The story of naming "maternal alienation": new research enters the world of policy and practice
Home Truths Conference
September 2004, Melbourne
Liz Kelly tells us that, "in order to define something a word has to exist with which to name it. ...What is not named is invisible and, in a social sense, nonexistent" (1988 114). When I sought to understand why so many mothers who were victims of violence were blamed and often hated by their children, I found myself identifying and naming a phenomenon that had been virtually unnamed in the literature on violence against women.
I was drawn to research this from my experience as a practitioner working with women whose relationships with their children had broken down. In groups and counselling, I discovered the depth of their grief at losing their children, compounded by the blame they encountered from those around them, which further fed their self-blame as mothers. It seemed ironic that such a source of profound grief for women did not even deserve a word that identified their experience. For them, their children, families and communities, there seemed to be no way of understanding how their relationships had broken down other than seeing it as the mothers' fault.
Findings from 1999 Research
The research project, conducted in 1999 (Morris 1999), discovered that in these cases of alienation, male perpetrators of violence against the women and/or children use an arsenal of strategies to deliberately undermine mother-child relationships. Most often the mother's intimate partner and the child's father or step-father, they employ these tactics in a number of different abusive contexts, including domestic violence and child sexual abuse. They use verbal messages and actions to position the mother in a place where children can hate and despise her, can insult and even abuse her themselves, where any action she makes becomes further proof of the statements made about her. These messages do not have to be based on any truth - their power is built on the commanding way in which they are conveyed, the rhetorical devices they use and the emotional responses they elicit. The messages are propaganda, and work powerfully on children, becoming more authoritative than children's own experiences of their mother and of their abuse. As they conflict with children's experiences, these assaults on children's sense of reality have implications for their later mental health and healing.
In this campaign against the mother, the alienator manipulates and inscribes upon his victims demeaning stereotypes of women and mothers. Children, coached to copy the abusive behaviour of their father, are likely to form future relationships based on these gendered stereotypes, whereby men are encouraged to use power and violence for their own ends, and women are debased and held responsible for all ills. Whilst painting the mother as unloving, stupid, mad, lying, malicious and monstrous, the father portrays himself as good, rational, victimised, but heroic. As stereotypes have cultural currency, family members, community members and professionals readily adopt these images without much awareness or criticism. He becomes the 'poor man' that we easily sympathise with; the mother becomes 'the bitch' we love to demonise.
I named this campaign against mother and child and their relationship maternal alienation. This name defies the general trend towards gender neutral language, that conceals"women's disadvantage in a range of institutional settings" (Gatens and Mackinnon 1998 xiv), and reminds us that this is a form of gendered violence aimed at mothers and mothering. By removing gender from the framing of problems of violence, a gender-neutral perspective obscures the role of gender and power in abusive relationships (Berns 2001). The term 'maternal alienation' was created also partly as a response to the contentious Parental alienation Syndrome (PAS) (Gardner 1987), used particularly by men in custody disputes in the United States, and increasingly in Australia, to undermine mothers' allegations of their violence and abuse towards mother and/or child, predominantly child sexual abuse (Myers 1997; Dallam 1998). A favourite of the men's rights groups, Parental alienation Syndrome insists that it is mainly women who alienate their children from their fathers, while being silent about fathers' attempts to alienate children from their mothers. The term 'maternal alienation' subverts this ploy and draws attention to the prevalence of alienation aimed at mothers. The term also has potential to take account of the widespread existence of mother blaming within families, institutions and popular and professional discourses.
As maternal alienation occurs across a spectrum of abuse and violence, I found Liz Kelly's idea of a 'continuum' of abuse helpful, as it acknowledges the interconnectedness of what are often seen as specific forms of abuse such as emotional, physical and sexual abuse (of women and children) (Kelly 1988). The concept of a continuum allows a consideration of the extent to which institutional structures and the practices of health and legal professionals contribute to maternal alienation, for I continue to discover that the alienation begun by the perpetrator is invariably continued and compounded by institutions and professionals who become involved with the family.
Naming maternal alienation has had a number of consequences. The women who were interviewed as part of the original research wished to have services and service-providers educated about maternal alienation, as they had received such negative and destructive responses from services. In addition, service providers who heard about maternal alienation requested that practice responses to maternal alienation be developed. In response to both requests a project was established in Adelaide in 2002, called the maternal alienation Project. I was the single project officer, and worked on a number of fronts to educate services about maternal alienation, and develop practice responses to it. The project also aimed to create systems change and influence policy-making.
The maternal alienation Project (2002-3)
Naming maternal alienation began a process for me of witnessing how a new concept is taken up, or resisted, by institutions and individuals. I realised that naming does not merely reflect an intellectual activity of progressively becoming aware of the world in which we live, but is a profoundly political activity, that challenges existing relations of power. Within the arena of gendered violence, the act of naming assails the contested borders between the speakable and the unspeakable, where what is spoken is monitored by those who wish to define what is "true" and "untrue". Jan Breckenridge discusses this as the interplay of "silences and subjugation". She explains subjugation as "processes that subordinate or discount certain types of experiences or sources of information, by either ignoring or reinterpreting the content " (Breckenridge 1999 7-8).
Through my work in the maternal alienation Project I became acutely aware of the ways in which the borders of what it is permissible to speak are patrolled. The project, and I as project officer, were exposed to many pressures, some subtle, and some threatening. The most obvious of these was the ongoing attacks from the men's rights groups, one of which published a press release on their website calling the project"hate politics� and"Holocaust Revisionism� and insisting that the Premier of SA and relevant ministers close the project down. This was accompanied by a campaign of letters to the Premier and Ministers, a barrage of questions directed to the relevant Minister in SA Parliament by the elected member of the 'Family First' Party, a Christian political party advocating their conservative view of 'family values', personal attacks made on my character to departmental directors, threatening and abusive emails to me, and the slashing of my car tyres in front of my home. Analysing these tactics, I found they mirrored and projected onto a larger canvas the tactics used privately in maternal alienation. It is no wonder that this tiny project, with a budget that could only afford to employ me for three days a week, was finally closed down after eleven months, instead of running for the three years we had planned.
Nevertheless, over this period I worked with two groups of practitioners to develop practice responses to women and children who had been alienated from one another in domestic violence and child sexual abuse. I also met with and conducted training sessions for workers and managers within the Family Court of Australia, Family and Youth Services, SA's statutory child protection system, the Police, Attorney-General's Department, a magistrate from Adelaide's Domestic Violence Court, domestic violence services, community health services, family services, and so on.
The most profound aspect I continually encountered in my work on maternal alienation was a pervasive mother-blaming, that seemed to inhabit all levels of institutions and communities, of practice and belief. Perhaps this is not surprising if one looks at how Western mothering in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has been subject to surveillance, judgements, regulation, and how mothers have been dictated to, and sometimes punished by experts of all types (Hays 1996; Smart 1996). Yet mothers' work is unpaid, largely invisible, and under-valued. Theories such as Bowlby's attachment theory direct expert eyes to mothers' shortcomings, yet blind them to all the other significant influences in children's lives, such as poverty, the wider community, peer groups, fathers, and the presence or absence of violence (Birns 1999).
Many service interventions tend to focus on the deficits of the mother, perhaps accusing her of neglect. However, we need to be aware that the effects of violence and abuse and maternal alienation on the mother child relationship can look just like maternal neglect. As practitioners or outsiders we can encounter situations where mothers are unable to control their children, and where they can appear to be immobilised and apathetic, or angry and frustrated with their children, and feel the task of mothering is far beyond them. Thinking of themselves as bad mothers, they may even feel that the only option left to them is to give up their children. However, rather than being signs of neglect, such a situation can be the result of a relentless campaign to undermine on all fronts a woman's ability to mother. Children experience that their mother's authority has broken down - they have been coached to loathe and blame her; they have been told that their mother doesn't love them, that she's crazy, that she's a slut; she is a creature who deserves abuse. These messages are not just given once, but become the tapestry of family life. Such messages are difficult to resist. Professionals also find them difficult to resist, as they accord with cultural perceptions of mothers. As Martha McMahon points out, "Mothers are no longer portrayed as self-sacrificing and all-loving but as untrustworthy or potential enemies of their children" (1995 190)).
As a counterpoint to the culpability of mothers is the invisibility of fathers. One needs the other, for if all attention is directed to the failing mother, we do not see the ways that violent and abusive fathers harm their children. Many researchers have commented on the profusion of ways in which violent men are invisible in the system, and women are held to different standards from men, (Edleson 1998; Burke 1999; Irwin, Waugh et al. 2002). Child protection services, family services all tend to focus their intervention on the mother, and rarely"mess� with the father. Women are held accountable for the effects of his violence, even when they are themselves victims of his violence.
These factors create fertile ground for maternal alienation, which assigns responsibility to women for all wrongs, and conceals the ways that male perpetrators operate to punish, control, and injure. Therefore the two most important principles of any response to address maternal alienation are to support the mother and make visible the tactics used by the perpetrator. These two principles underpin the practice responses developed through the maternal alienation Project (Morris 2003).
Principles of Best Practice: Supporting mothers and making perpetrators' tactics visible
To support mothers it is usually necessary for service-providers to become aware of their own tendencies to blame mothers or hold them accountable for their partners' violence. This approach recognises that children's well-being will be enhanced by a positive relationship with their non-offending parent. This works against the cultural grain also in recognising the positive role that mothers can have in their children's lives. Given appropriate support mothers and children can rebuild their relationships, and mothers can be enabled to support and protect their children in the future.
Effective work in this area also depends on making the perpetrator and his tactics visible and accountable for the violence, abuse and alienation and their effects on women and children. This enables women and children to understand how they were alienated from one another (Laing 1999). By making perpetrators visible, we are shifting back to them the responsibility for the damage, the harm, the trauma they have caused. When women and children understand where their problems have come from, they can take back their power to live the lives they choose for themselves, and not be driven for the rest of their lives by the patterns set up and manipulated by the perpetrator.
A strange paradox emerges in this field of work, which I suspect is the result of our gender-neutral approach, where so-called neutrality constitutes a male view (Hearn 1998) � on the one hand men become invisible in the system when it is largely men who are responsible for violence against women and children, and women are held accountable. But when it comes to the care and development of children which mostly falls to mothers, women become invisible and the significance of their mothering role is not acknowledged. Further, we live in a society that values individualism, and our therapeutic interventions tend to reflect this. We treat children as separate beings, when in fact they are embedded in relationships of care and development. We often work separately with mothers and children, not recognising that after our clients' hour with us, they return to struggling to live together. These influences effectively create a gap in our services � very little work is done to support the mother-child relationship.
I suggest we need to look differently at how we work with mothers and children after violence, decentralise our importance in children's and young people's lives, and find ways of making their relationships with their mothers work. If we work to re-build mother-child relationships after violence we create possibilities for healing in the future. This is the long-term solution to their problems; this is the realistic solution, and if we get it right it acts as early intervention/prevention, as mothers are enabled to support and protect their children.
The mother-child system/alliance
Therefore a service response to address maternal alienation needs to focus on building a mother-child alliance. The presence of abuse generally leads to mothers and children developing quite different understandings of the shared events in their lives. They need support to learn to talk together about the violence they have been subject to and develop shared activities and plans for the future.
This doesn't necessarily mean that mothers and children always need to meet with counsellors together � they will need their own time to express their pain, grief, anger, frustration, and this is best done separately. But practitioners can keep in mind the need to develop mutual understandings throughout this process.
Uncover the tactics used in maternal alienation
Where it is possible to interact with programs that work with perpetrators of violence, there is the potential to discover some of the tactics used to divide mothers and children. Work with child sex offenders in programs like Cedar Cottage (NSW), where offenders are required to admit how they planned and set up sexual abuse of children, enforced the secrecy, and undermined children's relationships of trust (Laing 1999), would be useful also within programs for perpetrators of domestic violence.
Making perpetrators' tactics visible gives us an important resource for healing those who have been abused - an understanding of the tactics used against them. When perpetrators' tactics are exposed, women and children can unravel the many misunderstandings they have been subject to, and understand that neither the mother nor the child is the problem - their problems have been created by the manipulations of the alienator (Laing 1999). Once they see the role of the perpetrator in their alienation, they can begin to free themselves from the lies and dynamics he contrived. They can step aside from the destructive patterning that has been set up, and behave in different and more positive ways towards one another.
Develop an alternative narrative
Women who leave violence and abuse often find they re-capture a sense of being a worthwhile person that was lost during the abuse; they may discover they have values and a personality that were buried for years. This (re-) emerging self can be strengthened during work with mothers and children, as together they create a life that they choose. Becoming very clear about what they want in their lives enables women and children to re-frame who they are, and step outside the behaviours they adopted to survive the abuse, and the negative narratives about who they were.
It can be helpful for women and children to understand how the tactics of maternal alienation capitulated them into particular behaviours. For women, these tactics often worked to entrap them into 'playing out' the role assigned to them by the perpetrator. After leaving an abusive relationship, women and children often find that perpetrators' tactics to control them escalate. They will need to hold on firmly to the alternative sense of themselves so that they are not tricked back into the old ways of behaving that 'proved' the perpetrators' words about themselves.
Using authority positively
When maternal alienation takes place, mothers are positioned as the ones least able to make changes. A mother's words are discredited before she even utters them, and her actions are reviled before she takes them. Whatever she does, she has been painted as the mad one, the bad one, the stupid one, the one who can't be trusted. Her children will not listen to her or cooperate with her. Professional interventions that put pressure on her to make changes within the family such as changes to children's behaviour, exacerbate this situation and problems are likely to escalate. This tends to"prove� to practitioners that the woman is the cause of the problems.
What is needed from practitioners is both understanding of how maternal alienation has operated to disempower and discredit mothers, and an attitude of respect towards them. Practitioners' authority can be used positively to model respect towards the mother and authorise alternative narratives and behaviours for mother and child. This counterbalances the power and status of the alienator's voice.
Advocacy and information giving
Practitioners who work in these ways report that their positive work is rapidly undone by services that are ignorant of maternal alienation and unwittingly reinforce the negative conditioning set up by maternal alienation. On the other hand, they found significant changes when they worked together with these services to address the family's problems. An integral part of this work is to educate all services that interact with these families about the effects of violence and maternal alienation, so they too can support them and not become a part of the problem.
Creating consistency, safety and integrated service approaches.
Perpetrators maintain absolute control over their families by being inconsistent and unpredictable. The inconsistency and distortion of reality that occurs as part of maternal alienation fractures women and children from their own experience, and from being able to trust themselves. What is consistent in their world is their lack of safety.
This pattern of inconsistency and families' resultant lack of control can be mirrored by services when they take different approaches to mother and family. Those services that are punitive and judgemental and continue to disempower mothers repeat the dynamics of the abuse situation. Families cannot recover while this is their environment - while they are awaiting the next blow, the next senseless act that removes their sense of control and safety. Integrated approaches by all services connected with the family develop consistency in the way a family is treated. This can counteract the many contradictions that the alienator has used to confound his victims and remove their sense of control or understanding.
I believe these practice responses require a fundamental re-thinking of our practice: they entail becoming aware of and resisting mother-blaming in its many forms; making visible the hitherto hidden tactics and influences of perpetrators; valuing and re-building mother-child relationships; treating mothers with respect and allowing them the power and authority needed to take up the responsibilities of mothering; working in an integrated way with other services to create safe and consistent environments for mothers and children.
In the short history of the maternal alienation Project, it appeared that these changes were too difficult to achieve, in the face of continuing attacks by men's rights groups. Perhaps increasing bureaucratisation and standardisation of service procedures was another factor that made it difficult to take up these challenges. Towards the end of the Project, some managers and policy officers aware of the parliamentary attacks on the Minister suggested that we change the name"maternal alienation� to something less confronting. Soon after, the project ended for lack of further funding.
But this is not the end of the story. The resources created during the Project, and the information given at training workshops continue to circulate. Survivors of gendered violence and practitioners are discovering and redistributing this material, requesting training for their organisations, and changing their practice. They are advocating for changes within the system, and have created working groups to accomplish this. I am reminded of the single flower whose seeds are scattered by wind and insects, take root and create generations of flowers. There is no longer one lonely target, vulnerable to attack and attempts to silence it, but many advocates of change as the ideas about maternal alienation have taken root and grow.
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1 The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions to this work of Dr Margie Ripper, University of Adelaide, and Professor Liz Kelly C.B.E., Child & Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University.