In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) Susan Kavaler-Adler writes as follows:Soon after Sherry’s mother returns to Europe, the mother and daughter experience a moment of mutual caring. This happens over the telephone, and now some four years into Sherry’s therapy. Her mother is warm and receptive to Sherry’s call for the first time – still under influence of their New York connection. This allows for a conversation in which they both begin to appreciate and understand each other’s separate identities and differences. Sherry’s mother speaks of attending church daily as a refuge within her cold and emotionally isolating existence. Sherry says, “I guess going to church is for you something like my going to therapy.”
Sherry’s mother has never been able to understand what going to psychotherapy means. Yet for this one brief moment, Sherry and her mother did not judge one another. In fact, as Sherry and her mother come to appreciate each other’s separate identities and differences, Sherry’s mother accepts that Sherry had something in her life analogous to her seeking peace of mind through her visits and prayers in the Catholic Church. Likewise, Sherry relinquishes, at least temporarily, her defensive contempt, as well as her hostile views of her mother’s inadequacy as a woman. She actually opens up to her mother’s words, and also to the vision of her mother entering the church, kneeling in prayer, and finding solace.
After Sherry and her mother touch each other in New York, Sherry tries to soften the situation between her mother and father: “Mom, if dad wants to kick up his heels once in a while, let him. It’s OK. We all need to have fun.” Her mother does not respond, but she does not shut out Sherry’s words, voice or presence, as she had in the past. When Sherry as a child had cried out in pain and needed her mommy, the emotionally absent mother tried to placate her daughter with detached words, instead of comforting her with either the physical or emotional holding Sherry always longed for. “Go to bed,” her mother would say, adding “It will be better in the morning.” It was never better in the morning, not for her, and not for her mother! However, following her mother’s emotional surrender to her internal self in New York, Sherry finds her mother to be listening over the phone, actually listening to her, for the first time. To get there, Sherry had switched roles with her mother, comforting the mother who had not been able to comfort her.
After Sherry’s mother returns home, her father continues to disappear for days at a time from the household, pursuing an affair with a 20-year-old, and then, he returns unannounced to the family house to demand a cup of tea. All that Sherry’s mother has to hold over him was her deed to their home. She has re-entered a world dominated by a demonic husband who abandoned and abused her, so Sherry’s attempt to normalize her father’s behavior as merely “kicking up his heels” is bound to fail. Her mother is again swallowed up by her husband’s hostility and her own rage, which turn her cold when she defends against them. With the impact of this, Sherry’s mother once again fails to be present when Sherry calls her from New York. Eventually Sherry feels like giving up. She has tried. She has opened her heart to her mother, and has had her moment of communion. Hopefully, this moment in New York remains with her…
As she opens up the affective avenues to sustained connection by opening her pain, grief, and rage in therapy, Sherry begins to see that she and her sister are always repeating the sadomasochism of their parents’ marriage. In fact, when they try to live together, Sherry’s sister drags Sherry across the floor and tries to beat her up, mimicking the behavior of her father towards her mother. Seeing this in her sister allows Sherry to observe her own aggression during the course of her fifth year of once-a-week psychoanalytic psychotherapy. She is able to re-own the part of herself she had always tended to project onto men. Owning her own aggression, Sherry is able to confront her sister and to love her again, when they return to separate apartments. Apparently, Sherry now carries a good-enough feeling of love from her brief period of communion with her mother, and from her connection with me, to repair her relationship with her sister. She is now developmentally ready to move more seriously towards men.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.