3.2.2 Family Environment

On the non-biological side of the psychiatric dichotomy, the theories that have evolved about environmental causes for schizophrenia usually focus either on the family environment or the larger social environment. Those which focus on the family environment demonstrate a clear pattern of evolution. At first mothers were the focus of research, on the assumption that some fault in mother/child bonding was the cause of schizophrenia. Then the focus of research moved on to examine marital relationships between mothers and fathers with the assumption that some kind of distortion in these relationships might impact on children and cause schizophrenia. Finally researchers began to take account of the family environment as a whole, theorising that any member of a family, or all the members of a family together, might somehow create conditions of stress that produced schizophrenia in a family member.

The term ‘schizophrenogenic mother’ was first coined in 1948 by a psychiatrist named Frieda Fromm-Reichman: ‘The schizophrenic is painfully distrustful and resentful of other people due to the severe early warp and rejection he encountered in important people in his infancy and childhood, as a rule mainly the schizophrenogenic mother.’[61] There were two ideas embodied in the concept of the schizophrenogenic mother which made this terminology a powerful message for the times. These two ideas were the notions of maternal rejection and maternal over-protection.[62]

The post-World-War-II period was one of rapid cultural change, in which attention was often focussed on the relationship between mothers and children.[63] Uncertainty had developed about the quality of mother–infant bonding in industrialised countries as a result of a variety of factors including a rising divorce rate, adolescent pregnancies, and working mothers who left their babies with minders. The satisfying pre-war cultural image of a young mother successfully nurturing an infant was being eroded.

Social commentators often blamed mothers for any troubles children had with social adjustment, and also for any problems the society might have with maladjusted or delinquent children, and other social stresses. As a result the suburban housewife was often stereotyped as a frustrated, repressed, disturbed, martyred, never-satisfied, unhappy woman, a demanding, nagging, shrewish wife, and a rejecting, over-protecting, dominating mother.[64]

This changing cultural identity of women enhanced the significance of the role of motherhood in the eyes of psychiatrists. As faith in the competence of mothers declined, advice was increasingly sought from professionals on matters concerning nurturing and child care. But mothers remained powerful. Although they might be perceived as failing to produce healthy, well-adjusted children, they could still wreak social havoc by producing deviants.[65]

On top of this, at the same time as women were increasingly seen as becoming dominant, masculine power was thought to be on the decline. Popular literature complained about the emasculation of men due to factors such as the bureaucratisation of work, the rise of the corporate ‘man in the grey flannel suit’, and the demise of individualism. The newly enfeebled men of the 1950s had castrating women waiting for them in every suburban home.[66]

The significance of these cultural trends for the development of the idea of the schizophrenogenic mother, despite the originator herself being a woman, is that most of the psychiatric researchers who pursued this line of research were men. The general notion they were pursuing was of a dominating, over-protective, but basically rejecting mother who somehow induced a schizophrenic reaction in her offspring.[67] A considerable number of uncontrolled studies were undertaken that seemed to confirm this premise. These were usually in the form of interview studies or case-record studies without control groups.

However, by the early 1980s the concept of the schizophrenogenic mother had run its course. A researcher could argue in 1982, after reviewing the literature on the subject, that ‘[t]he most plausible explanation is that there is no sui generis schizophrenogenic mother; instead, there is a parental type distinguished by hostile, critical, and intrusive style and it is not particularly over-represented in the parents of schizophrenics’.[68] With further shifts in cultural values over the intervening years, it had become apparent that only a small percentage of women who might arguably fit the criteria of schizophrenogenic mother had actually produced schizophrenic children. Conversely, many schizophrenics were found to have mothers who did not fit the criteria.

By the early 1980s some psychiatric researchers were ready to include the schizophrenogenic mother on a list with other ‘dangerous psychosocial hypotheses’ that supposedly had retarded the progress of psychiatry.[69] Yet despite the hostility that had developed against the idea within the psychiatric profession, and despite the lack of evidence to support it, the schizophrenogenic mother was still being presented as a viable concept in psychology textbooks up to the end of the 1980s.[70]

[61] Frieda Fromm-Reichman, ‘Notes on the Development of Treatment of Schizophrenics by Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy’, pp. 263–73.

[62] Gordon Parker, ‘Re-searching the schizophrenogenic mother’, pp. 452–62.

[63] Carol Eadie Hartwell, ‘The schizophrenogenic mother concept in American psychiatry’, pp. 274–97.

[64] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique.

[65] Stella Chess, ‘The “blame the mother” ideology’, pp. 95–107.

[66] B. Ehrenreich, and D. English, For Her Own Good, p. 241.

[67] Frank Simmers and Froma Walsh, ‘The nature of the symbiotic bond between mother and schizophrenic’, pp. 484–94.

[68] Parker, op.cit.

[69] Humphry Osmond, ‘Dangerous psychosocial hypotheses’, pp. 216–18.

[70] Otto F. Wahl, ‘Schizophrenogenic parenting in abnormal psychology textbooks’, pp. 31–33.