Beloved by Toni Morrison is a brutal novel that brings aspects of the psychological toll of slavery to light. Sethe does not have the option or ability to attach to her mother. She only identifies her by her hat when she sees her out in the rice fields. Later, Sethe sees someone coming with a hat and “split to the woodshed to kill her children” (Morrison 186). This seems significant, as if the hat reminded her of her mother, and the “death” of their bond, which could never come to fruition. Attachment for this analysis will mean what John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth defined it as, the ability for an individual to form an emotional and physical “attachment” to another person gives “a sense of stability and security necessary to take risks, branch out, and grow and develop as a personality” (Bowlby) . The nature of the bond between parent and child is the base of all human development. In the context of a cultural trauma such as slavery, or the forced assimilation of some of my ancestors, the Cherokee, this is disrupted at best and at worst, the capacity for one to conceive of a “Self” from which to bond with another is totally annihilated. Sethe suffered tremendously without a sense of self. I believe this is why she murdered her child but not herself. Sethe thought she was “loving” her children when she killed one and planned to kill the others. Had she been able to properly attach to her children and follow the natural course of human nature, I do not think killing her child would have ever been a thought for her. Motherlove energy had to go somewhere, and tragically, it seeped out in a malignant, destructive way.
Bowlby understood the profound implications of attachment, and he posited that the attachment behavioral system asks the essential, fundamental question: Is the attachment figure nearby, accessible, and attentive? (http://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm) Obviously, all of this is a no, even if Sethe was in any kind of physical proximity to her children. She was perhaps there physically, but not in any real sense. She was born into trauma and embodied it throughout her life. While she had the basic drive to nurse her daughter, she could not. Sethe was completely defined by white males. They stripped her of any chance to bond with her child and even stripped her of her milk. “‘All I knew was I had to get my milk to my baby girl. Nobody was going to nurse her like me. Nobody was going to get it to her fast enough, or take it away when she had enough and didn’t know it. Nobody knew that she couldn’t pass her air if you held her up on your shoulder, only if she was lying on my knees. Nobody knew that but me and nobody had her milk but me.’ (Beloved 19) The trauma of her life perverted this basis of attachment into a horrifying detachment later on which led her to kill her child.
Ron Eyerman states in Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the formation of African American identity, ‘cultural trauma refers to a dramatic loss of identity and meaning, a tear in the social fabric, affecting a group of people that has achieved some degree of cohesion’ (Eyerman 2). Attachment is part of our evolutionary heritage, unfolding through the interaction of nature and nurture. We make sense of ourselves by way of how we fit with others. The first attachment relationship between infant and caregiver is the primary vehicle for shaping later development and internal working models of self which dictate the child’s adult relationship experiences and subsequent attachment style. Sethe had no internal working model. Sethe could not fully develop her love and it remained a primitive, unevolved energy which burst forth in a fatal way for Beloved. Oppressed mother love can be so dangerous. If a person is never considered human, is dehumanized eternally, what it means to be human, attachment, is completely null. Humanity is nullified by the oppressors.
Beloved comes back to haunt Sethe. Beloved behaves like a preverbal child would, a child with no language or schema to understand what happened to her. She was never given a chance to internalize Sethe as “mother”, and attain object constancy or an internal working model of “Mother”. This brings to mind the work of Jessica Benjamin who has written about “intersubjectivity”. (Jessica Benjamin (2004). Beyond Doer and Done to: An Intersubjective View of Thirdness. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Vol. 73, pp. 5-46.) In her intersubjectivity theory “intersubjective theory postulates that the other must be recognized as another subject in order for the self to fully experience his or her subjectivity in the other’s presence. This means that we have a need for recognition and that we have a capacity to recognize others in return, thus making mutual recognition possible” (Benjamin, J. (1995) Recognition and destruction: An outline of intersubjectivity. In Like Subjects, Love Objects: Essays on Recognition and Sexual Difference. New Haven: Yale University Press. ). One can see how humans need attachment to achieve intersubjectivity and vice versa. Yet in Sethe’s world, there is no self to recognize another self. Benjamin explains in The Bonds of Love that the individual grows in relation to other subjects, and the notion that “the other whom the self meets is also a self” (Benjamin 19). It’s all such a tragic cycle of intergenerational transmission of traumas, big and small.