The customary repertoire of motherese among the semi-nomadic Penan Geng of Borneo includes what is, to our Western ears, a rather grotesque element. Penan Geng mothers regularly coo to their babies and small children such epithets as “no-mother,” “mother-dead,” and “decomposing mother.” In the unfortunate event that the mothers should actually die, these macabre names would in fact become the children’s public monikers for the period of ritual mourning in Penan Geng society. Anthropologist Peter Brosius has explained that Penans view death as an existent external force in the world, one that can be and is directed by human speech. For this reason, talk of death is taboo in Penan culture, and it is precisely for this reason that loving mothers employ so-called “death names” in their affectionate baby talk. The moms believe that, by calling their children out loud by the death names they would receive upon their mother’s demise, they are actually calling down the force of death upon themselves and, thereby, averting it from their precious little ones. There can be such beautiful and poignant self-sacrifice in parenting. But in much of the rest of the world, the precise opposite—parental overbearing—is often what’s most in evidence.
Cinderella—or the Grimm Brothers’ Aschenputtel—was not the first fable to feature a wicked, domineering stepmother. The 9th century CE Chinese story of Ye Xian tells of the eponymous hero’s struggle against her cruel stepmother who is actually her real mother’s murderer. In Indonesia, young Bawang Putih similarly suffers at the hands of an evil stepmother and her stepsister. In the Vietnamese tale of Tam Cam, young Tam receives mistreatment from her father’s co-wife, who proposes an unfair fishing wager that allows Tam’s half-sister to steal her birthright. The Korean Kongjwi receives constant abuse from both stepmother and her stepsister named Patjwi. All of these are but early variants on the Cinderella plot line.
Before them all, however, Euripides’ 5th century BCE play Alcestis, which dramatizes the woe of an eponymous self-sacrificing wife who agrees to die for and take the place of her husband, Admetus, in Hades, offered a stern warning against the evil excesses of stepmothers. Before departing to her fate, Alcestis begs Admetus not to let a vengeful stepmother wreak havoc with their children. She pleads:
“No, I won’t ask you to pay a price equal to the one I’m paying. No, life is more precious than everything else. But I do want you to do what is proper. Surely you’ll agree to do that because, unless you’ve lost your wits, you love these two children as much as I do. Keep our children as lords of our house. Don’t marry another woman who’ll be less virtuous than me. Don’t let a stepmother rule them, a stepmother who, because of envy, will handle them –your children and mine – harshly. I beg you, Admetus, don’t do that because, to a stepmother, Admetus, the children of his former wife are an enemy, a more hateful enemy than a snake” (lines 300-310).
One can perhaps sense an evolutionary purpose in such tales and warnings. It is after all not natural to love another’s offspring as much as one’s own, and, while tender parental feeling may be lacking in cases of children inherited through remarriage following the death of a biological parent, it is nonetheless important to care for helpless children, especially female children who may be married off to wealthier circumstances and, thereby, improve the fortunes of the whole family. But author Peggy Orenstein has also opined that tales of the stepmother’s misdeeds may derive from a deeper psychological dichotomy of the motherly persona itself: the departed biological mother represents the source of love and acceptance children first experience and always desire from their mothers; the domineering stepmother represents the directive parent the mother must become, actively curbing the child’s maverick will in an effort to raise a functional human being.
Mythological tales of intergenerational conflict abound. The stories of the Titans’ rise to power over their own primordial parents and then eventual deposing by Zeus and his upstart Olympians may profitably be viewed through the lens of sons making war on fathers. Freud viewed the Oedipus myth as giving expression to the desire he thought latent in male infants to displace their fathers and take their rightful place as sole claimant to the love and affection of their mothers—the so-called Oedipal Complex. The Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish is most explicit along these lines. The story tells of the coupling of the fresh water god Apsu and oceanic goddess Tiamat to produce Ea and his brothers, who soon raise such a ruckus in the body of Tiamat that Apsu plots to kill the children out of sheer annoyance. But Mommy Tiamat warns her son Ea of his father’s plans, whereupon son kills father, becomes chief god himself, and has a powerful son of his own named Marduk. Ea and his wife Damkina give baby Marduk wind to play with, but the youth raises such awful storms that he disrupts Tiamat and other gods living within her. The disgruntled deities persuade Tiamat to avenge her dead husband Apsu by killing Marduk, so she creates eleven terrible monsters to do battle with the brash young god. Meanwhile, wily Marduk convinces other gods to help him beat Tiamat, on the condition that they appoint him chief god over them. Marduk thus destroys Tiamat, rips her body in two to create the heavens and the earth, and then organizes the stars, planets, moon, seasons, and the counting of time by a calendar. Teenagers were a pest and danger even in ancient Mesopotamia, even among the gods. I especially like the nod to the now tired trope of ceiling-throbbing rock music in the initial description of Ea and his brothers’ raucous ways. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
But even though these mythic stories of children against parents often seek to explain the rise of a chief pantheon of deities and thus seem to condone parricide among the gods, the actual human act of killing one’s parents—whether patricide or matricide—has long been universally vilified. Killing one’s parents, it seems, lies uniquely within the purview of divinities. The ancient Romans prescribed for the offense the unique punishment of being confined in a sack together with fighting animals and then promptly thrown into the Tiber river, sack and all. This we learn from Cicero’s speech in 80 BCE in defense of Roscius Amerinus, himself accused of actually killing his father. The Stoic philosopher Seneca called parricide “a crime that makes any human being shake with horror” (The Phoenician Women, 265), and the late-5th/early-4th century BCE Greek playwright Aristophanes lumped parricides in with highwaymen, thieves, and burglars as the inhabitants of hell (Frogs 772-3), calling them impious assassins and sacrilegious wretches (Clouds 1327). A special office of the Erinyes or “Furies” of Greek mythology was to harass a living parricide to utter madness and even visit disease and deprivation upon entire nations who harbored such criminals.
Of course, opprobrium heaped on killers of parents is necessary to protect the social order within a settled, stratified civilization. It serves not only to enforce harmony within the family unit, but also within the larger state as a whole, where the relationship between governor and governed is often expressed in terms of family relations: motherland, fatherland, Big Brother, Sire, Sir, etc. The other arena where such language likewise looms large is religion, especially Western religion. Jesus represents the holy trifecta in this regard: Father by dint of his divinity, obedient Son to God the Father by virtue of his heavenly parentage and our role model in that obedience, and finally big brother to all human beings as a consequence of his humanity.
And it is but a short step from prohibiting the killing of one’s parents to the legislation of reverence for them. When Noah passes out drunk and naked in Genesis 9:21-25 and his son Ham sees his father in his unconscious naked state and then runs to tell his brothers, Japheth and Shem, who promptly enter their father’s presence with eyes averted and cover his bare body, Ham receives his father’s curse for his impropriety, one which has been interpreted for centuries since the Middle Ages through a racial lens, as an imprecation against black skin. The standard view of the Biblical story of the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 seems to take for granted that Abraham, as father, had the right to take his son’s life if so commanded by God. This same right fell within the purview of so-called patria potestas (“the father’s power”) in the ancient Roman legal compilation known as the Twelve Tables, right alongside the right to sell children into slavery, just not more than three times. The extended rights accorded to the pater familias in traditional Roman law bore the ominous name of the longa manus or “long hand.” The ancient Babylonian Code of Hammurabi similarly permitted fathers to use or sell their children for labor as well as to pimp their daughters for both religious (i.e. temple prostitution) and secular (concubine, anyone?) purposes. The Code even arranged for biological children to enter into contractual agreements with adopted siblings for the required upkeep and maintenance of aging parents, thereby relieving natural offspring of their obligations under filial piety; but such contracts could be annulled in the event that the adopted children failed to render such service. The ancient anonymous Chinese Confucian work entitled Classic of Filial Piety, written sometime between 350 and 200 BCE, specifies in the most minute detail the duties of children to their parents upon the latter’s death, including exactly how the son is to dress and even wail (“but not with prolonged sobbing”) at the funeral. To my knowledge, the work remains silent, however, on the possibility of farming out such responsibilities to adopted siblings.
It’s hard not to see in the breathtakingly raw and honest prayer of Jesus while alone in the Garden of Gethsemane during the so-called Agony in the Garden (Matthew 26:36-45; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46), when he begs His Heavenly Father to take away the bitter cup of His impending fate, the piteous whining of every child who’s ever pleaded with parents against being made to marry a certain someone, practice a certain profession, or participate in a certain competitive event. Please, Dad, don’t make me do this! We take for granted that it lies within our parental potestas to do exactly that: make our children do it…our will, not theirs, be done.
And there, ladies and gentlemen, is precisely the rub. In portraying the mother figure twice, once in a controlling, authoritarian mode, the Cinderella story cuts straight to the heart of the problem with parenting. No matter how well you play it, being a parent inevitably involves a certain amount of curtailing the independent spirit and will of the child, at least to a degree. Yet as the myth of the snake in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 amply illustrates, children—as all human beings—are born incidental Satanists in that they possess a unique, sovereign individual will. And free exercise of that will is key to the development of their self knowledge. As the Biblical text puts it: once Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, “the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:7). God’s angry banishing of the Ur-couple from His precious Garden provides the critical first break with the loving Father, the first iconic wedge driven between parents and offspring. And as the Cherubim toughs with their spinning swords of flame at the eastern gate of Eden remind us (as if we needed reminding): once that separation is driven home, there is no going back. One can’t help but think of what Old Mother Gothel cries in the Grimm’s Rapunzel when she discovers that the long-tressed girl she has held locked away in a hidden tower has been carrying on a secret tryst behind her back: “You wicked child! I thought I had separated you from the world, and yet you deceived me!” In Cinderella-speak: when the mother dies, we must be given over into the hands of the angry stepmother, whether we like it or not.
So what’s the banished, chastened child to do in response to parental rebuke, to the evil stepmother curtailing the sovereign will? Interestingly, Adam and Eve chose to have sex and become parents themselves, and the angry cycle continued. Only, when one of their first children, Cain, acted out by killing his brother Abel, it was the heavenly parent, not they, who stepped in to render judgment and punishment, the latter consisting, yet again, of banishment, separation, cutting off. (Incidentally, as any good mental health professional will tell you, kicking the wayward or just lazy kid out of the house on the pretext that it will somehow spur growth of individual responsibility or prompt careful, contrite reflection on wrongdoing is not just misguided, it’s dead wrong: such forced separation only builds resentment, creates trauma, and induces feelings of worthlessness and unwant.) This absentee parenting is made possible through the guarantee of an externalized God to whom humanity has farmed out its moral faculty, like the codes of law surveyed above that seek to enforce not only civil, but also family relations, all in the interest of maintaining the stability of the state. Even if the parents won’t act as parents, the state and/or God must do so, and their “parental” authority must be respected and absolute. Parricide—and by extension, deicide—must remain illegal for mere mortals, at both the familial and the national levels. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates stands accused of the twin crimes of “not believing in the gods in whom the city [of Athens] believes, but in other daimonia that are novel” and, thereby, of corrupting the youth with his new-fangled ideas. His perceived attack on the gods of the state was simultaneously taken as an attack on intergenerational order and stability.
So now consider the Star Wars film The Force Awakens, and the tragic (pathetic?) figure of Kylo Ren, an adult child so wracked by furious self-loathing that he can barely contain either the anger or the hurt. When he finally resolves to resist for once and all the “pull to the light” that he feels and for which he begs forgiveness from Darth Vader’s ghost, killing his father Han Solo, what a collective gasp of horror must hold the audience in its fierce grip. Not scruffy, lucky, heart-of-gold Han, for whom we’ve rooted for full fifty percent of the films in the still burgeoning franchise! What kind of twisted, ungrateful evil get could do such a thing? But hold on just one minute before you go getting the rope and summoning a posse for a hangin’. The film itself answers the question of Ren’s dark motivations: it’s not because he’s inherently evil or rotten ex nihilo. During an interrogation of the equally powerful young Rey, Ren remarks to her tellingly: “Han Solo. You feel like he’s the father you never had. He would have disappointed you.”
Ren feels abandoned by his famous father and sainted mother Leia. Only, unlike Adam and Eve, Ren chooses to fight back against his parents’ perceived failings. He claims the prerogative of the gods and chooses patricide over patient suffering, and for that crime he’s vilified like no other. Not even Darth Vader himself was guilty of such wrongdoing: his formative atrocity while still young Anakin Skywalker consisted in the slaughter of an entire village of Tusken Raiders (men, women, and children) in reprisal for the torture and death of his mother. He proved merely hubristic in taking his raging filial piety too far, like Achilles with the body of Prince Hector out of anguish over the death of friend Patroclus.
During a recent short stay at my mother’s house with my two young children but no wife (she had to stay behind and work), I was readying myself at the crack of dawn for the return trip to Texas. We’ve made this trip several times now and have always found it best to wake ridiculously early (say around 4am?), load the car, and wait until the last possible minute before rousing the drowsy children from sleep, still in pajamas, and packing them in their car seats where they will quickly fall back asleep and continue dozing for the first several hours of the day-long journey. So on this particular occasion, as I’m getting dressed and readying the bags to take downstairs, careful not to make too much noise and prematurely wake the children sleeping in the next room, my own mother calls upstairs from below: “Stephen! Stephen! Do you want me to make more coffee?” What a nice but ultimately ham-handed offer, risking upset of the careful balance I had so strenuously sought to maintain between the necessary noise of packing and prepping and my daughters’ delicate slumber. So I played the parent to my own parent. “Shh!” I called back in a hushed tone. “You’ll wake the girls!”
I have killed my mother in vivid imagining more times than I can count. My father too, though he was always much less authoritarian, more agreeable and pleasant to be with. Nonetheless, he now has Parkinson’s and is dangerously obese and so is an easy mark for what Freud regarded as my inborn desire to take him down and prove myself supreme. A parent of my own now, I have finally realized the source of my unquenchable lightening-quick anger and near pathological fear of getting in others’ way, a compunction to constantly be and make my kids and spouse aware of how I or we might be inconveniencing others. It was my own authoritarian, domineering mother with her similarly flashing anger and chronically failing patience. When I get panickily uncomfortable while stopped in the far right lane at a red light because I’m intending to proceed straight through the intersection and my need to wait out the light is blocking others behind me from turning right on red, I now know that some still childish inner part of me cowers in deathly fear of my mother’s impending cloudburst of anger at whatever behavior of mine has begun to inconvenience her. Every throwing up of flabbergasted hands and muttered curse I glimpse through the rearview mirror I have seen before, though unremembered, in her, the being from whom I expected love and comfort but so often got ire and rage.
My childhood wasn’t abusive and sparkles in memory with many, many fond moments, yet nonetheless I resent and loathe my parents. The way they seem to understand me less now than ever before: my veganism, my religious seeking, my diffidence about career and the American dream. Whenever we’re together, there’s always some small difference of daily procedure, some distinct order of operations in the making of coffee, minor adaptation in the recipes for toast or tuna salad, and my parents cannot fail to point it out, question it, criticize it. And I bristle every time. Perhaps I loathe them simply because they make manifest my own mortality. In them, I see my own eventually failing health, loss of acuity, irrelevance, and the inevitable annoyance I will be to my own children.
But if the many myths and fables teach anything, it is that parricide, at least on the intellectual and emotional level, is not only permissible for mortals, but even natural, necessary for the full realization of adulthood. To remain under the parental thumb, or merely quiet and complacent in the role of a pining exile from Eden, is to remain forever a child, perpetually incapable of adult independence and confidence.
As I twist the knife in with every refusal to ask for their assistance, with the infrequency of my phone calls and even greater infrequency of my visits, I stand accused by millennia of societal and religious programming, bound to hell and furious torment for my heinous crime. And yet, as a proud Satanist, I confidently claim the role of adversary and assume the mantle of parricide with as much dignity and self-assurance as any killer of parents can.
My name is “no-mother,” “dead-mother,” “mother-gone.” I am “fatherless,” “soul-father,” “father-dead.” And, until deposed and slain by my own long-suffering daughters, Dead-Daddy and Daddy-Decomposition, I reign supreme.