Skip to content

Jocasta? Complex? You’re telling me, says Paula Coston – and lends her voice to trying to redeem her

March 28, 2015
'Lemminkainen's mother on the banks of the River Tuonela reviving her son'. by Akeseli Gallen-Kallela, 1897. So is the doting mother unconsciously incestuous, anguished and dangerous...

‘Lemminkainen’s mother on the banks of the River Tuonela reviving her son’ by Akeseli Gallen-Kallela, 1897. So is the doting mother unconsciously incestuous, potentially anguished, or anguishing, and dangerous…

... or supportive, inspirational and life-enhancing? (Mother and son Jackie Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr)

… or supportive, inspirational and life-enhancing? (Mother and son Jackie Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr)

I give in. Among you my faithful readers (or even the casual ones), it’s my blog piece on the Jocasta complex that so many of you turn to – maybe, even, return to – on a daily basis ( (Please, if you have a moment, do comment here. Is it because your name’s Jocasta? You’re considering the name for a child? You’re a psychoanalyst, psychotherapist or counsellor? You’ve been told you have the complex? You think you have it? You think your mother has it? You think your mother-in-law-to-be has it? Pray, do tell.)

Anyhoo, bowing to my public, here’s a second post on the same theme.

Most of you will know of the mythical Greek hero Oedipus; Jocasta was his ma, the woman who fell in love with him not knowing (according to many accounts) that he was her long-lost son. We can thank (?) Sigmund Freud for the concept of the Oedipus complex: a son’s wariness or fear of, even hatred of, certainly sense of competition with, his father (in the myth of course, Oedipus kills him).

It’s the lesser-known American psychology Professor and psychoanalyst Matthew Besdine who gave the Jocasta complex its name:

‘The Jocasta complex is as significant as the Oedipus complex. One constant factor in the lives of geniuses is Jocasta mothering. The salient features of the personality of the genius are an unresolved Oedipus, fear of love, an underlying sense of guilt, strong masochistic trends, a significant homosexual component, paranoid trends, extraordinary egocentricity, exorbitant striving for recognition, and overall narcissism.’ (The Jocasta Complex, Mothering, and Genius, 1968)

This from Besdine’s abstract for the book, though he does go on to qualify – thank goodness: ‘These impressions are presented tentatively and need further study and confirmation.’ Another of his works, The Unknown Michaelangelo, 1986, contains a series of biographies of famously creative men whom he considered victims of the complex.

Before we react too violently against MB, let’s remember that he originally coined the term in the context of his studies of male genius, however misguided you may feel he is in his conclusions even about that. He was no feminist, or at least, not primarily interested in the female side of his invented equation. Andrew Brink summarises MB’s outlook in Obsession and Culture – A Study of Sexual Obsession in Modern Fiction, 1996:

‘[For him, male] genius is a function of the kind and intensity of mothering: the social benefits of creative art are bought at a high price in feelings of ambiguity about sexual orientation. The exclusive favor of sons by their mothers that leads to a sense of special creative powers Besdine likens to the gardener’s technique of “debudding” to promote exceptionally vigorous growth.’

The word ’emasculation’ immediately springs to mind.

Over time, variant tropes of this notion have seeped into cultures around the world. A letter by E. Wellisch of the Child Guidance Clinic, Bexleyheath, UK in the British Medical Journal, 12 April 1952 warned of an increased danger of ‘a break-through of unconscious incestuous tendencies’ towards their adopted sons in adoptive mothers, especially if the marital relationship of the woman and her partner was unsteady. How pervasive is this fear of irreparable damage by the mother figure, bang right up to now. It’s there in the phrase ‘mummy’s boy’ or ‘mama’s boy’, often laughingly and thoughtlessly tossed off; and it’s there in the stereotype of the Jewish mother (‘You never call! You never write!’) and her ambitions in particular for her sons (doctor, lawyer). It’s there in the reluctance of men to own up to a close connection with their mothers, as William Sutcliffe wrote in The Sunday Times:

‘Men are more likely to confess to a predilection for pornography than admit to a close relationship with their mother…. Confessing to your friends that you sometimes call your mum for a chat is something few do. Even though a man’s mother is likely to be the second most important woman in his life, even though he may have deep feelings of love for her, this is a relationship about which men are sheepish, secretive and often outright embarrassed.’

It’s also lurking in commentary such as this by Paul MacInnes:

‘To stand outside the realm of maternal comfort, to stand foursquare with the woman [he means, girlfriend or wife] who quite often calls him a “certifiable prat” to his face, that’s the true sign of a successful man.’ (7 March 2013 in the Guardian ‘Are you a mummy’s boy? It’s time to cut the apron strings’:

Of course he’s right that men need to form other healthy, loving relationships than with their mothers; but it’s the ease with which his commentary falls into the mummy’s boy shorthand that bothers me: ‘apron strings’, ‘unconditional love’, ‘dear old mum’ – and the one who ‘cooks their food for them’. Are all deeply loving, even doting, mothers like that?

Besdine took things too far, in his homophobic tendencies etc., on male genius and its downsides. Look deeper, and the Jocasta so-called ‘complex’ gets, er, complex and really interesting: close son mothering does have important functions and positives that need to be more widely known.

Take killer whales, f’rinstance (I’ve talked about them elsewhere). In a Daily Mail article, Dr Dan Franks of the Department of Biology, University of York was quoted as saying:

‘The need for mothers to care for their sons into adulthood explains why killer whales have evolved the longest post-reproductive lifespan of any non-human animal.’

Killer whale mothers live close to their sons throughout their lifespans; and, the article goes on to explain, theory predicts that to have the best chance of spreading their genes, mothers need to focus their efforts on their sons.(

Women have started reclaiming the Jocasta so-called ‘complex’ for women, from a female, and totally other, viewpoint. In 2012, journalist Kate Stone Lombardi published The Mama’s Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger. Her research suggested that close mother-son bonds led to many emotional and mental benefits, without any of the negatives that concerned Besdine:

‘Women who marry men who are close to their mothers are quite happy with the communication in the relationship and the more romantic aspects…[as long as the mother-son relationship is a] healthy adult closeness…. Guys who have [good] communication skills, which is one of the things they tend to learn from their moms, do very well [at work].’


‘Boys who aren’t firmly attached to their moms go on in later life to have behaviour problems. They’re more destructive, they’re more aggressive…. Guys who are closer to their moms [are] less depressed, … less anxious, right through to the high school years.'(

Men too are helping, trying to rework notions of masculinity around male-female relationships, including relationships with mothers. I especially like the blogs of Martin Robb about the positive maternal influence on the development of young male identities:

Perhaps many feminists’ immediate reaction to discussion of the Jocasta complex is to try to reverse the imbalance, to cast any semblance we have to Jocasta not as destructive but as superwoman, supporting, moulding and nurturing her son in purely beneficial, enlightened ways. But isn’t that to risk becoming Besdine: to risk casting the son as passive and malleable as putty? i.e. an imbalance in another, equally potentially harmful, direction?

Dr Paula Hyman, in her questioning of the pervasive Jewish mother stereotype and her attempts to combat it (, has hit the nail on the head, though. Constructs such as ‘complexes’ easily insinuate themselves into our thinking, becoming deep-rooted stereotypes under the influence of history (e.g. the Jews’ patterns of family life in Europe), religion (e.g. Judaism), and iconic thinkers, who can transform the cultural landscape so dramatically (e.g. Sigmund Freud: an atheist, but, as he explored in his work, by family upbringing a Jew).

Mother-son stereotypes and constructs go far, far back, to the myths that may imbue us without our knowing, tangling and knotting our attitudes and values. J. Bruce Evans (July 2007) argues that our interpretations of and responses to the relationship are steeped in four particular mother-son ‘myths’: those of Chronos, Oedipus, Attis and Jesus. He points out that in the first three, the mother is in the foreground of the tale; in the latter, the Virgin Mary has receded to some degree.

With such strong mother figures – strong in relation to their sons – embedded in our primeval psyches, it’ll be a hard battle for future generations to re-mould our perceptions of mother-son dynamics; to re-shape them – where it’s justified – as more male-female balanced, and at the same time positive for the women in the equation.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: