Magazine | August 29, 2011, Issue

The Virgin Mother

A new version of an old song is running through my head. “‘M’ is for the million threats against you. ‘O’ is for Orlando’s mounted cops. ‘T’ is for tattoos about the fast lane. ‘H’ is how you framed your poor old pops. ‘E’ is for your eyes so cold and empty. ‘R’ means lots of royalties in store . . . ”

Put them all together and they spell Casey Anthony, Mother of the Year.

I have a dog in this fight. If the West Point class of 1915 is called “the class the stars fell on” for the number of World War II generals it produced, my junior-high class of 1950 is the class a ton of bricks fell on from Hollywood’s gut-wrenching portrayals of mother-love in ’40s-era movies. They have since been shown so many times that they have become virtual lodestars of America’s cultural baggage, which is why two-thirds of the country plus Nancy Grace (the other third) all hate Casey Anthony.

Three movies raise the bar of maternal devotion so high that it is hard to see over it, much less clear it. The first is Stella Dallas, starring Barbara Stanwyck as a low-class woman who marries a high-class man on the rebound and finds that she can’t shake her innate commonness. They soon separate, and Stella takes up self-immolation, living only for their daughter, who takes after her father and, like him, is embarrassed by her mother’s trailer-park tastes and habits. After each faux pas, feisty Stella swallows her tears and tries, tries again until we accept that motherhood means being bravely hurt, spunkily crushed, and gaily heartbroken on a daily basis.

At last, with only one sacrifice left, she makes it and gives the girl up to her father. In the final scene, she stands happily in the pouring rain gazing through the window of a mansion whose aristocratic guests she fears to embarrass with her presence, watching her daughter wed a rich boy. Afterwards she walks away, overjoyed at the thought of her daughter’s brilliant future and utterly unmindful of her own bleak one.

In case we miss the most vital point, Stella drives it home. Discouraging a flirtation, she says: “I’m so wrapped up in Lolly that I don’t think a man could light a fire in me anymore.” It was motherhood versus sex and sex lost.

The second movie in our cultural baggage room is To Each His Own, starring Olivia De Havilland as Jody Norris, a small-town virgin who gets pregnant by a World War I pilot who is soon killed in action. She has the baby, a boy, in New York and returns home with a bizarre scheme to have him left on a poor family’s doorstep so that she can offer to adopt him. But before she can bring it off, a middle-class townswoman has a nervous breakdown when her own newborn dies. The doctor tells Jody that the woman will lose her mind if she doesn’t have a baby to love, so she has no choice but to give up her son to her (married) friend.

#page#Thus begins her obsessive, undeviating devotion to somebody else’s adopted baby that no one could fail to interpret correctly. She starts a cosmetics business and turns it into an empire so that she can buy him anything he wants. She even tries to buy him, using her influence with the bank to pressure the adoptive family to let him live with her, but she swarms over him like an adoring bat until he recoils from her and she is forced to send him home.

In despair she moves to England to oversee the London branch of her business. She never marries, contenting herself by keeping scrapbooks on her son with the photos and old report cards sent her over the years by the adoptive mother, who has long since guessed the truth. She is still living in London during World War II when her love child, now an Army pilot, arrives with the American forces. Overcome with joy, devouring him with her eyes, she fixates on him as before, showering him with money, tickets, reservations, and luxury accommodations, and using her influence with the British government to fix his leave problems until at last he figures out who this “family friend” really is. I’ve always maintained that it was seeing the bulging scrapbooks that did it, but in any case he got the movie’s last line just right. When he says “May I have this dance, Mother?” there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and one woman had to be supported up the aisle.

   Like Stella Dallas, Jody Norris led a completely chaste life after childbirth. When a platonic admirer who knows her secret tries to point out the difference between loving a child and loving a man, she disagrees, saying, “It’s the same love, really.” That really raised the bar and the casting did not help: The same actor — John Lund — played both father and son.

The third movie in our cultural baggage room is Johnny Belinda, starring Jane Wyman as a deaf mute on a Canadian farm who is raped by a brutal clod and gives birth to a boy. Everyone assumes the father is her sign-language teacher but the rapist, knowing better, decides to take “his son” away from “the dummy.” But when he moves toward the crib, Wyman grabs her father’s shotgun and blows him to bits.

The movie audience exploded with applause and audible gasps of “Maternal instinct!” People kept talking about maternal instinct. Men especially liked this angle, often quoting “The female of the species is deadlier than the male” in sonorous tones, and nodding solemnly when women compared themselves to “a lioness with her cubs.” The message was clear. The ideal mother, when she is not being a sacrificial lamb and a worshipful benefactress, can take a day off and be red in tooth and claw, but she’d better not be sexy.

Casey Anthony’s jury examined the evidence but the rest of us examined the baggage.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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