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"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
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
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
© 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