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Rachel Cusk
Part II: On Cusk's Other Works

The Book of Repetition: Rachel Cusk and Maternal Subjectivity



Cet article analyse la manière dont Cusk représente la subjectivité maternelle dans le contexte d’une culture anglo-américaine que l’on pourrait qualifier de post-moderniste et qui construit le fait d’être mère à la fois comme un choix individuel et comme une responsabilité sociale. Cet article montre que ce qui rend le discours de Cusk sur la maternité différent, c’est l’intérêt qu’elle porte d’abord à la disjonction entre l’expérience subjective et les discours publics sur la maternité ; c’est ensuite l’accent qu’elle place sur les fissures au sein même de la subjectivité maternelle qui sont, en partie, une conséquence de cette dislocation mise en évidence. L’article fait référence aux discours populaires sur la maternité et aux perspectives psychanalytiques qui sont tour à tour convoquées et critiquées dans l’œuvre de Cusk.

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  • 1  Cusk quotes these reviews and several others in her Guardian article on reactions to A Life’s Work(...)

1A Life’s Work,Cusk’s memoir of motherhood,provoked a great deal of hostile commentary when it was first published in 2001. One reviewer claimed that “if everyone were to read this book, the propagation of the human race would virtually cease” and went on to accuse Cusk of confining her small daughter to the kitchen “like an animal.” Another reviewer described her as “a self-obsessed bore: the embodiment of the Me! Me! Me! attitude which you so resent in small children,” while yet another called the book “pure misery to read.”1 The violent reactions to the book point to the contested nature of motherhood in a post-feminist society in which it is presented on the one hand as a “choice” and on the other as a responsibility, which is enjoined on mothers through what Cusk calls “the public culture of motherhood, the childcare manuals and the toddler groups, the discourse of domestic life, even the politics of birth itself” (Cusk, “I was only being honest”). As these comments indicate, what is distinctive about Cusk’s writing on motherhood is her focus on the fissures within maternal subjectivity and the disjunctions between subjective experience and the dominant discourses of motherhood.  

  • 2  Beauvoir famously writes in The Second Sex that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
  • 3  For clarity and convenience, I refer to the first person author of A Life’s Work as ‘Cusk’, althou (...)

2A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother announces its debt to Beauvoir in its sub-title, which acknowledges that just as we are not born women, so we are not born mothers but are made into them by force of circumstance.2 Cusk3presents this force as brutal but not ineluctable: it is the product of the way in which motherhood is framed in late modernity. She describes the work of motherhood as being ‘requisitioned’ from a woman’s life, the military metaphor suggesting the way in which reproduction is generally understood as being a social as much as an individual matter. However, it is still rigorously confined to the private sphere and in consequence the lives of mothers and fathers immediately diverge. As Cusk puts it:

where before they were living in a state of some equality, now they exist in a sort of feudal relation to each other. A day spent at home caring for a child could not be more different from a day spent working in an office. Whatever their relative merits, they are days spent on the opposite sides of the world. (Cusk, A Life’s Work  5)

3Through motherhood, she argues, a woman’s life is thrown off course: she boards a train which heads away from “the proper path of [her] life” towards “a vista of unfamiliar hills” (19). It is not as though there are no guides to this unfamiliar territory, quite the reverse: there is a plethora of advice books on every aspect of childcare and there is a formidable body of academic work on the subject, especially in psychoanalysis; in addition there is endless debate in the popular press about how to be a good mother. But the explosion of public commentary has not been matched by literary representations of the subjective experience of motherhood. In offering such a representation, interwoven with reflections on formal and informal advice to mothers, Cusk exposes the yawning gap between public pronouncements and private experience.

4For example, in “Colic and Other Stories” she offers a lucid summary of the understanding of the relationship between mother and baby which has come out of object-relations theory and which has become a matter of orthodoxy in British child psychology. According to this view, in the earliest months of life the child yearns to be reunited with the mother’s body, and at the same time discovers desire and satisfaction and explores the limits of herself and of another person. The mother’s corresponding impulse is “both to protect and to expose, to yield and to separate” (62). Yet this neatly contrapuntal model bears little resemblance to Cusk’s situation when she is confronted with her daughter’s erratic, unpredictable crying, and when, as she puts it, “[i]t is not only difficult to believe that I am the object of the baby’s desire, an object she is unresting in her attempts to enslave to her own will; it is in fact quite possible that she does not like me at all” (62). What troubles Cusk is the disjunction between interpretations of mother-child relationships created by professionals, including psychoanalysts, and the raw data she has of unpredictable, seemingly unmotivated affect on the part of the baby and the mother (she describes her own responses as ‘”random, off-key,” 62). The anarchic chaos of these early months resists interpretation and cannot be assimilated into narratives which claim, for example, that breastfeeding brings mind and body into “a state of harmony” (105). Motherhood for Cusk is an experience which has no narrative and no logic, or at least none that is discernible from a maternal point of view.

5When her daughter is about three months old her crying simply stops, and Cusk comes to the conclusion that all that her daughter needed in this period was her presence. All the narratives she has constructed have been irrelevant:

my affection, my silly entertainments, my doting hours, the particular self I have tried to bring to my care of her, have been as superfluous as my fury and despair. All that is required is for me to be there; an “all” that is of course everything, because being there involves not being anywhere else, being ready to drop everything. (70)

6 What this brings sharply into view is the tension, even collision, between motherhood and one’s sense of individual identity. If individuality is irrelevant to one’s 24/7 occupation, what then happens to it, where does it go? This is a question that reverberates throughout Cusk’s fictional representations of motherhood. In A Life’s Work she uses the work of D.W. Winnicott, a member of the object-relations school of child psychiatry, as a jumping off point for reflecting on this issue. Winnicott famously claimed that there is “no such thing as a baby,” by which he meant, among other things, that the baby has no coherent self in the earliest months of life (Winnicott 1964, 88). That being the case, as Cusk points out, in motherhood “what is there to love, what to hate but yourself?” (77). Drawing on Freud’s insight into the narcissistic aspects of maternal love, she goes on to suggest one way in which such superfluous maternal feelings are acted out and displaced, through a form of commodity fetishism which has its own childlike, bathetic quality. She writes:

7everywhere in the culture of maternity one can see the difficult precedence of motherly emotion, its one-sidedness, the lonely fantasy of its frilly basinets, everywhere its tiny snow-white garments, its angelic cribs and insignia of stars and teddy bears. Like a teenager in her postered bedroom dreaming of popstars, a new mother’s love exists in the mind and in the regalia of her maternal devotion. (77)

  • 4  The idea that a mother’s own earliest experiences are re-activated by caring for her child is adva (...)

8Equally, however, the excesses of maternal feeling have frequently been interpreted in terms of a re-enactment of the mother’s own earliest experiences of love and loss, reactivated by the experience of caring for her own child.4

9Cusk represents it in these terms but simultaneously highlights the extent to which this is a projection back from the mother’s adultsubjectivity, writing that “I witness that which I cannot personally remember, my early existence in this white state, this world of milk and shadows and nothingness” (84, my emphasis). As this comment suggests, the feelings she describes have more to do with adult need than with (irrecoverable) memory. Caught in an a-symmetrical relationship with an unreadable baby, the mother looks everywhere for images and narratives that can give shape and form to the overspill of her feelings. Cusk’s main fear is that despite her éceaseless nurture” she will somehow damage her daughter, so she becomes hyper-sensitive to pictures of abandoned children and morbidly engaged with media stories of the suffering of orphans and refugees. She is haunted by Mary Lennox, the abandoned child of The Secret Garden and by fictional ‘bad mothers’ including Emma Bovary, whose urge “to be the subject, the centre, draws the life out of her meanings for other people” and who physically harms her baby daughter (88). These images and characters form a kind of puppet theatre, a means by which Cusk can negotiate her passage through this first stage of motherhood, which involves “love for an object, love in the mind, at once everything and nothing” (92).

  • 5  See Baraitser pp. 99-98 for a discussion of Badiou and Levinas in relation to maternal subjectivit (...)

10If the discrepancy between maternal subjectivity and its object is the underlying theme of the first part of A Life’s Work, the interplay between the subjectivity of the mother and that of the baby occupies the second. Cusk presents her daughter’s identity as emerging regardless of her efforts and attentions. It just is, or to put it in another way, it is an ‘event’, a term Lisa Baraitser borrows from Alain Badiou to capture the startling alterity of the child.5 Baraitser is interested in the effect on maternal subjectivity of the encounter with the child as an (ultimately unknowable) other; she also speculates about the ethical potential of this encounter, though she is careful to point out that such potential may emerge fleetingly or not at all. Cusk’s text is marked by similar ethical intimations, which emerge at those points when she is most under pressure to ‘discipline’ her daughter and therefore give her pain. In general, Cusk is repelled by the treatment meted out to babies in the wider world, writing that: “[m]y daughter emanates unprocessed human need where the world is at its most civilised … like so many mothers, I come to see something inhuman in civilisation, something vain and deathly. I hate its precious fragile trinkets, its greed, its lack of charity” (137). The child’s demand constitutes a challenge which Cusk suspects has validity, an issue she develops further in ‘A Valediction to Sleep’. In the first year of her daughter’s life she has not had one uninterrupted night’s sleep; she has remained on guard, ready to leap out of bed to comfort her daughter when she cries. She wonders if in doing this she is constructing a fortress against her own fear of abandonment, yet concludes that the baby’s cries have justice on their side: they question orthodoxies, conventions and what Cusk calls “unauthentic representations of the world.” Out of exhaustion Cusk finally gives in and leaves her child to cry at the appropriate, measured intervals. By this means she teaches her the lesson that experts agree all children must be taught, which is that demands will not always be met (interestingly Winnicott calls this “the mother’s job of disillusioning,” 91). Yet Cusk detects something fraudulent in the authority she is expected to exert, the persona she is required to adopt. She writes that parents are like politicians, ‘they conform once they themselves are in power’; this makes her long to tolerate her daughter “until I am negated, so that there can be no years lost to misunderstanding” (207).

1. Mothers in Pieces

11In Arlington Park (2006) Cusk further explores the interplay between mother and child and between the personal and political dimensions of motherhood. The form of this text is closer to a short story-cycle than a novel: it comprises loosely-linked episodes exploring the lives of five women who scarcely know each other, the form reflecting the atomisation of contemporary urban life. The text focuses on comfortably off, middle-class mothers and in this respect can be seen as an intervention in the “mommy wars,” that is, the debate over stay-at-home versus working mothers which has been conducted in the UK largely through the online forum Mumsnet.6 In her 2009 essay ‘Shakespeare’s Daughters’ Cusk argues for the importance of fiction which addresses ‘iterative female experience’ and ‘concerns itself with what is eternal and unvarying, with domesticity and motherhood and family life’: this is what she calls the ‘book of repetition’. Her claim that these experiences are ‘eternal and unvarying’ may seem excessive, yet it serves a rhetorical purpose in reminding us of what has been culturally disavowed, which is that the ‘work’ of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding is inherently gendered, while the vast majority of childcare is carried out by women. For Cusk, not to explore the implications of this aspect of women’s identity would be a form of bad faith. Arlington Park, accordingly, focuses on the experience of women who identify themselves primarily as mothers. Juliet, who works part-time, is the one whose position is the most ambivalent and unresolved, as is indicated through her early morning dream which is a version of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’. She dreams that a cockroach is embedded in her skull, with hideously waving legs, but worse than the sense of infestation is the perception that her husband doesn’t really care about this: “He had accepted her future, as the host of a giant cockroach. He was glad it hadn’t happened to him” (7). The dream signals her feeling that her bodily integrity has been breached by the physical experience of birth and motherhood; she also feels that her subjectivity has been eroded by “the deposits of wasted days” (36). Folk tales begin to run through her head; she visualises herself as Rapunzel and her husband as a murdering woodcutter; eventually she turns the psychological violence she fears on herself by “having the chop” and cutting off the long hair she has had since girlhood. Since the colloquial meaning of “having the chop” is having a vasectomy, the incident points to her desire for revenge against her murderous husband.

12The undercurrent of violence that runs through this text is most evident in the story of Amanda, one of the full-time mothers. Like Juliet, but to an even greater degree, she experiences marriage and motherhood in terms of an assault on her bodily integrity.  Her feelings about this are expressed metaphorically via a visit to the butcher:

Amanda felt that if she were not married, it would not have been required of her to go to the butcher. These visits seemed to emanate from a core of physical embroilment, from a fleshly basis that sought out other flesh by which to feed itself. It all seemed somehow grotesquely related, the conjoining and making of bodies and the dismemberment and ingestion of them. (Cusk, Arlington Park 43)

  • 7  Anzieu’s concept of the ‘skin ego’ develops from Freud’s argument in ‘The Ego and the Id’ that the (...)

13For Amanda, the opening up of the body to the processes of reproduction has had the effect of reducing her identity to the somatic, then of splintering that somatic identity. She experiences her body as a body-in-pieces, leaking, bloody, analogous to the “red ledgers of bacon” and the “livid carcasses” in the butcher’s shop and her sense of dissolution expands to encompass her young son – “[s]he saw his parts arrayed on metal trays, in fans and pyramids of flesh edged with parsley” (46). The trauma of birth and motherhood has brought her to the point where she has a damaged “skin ego,” to invoke Didier Anzieu’s suggestive term, and her compromised subjectivity is tilting towards a depressive position where she sees herself and her children as dead meat.7 She wonders if love is “a first concession to death” and if motherhood is the first step that leads to one’s own dissolution; intimacy, she thinks, encourages “vulnerability and dilapidation.” As a way of countering her fears she cleans her house compulsively, washing down floors and wiping down cupboards, only to create, paradoxically, an atmosphere of “killing orderliness” (60).

14Amanda’s intuitions are given a more optimistic inflection through the perspective of Solly, another full-time mother waiting for the birth of her fourth child. Like Amanda, Solly gives expression to the proximity of birth and death in the maternal imaginary; like Amanda she is conscious of mutability and loss in relation to the maternal body/self:

Solly had felt before the way everything altered just before a child was born. It was how she sometimes thought it might be to approach death. Everything grew very slightly remote: the fit of life loosened, as though it were a skin preparing itself to be shed. And although when the baby came it would restart it all with its unstoppable vegetable growth, there was a layer of Solly that was always irretrievably lost. (120)

15She feels that she has no “continuous sense of self” and that her subjectivity is scattered “all around her in pieces,” but finds a new direction in motherhood through a complex process of transference involving her lodger, Paola. Initially Solly pities Paola, because she is under the misapprehension that she has lost her only child. However, when her labour pains begin and she reluctantly accepts Paola’s help (there is no other adult in the house) the positions of the two women are reversed. Paola relieves Solly’s pain with a magically consoling herbal infusion, and she also explains that her son is alive and lives with his father. Looking Solly directly “in the eyes,” she tells her that this is not as strange as she may think. Her son is all right: “[h]e is alive. He is happy that he is alive” (139). At this, Solly feels herself shrinking like Alice in Wonderland, while Paola grows into a mothering tree, as large as a house, a tree in whose shade Solly too feels happy “to be alive” (139). Through this exchange Paola – neat, discrete, in control of her life – shows Solly that motherhood is not simply one thing, and that maternal subjectivity can take multiple forms. After the birth Solly perceives that she has ‘turned against Martin and the children a little: it seemed to her to be a sort of advance, a development’ and she resolves to continue “at a new angle to them” (139).

16Like much of Cusk’s writing, the novel is studded with allusions to Virginia Woolf; specifically, the text re-works aspects of To the Lighthouse, the novel in which Woolf engages most intensively with the question of maternal subjectivity through the character of Mrs Ramsay. There are two key episodes in which Woolf’s modernist mother-figure is repositioned in a neo-modernist context. In the first, an expedition to an out-of-town shopping mall both echoes and parodies the journey to the lighthouse in Woolf’s novel. Three mothers embark on a long-postponed visit to the mall, a “temple-shaped” shrine to late capitalist consumer culture. The main focus is on Christine, socially insecure despite her husband’s wealth, hectically claiming that coming to the mall makes her feel that life is “full of possibilities.” Her optimism is soon undermined by intimations of mortality when a saleswoman comments on the “flabby tits” of middle-age; Christine then sits down heavily in a simulation of a child’s bedroom with pastel-coloured furniture and comments (“mildly”) that she feels like slitting her wrists. In an uncanny reversal the mall seems to suck the life out of its visitors, who come to resemble inanimate objects; another character, Maisie, describes the place as being “like lost property, but for people” (177). Conversely the mall is represented as a vital, animate being; its layers and escalators are “like an illustration of the chambers of the heart” and its fountain pumps vigorously. Walter Benjamin connects such reversals of the organic and inorganic with the spread of commodity culture, which for him

prostitutes the living body to the inorganic world. In relation to the living it represents the rights of the corpse. Fetishism, which succumbs to the sex-appeal of the inorganic, is its vital nerve; and the cult of the commodity recruits this to its service. (Benjamin 166)

17Benjamin also writes of the alienation from oneself and others created by “the glitter of distraction” which surrounds the commodity, and Cusk pushes this point home through an incident in which a child is nearly run over in the mall’s car park. The car in question is a big, black, four-wheel-drive, “lavishly shiny, ablaze with lights”: it starts to reverse but Maisie sees the danger and grabs the child out of the way. Furiously she challenges the driver, shouting “This is a child!” (110). In this respect, Maisie reasserts the value of the living child over the “rights of the corpse” (110). However, the principal significance of this incident lies in the fact that Maisie is not the child’s mother but is standing in for Stephanie, who has just had a spat with her son. He refuses to stay safely strapped into his pushchair, wrestles with her physically, then “forcefully” slaps her before running off into the car park. In dramatising this tussle Cusk draws attention to the lack of fit between mother and child that characterises this later stage of development, when maternal care is often actively rejected, thwarted, and/or exposed as inadequate by the growing child, leaving the mother to experience feelings of shame, frustration, guilt and alienation. These feelings may be conscious or unconscious, but they are not recognised in the public discourses of motherhood, or if they are, the possibility that the mother might be unable to cope with them is never seriously entertained. Rather the reverse: as Baraitser notes the mother is now valorized in psychoanalytic discourse as almost uniquely able “to move fluidly in and out of intense emotional states, with no apparent consequences to her mental health” (Baraitser 51). Cusk’s novel resists such idealisation of the maternal figure, and registers the toll taken by these repeated assaults on maternal subjectivity. In this respect, Arlington Park breaks decisively with the myth of maternal infallibility which is only partially questioned in To the Lighthouse.

18The second scene in which Cusk re-works Woolf’s novel is that of the dinner party at the close of Arlington Park. In this scene, Juliet’s husband Benedict and Christine take on the roles of Mr and Mrs Ramsay respectively. Benedict is the author/artist figure who quotes Larkin’s elegiac “Going, Going” in place of Mr Ramsay’s “Loriana, Lorilee” (236; Woolf 127). Christine is the hostess, buoyed up by the sense that she is creating something in bringing people together and alert to the “spring of life” which bubbles up eternally – even in the suburbs. However, as with the trip to the mall, Woolf’s preoccupations are modified as they are filtered through the consciousness of Cusk’s characters. Modernism, for example, is qualified by contemporary realism in this passage in which Christine registers the mingled beauty and squalor of everyday life:

The room rested in its destructive beauty, candlelight gilding the table laden with spoiled dishes, the smeared glasses and crumpled napkins, the scattered cutlery and discarded brown remains of food. She saw faces, intricately contoured. Darkness seemed to stand expectantly in the corners, a great expectant darkness whose relationship to the struggling, intricate light expressed itself in these faces. (233)

19Christine’s understanding of the maternal role does not, however, seem so very far from that of Mrs Ramsay. She speaks of “all us women, carrying the future generations, nurturing them, bringing them up’ and tells Benedict that her creed is that ‘you’ve got to love just – being alive’” (echoing the phrase used by Paola and Solly). But Benedict challenges her, asking how anyone will know that she loved life and how her “vision” of life will be communicated. Through this exchange Cusk returns, obliquely, to the question of “self-expression” raised in the essay ‘Shakespeare’s Daughters’, which as the title suggests is a text which is in dialogue with Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. The question is not so much whether maternal subjectivity can be written as the honesty of the representation. Maternal subjectivity is embroiled in complex dependencies, including the emotional and financial dependence of mothers on their husbands or partners, and to write about these murky waters without mystification is the challenge she has set herself.

2. The Plain Garment of Motherhood

20Thee Bradshaw Variations (2009) resembles Arlington Park in its episodic structure and in the fluid movement between the characters, who are in this case members of one family. They are, so to speak, variations on the theme initially composed by the terrifying senior Bradshaws, Ma and Dad. The book is rather short and in this respect is frustrating – for one thing, we want to know more about its characters, as Hilary Mantel points out in an otherwise friendly review. However, the novel speaks back to A Life’s Work and Arlington Park by exploring a gender role-reversal in which the stay-at-home mum is replaced by the stay-at-home dad. Thomas Bradshaw resigns from his job in the City to look after his young daughter, freeing his wife to take up a job as Head of English in a university. Tonie goes to work full-time in order to re-discover ‘the pleasure of the self’ and to feel herself to be alive again, moving through time (Cusk, Bradshaw Variations 5, 9). Strikingly, she compares her experience of motherhood over the last eight years to the experience of reading a book:

What has she been doing all this time? … Giving, caring, watching, remembering, feeling, but not—not truly—participating. It’s been like reading a great book, life represented as fully and beautifully as it could be but the commodity itself left suspended. All her sympathies have been engaged, and left her body motionless, inert. (10)

21If Tonie compares motherhood to reading, the world of work is linked with writing and self-expression. Through her job Tonie aims to be part of a world of “thought, intellect, impersonal endeavour” (123). She writes and gives papers and when she travels to Amsterdam for a conference, Cusk invokes, allusively, the theme of a room of one’s own which she discusses at length in ‘Shakespeare’s Daughters’. Tonie’s peaceful hotel room is a variant of that room, but rather than offering freedom it reminds her of the constraints of her childhood bedroom. It is sterile and retrogressive: “[i]t was so transparent and silent in that place: it seemed to presage the creation of something, though the moment of realisation never occurred. There was only solitude, beautiful but sterile, unpollinated” (69). In this respect Tonie’s experience seems to echo Cusk’s observation in ‘Shakespeare’s Daughters’ that Woolf might have been mistaken about that celebrated room: it was what she needed, but it might be unhelpful, even inimical, to other (women) writers. Cusk returns to this issue, and to Woolf, when Tonie is at a faculty party and suddenly realises that she is surrounded by men, an unaccustomed experience after years of motherhood. This prompts her to reflect on the single-stranded nature of femininity and masculinity and about the possibilities of achieving the “fusion of opposites” that Woolf speculates about in A Room of One’s Own, either in her own being, or in a “passion of synthesis” with a man.

22However, when Tonie has a sexual encounter it is a profoundly estranging experience. As if through a microscope lens, she sees the whole structure of her life and relationships as determined at the cellular level, as though all her passions and fears “existed before she herself knew what existence was” (221). This molecular vision suggests the possibility of a “relationship of pure instinct,” before Tonie is abruptly recalled to her role as mother by the serious illness of her daughter. It is at this point that she puts on “the plain garment of motherhood,” never returning to her work, and Thomas goes back to earning the money that makes this “choice” possible. In this novel, then, Tonie and Thomas are metaphorically punished for breaking the conventions of gendered family roles, and respond by renouncing their individual aims and ambitions.

3. Aftermath

23Cusk returns to these themes in her recent memoir Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation (2012). Here she explores in more depth the conflict between motherhood and identity which is registered in A Life’s Work. In Aftermath she emphasises even more strongly that the role of the mother is generic and therefore requires the mother to step aside from what she calls the “protocol of identity” (Cusk, Aftermath 18). In order to mother, Cusk writes, she has had to “suspend” her own character which has “evolved on a diet of male values,” in other words the values of achievement associated with her father rather than her stay-at-home mother. When she finds herself at home with young children, she feels, paradoxically, homeless and can only find a way out by “reverting” to her male-inflected identity and “conscripting” her husband into childcare. This role-reversal, so close to that of Tonie and Thomas in The Bradshaw Variations,is described in terms of cross-dressing: Cusk writes that ‘we were a man and a woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes. We were two transvestites, a transvestite couple – well, why not?” (23) One reason why not, according to Cusk, is that in this marriage she took on the roles of both man and woman while her husband only took on one, that of caring for the children. The wider point she makes in this text, however, is that it is almost impossible to challenge such gendered parental roles, which are imposed less by external pressures than by the internalisation of forms and ideals which have their origins in childhood and in the longer reach of social and cultural history.  

24In Aftermath Cusk offers a powerful critique of the myths surrounding motherhood and a withering analysis of the part played by Christianity in their construction. She argues that the “holy family” is founded on a lie (of divine paternity) and that it creates a template of marriage which is centred on child-worship and a sentimental ideal of “sainted unambivalent motherhood” (100, my italics). In contrast the ancient Greeks offer a more truthful picture of the drama that is family life, complete with emotional violence and the flouting of taboos. In this respect she endorses Freud’s view that the history of the individual repeats the history of the species and that the world of the ancient Greeks is analogous to the formative phases of infancy. Following this well-worn psychoanalytic path, Cusk identifies herself as an Electra-figure who has passionately repudiated the image of maternity offered by her mother. However, she moves into different territory when she explores her own maternal role, aligning herself, arrestingly, with Clytemnestra in the Oresteia, who murders her husband before being murdered in turn by her children. In making this move Cusk foregrounds the question of maternal ambivalence which is explored in detail by object relations psychoanalysts such as Klein and Winnicott.

25As Mary Jacobus has pointed out, although Winnicott is the source of the reassuring concept of the “good enough mother’ he also offers a bleak assessment of the psychic threat the child poses to the mother (Jacobus 8). In his essay “Hate in the Countertransference” for example, he argues that “the mother hates her infant from the word go” and goes on to articulate some of the motivations for this hatred. One is that “the baby is an interference with [the mother’s] private life, a challenge to preoccupation,” a view which resonates with Cusk’s account of the loss of individuality motherhood entails (Winnicott, ‘Hate in the Counter-transference,” 74). The baby is also ruthless and treats the mother ‘as scum, an unpaid servant’ while she must love him, “excretions and all.” When the baby attacks her she must show no anger but precisely because she cannot retaliate, she runs the risk that when she is hurt she will ‘fall back on masochism’. Even more damaging to her sense of self-worth, according to Winnicott, is the fear of retribution for any failure of maternal care. Maternal subjectivity is therefore shadowed by fear from the outset: Winnicott writes that “if she fails [the baby] at the start she knows he will pay her out for ever” (74).

26Cusk presents Clytemnestra as a single mother who has ‘no choice but to live and rule without her husband’ after Agamemnon sets sail for Troy. In Cusk’s re-telling of her story, Clytemnestra emerges as a figure who is to be admired for her fearless independence and her attempt to seek “a new form, a new configuration of male and female” in her relationship with Aegysthus (54). However, Cusk writes that she can only reach this ‘new’ state through violence, in other words by killing Agamemnon. Cusk identifies with Clytemnestra because she too has experienced ‘the force of life’ in marriage and the creation of children and she too is looking for a new form of life, ‘the pure peace of equality’ which lies on the other side of “begetting.” The further implication is that Cusk can only reach this new place through (symbolic) violence against her husband, which in turn suggests that Cusk blames herself for the divorce: why else would she see her part in it as a form of violence? The maternal masochism that Winnicott describes seems to be much in evidence here, coupled with a barely acknowledged fear of retribution from her daughters.

27In this respect Aftermath can be read as a sombre text which points to seemingly endless cycles of maternal ambivalence, guilt and fear. And yet its central image opens up an alternative perspective. As Cusk explains, the etymology of the word aftermath is “second mowing,” referring to a second crop of grass which is sown and reaped after the harvest is in. By implication, this “second crop” is something that might come out of her tentative efforts to shape her own “post-familial household” and it could even encompass her relationship with her husband. After separating from him she feels that she and her daughters have been “liberated from the strictures of some authority,” but she does not associate that authority with her husband. She writes that “the authority is marriage itself, and in these moments of liberty I feel him to be just as browbeaten by it as me, feel, almost, that I could conscript him into my own escape and re-encounter him there, in non-marriage, both of us free” (106). This insight can be linked back to her reflections on the fraudulence of parental authority in A Life’s Work and points to the need for a wider reconsideration of issues of power and responsibility in family life.

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1  Cusk quotes these reviews and several others in her Guardian article on reactions to A Life’s Work,‘I was only being honest’, 21 March 2008.

2  Beauvoir famously writes in The Second Sex that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

3  For clarity and convenience, I refer to the first person author of A Life’s Work as ‘Cusk’, although the relationship between the autobiographical subject and the author is of course an extremely complex one. For a discussion of these issues see Anderson, 1997.

4  The idea that a mother’s own earliest experiences are re-activated by caring for her child is advanced by Winnicott and other object-relations theorists. The most influential recent account is that of Julia Kristeva, who argues in ‘Stabat Mater’ and ‘Motherhood According to Bellini’ that in giving birth a woman is reunited with her mother and becomes her own mother. See Oliver 296.

5  See Baraitser pp. 99-98 for a discussion of Badiou and Levinas in relation to maternal subjectivity. Hannah Arendt’s concept of natality, which is not discussed by Baraitser, might also be relevant to this argument. See Arendt 9, 177-178.

6  Mumsnet ( was founded in 2000 and has become extremely influential, campaigning on issues such as the sexualisation of young children and, recently, representations of cot death in the media. Its philosophy is defined as being ‘to make parents’ lives easier by pooling knowledge, experience and support’. For the ‘mommy wars’ in the US see Leslie Morgan Steiner (ed.), Mommy Wars: Stay-At-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families.

7  Anzieu’s concept of the ‘skin ego’ develops from Freud’s argument in ‘The Ego and the Id’ that the ego can be understood as a body ego, a mental projection of the surface of the body. Anzieu explores the psychological implications of damage to the body/image in The Skin Ego.

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Clare HANSON, « The Book of Repetition: Rachel Cusk and Maternal Subjectivity »E-rea [En ligne], 10.2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 18 juin 2013, consulté le 21 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Clare Hanson is Professor of Twentieth Century Literature at the University of Southampton. She has published extensively on 20th and 21st century women’s writing, on the short story and in the interdisciplinary field of literature and science. Her most recent books are A Cultural History of Pregnancy: Pregnancy, Medicine and Culture, 1750-2000 (Palgrave, 2004) and Eugenics, Literature and Culture in Post-war Britain (Routledge, 2013). From 2010 -2013 she was co-editor of the journal Contemporary Women’s Writing (OUP).She is currently working on a study of post-genomic cultures and is co-editing Vol. 9 of The History of British Women’s Writing (Palgrave).

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