Relative Intimacy: Fathers, Adolescent Daughters, and Postwar American Culture

Article excerpt

Relative Intimacy: Fathers, Adolescent Daughters, and Postwar American Culture Rachel Devm. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Appearing in the Gender and American Culture Series launched in 1988, Relative Intimacy appears on a par with other titles that have won notable awards. In this judgment I am biased by the book's clarification of one issue that has puzzled me for exactly 50 years. As a high school student, I saw the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955). While I found a kind of melodramatic credibility in Jim Stark (James Dean), his weepy girl friend Judy (Natalie Wood) seemed mysterious. The angry, erotically tinged relationship with her father (William Hopper) grew from a desire to titillate him sexually; he reciprocated with brutish violence that turned her to juvenile delinquency. In every subsequent viewing of Rebel, I wondered why such a rendition of daughter-father attraction/antagonism could be considered psychologically plausible for a mainstream feature film. Now the analysis from Rachel Devlm, an associate professor of history at Tulane, has left me gasping with new tremors of alienation from the reigning wisdom that she demonstrates for the popular therapeutic culture of my youth.

Devlin treats Rebel as just one of many artifacts in the history of postwar attempts to represent middle-class adolescent girls, understand their challenges, and prescribe cures for them. Placed in that context, the story of Judy and her father is meant to be an instructive female Oedipal drama that expresses insights for family therapy. Drawing upon numerous examples from films, plays, and widely read psychoanalytic tracts - Helene Deutsch's Psychology of Woman (1944) and Phyllis Greenacre's Trauma, Growth, and Personality (1952) among them-Devlin shows postwar therapeutic consensus that a teenage daughter's Oedipal attractions to her father are so urgently normal that they need to be ripened toward some kind of decisive resolution. (It was assumed that a male's Oedipal attachment to his mother died at puberty in a kind of benign molting.) Mom was the daughter's biggest emotional problem in this understanding. If girls were to become independent from mothers, they would have to decisively reject their influence. In this emancipation they would symbolically join Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) when he murders Mrs. Senator Iselin (Angela Lansbury) -absolutely the world's most viperous mom. While therapists of the Deutsch/Greenacre persuasion did not openly advocate physical incest, they squirmingly sanctioned it as a negligible evil preferable to continuing childish dependence on the mother or eruptions of acting out in promiscuity, drinking, and smoking. Affirmative Oedipal enactment with the father, in other words, was the way beyond the control of, in Lillian Gordon's words from that period, the "giantess of the nursery" (44).

So, returning to Rebel, we can recognize that both Jim and Judy's parents fail because of weak fathers-Jim's because he cannot assert himself against a domineering wife and Judy's because he fails to reciprocate her erotic impulses in ways that legitimize her developing sexual stature. The mothers are evil, too, but in a derivative way enabled by their husbands' inadequacies. Without Rachel Devlin's resourceful sleuthing in the popular postwar materials, I would never have understood Judy's motivation as the second rebel who really did have her cause.

The exegesis here is just one of many executed with fascinating sources and a rich collection of handsomely produced visual illustrations gathered from premier collections of American social history. Topics have been arranged into chapters that deal with coherent sets of cultural artifacts and all the sources of public understanding or taste linked to their production and consumption. Devlin ranges gracefully over government documents, juvenile court proceedings, professional journals, popular magazines, fiction, radio broadcasts, and stage plays. …


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