psychology /

in Exsules Filii Evae

The Banished Sons of Eve charts the intersecting journeys of its two main characters, Adrian Underwood and Eileen O'Rourke.  While the forward march of events in the world around them propels the novel to some degree (particularly the actions taken by Rome toward local archdioceses and Church theologians), it is largely the psychological and spiritual evolution of Adrian and Eileen that occupies center stage. 

Eileen's crisis of identity begins two years prior to the action of the novel, when the effective abandonment by her mother she experienced in childhood is compounded by the loss of her mother through death.  For reasons that aren't clear to her, Eileen is more tempted than ever to see herself as like her mother, and fears being swallowed up by grief and bitterness the way Brigid was.  She finds it impossible to maintain the hope she once had for her life, hope built largely on the identification she had with her sister, Helen.  She comes home to La Crosse in an attempt to make whatever reparations she can, albeit symbolically, to these family relationships, and to attempt to lay them to rest. 

In Mourning and Melancholia (1917), Sigmund Freud theorized about what differentiates normal mourning from arrested mourning, or what he termed melancholia.  He describes normal mourning as a process in which attachment is withdrawn gradually over time from a lost love, and eventually can be invested again in a new relationship--in which the loving faculty, as it were, remains intact.  He speculates that grief becomes an arrested process when disappointment in the loved person or the loving relationship results in self-criticism, an accusation deflected from the loved person onto the self, leaving one ambivalently tied to the first object of affection and too full of self-doubt to freely love another.  Freud's speculation is that identification is a means here to protect an attachment that is already threatened because of disappointment from the further threat that criticism of the loved one might entail.  It involves seeing one's self from a point of view sympathetic to the other, but unsympathetic to the self.  The self blame ultimately undermines one's confidence in ever loving another.  Freud's thoughts about withdrawing love and investing it in another apply interchangeably to loss of love (disappointment) and to loss of a loved one (death), and he relates the two to each other.  He gives us a way to speculate how Eileen's way of coping with her mother's depression laid a foundation for how she copes with her mother's death.

There are perhaps more ways to think about the role played by identification with those we have loved and lost.  Although it is a magical solution, the fantasy that the dead live on in us, if we become more like them and adopt their traits, can serve to attenuate the desperate feelings of loss or guilt we have when they die. This might illuminate Eileen's choice to study science in college, in accord with Helen's enthusiasm for the names of plant species on Barron's Island, and her fear of becoming like her mother after Brigid's death.

It is Eileen's old friend, Teresa, and her partner Shirley, who eventually speak directly to Eileen about the enormous significance there is in the troubled nature of her relationship with her mother.  Teresa thinks Eileen's belief that she is like her mother is a recent invention, that Eileen spent all of the years Teresa knew her pointedly distancing herself from Brigid's attitudes and behaviors. Eileen is open to hearing these comments partly because of the relationship that has taken hold between herself and Adrian.  

Eileen was a bit surprised when she met Adrian to discover that the prospect of a new relationship could make her feel hopeful again.  She eventually becomes aware that similarities between Helen and Adrian are what lead her to look forward to the future.  In opening her life to Adrian, she lets herself truly feel what Helen's death meant to her, and not just what it meant to her mother.  Adrian's explicit desire to have her in his life, regardless of his religious vocation or hers, sets Eileen firmly on a new trajectory--one in which the weight of damnation feels truly lifted from her shoulders, because she begins to believe it's possible to have a relationship that doesn't end in tragedy or unhappiness. 

When Adrian heads off to Creighton Law School after graduation from Assisi College, he hasn't detached himself entirely from his wish to become a priest.  If this is an indication that some important work is left unfinished, the prospect that he could become a sexually active man presents him with work that has hardly begun.  He has enough insight to know, heading back to Holy Name, that he needs to come to some peace with his sexuality, even if he ends up a celibate priest. 

In the middle of the novel, Adrian realizes that learning his friend Terry had AIDS was an enormous psychological setback for him.  Lacking further understanding of his conflicts, he worries that nothing about a year back at the seminary is going to help him come to greater resolution.  The Ratzinger Letter helps clear up Adrian's ambivalence about serving a church in which he is at best a second-class citizen--but other events in the novel have a more decisive impact on his ability to imagine himself as gay lay person in his church community. 

Adrian is hardly conscious that disapproval from his mother, Eleanor, and his guilty complicity with his father's infidelity toward her stand as significant obstacles to his own expression of sexuality.  He is a neurotic wreck, and like most people who are neurotic wrecks due to Oedipal issues, has no awareness of the nature of his problem.  (For more on the Oedipal complex, see glossary, study guide page one.) Unfortunately, our cultural mythology of male homosexuality  is pervaded by traditional psychoanalytic speculation that male homosexuals have failed to work out their frustrated sexual ambitions toward their mothers.  The alternate possibilty, that they've had a diffcult time displacing their sexual ambitions toward their fathers onto an acceptable male substitute, seems not to have occurred as readily to the imaginations of heterosexual analysts.  Two ideas helpful in gaining a psychological perspective on Adrian are an understanding of Oedipal conflict in personality development and in conflicts over adult sexuality, and an understanding of how heterosexist bias can lead us away from accurate thinking about the psychological life of a homosexual.  

Adrian perhaps attaches to Eileen looking for a mother figure, but it is not a mother for dependence or nurturance or libidinal gratification.  Instead, he's looking for a mother of satisfactory Oedipal resolution, a mother who accepts his preference for his father and grandfather (and by extension other males), and looks with approval on his substitution of another man as his object of affection, rather than insisting that his choice be a woman.  Adrian sees in Eileen the potential that someone approximating his mother will be able to acknowledge his sexual orientation and not withdraw her attachment to him.  He says to Eileen that he isn't asking for her approval, and he isn't, except to the extent that abandonment of the relationship implies disapproval and continuing it implies acceptance.  In seeking a relationship with Eileen, Adrian summons from Eileen her best self, a version of herself able to put aside her insecurities and her tragic past, and open herself to Adrian as an enduring object of love, and of empathy.