Motherblame: Are We Done Yet?

December 23, 2011 Randye Kaye

I just finished reading another mother's memoir about her son's schizophrenia called This Stranger, My Son. I'd not heard of this one until a media producer I was working for (as voice talent) suggested I read it. Evidently she had read it in high school, years ago, and it has stayed with her ever since.

thisstrangerThe book is out of print, but I was able to get a used paperback copy on Amazon. First thing I noticed was the publication date: 1968. I had to wonder: Have things changed at all for families of those with mental illness?

Like me, the author ( Louise Wilson) felt compelled to write about her experience as the mother of a son who was - according to the book's cover - "brilliant, handsome, gifted, and 'different' from the time he was born." Like me, too, she and her befuddled family lived through years of confusion, misdiagnosis, expensive therapy and countless attempts to fix things with talk. Unlike me, though, her child seemed to have symptoms of mental illness almost from birth (childhood onset) while my Ben's schizophrenia was of the more common "gradual onset" variety, changes appearing in his mid-teens and progressing from there. We were, I think, luckier in this regard (if there is such a thing as lucky when your child develops a major mental illness) - We had years of getting to know Ben before the illness set its ugly course. I knew who I was trying to save.

One other difference in our memoirs comes from the time period in which we raised our children. Wilson and her family tried desperately for years to find out why their son Tony was so "different", while their other three children seemed fine. We, too, sought answers for years. In the 1960's , however, Wilson was much more of a victim of something that, thankfully, has finally begun to wane: Motherblame.

Throughout her book, she reports how professionals from psychoanalysts to child psychiatrists, school principals to therapists told her, over and over again, that she (and, sometimes, her husband) were the real problem.

You're too cold.

You are an unapproachable mother.

You baby him too much. Let go.

You don't help him enough.

Your husband doesn't so enough "manly" things with Tony.

Their life savings spent, their other children suffering from Tony's rages and an uncertain home life, Wilson and her husband tried in vain to understand, to let go, to hold on, to change their parenting skills - all in an age when it was "common knowledge" that schizophrenia is a psychological issue, not one of chemistry, not an "illness" at all. It isn't until the final chapters that she finally speaks to someone who shares a new-but-increasingly-accepted theory with her: "Schizophrenia is a physical illness." And, finally, one mother can stop hating herself.

He tells her that this isn't her fault, that her son has a mental illness that is nobody's fault. Finally, relief for these poor parents who had believed that they had somehow done something very wrong for their child to act so strangely and unpredictably. Finally, they could let go of blame.

Were we more fortunate, then, since my son was born decades later, in an era where the chemical basis for mental illness is finally accepted? Absolutely. NAMI was there to help educate me, once we had a diagnosis. Sure, there were years of chaos before we understood. Sure, earlier detection might have saved us a lot of heartache, false leads, and money.

Is motherblame a thing of the past? Hardly. We had our share of therapists who tried to "fix" Ben by "fixing" me. But at least none of them questioned the chemical nature of mental illness itself, once diagnosed. The diagnosis allowed us, finally, to move ahead. Sure, it took way too long to name Ben's illness - but in Wilson's time, naming the illness did not remove the blame on the family. We could have had it so much worse.

Canadian author, Susan Inman, in her book After Her Brain Broke, talks of her brainbrokedaughter's years of talk therapy ( with privacy laws forbidding her access to how the treatment was going) -which she later learned consisted almost entirely of motherblame.

"How easy it has been," she writes, "for poorly educated professionals to assume that the accusations that were made while ill must be revealing deep truths instead of completely disordered thinking." And she wrote her book in 2003. Fairly recently. There is still much to be done, much stigma to erase.

Wasted years. Depleted savings. And, she discovered, so many "mental health professionals" had not even been required to study the major mental illnesses as part of their education in Canada. Is this true in the United States? I have begun to ask about this.

Still, once we knew the truth about Ben, we could act. And there were resources available to help me understand. I hope our story will do the same for those future families who will need to know they are not alone. And, I am delighted that I've had the chance, and continue to be invited, to speak about this to students, professionals, families and PAMIs (People Affected by Mental Illness). It is a privilege, and I hope to do Ben proud as I speak out for better research, more services, greater opportunity, understanding and respect - and against needless blame.

Acceptance? No-fault thinking? We are not there yet - but we are, certainly, closer than we were in 1968. We'll take it.

APA Reference
Kaye, R. (2011, December 23). Motherblame: Are We Done Yet?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Author: Randye Kaye

Lisa Douglas
February, 9 2012 at 3:21 am

As the single parent of a 12 year old child with debilitating OCD, Tourettes Syndrome and PANDAS, I can attest that the “blame the mother” mentality is still thriving. But, there is hope, as all specialist don't subscribe to this thinking anymore.

Randye Kaye
December, 27 2011 at 5:02 am

yes, it's on hardcover, kindle, audiobook (read by me) - local booksellers of Amazon here:
also the website has video of TV appearances etc. click on Press Room:
thanks, and Happy New Year! Randye

SylviAnn Murray
December, 26 2011 at 3:03 pm

Thank-you Randye -
Is your book on the shelves yet? Do you have to go thru an extended period of promoting it?
If you find out you will be on TV please let us alll know!
I copied the html code down. I used to know how to do that. I just hate it when that happens.
More later,

SylviAnn Murray
December, 25 2011 at 8:03 pm

Randye -
Whoops I was thinking Ben's onset was a long time ago. I realize from reading more about him that is was around 2000. How old is he now?
or do I have to read the book?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Randye Kaye
December, 25 2011 at 11:02 pm

SylviAnn - thanks for more of your story, and your insight. Yes, Ben is only 29 right now and it has been about 9 years since his stabilization period began.
Regarding the video on You-Tube: you can do one of three things to share it:
1- (which you have done) - contact the producers to see if they will send you a copy or allow you to d ownload its o you can post it yourself somewhere
2 - Share the link itself with others so they can see it on You-Tube: this link is found by clicking the "share" box right below the video. You can choose the link (which btw is and put it on your website or in an e-mail or blog post
3 - Share by choosing the "embed" code instead - this will give you code to insert in the HTML code of a website page or blog post, and the video itself will be "embedded" into the content. If this seems like a foreign language to you (it was to me until I took a beginner course in HTML - then ask someone for help. It's easy once you know how!

SylviAnn Murray
December, 25 2011 at 7:40 pm

Hi Randye and everyone else... (Yes I am new here thanks to Randye)
Yes life becomes confusing when Mental Illness steps in. Mine was diagnosed in the early '70s and I think that that was the time that medications were first being understood and prescribed. Maybe there were a couple of the old ones like haldol and thorazine. Anyway it sounds like you were dealing with Ben's problems before effective meds were even available. Is that true?
I've known a lot of mentally ill adults thru time spent at a Partial Hospitalization here in Austin. This place is amazing and has saved many lives.
Schizophrenia is really hard to deal with even with meds. There are some new ones that really help though to help stop the voices and give some peace.
Whoops - I got all sidetracked. What I wanted to say was that my mother really did save my life... over and over and over. But in my eyes I just saw her locking me up (in psych hospitals) over and over and over. Not having insight until many years later I blamed her for that and the depressions that always followed the mania (when you quit your meds) .
Anyway I did not SPEAK to my mother for 10 years after I finally decided to take my meds and became stablle. I was very likely to have been killed by my bizarre and risky behavior driven by very intact delusions..
Ironically I got my BA in Psych (somehow) and since 1983 I have worked as a Mental Health Worker- in between a few episodes and 10 years of very driven creativity. Mostly when I take my lithium I am stable and a prolific Surreal Artist...
Brandye - can you help me to put up my video? I can find it but don't know how to load it somewhere else... "An Interview with Artist SylviAnn Murray".
I am trying to contact the doctors that did the film.
Good to meet everyone here! Don't worry I have a lot more to share and love to hear what you have to share.

SylviAnn Murray
December, 24 2011 at 9:46 pm

I was diagnosed Bipolar in 1975 after having my first manic episode at 17 in 1973. I was accused of taking drugs and even thrown out of school for "using drugs". I remember thinking - OMG if this is how my brain is without using drugs - then I never will try them as my brain might EXPLODE...
Even the psychiatrist didn't believe that I did not use drugs. No one really knew what to do but I was hospitalized after being the subject of a police chase and other risky behavior.
It seemed that all thle "blame" for my unusual behavior was on ME or DRUGS... That first time I was on the Psych Ward my mother became the hero. She would show up with cigarettes (new habit) and talk about her "sick" daughter. She and my Father (divorded from each other) were talking to the psychiatrist about sterilising me and forcing me to have shock treatment.
No blame on my parents. I don't think they felt guilty either. My mother blamed my father and he didn't really care. She was angry at him because he had the genes for mental illness on his side of the family.
Later on my mother was in the position of my caretaker and felt very responsible to have me hospitalized whenever I needed it.
Anyway many years later my mom died, but my brother and father still see me as a mentally ill person before seeing me as as an accomplished artist.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Randye Kaye
December, 25 2011 at 1:24 am

Hi SylviAnn,
Thanks so much for sharing your story here. It illustrates how blame can be everywhere, as we try to explain things we don't or can't understand. I learned at NAMI that families go through a predictable stage called "normalizing" where we stay invested in the idea that whatever is going on with a loved one, we can somehow "fix" it via our own behaviors, or that the affected person will somehow "snap out of it" if we just do or say the right thing. For our family, that period ended with Ben's diagnosis and with our learning all we could about it. Education helped, and helps, us let go of the past, stay in the present, and work toward a better future. Blame? Kept us locked in the past.
For too long the attitudes toward mental illness have been the result of limited knowledge. Hence, the blame. Professionals working on the assumption that it must be the parents' fault: others blaming drug use, or the the person affected by mental illness for "not working hard enough to get better"; people looking for answers that simply did not exist.
Now, hopefully, we are starting to know better. Research, better treatment options, opportunities to show strength; people willing to talk about it with truth. I find that most people's reactions to Ben's schizophrenia directly reflect the amount of education they have had about it - and their willingness to keep minds and eyes open to possibility instead of limitation. That's why I wrote Ben Behind His Voices, and that is what you do with your inspiring artwork. Thank you.

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