Can a Child Survive a Mother’s Hate?

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AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY — A mother’s hate inflicts the worst kind of suffering. There’s not one child among the main characters in August: Osage County who escapes. Not Violet, not Mattie Faye, not Barbara, Karen, Ivey, or even little Charles. Most of the film’s immediate suffering is at the hands of Violet Westin, the cruel matriarch of the Westin family. There’s certainly no excuse for a mother’s cruelty. Yet, can it be understood?  Even more importantly, how does a daughter save herself? Can a relationship with a mother like Violet ever change?

In some rather twisted irony (at least to me as a psychoanalyst), August: Osage County is billed as a black comedy. I’d be hard pressed to call it a comedy at all. Perhaps those that do are running (like Violet herself runs) from the brutal truth of a family so irreconcilably disturbed. Yes, Violet is as capable of humor as she is of cruelty, but the mean-spiritedness in her actions far outweighs anything funny. What we witness in this film is utter tragedy. It is the tragedy of one mother’s trauma meted out in venomous doses into her daughters. And we don’t know if any one of the daughters will find her way out.

The film takes us through numerous plot twists and brutal revelations of Violet’s behavior towards her three daughters. There’s her cloying dependency on Ivey the youngest, the shyest, the most insecure about whether she’s worthy of love. Ivey, who’s stayed too close to her mother, feels responsible, and can’t break away. There’s Violet’s rejection and blatant dislike of Karen who has escaped physically, but isn’t at all free of the emotional wounds. And then there’s Barbara, the oldest. Violet is jealous and full of guilt-inducing, retaliatory punishment towards Barbara for her love of her father and her father’s love for her. Finally, we come full circle to understand what makes Violet the way she is.

The truth comes out in the most poignant and emotionally revealing scene in August: Osage County. Violet’s heart-rending story of the boots tells us how much she wanted love. This is Violet’s story: she was a young girl and loved a boy.  She wanted a pair of boots.  She thought if he saw her in those boots he’d think, “That’s the gal for me!” She was never the gal for her mother, as the story makes so terribly clear. She pleaded and bargained to have those boots for Christmas. Her mother kept dropping hints. There was a package under the tree, all wrapped up, just the size of a boot box.  Her mother kept warning her: “Vi, don’t cheat!”  On Christmas morning, Violet tore off the paper. The boots inside the box were men’s work boots.  All beat up and covered in dog shit. “My Mama laughed about that for days.  My Mama was a nasty, mean old lady”, Violet tells her daughters in a fleeting glimpse of honesty with herself: “I suppose that’s where I get it from.”

This horrifying story gives us a chance to understand Violet.  Even to feel the deepest sorrow and empathy.  She tells us why she loves pills:  “They never let me down” – as her mother so brutally did. The pills help her run from the hell of her life; from the monstrous feelings, memories and soul-tearing catastrophe of a mother who hated her; the heartbreak she’s trying to keep at bay. She does this by doing her best to feel nothing.

Jean, the granddaughter and Barbara’s teenager, says a pivotal thing at the funeral dinner table: “When you eat meat, you ingest an animal’s fear – the fear the animal felt when slaughtered.”  They all laugh at her. But, she’s the voice of truth about this family. The slaughter of Violet’s children serves as her way not to feel fear. What’s she so afraid of? We have a clue when she’d rather see her dead husband, Beverly, as an alcoholic and not a poet: “Too much talk about poetry; the man was a world-class alcoholic”. At its essence, poetry is feeling. And Violet’s terrified of her feelings. She buries them under the stony walls of her hatred and her drugs.

The worst tragedy is the way this kind of mother worms her way inside.  Like she got inside of Violet – and Barbara. We see how easily Barbara becomes Violet; how hateful and vicious she can get – slapping her daughter and, in her rage, forcing Violet to eat:  “Eat the fucking fish.  Eat the fish, bitch.” Violet is inside Barbara in her hardness. In Karen and Ivey – in their self-hatred. In all three, in their inability to find love.

A relationship with a mother like Violet (drug addicted to avoid any feelings and self-awareness) can’t be changed.  But, leaving her, as all three daughters did in their own sad ways, isn’t enough. The only hope is to stop in their tracks; get some help (like I would give as a psychoanalyst) to look, with compassion, straight into their own eyes. Nothing can change until they do. Violet never could. Will her daughters? Will they ever come to know that their mother’s hate has nothing to do with them? It’s not their fault. With a mother like Violet, the only relationship to a hateful mother that can change – is with the one that lives inside.

No one in August: Osage County escapes. Not yet. Violet’s daughters (because of the competitiveness, jealousy, and greed born of her deprivation) will have only the spoils and nothing more than she did, especially not the security of love. They, like she was, are treated with hate. But, is it her daughters Violet hates? Not, really. It’s the reflection of the young Violet she sees in their longing for her love. The girl her mother hated.

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