WW II and Mom Blame by Sharon O’Donnell
My dad is 87 years old, and my mom will be 87 next month. They’ve been married for 63 years and are both in relatively good health. They live about 15 minutes away from me in the house I grew up in, and my 3 siblings live nearby too. In the spring of 2010, my uncle — my father’s older brother — moved in with my parents after he broke his shoulder in a fall. Prior to moving in with my parents, he lived by himself in the old family home right across the yard from my parents’ house. Even though he lived there by himself, my parents still were the ones who basically took care of him: my father paid his bills and gave him a place to go every day — to the sewing machine repair shop that my father has run for decades — and my mother cooked his meals and even did his laundry. After he broke his shoulder, he moved in with my parents — which hasn’t been easy on either one of them, particularly my mother. Yet, my dad doesn’t want to put him in a nursing home yet.
Uncle Bill is not your normal 89 year-old. He’s a WWII veteran who served in Italy and came back home on a hospital ship in late November of 1945.Instead of a heartwarming homecoming, it was a startling discovery. His mother watched as her son paced back and forth in the yard, unable to sit still, unable to talk about his experiences. Neighbors saw him, too, as he paced repeatedly. He would get up and go from one room to the other opening and closing cabinets as if he were looking for something he couldn’t find. What was he doing? What was he thinking? Nobody knew.Back then, Post Traumatic Stress had not been identified, although they did refer to some soldiers as being ‘shell-shocked’. But the Army said that Uncle Bill had not served in direct combat and so what they called a ‘nervous condition’ was ruled as non-service related. Of course, he had been in good enough health to be accepted into the service and to go through basic training, etc. My grandparents went through a lot of red tape over the years to try to get help for Uncle Bill, but their efforts were to no avail.
In the meanwhile, time went by. The 1950s, the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000, 2010. Life went on all around Uncle Bill but he stayed the same — exactly the same. He lost himself in a world of watching television — game shows in the morning and soap operas in the afternoon. After coming home from Italy, he never had any life anymore — he was merely a spectator. During the past 20 years, one of my sisters wrote several letters to the Veterans Administration, trying to get some answers about what happened to my uncle; but, just like my grandparents, she never got any answers.
Then one day last year, my brother and I went to meet with the VA yet again, and this time a VA officer took an interest in our story about Uncle Bill. She said there might be one other place she could try to get more documents about him. Several months later, the documents arrived — some of them we had never seen before. Included was a letter from my grandmother writing to the government about how she watched him pace all the time and about how she had “hoped so hard.” Then there was another letter – one we had seen before — the one from the government, saying my Uncle’s condition was non-service related. Then another letter from my grandmother was included — one we had not see before receiving this latest packet of info: this was a letter from my angry grandmother who nicely but firmly didn’t know how in the world they could say this condition was not service related when he hadn’t been like that when he went over to Italy.
And then the real kicker that I want to share with all you other moms: there was a letter in 1960 from a psychologist who did an evaluation of my Uncle Bill, and his finding was that yes, Uncle Bill had problems but that those problems were not because of the service but because of a mother who sheltered him and made him the way he was. What???? This had been the army’s “explanation” of why Uncle Bill was the way he was. It really pissed me off to read that, and my heart ached from my grandmother who was desperately trying in vain to get help for her son. She died about a year later, never getting answers, still wondering about what happened to her son. After seeing these ‘new’ documents we hadn’t seen before, I vowed that we would take up the cause again and try to find out more answers about my Uncle. I’ve been compiling a book about Uncle Bill and what he’s gone through. In researching it, I’ve read about how mothers were routinely blamed for problems young men encountered, particularly those affiliated with war. On one website was a research paper that I found of great interest, although I was thoroughly disgusted by the instances of ‘mom blaming’. http://www.umich.edu/~historyj/pages_folder/articles/F06_MotherBlaming.pdf
Here is an excerpt:
Wylie’s Generation of Vipers was an immediate best seller, and other writings shortly surfaced espousing the same ideology of condemnation towards mothers. Dr. Edward Strecker introduced his highly political version of momism at a medical convention in New York City in 1945. The New York Times reported his lecture in the article “‘Moms’ Denounced as Peril to Nation.” Strecker titled his speech “Psychiatry Speaks to Democracy,” and in it he explained that many men were unfit to fight in the war due to apron-stringing “Moms” who ruined them emotionally.” “In the same year, Time magazine featured Strecker and his book in an article titled “Mama’s Boys,” which discussed the Army discovery of over 2,400,000 “psychoneurotics,”
Does this upset you like it does me? I cannot believe all that has happened to my uncle was blamed — officially in his papers — on my sweet grandmother. My Uncle Bill was the 10th of 12 children — believe me he was not sheltered by his mother. Whew – the stories I’ve heard from my father about some of the shenanigans he and his brothers use to do! He couldn’t function in society because his mother sheltered him? He never really communicated with anyone again after he came home from war because his mother sheltered him? I don’t buy that, thank you very much. It makes me wonder what would have happened if my grandfather had written the letters to the Army instead of my grandmother. Would the government have taken it more seriously? I put myself in the place of my grandmother as she watched her son grow worse day after day, hoping and praying. My poor grandmother.
So this is my latest ‘soapbox’ project where I feel I have to shout about such injustice to the world. I’m plodding along slowly. In the meantime, my Uncle Bill continues to watch television day in and day out just like he’s done for the past 67 years.