Certainly the psychic work of individuation is important, but it doesn’t take a Ph D in Winnicott to know that ’s narrative treatment of Ma is a disciplinary message to women masquerading as a hard truth.
Donoghue recently noted in an interview — probably in part to once again deflect flattening critical readings of this novel as “about” a particular abduction case — that the story is less about its sensational premise than it is about “parenting in a locked room” — that is, that the narrative is about an extraordinary relationship between a mother and child that is stronger than the horrors and cruelty that are its germ.
For example, the novel’s first chapter ends with a deliberately unsettling novelistic scene featuring the five-year-old Jack breast-feeding.
That much of the story’s so-called complexity, nuance, and ambiguity stem from such pearl-clutching moments — oh, we realize, this space is both utopic and claustrophobic, enabling and crippling — should alarm.
The second half of the narrative finds them both yearning, sometimes, for the smallness of their previous world.
Leaving aside for a moment the freshmen English insight that sometimes we desire and become comfortable in our own prisons, what bothers me most about this section of the narrative is how it stages the pair’s escape as a freedom for the mother that can only be purchased by the child’s loss of connection to her.
And true, Ma is an impressive mother, keeping her son — conceived and birthed during a horrifying captivity — entertained, safe, and nourished under the most extreme circumstances.
Yet even in this most disordered world, we are asked to make judgments on Ma’s mothering, judgments that sit in a strange symbiotic relationship with the kind of admiration we’re simultaneously asked to experience.
This visual technique is perhaps an attempt to voyeurism, but again simply results in producing the effect it thinks of itself as pushing back against, in large part because of the affect viewers are encouraged to experience in these moments: horror, confusion, sure, but above all, we’re stimulated to keep peering.
I guess another way to get at what I find upsetting here is to say that it’s depressing to find misogyny baked into not just the content but also into the very aesthetic structures of the novel and film. Hatred of women and mothers lives inside me, and it lives inside you.