Roots of reparative therapy – Momism and psychiatry in the 1940s

For our amusement and for a book I am completing this summer, I am looking into multiple roots of reparative therapy. As I noted recently, reparative therapy finds parents to be the root of homosexuality in children. Mother blaming has a long history in psychoanalysis. Reparative therapy doesn’t spare the mother but adds father for his special share of responsibility.

One of the most famous cases of mother blaming is Bruno Bettelheim’s reference to “refrigerator mothers” as culprits for autism. Bettelheim’s diagnosis was not based on empirical research but his own experiences in Nazi concentration camps, or at least that is what Bettelheim claimed. In any case, a couple of generations of professionals were trained to believe that autism was mom’s fault.

On the other side of the spectrum from the refrigerator mother was “Mom.” Philip Wylie coined the word “momism” to refer to overprotective mothers in a chapter of his 1943 best seller, Generation of Vipers. I will have more from that book later this week.

Wylie was a journalist who didn’t like soft moms, or soft men. Psychiatry was quite supportive of Wylie at the time, at least in the person of Edward A. Strecker. Strecker was a consultant to the Army and Navy through World War II and blamed mothers for men dismissed from the services for psychiatric reasons. Not only was mom the blame for individual pathology, but her failures threatened democracy and nation security. Here is the description of Strecker’s 1946 book, Their Mothers’ Sons

Their Mother’s Sons (From the book jacket)

This is a book about Mother, the great American “Mom,” and what she is doing to the young men of America. In its pages a world-famous psychiatrist describes in unforgettable terms a new American tragedy – the millions of young men in this country today who live in confusion and emotional chaos, condemned by millions of well-meaning and unthinking “Moms” who will not cut the apron strings between them and their sons.

During the past war, Dr. Strecker served as special consultant to the Secretary of War, and to the Surgeon Generals of the Army and Navy. In casualty hospitals, both overseas and at home, he viewed the incredible neuroses of vast numbers of American young men. At the induction centers and in the screening areas, he learned the case histories many thousands of so-called psychoneurotics. Now, in this book, he crystallizes his thinking into a timely warning concerning a system which condemns enormous numbers of men to a miserable, maladjusted life – simply because “Mom” has never weaned her son emotionally.

During the past war, 1,825,000 men were rejected for military service because of psychiatric disorders. Another 600,000 were discharged for neuropsychiatric reasons. And at least 500,000 attempted to evade the draft and all war responsibility. The handwriting of “Moms” looms large and plain.

Influenced by Sandor Rado, Irving Bieber and Elizabeth Moberly, Nicolosi extends the blame to the father with his version of reparative therapy. The overbearing, overprotective mother looms large in reparative therapy and appears to be an idea with a long history of tapping into collective fears and insecurities.