Words: Andrea Zanin
Image: Fleur Beech

They enter your house, often uninvited, and perforate the kitchen counter with Marmite-stained knives and used teabags. They tell your children to put on socks (in Summer) and suggest your husband wear a jersey (because after being alive for 30 years he’s still not sure if he’s cold or not). They burn toast every five minutes, tell you how to cook the stew, leave lights on, and use Lurpak cartons as left-over soup containers. The trauma of the Mother-in-Law might happen only twice a year but the tension is acute.

Indeed, they’re a species that oozes horror story from every pore but no matter how evil you think yours is, there is always one MIL who takes the cake and eats about 400 extra. Not least (SPOILER ALERT) Gemma Teller Morro, whose daughter-in-law ended up on the kitchen floor gushing blood, with a carving fork in her head. Tara Knowles Teller’s bloody death at the hands of her enraged Mother-in-Law might seem extreme. But Sons of Anarchy is, after all, a show about gangsters – the rock ‘n’ roll lovin’, porn addicted, tattoo laden outlaw miscreants who wreck violence from the seat of a motorcycle. And violence begets violence, so death by fork? It’s all in a day’s work. But melodrama aside, this beef is universal: mothers and sons… What’s up with that shit?

Freud would blame the “Oedipus complex”, a psychoanalytic stage of development named after the Greek king who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. So gross. Freud explained disturbances in human thought and behaviour by reducing everything to “fixations” in any (or all) of five articulated psychosexual stages of development. During stage three, the ‘phallic’ stage, a boy competes with his father for his momma’s affection; he becomes jealous and then guilty, and is consequentially plagued with worry over the safety of his penis, which he fears his father will cut off as punishment for his craving – known as “castration anxiety”.

The good news is that sons usually get over their mummy fetish and resolve the complex by learning to identify with their dads, mimicking their masculinity. But this doesn’t always happen and dudes can go through life living under the weight of a weirdo, lust-driven attachment thing that can be pretty darn pathological. The good news is that it makes for great literature.

The underlying vitriol that often defines interactions between Mothers-in-Law and their sons’ wives is fuelled by the assumed right to own the man. It’s a territorial thing

Shakespeare (seemingly subconsciously) thought so; filling his plays with Freudian innuendo years before Freud ever lived. And so did Kurt Sutter, writer, director and creator Sons of Anarchy, which is Hamlet all over again. Shakespeare’s protagonist never got over his mummy lust, and then his uncle (Claudius) killed his dad and married his mum (Gertrude). Freudian theorists argue that Hamlet is jealous of his conniving uncle, not just because he has usurped his birth right but because he is married to the woman Hamlet loves…like, loves (right?). And so Hamlet is jealous.

Jackson Teller, Hamlet with a reaper cut, also has some serious mummy issues. And what happens when a mummy’s boy gets married? Sutter dishes the dirt. Sons of Anarchy investigates the intricacies of the relationship between Mother-in-Law-from-Hell (Gemma) and her daughter by marriage (Tara), within the extreme context of an outlaw community. Gemma and Tara are characterised as two strong family-oriented women looking to protect their own – and therein lies the problem; the question of ownership. The underlying vitriol that often defines interactions between Mothers-in-Law and their sons’ wives is fuelled by the assumed right to own the man. It’s a territorial thing; ‘My house, my man, my kids… MY way’. But a matriarch is tough to crush, as Tara finds out.

Amidst moments of genuine mother-daughter-type love a war rages and Jackson (son and husband), confounded by the Freudian desire of his poor, confused phallus, lets the battle play out. And then that fork… A wife skewered by a mother’s madness; it unleashes a fury, a poetry of justice, intense in analogy. Jackson, doing the only thing he knows how, offs his momma. He does allow her to stop and smell the flowers though. Then a bullet wielding death paints the scene with blood spatter. A son murdering his mum in cold blood. Gangster retribution. It’s hard-core. But she deserved it, didn’t she?

If we scratch around in that dark place where all the bad thoughts go, if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, there is a part of us that wants our man to put his mum in her place. OK, not with a gun in a rose garden – but the metaphor nonetheless stands poignant in its truth.


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