therapy, which encourages the cathartic screaming out of early pain. Although Lennon has live performances of this song in which he protests peoples’ assumptions that the song is autobiographical, there are also quotes of him saying it is about his mother).

The song “God” (which follows “Mother” in the above youtube link), could be seen as a description of internal absence—a lack of meaning, a loss of dreams. He lists the things he doesn’t believe in: Magic, Jesus, Beatles, and although he then proclaims “I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality” this could be interpreted as him absenting a world that has hurt him and asked too much of him, not recognizing him in the ways he needs. Only Mother Yoko gives him that.

Rolling Stone Issue 335: John Lennon & Yoko Ono Photograph by Annie Leibovitz (January 22, 1981)

In the 3rd song in the link, “Working Class Hero” he sings:

As soon as you’re born they make you feel small
By giving you no time instead of it all
Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all

A lack of recognition that causes so much pain it overwhelms the possibility of feeling anything–absence resulting in absence. 

And then there are the strange repetitions—the legacy of absence that followed him into his sons. He left Julian when he was 5 and did not even see him for a couple of years. John died when Sean was 5. Five. The same age that his mother abandoned him!

And these boys, now middle-aged men,  have been so protective of their mothers

Julian’s mother Cynthia has died, and Sean’s mother Yoko is in her 80’s, but wasn’t there always some danger of maternal loss for these boys? Didn’t John unwittingly bring the aggressive, threatening scorn of the world into their mothers’ lives? It seems possible that these mothers were dead mothers to their sons at a certain point: Cynthia, abandoned, rejected, publicly humiliated, Yoko abandoned and bereaved. Could they have been fully present for their 5 year old boys? What is the intergenerational legacy of all this absence?

Julian Lennon posted this photo in his tribute to his mother . Of course, this is a slanted perspective, but I am struck by John, turned away, Cynthia in dark glasses, Julian alone.


Fraiberg, S., Adelson, E. & Shapiro, V. (1975). Ghosts in the nursery: a psycho-analytic approach to the problems of impaired infant–mother relationships.Amer. Acad. Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 14:387-421.

Green, A. (1996). The dead mother. In On private madness (pp. 142-173). London: Karnac Books.


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