The Destructive Power of Motherly Love

The Destructive Power of Motherly Love August 6, 2021

One of the most chilling scenes in fiction is the portrayal of a mother named “Pam” in C.S. Lewis’ novel, The Great Divorce. In the story, Lewis envisions the eternal separation between heaven and hell, where we encounter a number of ghostly beings who are invited to visit heaven from what is presumably hell (or possibly purgatory). For a moment, these vapor-like specters are allowed to see the divine realm with their own “eyes.” These lost souls receive one final opportunity, a last chance, to choose God and eternal life. In the end, all but one of these visitors, when offered the full reality of the heavenly places and the divine Light, reject the offer to stay there. Instead they opt out and return to hell. The return to hell is also a return to their own self-centered and self-created realities.

In Chapter 11, Lewis introduces the reader to the ghost named “Pam.” She is a mother still grieving over the supposedly premature loss of her son, Michael. In heaven, her brother, Reginald, approaches her first. As with each ghostly visitor, someone from their earthly existence meets them to show them where they went wrong in life and what idol they still hold on to that prevents them from entering into a saving relationship with God. For Pam, it is her inordinate love of her child. The scene is poignant as Lewis keenly depicts how the most powerful of natural loves can turn into the most destructive of forces if left unredeemed by Christ.

The Destructive Power of Natural Love

According to Lewis, the stronger the natural love human beings possess, just in virtue of being created by God, i.e., prior to any act of God’s special grace, the more likely that the person will mistake their natural love for divine love. Natural loves, like the deep connection of a mother to her child, if not elevated by God’s grace, themselves become powerful idols that replace divine love, or agape. And so Pam, the doting mother, persists even after death to confuse her natural love for her son with God’s love for him (and her). In doing so she becomes a kind of god in her own eyes–a god over her son Michael–a god who believes her love is greater than the Creator’s love.

The result of this exchange of loves is terrifying. After obsessively pleading with her brother Reginald to see her son Michael right away, the brother, who is a heavenly Spirit Being, explains this confusion of love to Pam. As he reveals the truth to his lost sister, he explains how it was for her own good and for Michael’s good that God allowed Michael to die young. Ultimately Pam’s obsessive love for her son would have crushed his soul.

The dialogue between the characters is penetrating:

[Pam:] If He [God] loved me He’d let me see my boy. If He loved me why did He take Michael away from me? I wasn’t going to say anything about that. But it’s pretty hard to forgive, you know.’

[Reginald:] ‘But He had to take Michael away. Partly for Michael’s sake…’

[Pam:] I’m sure I did my best to make Michael happy. I gave up my whole life…”

[Reginald:] Human beings can’t make one another really happy for long. And secondly, for your sake. He wanted your merely instinctive love for your child (tigresses share that, you know!) to turn into something better. He wanted you to love Michael as He understands love. You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God. Sometimes this conversion can be done while the instinctive love is still gratified. But there was, it seems, no chance of that in your case. The instinct was uncontrolled and fierce and monomaniac. (Ask your daughter, or your husband. Ask our own mother. You haven’t once thought of her.) The only remedy was to take away its object. It was a case for surgery. When that first kind of love was thwarted, then there was just a chance that in the loneliness, in the silence, something else might begin to grow.”

Lewis, The Great Divorce, Chapter 11

In not learning how to love Michael beyond her own natural or instinctive love, not only did Pam ruin her own life, but also the lives of those around her. Her personalized grief becomes a burden that all others must share, at the same depth and to the same degree. They must react as she reacts, otherwise she judges them guilty of lack of empathy. In doing this Pam decimates her other family members, all of whom loved Michael as well, but who did not see him in the same possessive way as she:

[Pam:] Haven’t I lived only for his memory all these years?’

[Reginald:] ‘That was rather a mistake, Pam. In your heart of hearts you know it was.’

[Pam:] ‘What was a mistake?’

[Reginald:] ‘All that ten years’ ritual of grief. Keeping his room exactly as he’d left it; keeping anniversaries; refusing to leave that house though Dick and Muriel were both wretched there.’

[Pam:] ‘Of course they didn’t care. I know that. I soon learned to expect no real sympathy from them.’

[Reginald:] ‘You’re wrong. No man ever felt his son’s death more than Dick. Not many girls loved their brothers better than Muriel. It wasn’t against Michael they revolted: it was against you—against having their whole life dominated by the tyranny of the past: and not really even Michael’s past, but your past.

Natural Love and The Desire For Total Control

In the story, the mother’s natural love morphs into a total obsession, a need to own the deceased child’s soul. In this ego-centered love, there is no room for Pam to love anyone or anything else, especially not God. Moreover, Michael becomes the sole source of her happiness, and that regardless of how happy he might be. And so the once loving mother becomes like a stalker to her former son. When told by her brother she has been wrong about the nature of her relationship to Michael, Pam lashes out in complete rebellion:

[Pam:] “How dare you laugh about it? Give me my boy. Do you hear? I don’t care about all your rules and regulations. I don’t believe in a God who keeps mother and son apart. I believe in a God of love. No one had a right to come between me and my son. Not even God. Tell Him that to His face. I want my boy, and I mean to have him. He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine, for ever and ever.”

I saw this scene acted out years ago by Max McLean’s wonderful “Fellowship for Performing Arts” troupe. The actress who played Pam that night in Charlotte, North Carolina made this character come alive. And, when she did, she sent shock waves through the crowd. As she (the actress) pounded her fists into the stage floor screaming “HE’S MINE! MINE! MINE! MINE! FOR EVER AND EVER!” the audience sat– absolutely stunned. Could mother love really turn into such a destructive force? So destructive it is willing to drag a beloved child down to the very pits of hell? Yes, it seems it could, and the sheer resonance of the dramatic portrayal gave evidence of that possible reality.

For Pam, this child she produced out of her body was not foremost a child in the image of God. He was a child only in the image of Pam. And so the loving mother, who also could not see herself as anything other than a mother, is willing to commit her son to eternal darkness. Now she sees only her will as determinative of Michael’s fate.

The Evil of Living Vicariously Through “Our” Children

We have all experienced parents who live vicariously through their children. It is a tragic and abusive sight to behold. Fathers screaming obscenities at umpires and referees from the sidelines when their sons are called for a foul, or strike out, as well as cheerleader moms who take on vices that make toxic masculinity look tame in comparison. Recently I watched a film, Friday Night Lights, that depicts this awful dynamic very powerfully (albeit with a mild sense of redemption at the end).

Living vicariously through our children is one form of disordered love that can turn into a relationship of total domination. Fathers and mothers who failed to fulfill something in their own lives they considered integral to their personal development (something that itself was loved disproportionately), try to use their children to fulfill that longing. The end results are ugly, and it should be noted that this is a grave sin.

Lewis points out in his other great novel, The Screwtape Letters, this “axiom” of hell:

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. ‘To be’ means ‘to be in competition’.

Excerpt From: C. S. Lewis. “The Screwtape Letters.” Apple Books.

Fathers and mothers who experience their own weakness but fail to go to God for strength wind up using their children to feel strong. Those who fail to go to God to understand their failures, look to their children to make up for their lack. And this is how the control begins.

Although Lewis doesn’t make it entirely explicit why Pam becomes as obsessed as she is over her son, he hints that Michael was “an Accident,” i.e., an unintended pregnancy. This suggests that Pam’s obsession over Michael is her attempt to “be good” without God, to make atonement for what she thought was a sin, the accidental nature of Michael’s conception. In short, she refuses to go to God for forgiveness and instead chooses to go it on her own terms. Like parents who live vicariously through their children, she will use Michael as an instrument to assuage her guilt and prove her own righteousness.

Fear and Pride: Which Comes First?

From the beginning, the early Church saw this “going it our own” as the originating sin itself, the sin of pride. Augustine articulated it most fully, and since then pride has been seen as the center of the doctrine of original sin. But, there is another aspect of the originating sin that theologians have wrestled with, namely fear (or doubt).

What came first when Adam and Eve sinned, fear of something or pride in their own self? It is a longstanding debate over the text of Genesis 3, as the serpent, the shrewdest of the wild beasts, plays off of both Eve’s doubt (her fear) and her desire for something good. Does Eve doubt God first and then see the fruit as a means to alleviate that doubt? Or does she, and Adam, first experience doubt after they eat the fruit out of a sense of self-reliance and, as Augustine says, a desire for “undue exaltation” (see NPNF, vol. II, CG, XIV, 13)?

However one falls on this deeply theological issue, that fear and pride go together seems very plausible. As such, there is another aspect to Pam’s inordinate and destructive, motherly love: her fear. The fear of a mother for her child can turn into an obsession. We might extrapolate that Pam’s relationship to Michael prior to his death was one riddled with fear over exactly that possibility.

Conclusion: Battling Fear In a “Safety” First World

A mother’s fear can be healthy and prevent much unnecessary harm. However, we should be very cautious in our “safety” first American culture to not confuse being prudent with being fearful. To act out of a place of fear can lead to great moral evil. For example, think of a mother who has natural fears for her young child. The mother fears intuitively for the safety of the child, and is often hovering to ensure that the child is not in any kind of immediate danger. This danger could either be to their physical or emotional well-being. She stays close while the child does monkey bars on the playground; she teaches the child to look both ways, several times, before crossing the road; she makes sure the child always has their safety helmet on, perhaps even when on his tricycle.

These are all fears that are usually justified. They are prudent concerns. However, if the mother’s care for the child, and the daily moral decisions that go into that care, have as their starting point an unredeemed human fear, one that doubts God’s providence, then the following kinds of evils can emerge. The hovering over the child like a mother hen slowly transforms into a controlling act, one more suited to a Communist dictator than a caring mother. Hovering like a hen is now helicoperting like a military asset. The child becomes stifled in their personal development, both physical development– e.g., never being allowed to challenge themselves by climbing the big tree at the park, the child’s muscles stay soft; and in their emotional and moral development– never being permitted to date, the child fails to grasp relational complexity and remains emotionally naive.

One can imagine that for a mother like Pam, this is what would have happened to the son Michael. His freedom to grow, to mature, to become his own person would have been squashed through her merely instinctive love. Her fear and pride overwhelming “the other,”: cursing both him and her in the process. And so the goodness of motherly love, the most powerful of natural loves, transforms into a most destructive seed if left to its own devices. In his book on psychotherapy and traditional wisdom, M. Scott Peck highlights an important lesson for us today, especially for mothers, in this culture of “Safetyism“:

It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn….It is for this reason that wise people learn not to dread but actually to welcome problems and actually to welcome the pain of problems. [However] Most of us are not wise. Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems….This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness.

Peck, The Road Less Traveled, 16-17

Indeed neither fear nor pride can be a starting point for making moral decisions in life, especially with regard to our children.


About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.
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