Oedipus Wrecks

Behind the play on words, lies a mighty scary Freudian scenario.

Posted Jul 24, 2018

 Hank Davis
Source: Photo: Hank Davis

Wesley was born at just the right time, at least as far as Claire was concerned. She felt lonely and sad and isolated. Roy had gone off to war and she was left alone to deal with the anxiety and depression she had known most of her life. Wesley was conceived during one of Roy’s weekend furloughs from the Army before he had been shipped out for good. Now it was just her and the baby.

Wesley quickly filled Claire’s universe. He was everything she could have hoped for. She showered him with affection and showed him off to her family and friends. She felt proud and accomplished. She could see that others looked at her with admiration. There were moments when her shyness and timidity seemed to melt away. She felt brave enough to step into the world alone. As long as she had Wesley she would never have to feel sad and lonely again.

It wasn’t a bad deal for Wesley either. He had the full attention of his Goddess. She was the source of all good things: food, warmth, comfort. She seemed to love him and dote on him. As long as he was cute and cheery and clever, all good things came to him. Once in a while Claire seemed aloof, but Wesley could usually make it go away by upping the ante: by dancing faster, so to speak. Most of the time it banished her depression and brought her back to him from that dark, vacant place. And so they thrived together. Early photos show a chubby, happy baby and a shyly smiling pretty young woman.

And then one day there was a knock on the door. Wesley, now in his fourth year, raced over to answer it, as he had done before. But instead of Aunt Laura or Aunt Bonnie, there stood a man. He wore a uniform and he was extremely tall, maybe the tallest person Wesley had ever seen. Wesley stared at the man and the man stared back at him, no emotion revealed by either of them. Finally, Claire appeared and reached past Wesley to greet the man. They exchanged a long embrace, some soft words, and then the man came inside their small apartment.

Wesley had no idea what was going on. He had no idea how to act. There were some sort of introductions made, but none of them registered with Wesley. The man seemed vaguely glad to meet him, but more eager to see Claire. Wesley also wanted to connect with Claire and make sure that this interruption was temporary, that he could go back to his universe with Claire. But Wesley felt a vague dread that this tall man wasn’t going anywhere.

He was right, of course. Roy was his father and he had come home to stay. He lived there. It wasn’t just Wesley and Claire anymore. It was Wesley, Claire and Roy. Somehow Wesley was going to have to find a way to make this work. He had always been the center of the universe, and he wanted to remain that way. It had never even occurred to him that things could change. And now, quite out of the blue, a tall man had just walked into his world and knocked everything asunder.

If the man had maybe reached out to him or made some kind of overture to suggest they could all work together, that would be one thing. But the man seemed as awkward and confused and wary as Wesley did. Weren’t big people supposed to be in charge? The two of them were both circling around Claire and checking each other out, as if to say, “Who is this other and what is his place here? Is there going to be enough for me when he’s here?"

And so it went, for days, weeks, months, even years. The three of them co-existed under the same roof. There was tension. There was friction and there was competition. How couldn’t there be? Roy and Wesley wanted the same thing. They both wanted Claire. They couldn’t both have her. There were only so many hours in the day and so much attention she could give. They couldn’t both be special. They couldn’t both be the funniest, the cleverest, the center of the universe.

Over the years, they both tried, as hard as they could. The truth is, neither of them was funny, clever or distracting enough to keep Claire from the anxiety and depression and insecurity that had always ravaged her. Her moods were erratic. Claire believed that if someone, Wesley or Roy, would just love her enough, this pain and emptiness would finally go away. But it didn’t. And she blamed them, though she rarely said so. Except when the unhappiness became too much to bear; then she let them know. One of the few positive memories Wesley has of Roy was hearing his father say to Claire, “Honey, I wish I knew what to do to make you happy.”

Wesley felt such a bond with his father in that moment. So it wasn’t just him. Roy couldn’t get to her either. Maybe nobody could help her. God knows the two of them had tried, each in his own way, and often at the expense of the other. But the smiles from Claire became fewer and briefer. It was clear she needed help, but she never got it. And she brought her palpable unhappiness to the world, and to the universe of her home. Roy had been raised in a female-centric home, dominated by an unfulfilled woman who had her male children bowing and scraping to please her. They all treated her like royalty and no one ever dared challenge her authority. With this in his past, Roy was no match for Claire’s needs. He was a kind, but weak man who would never stand up to a woman’s will or question her. Even when she was being impossibly demanding of her son, of his son, he remained intimidated and mute. He never stood up for Wesley, even when Wesley would have killed for some support. And Roy allowed himself to be bullied and humiliated in his own home, which his young son did with gleeful abandon if it brought entertainment to his emotionally starving mother, which it often did.

To put it simply, Wesley played the Oedipal game and won. Freud was right about the battle, but boy children are not supposed to win all their mother’s love and attention. That they try is normal enough. But they are born to lose. God help the winners; they lose so much. Their biggest loss is their fathers. They grow up without a male figure to respect and emulate. They grow up without an understanding of what it means to be a father or a husband. They have no sense of how a family works. It’s an incalculable loss. There’s a scene in a 1960 film called The Sundowners. A mother (played by Deborah Kerr), father (Robert Mitchum) and their adolescent son are living together in a covered wagon in the Australian outback. The son, perhaps out of desperate isolation, makes what is pretty clearly a mating overture to his mother. She firmly shuts him down, telling him in essence, “Boy, don’t ever do that again. I love you but don’t ever make me choose between you and your father. I’ll choose him every single time.”

How Wesley would have killed to hear those words from Claire. A boundary! A sign of respect for his father. Oh, for boundaries in his home! For someone to tell him, “Don’t talk to your father that way!” Or, “I’m just having a crappy day, son. It’s not your job to fix me.” Whether Claire added that it was Roy’s job or that it was her job or her doctor’s job to fix her depression was incidental. Just that Wesley was off the hook. He wasn’t responsible for her.

Not surprisingly, he never heard those words.

Thanks to: Dr. Mark Cornfield, Yana Hoffman and Anita Kahn.

Footnote: The title is a play on words. According to Greek mythology, King Oedipus (Oedipus Rex) ascended to his throne by killing his father, the King, and marrying his mother, the Queen. Sigmund Freud seized upon this story as the cornerstone of unconscious male sexuality and named it “the Oedipus Complex.” Few are orthodox Freudians today, but most agree that the effects of such a family dynamic, whether literal or symbolic, are disastrous. Hence the article’s title: Oedipus Wrecks.