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Review of "Understanding the Borderline Mother"

By Christine Ann Lawson
Jason Aronson, 2000
Review by Heather C. Liston on Oct 16th 2001
Understanding the Borderline Mother"Degradation by someone who claims to love you is qualitatively different than degradation by a stranger," says Christine Ann Lawson, Ph.D., in her book Understanding the Borderline Mother. The book's sub-title is "Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship," and her point is a good one, of course: your mother is important. If your mother is mentally ill, your life is going to be tough. Children do not have the information, or the perspective, to discern when their situation has more than the acceptable burdens of childhood; they are forced to adapt and adjust in order to survive, and some of those survival techniques can have long-lasting effects.

By the time you're reading this book, of course, you're likely to be an adult. Still, it's never too late to get a little insight into the forming of your own psyche, which could help relieve you of some feelings of guilt or fear or sadness, and enable you to lead a happier life. That seems to be the main goal of Lawson's work: the enlightenment of adult children of borderlines, and the lightening of the load that such knowledge can bring.

The book's introduction is very informative: we learn that borderline personality disorder (BPD) affects about six million Americans, and that about two-thirds of the diagnosed cases are women. The name of the disorder refers to the fact that these people are on the borderline between sanity and insanity, and for them, "separation and loss can trigger suicidal and psychotic reactions."

The book then continues with a sort of typology. All labels are approximate, of course, and all unhappy mothers, as Tolstoy would say, are unhappy in their own ways. Within the general category of "borderline mothers" Lawson describes the "Waif Mother," the "Hermit Mother," the "Queen Mother," and the "Witch Mother." Each has specific symptoms which a reader may recognize in someone in her own life.

The Waif, for example, "learned that submissive behavior was the most adaptive response to an oppressive environment." She also "sees herself as an incompetent failure, and is overly dependent on the approval of others." The Hermit is "a perfectionist, a worrier, and . . . an insomniac. . . Hermit mothers suffer from persistent fantasies of harm coming to themselves or others, and tend to attribute hostile intentions to others." Queen mothers "compete with their children for time, attention, love, and money." And "The dramatic and sometimes hysterical behavior of the Queen mother can terrify her children." And finally, Witch mothers can be "bitter, demanding, sarcastic, and cruel," and "Witch mothers know what to say to hurt or scare their children, and use humiliation and degradation to punish them."

In a perfect world, none of these personality types would have helpless, impressionable children dependent upon them, at least until they had worked through some of their own problems. This, however, is not that world, so children, grown children of borderline mothers, and those who care about them, would be well-advised to read the second half of Lawson's book, in which strategies are discussed for living with each of the borderline mother types. The chapter titles, "Loving the Waif Without Rescuing Her," "Loving the Hermit Without Feeding Her Fear," "Loving the Queen Without Becoming Her Subject," and "Living with the Witch Without Becoming Her Victim" give an overview of the coping mechanisms described.

One of Lawson's theses is that those who do not recognize the BPD in their mothers and work to understand its effects on themselves, are doomed to repeat it. For this reason, it is especially important that adults who suspect they have borderline mothers try to gain some awareness before they recreate her patterns. Understanding the Borderline Mother also provides thought-provoking material on the kinds of fathers who enable these mothers, and on the damaging relationships between siblings that can be fostered by an ill mother's behavior.

This straightforward, engaging book is an excellent way to begin exploring the many issues involved in a dysfunctional family presided over by a borderline mother. Those readers who are not immediately drawn in by a resemblance between the descriptions and someone in their own lives may enjoy the analysis of celebrity borderline mothers, like Joan Crawford (a "Witch"), Sylvia Plath (a "Hermit"), Susan Smith (another "Witch"), Princess Diana (a "Waif"), and Mary Todd Lincoln (a "Queen").

© 2001 Heather Liston. First serial rights

Heather Liston studied Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters degree from the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the Managing Director of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico, and writes extensively on a variety of topics. Her book reviews and other work have appeared in Self, Women Outside, The Princeton Alumni Weekly, Appalachia, Your Health and elsewhere.

This review first appeared online Sept 3, 2001