A Narcissistic Mother & Her Child’s Soul

Manchurian Candidate Narcissistic Mother Her Child's Soul

A narcissistic mother uses her children. She controls them, starves them of love. In John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), that’s Eleanor Shaw Iselin, Mother of lead character Raymond Shaw. Raymond is convinced: “I’m not lovable.” No wonder he has enough hate to be brainwashed to kill. “Yes, Mother,” “Yes, Ma’am, and “Yes, Sir” govern his responses. And, so he becomes his power-hungry Mother’s Russian pawn. We know foreign powers infiltrate elections. We might even say Trump was The Manchurian Candidate in 2016. But how does a power-hungry mother infiltrate a love-starved child’s mind? If the child does anything else but listen and follow, he’s lost her. That’s dangerous, when Raymond has no one else.

Raymond Shaw’s Power-Hungry Narcissistic Mother

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) begins, and we are in the middle of the Korean War. America’s in a Cold War with Russia. And, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) has been in a Cold War with his heartless mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin (Angela Lansbury) his entire life. She’s winning. Mother will have power however she can get it.

She gets it for quite a while, taking control of the minds of her son and husband, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory); consorting with foreign infiltrators. And, along the way, destroying every chance Raymond has at the love of Jocelyn Jordan (Leslie Parrish).

No, Raymond won’t make any of his own decisions. If he does, his narcissistic Mother loses her possession of him. After all, she must be the Queen of Diamonds in his game of Solitaire. In some interpretations, that Queen means “malevolence – a toxic woman who is out for her own gain; forcing her way in. Beware.” But a child can’t.

Not when he needs her and she’s the only mother he has. Plus, Eleanor Iselin is cruelly shrewd. She’s made quite sure Raymond is without friends. Solitary. Lonely. Isolated. That’s part of her power over him; to be sure he listens, that she has him in her hold.

We see it with his Korean War unit, they call him “St. Raymond.” It’s not that he thinks he’s better; he just doesn’t know how to relate. He keeps himself a loner because he doesn’t really trust anyone. Why should he? He can’t trust his own Mother.

His life, his feelings? They don’t matter. She’s even programmed her husband not to think. She’ll take over the country, that’s her plan. Red-baiting? That’s only her cover.

Why’s & Wherefores of A Mother’s Mind Control

A narcissistic Mother’s mind control is insidiously hypnotic. Because Raymond needs her, he’s been her little puppet for a long time. That’s why he’s also the Russian’s prime target. It isn’t hard to program him. Eleanor Shaw Iselin has already done the job.

Raymond’s unit is kidnapped and hypnotized by Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) of Moscow’s Pavlov Institute. He becomes “a war hero,” loved by all who didn’t love him before: “He’s the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve met in my whole life.”

That’s what his platoon is programmed to say after he wins the Congressional Medal of Honor for “saving them all.” None of it is true, of course. He didn’t save them and he isn’t even one of those attributes. Raymond is locked inside a cold, lonely wall of hate.

Can he save himself, though? He tries. Walking off the plane into the War Hero celebration his mother arranged (for her benefit), he stands up to her: “You organized this disgusting three-ring circus, Mother?” “How could you, Raymond? You know my whole life is dedicated to helping you and Johnny. My boys, my two little boys …”

These are the demeaning, infantilizing lies of a narcissistic Mother – professions of love, dedication, self-sacrifice. What is Mother’s real intent? To get rid of any weakness; helplessness; or fear (any feeling, really) in her. As a projectile, it’s all “out there.” In Raymond. In them. That’s much too much for a child to carry. How can he break free?

Raymond tries again. He takes a job in New York City, as a research assistant for Holborn Gaines (Lloyd Corrigan), a newspaper columnist Mother despises. Miles don’t matter. Mother lives inside him. And, she’s made him so angry and lonely Raymond can kill.

Why Playing Solitaire Is the Controlling Force

Turns out, Solitaire is the trigger to activate Dr. Yen Lo’s programming. It’s no surprise, really, because Solitaire is a friendless activity and Raymond’s been a lonely boy his entire life. Of course, at the center of the trigger is the Queen of Diamonds, none other than Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin herself, at the heart of this Communist infiltration plan.

We see how it works. Later, when it comes to making sure Raymond’s programming holds, he gets a phone call, at Holborn Gaines’s office where he works. A hypnotic voice gives him the command: “Why don’t you pass the time playing a little Solitaire?”

Soon, men arrive to take him for a “check-up.” He goes without incident (his mind already theirs), taken to a Sanitarium with 2 floors sealed off; just as reality cannot enter his mind. “Yes, Sir,” he accedes to Dr. Yen Lo’s exam – who, then, turns to his Comrade:

“Do you realize what weapon you have at your disposal? A normally conditioned American trained to kill, but having no memory of having killed. No memory of guilt… no fear of being caught. And, without those uniquely American symptoms of guilt and fear, he can’t possibly give himself away. His brain is not only washed but dry-cleaned.”

And, now, a test. Raymond is instructed to kill Mr. Gaines and to take over his influential job. Raymond listens and follows. They have him. He shows no feeling at all.

But Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), Raymond’s superior officer in Korea, is now doing intelligence on the strange nightmares he and other soldiers are having. He’s looking for clues to what happened to them, from images in his dreams: “What was Raymond doing with his hands?” Now, he remembers: Raymond was playing Solitaire.

What Nightmares Reveal & How They Help

Yes, Ben Marco has horrible nightmares and wakes up screaming. Nightmares reveal various kinds of truth. Often, the message is hard to understand. In Ben’s case, hard to believe. His nightmares are flashbacks that reveal actual trauma. Does it mean he’s crazy?

No. He was there, in Korea, head of the unit that Sergeant Shaw supposedly saved. He was kidnapped along with the rest; and at Dr. Yen Lo’s “Garden Party,” he saw it all. Ben saw Raymond strangle and kill Private Ed Mavole (Richard LePore) at Lo’s order.

Ben was ordered, by Dr. Lo, to hand Shaw a gun to kill Private Bobby Lembeck (Tom Lowell), in cold blood. “Yes, Ma’am,” Major Marco replied. Waking up screaming, in a cold sweat, he asks: “How could it be? Sergeant Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest …”

That’s the drill. But something’s wrong. Corporal Allen Melvin (James Edwards) has the same nightmare, also unable to imagine why he’d dream something like that about Raymond Shaw. He also has the same programming: “He’s the kindest, bravest, warmest …”

Surely, this means something happened in Korea. Ben gets higher-ups to listen. He and Melvin identify the same two men. Undercover, he begins Intelligence on Raymond. And, he also remembers: “That Chinese cat standing like Fu Manchu, saying ‘the Queen of Diamonds is reminiscent of Raymond’s dearly loved and hated mother…’”

Yet, Ben learns it’s the damage Mother has done that makes Raymond most vulnerable. His need for love, and her destruction of it with Jocie, is the major trigger of all. He hates Mother for making him feel so unlovable. And he needs her love all the more.

A Son’s Agony: “I’m Not Lovable – I’m Not” 

Yes, Ben finds more than he expected. Befriending Raymond, he begins to get to the bottom of what makes Raymond tick: “My mother is a terrible woman, Ben … it’s a terrible thing to hate your mother. I didn’t always hate her. As a child, I only kind of disliked her. But, after what she did to Jocie and me, that’s when I began to hate her.”

He shows Ben, Jocelyn Jordan’s photo. “Years later, I realized I’m not lovable. Don’t contradict me. I’m not lovable. Some people are lovable. I am not lovable. But I was very lovable with Jocie. You cannot believe how lovable I was. My mother fixed all that, and I’ve been even less lovable than I was – since.” He can’t feel lovable, filled with hate.

You see, Mother couldn’t stand that he was in love with Senator Jordan’s (John McGiver) daughter – the Senator who sued her for defamation because she called him a Communist. He donated the entire $60,000 settlement to the ACLU. That was worse.

“She wrote a letter, I signed it. A terrible, vile, disgusting letter. The next day I enlisted in the army. I never saw [Jocie] again.” Raymond cries tears he never cried: “God knows, Ben, I am not lovable. She won … always does. I couldn’t beat her and I still can’t.”

A Narcissistic Mother Destroys A Child’s Soul

 No, Raymond can’t beat Mother, and he never does, even at the end of The Manchurian Candidate. This happens to traumatized children. In their minds, Mother’s voice controls what they do, or don’t. Such a child must listen, to get any kind of love.

Mother decides when Raymond won’t marry Jocelyn Jordan. And when he will, because it suits her political purposes, thinking she’ll finagle Senator Jordan’s “support” for the VP nomination of her husband. No way. He only attends their “fascist rally” because he loves his daughter, and she wants to go. Raymond has no idea what his Mother intends.

Jocie and Raymond are married, but Ben doesn’t want Raymond out of his sight. Give her 48 hours away, Jocie assures Ben: “he’s not sick, see how he is with me?” Little does she know that the sickness is his Mother. And, this Mother has no scruples when it comes to getting the power she wants. She’s quite willing to destroy her son – and kill.

Raymond returns from his honeymoon, and when he finds John Iselin accusing his father-in-law of treason, he’s ready to beat Iselin to a pulp But, his Mother says there’s something she needs him to do. And, hands him a deck of cards: “Play a little Solitaire.”

Mother and Dr. Yen Lo are the same; trading power for power. Her husband will be President and the Russians will infiltrate the United States. Raymond is their killing machine. He’s his mother’s robot; always has been. Whatever it takes for Mother’s “love.”

At the Jordan house, he kills Jordan and his beloved Jocie, just as the Senator welcomes him to the family; remembering nothing, as he was told. That is until Ben begins “unlocking some doors.” Mother would never guess that one day, he’ll turn against her.

Why Raymond Shaw Can’t Be Saved

Unlocking doors in a child traumatized by an unfeeling Mother is no simple thing. Having to face what he’s been made to do, and all the feelings he’s never felt can be formidable. Certainly, it is, without more therapeutic help than Ben can offer. But Ben works fast to deprogram Raymond, to give him power over Mother and Solitaire:

“The Red Queen is our baby … Me and these 52 Queens are telling you it’s over … their beautifully conditioned links are smashed … You don’t work anymore. That’s an order. Anyone invites you to a game of Solitaire, you’ll tell them, ‘Sorry buster, game is over.”

If only it were that easy to get power over the damage a narcissistic Mother does. The phone rings. Raymond can’t refuse his American operator: “Yes. Yes. I understand, Mother.” Will those links put into place from the time he was born, hold? Or not?

Not completely. Raymond does foil her plan for him to shoot the Presidential nominee so that John Iselin can step in. Instead, he turns the gun on Mother and his step-father. He may have saved the country, but can he save himself? Such a vicious, power-hungry Mother can “bust a child up so badly” it’s hard to put the pieces back together again.

But that Mother he killed? She’s not dead inside him. She’s left him with the mess she made of his life and didn’t take away his “uniquely American quality” of guilt. Turns out, Raymond’s human, capable of feeling and love. So, there’s too much horror to face.

He doesn’t feel he can survive it. The only way, in its finality, to get rid of Mother, guilt, and his terrible loss is by turning the gun on himself. At least, sadly, that’s what Raymond believes.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.

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