Sunday, April 27, 2008

A.M. Homes, "In a Country of Mothers" (1993).

There is a common theory that people who choose to become psychologists usually do so out of an unconscious wish to work out their own internal mental problems. Having been drawn to study psychology as an undergraduate, I believe there is probably some element of truth in that supposition. If I felt growing up that something was 'wrong' with me, surely the answers into that condition could be found at the feet of my professors and on the pages of the class texts. In truth I did find certain information resonant- descriptions of various maladies that can afflict those who bear them. Similarly I spent enough time considering my friends and family, trying to match them with various diagnoses. Often it was quite entertaining.

Such impulses must have somehow affected A.M Homes at one point or another in her life. Her works all deal in some way with various dysfunctions, some of which are more serious than others. Her short stories are filled with characters trying to work out their inner demons. But the level of psychosis gets amped up in her longer works. The first Homes novel I read was Music for Torching (1999). It concerned a suburban couple and the slow deterioration in their relationship. They are so obviously incapable of managing their lives, and their perceptions of success, that they neglect the basic fundamentals that would otherwise keep their young family together. It is a brutal book filled with the raw stuff of extreme emotionality.

Homes' most famous work is probably The End of Alice (1996). The 'protagonist' in that work is a child molester, who is imprisoned for having murdered a little girl. Critics and other readers were astonished that Homes could so effectively imagine the inner life of such a character. The idea that she could so empathize with this man made people uncomfortable. What in her life would provide the necessary insights? Most successful authors advise young writers to write about 'what they know'. For Homes' audience, this often has disturbing ramifications. What do the themes of her books say about her? It's not always obvious. However her second novel (In a Country of Mothers) seems like a natural extension of Homes' life.

In a Country of Mothers concerns a psychologist who gradually goes through a process of transference, so that she superimposes her own difficulties on one of her vulnerable clients. Claire Roth seems to have it all- a loving and wealthy husband, two sons, an apartment in the city, and a home on the Island. But in all of Homes' work, appearances can deceive. When Claire was a teenager, she had to give up a baby girl that she conceived with one of her professors. Twenty years later a young woman named Jody is referred to her by a colleague. She comes in to discuss her anxiety about graduate school, but soon reveals that she was adopted. Claire begins to suspect that Jody is her long lost child, and she begins to mother her in an increasingly unhealthy manner.

As a co-dependency between therapist and client develops, both of these women explore the emotional detritus of their fractured identities. Homes explores the essential maternal bonds that exist between all mothers daughters- even those who aren't related by blood. More impressive perhaps is the author's portrayal of a possible consequence of therapy- the unconscious redirection of feelings for one person to another. This can be quite harmful for the patient when the professional is not aware of it. But it can be doubly destructive if the therapist herself falls prey to its temptations. With Homes (and her readers), transference is always a possibility- that's what makes her effective and her work dangerous.

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