Wednesday, April 22, 2009

not your average paper-writer, either!

I got my paper back....the one that I wrote over Easter break in between episodes of CSI and Heroes ( is my new procrastination enabler....). I always lose track of what I write while I'm writing, ESPECIALLY if I take a break of anything more than, say, 20 minutes. Heroes episodes are 43 minutes long. As a result, I wasn't really sure if the end of my paper actually went with the beginning...or the middle, for that matter. I'm a very confident writer (that's actually code for "I never revise anything") so usually I just sit down and write a whole paper. The fact that I had a 3-day weekend with no boyfriend or friends around coupled with the fact that the paper's deadline had been pushed back to Easter Monday from Maundy Thursday (whew, considering the prof just gave us the topic that Tuesday) actually made me start working on it EARLY. I've never written a paper of less than 10 pages any other time than the night before, mostly because I forget what I'm writing about. And, actually, I've written a few 10-pagers the night before they were due as well.

ANYWAYYYY, I got it back today in class. I was a little apprehensive (did I mention I always forget what I write about?? :P). I resisted the urge to flip straight to the back of the page to the grade, and instead read through my teacher's comments.

Her comment next to my thesis started things on the right foot-- "A bit awkward as a set-up. Someone with your abilities ought to be able to state a thesis more effectively." My abilities? Hmm. I read on-- "Yes!" "Good point." "Well put!" along with a whole bunch of check marks. The closing statement next to my grade was "Kate-- This is wonderful in its interpretive function. It masterfully links materials and questions assumptions. A"

I'm pretty happy =D.

Paper follows. DEFINITELY optional reading.

Familial Narcissism

No one could deny that the typical American family has changed immensely since the postwar era. The sexual revolution of the 1960s gave rise to all sorts of new families; single mothers, gay and lesbian parents, divorced families, and families with two working parents all became new ways of looking at the concept of “the typical American family.” There was no longer a typical American family by the time the 1970s rolled around. The 1960s spawned communes and movements, activities and places where people felt like they belonged to a larger whole working for the same objectives, but in the 1970s the focus turned from belonging to defining the self. As with any cultural phenomenon, the shift in attitudes had many causes and repercussions, but many writers believe there is a strong connection between this change in societal vision and the evolving notion of family, specifically the two new problems in parenting: the domineering mother and the absent father. These subtopics are necessarily intertwined, by nature (and, usually, marriage) but each has its own separate characteristics and effects. While the linkage between cultural narcissism and the new family is widely accepted, both by journalists and psychologists working in the 1970s and by historians today, there are several loose ends and other explanations which must be explored if we are to formulate an opinion on their thesis. By examining the themes of gender and insecurity within the theories of the narcissistic mother and the absent father as causes for the narcissism of the 1970s, I will attempt to, if not disprove these theses, at least question them.

In 1942, Philip Wylie complained of a new trend in mothering: “Momism.” Wylie claimed that overbearing mothers were emasculating their sons, partly as a result of the ongoing World War which required the attentions of American men.1 Here, the beginning seeds of the '70s narcissistic trend appear. Decades after Wylie, during another difficult war, the personality of the mother would supposedly help change the psychology of America. Natasha Zaretsky, in her book No Direction Home, a book linking the changes in seventies society to the family, states that “[n]ow there were not simply narcissistic personalities, but narcissistic generations, decades, and trends.”2 The “Me decade” of the 1970s was, many argued, created and facilitated by narcissistic mothers. Sigmund Freud first defined narcissism in 1914, Wylie applied it to the family in 1942, and Otto Kernberg and Herbert Hendin brought the idea of Momism into the 1970s.3 While it is clear the 1970s were defined by a sense of narcissism, the idea that this malaise was due to the destruction of the traditional family, specifically the newly powerful mother, requires more evidence to believe. Of course mothers deeply influence their children, but a whole generation of mothers passing on their narcissism to a whole generation of children seems improbable.

Zaretsky notes that “[t]he narcissistic mother might appear to be caring, loving, and responsible. But, in fact, she was 'chronically cold,' 'extremely envious,' and 'intensely aggressive' toward her children,”4 and she is basing this statement upon the writings of the aforementioned psychologists. These male psychologists (for women were not yet common in such a learned profession) may have ulterior motives for naming mothers the source of the woes of the decade. A popular joke defines a Freudian slip as “when you say one thing but you mean your mother,” and most of Freud's psychoanalytic diagnoses have been proven false by modern understandings of the brain and behavior. Wylie may be reflecting the uncertainty of the country in the face of the worst evil it had ever known, and the fact that women had an unprecedented control over the family and economy, as they needed to provide an income for their families while their husbands and sons were fighting in Europe or Japan. Kernberg and Hendin, both products of an earlier generation, needed a scapegoat for what they saw as the degradation of American society, and the mother was a prime target as she was again providing for her family during the Vietnam War. In fact, William Graebner suggests that “the continued popularity of behavioral psychology” is a factor in “[t]he crisis of the spirit that hung over the 1970s.”5

When one looks at the traditional gender roles which were being uprooted in the 1970s, and the crisis of confidence experienced by America after Vietnam and Watergate, the male's status as head of household was declining rapidly. This “emasculation” of men, made more urgent by the threat to male heterosexuality expressed in the gay rights movement, required an explanation, one which would not further the emasculation or threat. If (almost exclusively male) psychologists and journalists had theorized that the narcissism inherent to seventies society was the product of the male need to assert his authority over his family and life, the men of America would lose that authority—authority already threatened by the blunders of recent male presidents and by the failure of men to win in Vietnam. With that in mind, let us proceed to the phenomenon of the absent father, which is presented not as a cause of narcissism but as a factor in the ascension of women.

The lack of a strong father figure was present on both the large and small scales in 1970s America. A succession of presidents, beginning with Richard Nixon, had failed the American people and presented themselves as weak leaders. Jimmy Carter's pleas for help from the populace during his infamous “Malasie Speech” in 1979—his warnings about a “fundamental threat to American democracy,” among others—is a prime example of a father struggling to gain control of his rebellious children with no real success.
6 What America needed in the seventies was not an appeal to their hope for the future (while seemingly saying there was no hope for the future), but a strong leader who would whip the country into shape and fix things. American families also needed authoritative fathers to step in and restore the values of his generation to his wayward, self-absorbed children.

Zaretsky combines the demise of male authority in the family with narcissism and lack of work ethic in the younger generation. Rather than acknowledging the need to support one's family, as did their fathers, the narcissistic seventies men desired self-actualization. Indeed, many did not even have families. She claims that “industrial psychologists and social scientists,” to understand the new collapse in the young male workforce, “attributed the young worker's attitude not only to permissive childrearing, but also to the idea that the affluent society itself had eroded parental authority and dulled the acquisitive drive.”7 This assertion presents problems in light of the parallel claim of domineering mothers also asserted by psychologists and social scientists in the same time period. If “permissive childrearing” and “dulled parental authority” were the causes of narcissism among young men, how could powerful, overbearing mothers also be the cause? Women at the time were fighting for their right to work on equal footing with men; the work ethic of America's women was clearly strong.

The refusal of the new generation to accept jobs which did not further their narcissistic goal of self-actualization leads to the necessity of working women. Having voluntarily given up their authority as breadwinners in the name of narcissism, America's men created jobs that needed to be filled and families that needed to be supported. In the mid-to-late 1970s, Zaretsky notes that “from now on, it would take two wage earners to bring home the living wage that had been garnered by the industrial male breadwinner of the 1950s and 1960s.”8 The affluence which had enabled the young workers to grow up with a narcissistic attitude had shattered, requiring both sexes to work to maintain family life.

The feminist movement empowered women and threatened men in the workplace and schools. The sexual revolution urged women to take control of their own sexuality, but gay pride movements endangered the heterosexuality of the straight man. The modern times were working against the status quo set in place after the second World War, one which men viewed as full of possibilities—the opportunity to better himself through hard work, to have children to secure his future, and to live in a powerful, pure, and democratic nation. When women begin pushing for the same rights as men, the possibilities so apparent before seemed to be crumbling, as women start working and refusing to have children and the government displayed its corruption and inadequacy. The narcissism of the seventies grew out of this profound insecurity on both sides—men wondering if the good old days will ever return and women unsure if society and the government would accept their equal rights agenda. When the two marry and have children, both parents are caught up in trying to maintain appearances congruent with the fifties family model: male breadwinners, and wives who cook, clean, and raise lovely children. In reality, the family of the seventies included a husband whose job could not support his family, a wife who may have worked outside the home (but was struggling to make ends meet either way), and children who were rebellious and self-centered.

While the theories of the absent father and domineering mother could be legitimate causes of the narcissism present in the 1970s, the two seem as if they cannot both be true. Psychological hypotheses forwarded by males living in that tumultuous time period are biased against women and weak men. The evolving family, on the other hand, rising out of challenging economic and cultural times, could very well cause enough instability in familial relationships to isolate each member. Since America lacked faith in the future, it is only natural that Americans wanted to return to the past, at least in some ways, such as the traditional family. Appearances mattered more than reality in the seventies, leading to lack of emotional connections within the family. Ultimately, there are too many factors to discover the sole cause of '70s narcissism, but the breakdown of the traditional family by way of insecure parents (in turn caused by evolving cultural and economic situations) is a good place to start.

1Zaretsky, Natasha. No Direction Home: The American Family and the Fear of National Decline. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2007. Pg. 8.

2Ibid. Pg. 185.

3Ibid. Pgs. 187-192.

4Ibid. Pg. 190.

5Graebner, William. “America's Poseidon Advendure.” American in the 70s, Beth Bailey and David Farber, eds. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004. Pg. 175.

6Carter, Jimmy. The “Malaise” Speech, 15 July, 1979. Accessed 4/11/09 at

7Zaretsky. Pg. 113.

8Ibid. Pg. 141.

1 comment:

  1. Good job! :-)
    Freshman year we got to choose a topic and write a persuasive essay about it...I wrote that the public school system was horrible and high school should be like college, but in very formal language so it didn't sound critical of the System. I got an A :-D