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Unfit for Duty? Blame Mom

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

In part, this shared interest wasbecause of its author, Edward A. Strecker, MD, then chair of the Department ofPsychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, a position he held for more than20 years. He also served as chief medical officer of The Institute ofPennsylvania Hospital from 1920 to 1928 and continued his association with theInstitute until his death in 1959. Strecker figures in Part 2 of “Benjamin Rushand 200 Years of Penn Psychiatry,” which will soon appear in the Spring 2013issue of Penn Medicine. In his article,Marshall Ledger, Ph.D., notes that Strecker was called “one of the first, ifnot the first” psychiatrists to treat the disorders of everyday life. He helpedrevive the dilapidated outpatient clinics at Pennsylvania Hospital, which hadbeen built in 1885, and he later started an outpatient clinic at the Hospitalof the University of Pennsylvania.

But Strecker had also been a majorin World War I and served as a special consultant in World War II to theSecretary of War and to the Surgeon General of the Army and the Navy, whichpartially explains why Military Affairswould review Their Mothers’ Sons.Given his connection to the war effort in the Second World War, Strecker hasbeen cited as the primary source of some startling figures: a reported1,825,000 men were rejected for military service during the war because ofpsychiatric disorders and another 600,000 were discharged for similar reasons.In Their Mothers’ Sons, Streckerargued that overprotective and oversolicitous mothers bore much of the blame.Borrowing the concept of “Momism” from Philip Wylie, author of the provocativescreed Generation of Vipers (1942),Strecker pointed the finger at “Mom” –- “the woman who has failed in theelementary mother function of weaning her offspring emotionally as well asphysically.”

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

One of the reviewers of Their Mothers’ Sons, it turned out, wasWylie. 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 thisgeneration, he maintained, had “nothing to do”; they had lost all socialusefulness and were constantly disillusioned that they did not grow up to beCinderellas. “But it is her man who worries about where to acquire the moneywhile she worries only about how to spend it, so he has the ulcers and colitis andshe has the guts of a bear . . .” (TheSaturday Review, 7 December 1946).

Wylie began his review mildlyenough: “A year or so ago, I noticed in the daily papers that a psychiatristnamed Edward A. Strecker was making pronunciamentos on Mom and Momism and I wasglad 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 withStrecker, as he often seems to be in later accounts. For example, MichaelKimmel 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’smothers “who kept their sons tied to their apron strings,” then followed bymentioning Strecker and the men found unfit for service.

But Wylie, quoting the passage fromTheir Mothers’ Sons about the motherswho fail to wean their offspring, writes: “This is, to my mind, a very mild andinadequate way of describing the Oedipus Complex and its relationships, but Dr.Strecker is, I feel, a very mild and inadequate psychologist [sic]. . . .” Andlater, having warmed up: “When the clinical record approaches a physical factof sex, the worthy psychiatrist censors it, ‘in the interests of good taste.’.. . Indeed, the farther one gets into TheirMothers’ Sons, the more clearly one perceives that Dr. Strecker is tryingto analyze Moms and Momism without saying a word that would violate the ruinoustabus [sic] of a single Mom. Her inhibitions –- which have spoiled three millionyoung 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 readWylie’s review, however, it probably did not dampen his spirits for long: inhis career, he published a total of 10 books. And as Ledger points out in his Penn Medicine article, Strecker and hiscolleague Earl D. Bond, MD, established Penn’s first credible psychiatryprogram for medical students. His legacy, that is, can survive a controversialand clearly simplistic view of “Moms.”


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