Posted by Coral Anika Theill
Author, Advocate, Speaker & Reporter
Memoir: BONSHEA Making Light of the Dark
The Story of Naming “Maternal Alienation”: New Research Enters the World of Policy and Practice by Anne Morris – A MUST READ
When maternal alienation takes place, mothers are positioned as the ones least able to make changes. A mother’s words are discredited before she even utters them, and her actions are reviled before she takes them. Whatever she does, she has been painted as the mad one, the bad one, the stupid one, the one who can’t be trusted. Her children will not listen to her or cooperate with her. Professional interventions that put pressure on her to make changes within the family such as changes to children’s behaviour, exacerbate this situation and problems are likely to escalate. This tends to “prove” to practitioners that the woman is the cause of the problems.
What is needed from practitioners is both understanding of how maternal alienation has operated to disempower and discredit mothers, and an attitude of respect towards them. Practitioners’ authority can be used positively to model respect towards the mother and authorise alternative narratives and behaviours for mother and child. This counterbalances the power and status of the alienator’s voice.
Women who leave violence and abuse often find they re-capture a sense of being a worthwhile person that was lost during the abuse; they may discover they have values and a personality that were buried for years. This (re-) emerging self can be strengthened during work with mothers and children, as together they create a life that they choose. Becoming very clear about what they want in their lives enables women and children to re-frame who they are, and step outside the behaviours they adopted to survive the abuse, and the negative narratives about who they were.
It can be helpful for women and children to understand how the tactics of maternal alienation capitulated them into particular behaviours. For women, these tactics often worked to entrap them into ‘playing out’ the role assigned to them by the perpetrator. After leaving an abusive relationship, women and children often find that perpetrators’ tactics to control them escalate. They will need to hold on firmly to the alternative sense of themselves so that they are not tricked back into the old ways of behaving that ‘proved’ the perpetrators’ words about themselves.
What is needed from practitioners is both understanding of how maternal alienation has operated to disempower and discredit mothers, and an attitude of respect towards them.
The Story of Naming “Maternal Alienation”: New Research Enters the World of Policy and Practice by Anne Morris
Home Truths Conference – September 2004, Melbourne
Liz Kelly tells us that, “in order to define something a word has to exist with which to name it. …What is not named is invisible and, in a social sense, nonexistent” (1988 114). When I sought to understand why so many mothers who were victims of violence were blamed and often hated by their children, I found myself identifying and naming a phenomenon that had been virtually unnamed in the literature on violence against women.
I was drawn to research this from my experience as a practitioner working with women whose relationships with their children had broken down. In groups and counselling, I discovered the depth of their grief at losing their children, compounded by the blame they encountered from those around them, which further fed their self-blame as mothers. It seemed ironic that such a source of profound grief for women did not even deserve a word that identified their experience. For them, their children, families and communities, there seemed to be no way of understanding how their relationships had broken down other than seeing it as the mothers’ fault.
Findings from 1999 Research
The research project, conducted in 1999 (Morris 1999), discovered that in these cases of alienation, male perpetrators of violence against the women and/or children use an arsenal of strategies to deliberately undermine mother-child relationships. Most often the mother’s intimate partner and the child’s father or step-father, they employ these tactics in a number of different abusive contexts, including domestic violence and child sexual abuse. They use verbal messages and actions to position the mother in a place where children can hate and despise her, can insult and even abuse her themselves, where any action she makes becomes further proof of the statements made about her. These messages do not have to be based on any truth – their power is built on the commanding way in which they are conveyed, the rhetorical devices they use and the emotional responses they elicit. The messages are propaganda, and work powerfully on children, becoming more authoritative than children’s own experiences of their mother and of their abuse. As they conflict with children’s experiences, these assaults on children’s sense of reality have implications for their later mental health and healing.
In this campaign against the mother, the alienator manipulates and inscribes upon his victims demeaning stereotypes of women and mothers. Children, coached to copy the abusive behaviour of their father, are likely to form future relationships based on these gendered stereotypes, whereby men are encouraged to use power and violence for their own ends, and women are debased and held responsible for all ills. Whilst painting the mother as unloving, stupid, mad, lying, malicious and monstrous, the father portrays himself as good, rational, victimised, but heroic. As stereotypes have cultural currency, family members, community members and professionals readily adopt these images without much awareness or criticism. He becomes the ‘poor man’ that we easily sympathise with; the mother becomes ‘the bitch’ we love to demonise.
I named this campaign against mother and child and their relationship maternal alienation. This name defies the general trend towards gender neutral language, that conceals”women’s disadvantage in a range of institutional settings” (Gatens and Mackinnon 1998 xiv), and reminds us that this is a form of gendered violence aimed at mothers and mothering. By removing gender from the framing of problems of violence, a gender-neutral perspective obscures the role of gender and power in abusive relationships (Berns 2001). The term ‘maternal alienation’ was created also partly as a response to the contentious Parental alienation Syndrome (PAS) (Gardner 1987), used particularly by men in custody disputes in the United States, and increasingly in Australia, to undermine mothers’ allegations of their violence and abuse towards mother and/or child, predominantly child sexual abuse (Myers 1997; Dallam 1998). A favourite of the men’s rights groups, Parental alienation Syndrome insists that it is mainly women who alienate their children from their fathers, while being silent about fathers’ attempts to alienate children from their mothers. The term ‘maternal alienation’ subverts this ploy and draws attention to the prevalence of alienation aimed at mothers. The term also has potential to take account of the widespread existence of mother blaming within families, institutions and popular and professional discourses.
As maternal alienation occurs across a spectrum of abuse and violence, I found Liz Kelly’s idea of a ‘continuum’ of abuse helpful, as it acknowledges the interconnectedness of what are often seen as specific forms of abuse such as emotional, physical and sexual abuse (of women and children) (Kelly 1988). The concept of a continuum allows a consideration of the extent to which institutional structures and the practices of health and legal professionals contribute to maternal alienation, for I continue to discover that the alienation begun by the perpetrator is invariably continued and compounded by institutions and professionals who become involved with the family.
Berns, N. (2001). “Degendering the Problem and Gendering the Blame: Political Discourse on Women and Violence.” Gender and Society 15(2): 262-281.
Birns, B. (1999). “Attachment Theory Revisited: Challenging Conceptual and Methodological Sacred Cows.” Feminism & Psychology 9(1): 10-21.
Burke, C. (1999). “Redressing the balance: child protection intervention in the context of domestic violence”. Challenging Silence: Innovative responses to sexual and domestic violence. J. Breckenridge and L. Laing. St Leonards, Allen & Unwin: 256-267.
Dallam, S. J. (1998). “The Evidence for Parental alienation Syndrome: An Examination of Gardner’s Theories and Opinions.” Treating Abuse Today 8(2): 25-34.
Edleson, J. L. (1998). “Responsible mothers and invisible men: child protection in the case of adult domestic violence.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 13(2): 294-5.
Gardner, R. (1987). The Parental alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Child Sex Abuse. New Jersey, Creative Therapeutics.
Gatens, M. and A. Mackinnon (1998). Gender and Institutions; Welfare, Work and Citizenship. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Hays, S. (1996). The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. New Haven, Yale University Press.
Hearn, J. (1998). “Theorizing men and men’s theorizing: Varieties of discursive practices in men’s theorizing of men.” Theory and Society 27(6): 781-816.
Irwin, J., F. Waugh, et al. (2002). Domestic violence and child protection – A research report: A collaborative research project by Barnardos Australia and the University of Sydney. Sydney, University of Sydney.
Kelly, L. (1988). “How Women Define their Experiences of Violence”. Feminist Perspectives on Wife Abuse. K. Yllo and M. Bograd. Newbury Park, C.A., Sage.
Laing, L. (1999). “A different balance altogether? Incest offenders in treatment”. Challenging Silence: innovative responses to sexual and domestic violence. J. Breckenridge and L. Laing. St Leonards, Allen & Unwin.
McMahon, M. (1995). Engendering Motherhood – Identity and Self-Transformation in Women’s Lives. New York, The Guildford Press.
Morris, A. (1999). Uncovering ‘maternal alienation’: a further dimension of violence against women Department of Social Inquiry, University of Adelaide, Adelaide.
Morris, A. (2003). Working with maternal alienation in Domestic/Family Violence and Child Sexual Abuse. Adelaide, Northern Metropolitan Community Health Service; Women’s Health Statewide; University of Adelaide.
Myers, J. E. B. (1997). A Mother’s Nightmare – Incest: A Practical Legal Guide for Parents and Professionals. Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage.
Smart, C. (1996). “Deconstructing motherhood”. Good Enough Mothering? Feminist perspectives on lone motherhood. E. B. Silva. London, Routledge.
1 The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions to this work of Dr Margie Ripper, University of Adelaide, and Professor Liz Kelly C.B.E., Child & Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University.
Posted by Coral Anika Theill
Author, Advocate, Speaker & Reporter
Memoir: BONSHEA Making Light of the Dark
BONSHEÁ Making Light of the Dark shares my search for freedom and light in a society based on patriarchal religion and laws. It openly speaks about the ideas and beliefs in our society which foster sexism, racism, the denigration of human rights and the intolerance of difference. My documentation exposes the dark side of human nature when all people are not valued. A healthy society must have the courage to address these issues, speak about them, examine them and bring them to light. Indifference encourages, “silent violence”-the type of violence I experienced in my home, in the community, religious circles and judicial system. Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel states, “The indifference to suffering makes the human inhumane.
The price for my own safety and freedom in 1996 was an imposed, unnatural and unwanted separation from my eight children. The injustice committed against me is not just the physical separation from my children, but the willful desecration of the mother-child relationship and bond, a sacred spiritual and emotional entity.
Forcibly taking a mother’s children, and then controlling her emotionally by withholding contact must be publicly recognized as one of the greatest forms of ‘mis-use’ of the American justice system and one of the greatest hidden vehicles for wide-spread socially approved physical and emotional abuse and control.