Friday, September 4, 2009

Where are the Fathers?

The asylum is getting full now, lots of inmates. This one claims he needs two rooms, one for himself, and one for his mother.

Robert Bloch’s novel “Psycho” is excellent. Norman Bates, the first and most believable of all the slashers, is disturbed and wonderfully fractured. He can maintain some semblance of normalcy because he lives an isolated existence. If he ever had to spend an extended period of time around others, or if he were stressed or pressured, he’d pop like a cork at midnight January 1. On some level he knows this and stays isolated and alone, living in the shadow of “mother.”

After reading “Psycho” the thought of authority figures kept occurring to me. Authority figures and family relations, both important building blocks of any society, both of these notions kept pinging around in my head. Bloch’s novel drips with the perversion of the mother/son relationship. But where are the fathers?

Norman Bates and Marion Crane share an absence of good parenting. After reading Cyndy Hendershot’s “Taboo and Transgression in The Bad Seed, The Fly, and Psycho” a very interesting thought occurred. Hendershot points out that maybe the overbearing “mother” Norman blames his murderous ways on is just a construct for Norman to protect himself. On page 29 of Hendershot’s essay: “Thus, Mother of the film may well be only Norman’s creation of a mother who needs him.” And “…we cannot dismiss the sheriff’s original story “that Norman’s mother killed her lover when she found out that he was married, the poisoned herself, with Norman discovering both bodies in bed If we accept this explanation, Mrs. Bates emerges as a woman very much like Marion Crane, a woman who followed her erotic desire to the point of death itself.”

What an interesting notion, and one that puts a lot more blame on Norman than on his mother. Ultimately, though, I discount this notion. It reduces Norman Bates to an opportunistic killer who has a fancy cover story. I think he's far more interesting as a true split personality who has a true dual nature.

Marion Crane has a similar, though less violent, lack of parenting. Her parents left later in her life. In the novel “Psycho” on page 22: “The opportunity to go on to college had vanished, at seventeen, when Daddy was hit by a car.” Later on the same page: “Besides, Mom was pretty sick by then. It took her three years to die, while Lila was off at school. Mary had insisted she go to college, come what may, but that left her carrying the whole load.”

So, tragedy destroys both the Bates and the Crane homes, taking parents from children prematurely. Norman is far more damaged by this than Mary, though both resort to criminal behavior. Norman murders (Mary), then murders again (Arbogast) to cover the original murder. Mary steals $40,000 to cut the timeline short on her path to marriage and happiness.

So, what if the fathers were still there? Mary Crane lost her father, yes, but she seemed to get stronger because of it. She becomes the rock of the family, sacrificing her happiness and putting her future on hold on behalf of her dying mother and younger sister. Taking the money seems an out of character knee-jerk thing to do, her one true sin. Perhaps Mary felt she had waited long enough and her happiness was overdue? There is a hint of class envy as Mary’s reaction to wealthy old Tom Cassidy being able to throw $40,000 in cash around on behalf of his own daughter. Did Mary grow jealous, and maybe angry, at the lack of a father to buy her a wedding gift? Sure, the follow on thoughts were of paying off Sam’s debts and living happily ever after, but what was the trigger point for the theft? A daddy-based jealous reaction is not out of the realm of possibility.

This is a more interesting question to ask of Norman Bates. What about Norman’s father? Without a strong male influence Norman stayed in the shadow of his mother. Had his father stayed one has to believe Norman’s development would have followed more acceptable paths.

The entire first chapter of the novel, especially when re-read knowing Norman is just talking to himself, shows how Norman never developed into adulthood. Page 17 probably sums it up best as Norma berates Norman: ““Change, boy? Nothing’s going to change. You can read all the books in the world and you’ll still be the same. I don’t need to listen to a lot of vile obscene rigamarole to know what you are. Why, even an eight-year-old child could recognize it. They did, too, all your little playmates did, way back then. You’re a Mamma’s Boy. That’s what they called you, and that’s what you were. Were, are, and always will be. A big, fat, overgrown Mamma’s Boy!””

There are men in this story. Sam Loomis and Arbogast the private detective are the two most prominent. Sam is reserved and pretty quiet. He accepts his life and his fate. He is working off his own father’s debts and is focused on that singular task. He has a stereotypical male’s lack of emotional response to events, specifically Mary’s disappearance and the constant waiting that drives Lila, Mary’s younger sister, to near hysterics.

Arbogast is probably the most masculine character. He doesn’t accept any situation, or any story at face value. He is persistent, pushes for more answers and more information, and his curiosity and forceful nature lead to his ultimate demise. His fatherly nature is revealed in his civility and politeness towards Lila, and even Sam when he sees they are innocent of the theft. Arbogast probably scared Norman the most. Here is an adult male of authority, something Norman never became.

Norman/Norma’s quick dispatching of Arbogast doesn’t have the same impact as Mary’s murder. Hitchcock’s treatment of the shower scene, and the focus on mother/son relationships makes the male/female dynamic much more evident.

But think of the symbolism of Norman/Norma hacking at Arbogast, an adult male, to death. He barely gets in the front door before Norman is upon him hacking and slashing. He isn’t even allowed upstairs. What if Arbogast, an adult male, a real man, had gotten upstairs to Norma Bates’s bedroom? Norman couldn’t allow this to happen. Mary is at least sexual, Norman’s dual urges to be with Mary and to have “mother” protect him from Mary leads to her demise. Arbogast may be more of a threat. What if Arbogast sees mother and, instead of being repulsed or afraid, tries to take mother away from him?

The relationship dynamics in “Psycho” are what make this so compelling a story. I was lucky enough to have a fatherly moment right after I read this novel. My five year daughter was struggling to snap the front of her jean shorts. My wife was already swooping in to snap them for her. I had my wife pause and asked my daughter to try again, and she got the shorts snapped and beamed about her accomplishment for several moments afterward. I couldn’t help but think: what if Norman’s father had been there to keep his mother in check? What if Norman had done what everybody should do? What if he’d been forced to grow up?


  1. Great post! I really like your analysis of Arbogast's death and your what-if question. Very interesting thought. A grown man threatening the Bates sanctuary, as opposed to Lila who was allowed to search the house while Norman opened up to Sam about Mother.

  2. An early theory of Freud was that of the schizophrenic mother, where by the cold overbearing mother caused the child to be schizophrenic. This theory would have still been held when PSYCHO was written.