Who Was That Masked Woman? Rediscovering the Hidden Mother
Melinda Barlow / University of Colorado at Boulder
When a friend sent me this link for a Texas newsreel featuring “an interesting mother daughter relationship,” I knew I had hit the mother lode. Knife throwing might be a quaint 19th century amusement, but this 1950s iteration cut me to the quick.1 Instead of a dashing man hurling Bowies at a scantily clad assistant, here was a stolid woman in a day dress, skillfully flinging blades at two unflinching little girls. “Quite the family, the Gallaghers,” quips the jovial voiceover, “Connie Anne, 5 years old, and Colleena Sue, 2 ½, are a big help to mother Luella, who is no mean hand with a handful of knives.” Indeed, this mother outlines each of her daughters with great dexterity, nicking neither one. But it is the possibility of that nick that we wait for, a slip rather than sleight of hand that promises the forbidden thrill of blade piercing flesh, here especially unsettling because the targets are children. Although their smiles are as unwavering as their mother’s concentration, their poses carefully choreographed for maximum theatrical effect, this sideshow act nonetheless feels like a trauma in the making, one capable of wounding our sense of the sanctity of the mother daughter bond.
And yet, as so many films and memoirs consistently attest, from the recent remakes of Mildred Pierce (2011) and Grey Gardens (2009) to that Texas gem The Liar’s Club (1995) by Mary Karr, this relationship is a complex conundrum in art and life, a fierce if not traumatic attachment often fraught with what psychoanalysis by way of classical mythology calls murderous rage.2 Every vengeful Electra has her neglectful Clytemnestra, each self-sacrificing Mildred her ungrateful Veda, and Big and Little Edie’s prickly symbiosis may be a less than flattering mirror for us all.
But none of these volatile mother daughter dynamics holds a candle to that of Mary Karr, whose sharpest childhood memory involves the family doctor urging her to show him the marks left by her mother Charlie’s carving knife when she came after her and her sister Lecia during a psychotic break. Hallucinating that she had butchered her children, she called the doctor, who called the law, who hospitalized her for being Nervous. Watching her recount this incident on video years later, Karr sees her younger self ask her mother what she was thinking that fateful night in 1961. “I just couldn’t imagine bringing two girls up in a world where they do such awful things to women. So I decided to kill you both, to spare you.”3
Worthy of a Hollywood film, both line and event are drawn from Karr’s life, but each finds echoes in countless films and memoirs: Joan Crawford as the original Mildred in 1945 shrieks “Get out before I kill you!” at greedy and capricious Veda, and, as Vivian Gornick writes in Fierce Attachments (1987), her mother Bess, provoked by Gornick’s views on marital love, likewise screams “Snake in my bosom, I’ll kill you!” while chasing her daughter into the bathroom and smashing her fist through the glass door.4 If Charlie Karr’s allusion to a feminist-inspired form of mercy killing gives this sentiment a somewhat different spin, it is perhaps because it at once registers the latent female rage smoldering in the early 60s that erupts in The Feminine Mystique (1963) and has been so compellingly rendered by Mad Men’s Betty Draper, seen reading Mary McCarthy’s The Group (also 1963) in the tub—and reminds us that in previous eras the expression of female anger was heavily veiled and deeply culturally repressed. Thus the faint stirring described in two of Emily Dickinson’s most famous lines, “A dim capacity for wings/Degrades the dress I wear,” is in fact a 19th century clarion call to consciousness, if not arms.5
Dickinson, who eventually retreated into her house, wore a white dress, and refused to meet people face to face, came from a world where the cult of True Womanhood reined supreme and chained women to domestic life. Hostages in the home, as Barbara Welter described them in 1966, 19th century American women were instructed by a wide range of magazines and etiquette manuals like Godey’s Lady’s Book in the fine art of remaining unheard and unseen.6 “Working like nature, in secret,” women should obey the four cardinal virtues of piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity, cheerfully yielding to their husbands and serving the needs of their children before satisfying their own.7 That “cloak of the heart” good manners was essential to this process. “If politeness is but a mask it is still better worn than cast aside,” insisted one such primer in 1860.8 Avoiding emotional extremes of all kinds also fulfilled middle-class codes of propriety by limiting facial expressiveness, thus turning the countenance into its own disguise.
Given the endless references to the importance of dutifully shrouding one’s feelings in these manuals and their reverberations throughout Victorian novels—which routinely erased women by making the ghosts of dead mothers into maternal ideals (Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, 1860) or having them commit suicide when they cannot resolve their internal contradictions (Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, 1899)—it is not surprising that 19th century conventions of photographic portraiture should repeat them as well. But that they do so so forcefully, through such uncanny iconography, often performing a double erasure within a single image, comes as quite a shock, as this riveting example of what is now known as a “hidden mother” tintype makes clear. When I found it online, it made me shiver and think grim reaper. Who was that masked woman? What happened to her baby? Haunted by maternal presence, this photograph discloses its absence, and may have hidden it yet again behind an oval mount or by tucking the photo into a tiny case. Contemporary literature on the subject seals this woman’s fate with a certain finality: referred to as cloaked female “attendants,” women like this one, who held their children still for the duration of an exposure, were covered to keep the focus solely on the child, their anonymity further insured when their faces were scratched out or cropped off by the edges of the frame.9 Like the woman who has lost her head in Empty Dress (2007), an altered 19th century photograph by Francois Deschamps, such women remain nameless and without individuation, forever draped in an unintended costume that divulges a deep secret: maternal absence is a dynamic signifying presence, a cultural trauma palpable precisely because it comes from something unknown, that seems not to be there.
The roots of this trauma run deep, its ideological stakes are high, and its cathexis ricochets vigorously into our own century, coursing through art, films, and recent tintypes each able, in Roland Barthes’ phrase, to assail us with its own punctum, each, like knife throwing, a unique impalement art capable of piercing us to the core.10 Contemporary work that returns to mid-20th century images of femininity does this by shattering its peculiarly placid veneer with startling alacrity, unveiling visions of family harmony, exposing the monsters lurking beneath what Betty Friedan called the “smiling empty passivity” required of women when the cult of domesticity returned in the 1950s, and both confronting and cherishing fantasies of mother daughter symmetry through strategies which reveal their hidden other side.11
In Laura Shill’s The Happy Family #6 (2006), for example, a beaming mother presses her daughter face down into a bathtub, cheerfully helping her drown. Does this chilling image present another feminist mercy killing, like the one described by Charlie Karr? Or, as one of those pictures that “would never make it into the family album,” as Shill notes, does it reveal a world whose characters may be “unwittingly evil, and completely oblivious of their own cruelty?” Emerging from a time and place that pre-exists irony or cynicism (the image prior to Shill’s alteration is part of The Little Swimmers, a charming yet saccharine childhood classic from 1960), the series is intended as “a repudiation of the notion of ‘the good old days’”—that euphemism which skillfully masks such repressive social forces as conformity, sexism, and segregation.12
Sweeter in tone is the nested tintype Untitled Box #1 (Easter Sunday) (2011), made from a snapshot of Shill’s mother and grandmother in matching outfits complete with bonnets circa 1960, posing for the camera by displaying their full skirts, performing their twinned selves with savvy self-consciousness and clearly enjoying the experience of dressing up. More aggressive is Untitled Box #3 (Beverly’s Weapons) (2011), which features the same grandmother in cowgirl attire aiming a rifle right into the lens, nestled in a locket hanging in a small box, here held in close up in Shill’s hand. That Shill used to play dress up in Beverly Ball’s closet when she was a child is telling. It suggests a cross-generational thrill to theatricality, a shared pleasure in costumes and deliberately hamming it up in front of the camera that is in fact part of the legacy of the tintype. In 19th century America, people of all classes regularly mugged in special outfits with self-chosen props for the itinerant photographers who passed through town, in the process flaunting a theatrical sense of self that broke with codes of middle-class bodily propriety and traversed traditional gender boundaries. Given this context, Shill’s gun-toting grandmother seems like a long overdue refusal of 19th century rules mandating genteel female gestures, and an iconic mid-century answer to Emily Dickinson’s subdued call to arms.
In hidden mother tintypes women’s gestures, although customarily cropped out by mats and mounts just like their faces, were often perceptible beneath veiling blankets, and seen reaching in like phantom limbs from out of frame, a convention that persists in amateur films shot one hundred years later. That dark figure with a gaping maw in the ‘grim reaper’ photograph is carefully supporting a rather startled child, and the tension between her steadying hands and swallowing lap is dramatic. In other hidden mother cabinet cards and in home movies, there are glimpses of female arms and hands propping children up, giving them a prod from off screen (She/Va, 1973), directing them to smile and smell the flowers (o little jeannie, circa 1950), and clasping them tightly while crouching behind ornate chairs. In view of the 19th century assumption that it was a woman’s solemn responsibility to “uphold the pillars of the temple with her frail white hand,” as Barbara Welter put it, and a mother’s job to shape “the infant mind as yet untainted by contact with evil,”13 malleable as wax as it was beneath her “plastic hand,” as Ladies’ Companion advised in 1838, these remarkably sturdy female gestures should be treasured in all of their stabilizing iterations.14
Eventually, however, they must be relinquished, for every child has to put her mother behind her, leaving the security of that comforting yet claustrophobic lap to stand on her own two feet and face the future alone. The sensation of doing so, of feeling “neither cut off from the past nor mired in it,” in Mary Karr’s phrase, can be nothing short of exhilarating.15 As the child one was turns toward twilight, the woman one will become points in a new direction, poised on a rock, ready to disembark, unable to foresee what her life has in store, her capacity for self-creation now in her own hands, her mother hidden within.
Thanks to Benjamin Janek for his invaluable aid with this essay. Dedicated to Judith Bowles and in memory of Mary Teresa Clark, and inspired by the work of Laura Shill. You all enabled me to see.
1. Luella Gallagher in Knife Throwing Mother (1950s), Texas Universal-International Newsreel
2. Colleena Sue Gallagher in Knife Throwing Mother (1950s), Texas Universal-International Newsreel
3. “The Best at Home,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, mid-19th century.
4. From left: Anonymous Hidden Mother tintype, 19th century. Francois Deschamps, Empty Dress (2007). Both collection of Melinda Barlow.
5. Laura Shill, The Happy Family #6. Collection of Melinda Barlow.
6. Laura Shill, Untitled Box #1 (Easter Sunday) (2011), detail. Collection of the artist.
7. Laura Shill, Untitled Box #3 (Beverly’s Weapons) (2011), detail. Collection of Melinda Barlow.
8. From left: Anonymous Hidden Mother cabinet card, 19th century. Collection of Melinda Barlow. Anonymous home movie retitled o little jeannie (circa 1950), collection of Jeanne Liotta. Marjorie Keller, She/Va (1973).
9. From Left: Anonymous Hidden Mother cabinet card, 19th century. Collection of Melinda Barlow. Laura Shill, Untitled Performance #6 (2011). Collection of Melinda Barlow.
Please feel free to comment.
- The You Tube link sent to me by Laura Shill titles this newsreel Knife Throwing Mother 1950s. On the Texas Archive of the Moving Image website the title is Knife Throwing Family (http://www.texasarchive.org/library/index.php/Knife_Throwing_Family) and on the site for the Prelinger Archives it is Knife-Thrower and Children (ca. 1950) (http://www.archive.org/details/KnifeThr1950). [↩]
- The original films are Mildred Pierce (dr. Michael Curtiz, 1945) and Grey Gardens (dr. Ellen Hovde, Albert and David Maysles, and Muffie Meyers, 1975). The remakes were directed for HBO by Todd Haynes in 2011 and Michael Sucsy in 2009, respectively.
For a psychoanalytic overview of love/hate relationship between mothers and daughters, see Henrika C. Freud, Electra vs. Oedipus: The Drama of the Mother-Daughter Relationship, trans. Marjolijn de Jager (Hove, East Sussex, UK: Routledge, 2011). [↩]
- Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club (New York: Viking Penguin, 1995), and Mary Karr, Lit (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 3. [↩]
- Vivan Gornick, Fierce Attachments (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987), 110. [↩]
- The poem is titled “From the Chrysalis,” first published in 1896.
My cocoon tightens, colors tease,
I’m feeling for the air;
A dim capacity for wings
Degrades the dress I wear.
A power of butterfly must be
The aptitude to fly,
Meadows of majesty concedes
And easy sweeps of sky.
So I must battle at the hint
And cipher at the sign,
And make much blunder, if at last
I take the clew divine. [↩]
- Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1960,” American Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, Part 1 (Summer, 1966), 151-174. [↩]
- Maria J. McIntosh, Woman in America: Her Work and Her Reward (New York: 1850), 25. [↩]
- Forence Hartley, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness (Boston: G. W. Cottrell, 1860), 3. [↩]
- The two major books on tintypes are split in what they call hidden mothers. In Floyd Rinhart, Marion Rinhart and Robert. W. Wagner, The American Tintype (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999), 75-75, reference is made to actual mothers, but in Steven Kasher, America and the Tintype, reference is made to the cloaked “attendant” on page 67. [↩]
- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1981 [↩]
- Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1963; reprinted 2001), 118. [↩]
- Laura Shill, email to the author, 9/17/11. [↩]
- Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” 152. [↩]
- Mrs. Emma C. Embury, “Female Education,” Ladies’ Companion, VIII (Jan. 1838), 18. [↩]
- Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club, xiv. [↩]