My mother used to drive me to school every day, our old car spluttering through ten miles of lanes and sharp bends. I would burn CDs for the journey, and my favourite had every Laura Marling song ever released on it (this was pre-I Speak Because I Can). As I mouthed the words to New Romantic, my mother driving me to private school, I was aware of the boundaries, visible and invisible, that I was transgressing; the tension I was stretching between us. She was driving me to a world that she could not enter.
The working class (single) mother is not the salt of the earth, she is dirt. She is the meat and bones. Fat, stupid, too sexual, too emotional, vulgar and loud and violent. She is the Other, the deviation from the norm of bourgeois femininity, its monstrous underbelly.
Dirt and uncleanliness are horrors coded as working class; when brought together with the body, particularly the sexual body, the horror produced is explicitly that of the working class woman. In the Exorcist, Regan's swearing/pissing/vomiting/masturbating routine constitutes a violation both of accepted modes of female sexuality and of the bourgeois order. Through horror history, the zombie is allegory for the working class (or even the "underclass") monster, lurching along behind its upper class vampiric overlord, flesh falling off in chunks.
Kristeva writes that "is is not lack of cleanliness of health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules." And there is nobody who disturbs order better than the working class single mother, who breaks all the laws of femininity. According to Kristeva, the two types of polluting objects (menstrual blood and excrement) both stem from the maternal, who is involved in the toilet training and first menstruation of her daughter. The mother-daughter bond, therefore, is a natural site of horror, and none so much as the bond between the working class single mother and her daughter, who are terrifyingly close, who sleep in the same bed, who, when they fight, will tear out each others' throats.
The mother is gradually rejected because she comes to represent, to signify, the period of the semiotic which the paternal symbolic constructs as 'abject'. Because the mother is seen as effacing the boundary between herself and her child, the function of ritual becomes that of reinforcing separation. The ideological project of horror films such as Psycho, Carrie, The Brood and The Hunger, all of which feature the monster as female, appears to be precisely this - constructing monstrosity's source as the failure of paternal order to ensure the break, the separation of mother and child. This failure, which can also be viewed as a refusal of the mother and child to recognize the paternal order, is what produces the monstrous. - Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine
When I was thirteen or fourteen, I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The bit that has really stuck with me is the relationship between Tereza and her mother:
Staring at herself for long stretches of time, she was occasionally upset at the sight of her mother's features in her face. She would stare all the more doggedly at her image in an attempt to wish them away and keep only what was hers alone. Each time she succeeded was a time of intoxication: her soul would rise to the surface of her body like a crew charging up from the bowels of a ship, spreading out over the deck, waving at the sky and singing in jubilation. She took after her mother, and not only physically. I sometimes have the feeling that her entire life was merely a continuation of her mother's.
I related to Tereza. Her flight away from her mother/her boring town where "nobody reads" echoed my own, as did her profound feelings of shame about her body and sexuality. She is the quintessential upwardly mobile daughter, clinging to bourgeois values as tries to distinguish her own authentic identity from inside the overpowering shadow of her mother's. Here, again, that place of horror: the continuity of two identities, the state of flux, the impossibility of a border.
For upwardly mobile girls, securing a break with the mother and a stable identity of one's own is necessary to defend one's new life, especially with the awareness of the fragility of it all, that one misstep can land you straight back in your mother's shoes at middle-age. Your mother lives in you, unconsciously, her presence tracing the lines of your face and the gait of your walk. But the new world you live in tells you to hate everything about her. Here in the ivory towers of rationality and Received Pronunciation, where a woman can never be rich or too thin, exorcism is the only solution to the persistent shadow of the working class mother.
Women who occupy a different class location to that of their mothers may fear, not just becoming their mothers, but becoming their working-class mothers. Their matrophobia may be bound up with a fear of coming to inhabit this position of pathology, constructed as lacking, as 'other'. - Steph Lawler, Mothering the Self: Mothers, Daughters, Subjects
"‘Cleverness’ or ‘intelligence’ may be a metaphor for a form of knowledge which is highly class-specific – for a world of knowledge which the daughter has entered and from which the mother is excluded. The designation of this knowledge as ‘intelligence’, and its lack as ‘stupidity’, naturalizes both, constructing them as innate characteristics. In this way, not only does the possession of this form of knowledge act as a form of distinction between mother and daughter, it also marks out that distinction as located within the ‘selves’ of each of them." - Steph Lawler
As the educational worlds that I entered became more and more exclusive, sharing my experiences with my mother became more difficult. When I moved away for sixth form, our phone conversations became punctuated by silences as I tried and failed to share my new knowledge about moral philosophy. By the time I got to university, the minutiae of my life were essentially incommunicable. She wanted to understand and I wanted to confide, desperately, but attempts to convey anything brought only misunderstanding and irritation. She had left school at 15 with a few O-levels. I was at Oxford. The silences grew solid.
In my head, I called her stupid. My mother is not stupid - she is incredible in business, invariably successful in her projects, in possession of that rare practical intelligence known ironically as "common sense". But in those thoughts, I chose to ignore those forms of intelligence in favour of the class-coded forms in my possession - the kinds that are useful in Oxbridge tutorials and The Southbank Show and practically nowhere else. Even Virginia Woolf wondered whether "all the lower classes are naturally idiotic."
Academic success has always been my way out (of bullying, illness, trauma, my hometown and, yeah, the working class). It has been the rope I have clung to when I've felt a noose around my neck. For my mother, academic success looks more like the noose itself. She was there for me, would drive to London or Oxford (something my middle class friends' parents never did) and stay for as long as I needed and buy food and coax me back into the land of the living. But her advice began and ended at "come home". Drop out. Give up.
Their primary concern of wanting their children to be happy at school was for some working class parents a response to extremely difficult but often unconscious feelings about their own unhappiness and failure at school. [...] All they wanted was for us to be happy, as happiness was the most they could envisage in an education system that had only brought them failure and unhappiness. - Valerie Walkerdine, Growing Up Girl
For working class parents who carry the anxieties and failures of their own schooldays into adulthood, who have never reaped the benefits of education, encouraging their children to struggle through the pain and stress of school/university comes less naturally. Happiness and academic success seem like fundamentally discordant values. Working class children who prize academic success, therefore, are often left to fight their corner alone. They are usually self-motivated from an early age and deft at hiding any sign of difficulty in school. Unlike the children of middle class parents, they don't grow up with the expectation of higher education, with an understanding of its benefits. They must continually convince themselves of what their parents cannot: that the pain will be worth it.
...she denied the anger, pain and loneliness by imagining defensively that she had need of no-one and could do it all by herself. [...] the defences Nicky exhibited were the very things that would ensure that she got to and succeeded at university. - Valerie Walkerdine, Growing Up Girl
Her mother marched about the flat in her underwear, sometimes braless and sometimes, on summer days, stark naked. Her stepfather did not walk about naked, but he did go into the bathroom every time Tereza was in the bath. Once she locked herself in and her mother was furious. Who do you think you are, anyway? - Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
This year, my body has filled out to my fourteen-year old weight, my highest weight. I've seen my father and sister's features slowly overcome by those of my mother - a battle waged through all of my tissue, played out on my face. At fifteen, that Laura Marling song had extra resonance. I would no more give up trying to be thin than I would become my mother. I was starving.
As Laurie Penny says of female rebellion, "we have been taught to turn our anger inwards, to turn our rage inwards, to hurt oneself rather than hurting others." While boys may externalise their inner conflicts, playing them out interpersonally, girls more often retreat and take up arms against ourselves. The eating disorder is the perfect weapon against a body/self that fails the tests of an unfamiliar bourgeois environment: it shrinks, quietens, de-sexualises. The eating disorder performs physically the same task of self-policing that the upwardly mobile girl must practice on every aspect of her life. The flesh is a good stand in for every other source of disgust.
The eating disorder is peculiar in that its extreme violence can be hidden from anyone but the sufferer, and sometimes even them. It is total war, all-out class war, conducted within the quiet boundaries of the skin. Unsurprising that most eating disorder narratives situate restrictive eating disorders - particularly anorexia, which is less physical and rude than bulimia - as illnesses of the middle class. It is a polite suicide, the practice of which brings one closer to the celebrated values of bourgeois femininity.
("Who do you think you are?" asks Tereza's mother, humiliatingly reminding her of her class position. Shame is a virtue reserved for the bourgeois, and Tereza's ideas are above her station.)
I believe that the pain of everyday exploitation and oppression has worn so deep into working-class life that it exists there as patterns of conscious and unconscious coping, passed down through generations. ... Oppressed groups, such as the working class, have to survive in a way that means that they must come to recognise themselves as lacking, deficient, deviant, as being where they are because that is who they are, that is how they are made, an insidious self-regulation. - Valerie Walkerdine, Daddy's Girl
Now: I've been working out a new narrative for myself. A sludge and slime narrative of survival, where dirt and rot signify life and and not shame. My hair is in a worse state than ever since I cut most of it off and I've been too ill to keep up my skincare routine. I live with my mother again. Sometimes I leave the toilet door open.
Still, insecurity sits in my throat. I'm never sure what accent or intonation will come out and I'm embarrassed by the fluctuation. Slang and academic vocabulary feel as uncomfortable as each other in my mouth. I keep re-writing and deleting and re-writing, years of class trouble coming through in my words. Should I use feel or think? One or you? Sometimes words come out that my mum doesn't understand and I'm embarrassed. I don't have any friends from my hometown any more, so she's my only outpost of a culture that I never made any secret of wanting to escape. An outpost that I cling to with love and hate in equal measure.