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April 18, 2013 // By John Shea // Comments

Unfit for Duty? Blame Mom

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It was a book that was excerpted in The Saturday Evening Post, featured in Time magazine, reviewed enthusiastically in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and recommended by Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry. It earned mixed reviews in The Journal of the American Medical Association and The American Journal of Psychiatry and was panned in The Saturday Review. It has also been described as a best-seller. The book, Their Mothers’ Sons: The Psychiatrist Examines an American Problem, which first appeared in 1946, was even reviewed in the journal Military Affairs. It appears to have drawn the attention of both the general reading public of the post-World War II era and the professional specialists.

In part, this shared interest was because of its author, Edward A. Strecker, MD, then chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, a position he held for more than 20 years. He also served as chief medical officer of The Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital from 1920 to 1928 and continued his association with the Institute until his death in 1959. Strecker figures in Part 2 of “Benjamin Rush and 200 Years of Penn Psychiatry,” which will soon appear in the Spring 2013 issue of Penn Medicine. In his article, Marshall Ledger, Ph.D., notes that Strecker was called “one of the first, if not the first” psychiatrists to treat the disorders of everyday life. He helped revive the dilapidated outpatient clinics at Pennsylvania Hospital, which had been built in 1885, and he later started an outpatient clinic at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

But Strecker had also been a major in World War I and served as a special consultant in World War II to the Secretary of War and to the Surgeon General of the Army and the Navy, which partially explains why Military Affairs would review Their Mothers’ Sons. Given his connection to the war effort in the Second World War, Strecker has been cited as the primary source of some startling figures: a reported 1,825,000 men were rejected for military service during the war because of psychiatric disorders and another 600,000 were discharged for similar reasons. In Their Mothers’ Sons, Strecker argued that overprotective and oversolicitous mothers bore much of the blame. Borrowing the concept of “Momism” from Philip Wylie, author of the provocative screed Generation of Vipers (1942), Strecker pointed the finger at “Mom” –- “the woman who has failed in the elementary mother function of weaning her offspring emotionally as well as physically.”

Even before the publication of his book, Strecker had presented his argument at a medical convention in New York City in 1945. It was indeed noticed: The New York Times reported on the talk as “Moms Denounced as Peril to Nation.” The following year, Time featured the book in an article titled “Mama’s Boys.” As the magazine put it, “Dr. Strecker argues that ‘smother love’ was the root of the psychoneurotics’ trouble.” And that trouble, Strecker implied, went far beyond a family matter when the security of a nation depended on independent, mature men to serve as soldiers.

One of the reviewers of Their Mothers’ Sons, it turned out, was Wylie. In his own book, he described “Mom” as “an American creation” and satirized “the adoration of motherhood” as the basis of a religious cult. Mothers of this generation, he maintained, had “nothing to do”; they had lost all social usefulness and were constantly disillusioned that they did not grow up to be Cinderellas. “But it is her man who worries about where to acquire the money while she worries only about how to spend it, so he has the ulcers and colitis and she has the guts of a bear . . .” (The Saturday Review, 7 December 1946).

Wylie began his review mildly enough: “A year or so ago, I noticed in the daily papers that a psychiatrist named Edward A. Strecker was making pronunciamentos on Mom and Momism and I was glad to see this quasi-official sanctioning of the terms. . . .” In the end, however, it’s clear that Wylie would very much prefer not to be associated with Strecker, as he often seems to be in later accounts. For example, Michael Kimmel in Dissent reported on “momism” –- “that peculiar cultural malady that periodically rears its head” – citing World War II best-sellers by Wylie and Strecker (Dissent, Fall 2006). In “Why We Hated Mom” (The New York Times, 7 May 2011), Stephanie Coontz cites Wylie’s mothers “who kept their sons tied to their apron strings,” then followed by mentioning Strecker and the men found unfit for service.

But Wylie, quoting the passage from Their Mothers’ Sons about the mothers who fail to wean their offspring, writes: “This is, to my mind, a very mild and inadequate way of describing the Oedipus Complex and its relationships, but Dr. Strecker is, I feel, a very mild and inadequate psychologist [sic]. . . .” And later, having warmed up: “When the clinical record approaches a physical fact of sex, the worthy psychiatrist censors it, ‘in the interests of good taste.’. . . Indeed, the farther one gets into Their Mothers’ Sons, the more clearly one perceives that Dr. Strecker is trying to analyze Moms and Momism without saying a word that would violate the ruinous tabus [sic] of a single Mom. Her inhibitions –- which have spoiled three million young sons -– are his.”

The likely response here is “Ouch!” Despite joining his therapeutic skills and experience with some of Wylie’s (satirical?) assertions, Strecker was ridiculed for not going far enough. If Strecker read Wylie’s review, however, it probably did not dampen his spirits for long: in his career, he published a total of 10 books. And as Ledger points out in his Penn Medicine article, Strecker and his colleague Earl D. Bond, MD, established Penn’s first credible psychiatry program for medical students. His legacy, that is, can survive a controversial and clearly simplistic view of “Moms.”


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