Betty appears to be a cold and neglectful mother—especially by the standards of today's hyper-involved parents. She allows her daughter, Sally, to run around the house, submerged head to toe beneath a body-length plastic dry cleaning bag. She frequently disciplines Sally by smacking her in the face, and even tells her and Bobby, "Go bang your head against the wall." Though such antics are painful to watch, we cannot stop craning our necks to view the Drapers' twisted emotional wreckage. Even Joan Crawford's infamous rant ("NOOO WIRE HANGERS!!!") appears tame in comparison to Betty's often harsh invective.
A new book, Mad Men on the Couch (St. Martin's Press), examines Betty's parenting missteps, and tries to explain why she and the other characters on the show do what they do. In Betty's case it is confusing that she slaps Sally after she has run away from home. Why doesn't she try to understand her daughter's emotional pain?
Sadly, maternal failures in empathy are not new; mental health professionals have long wondered about the potentially harmful consequences of early emotional deprivation. One prominent psychoanalyst, Harry Harlow, conducted research into the components of maternal love-—only he used rhesus monkeys (known to display similar emotions to people) in his studies. By watching infant monkeys Harlow concluded that loving physical interactions or "contact comfort," was necessary in the earliest months of life, and that a lack of emotional comfort impaired the ability of babies—monkey and human—to socialize with peers and soothe themselves in stressful situations. He also found that monkeys who were emotionally neglected as infants could not adequately nurture when they became parents.
Betty's parenting and Harlow's monkey studies are examined in Mad Men on the Couch. Watching the show it seems clear that adult Betty did not get the childhood nurturing she needed, and that such early emotional deprivation had an adverse impact upon her ability to parent Sally, Bobby, and Gene.
Stephanie Newman, Ph.D. is the author of Mad Men on the Couch