‘There is no real me’: The Maternal Root of Patrick Bateman’s Psychosis in American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (Part 1 of 2)

Posted by Lynsay Smith on March 23, 2016 in Blog, Lynsay Smith tagged with , , ,

American Psycho.After its publication, Bret Eason Ellis’ novel, American Psycho (1991), caused controversy due to its graphic and extremely disturbing depictions of violence. Whilst it has received considerable recognition from critics, the depraved behaviour exhibited by Patrick Bateman has often been concluded as mindless aggression without an underlying psychological cause. As Catherine Spooner argues, ‘the horror of Ellis’ novel is that everything is reduced to the level of surface, there is no depth’[1] Although it is undeniable that Bateman is the personification of American consumer culture, little attention has been paid to his upbringing, which can be said to be the root cause of his psychotic behaviour. This can be explored by closely analysing the text, along with Ellis’ earlier novel, Rules of Attraction (1987), in which a chapter is narrated by Patrick and several others are narrated by his younger brother, Sean. In this examination, I will argue that Bateman’s actions as an adult are a result of the psychological trauma engendered by his mother and father.

Although Patrick Bateman’s mother is rarely discussed in American Psycho, it is clear that she has a relatively severe psychological affliction which may be degenerative in nature. This is emphasised when Bateman discusses his mother’s health and notes that ‘things are worse’ (AP, 216). Whilst her illness is never specified, it is clear that Patrick’s mother resides in a mental hospital due to the fact that she is ‘heavily sedated’ (AP, 351) and there are ‘bars’ (AP, 351) on the windows. Furthermore, in Rules of attraction, Sean notes that his father had his mother ‘committed to Sandstone’ (RoA, 267) which shows that her illness required physical intervention and involuntary treatment. When Sean discusses his mother’s confinement, he reveals ‘no one mentioned it. No one ever mentioned it except for Patrick, who, in confidence to me, whispered, ‘It was about time’. (RoA, 267) It is apparent from Patrick’s statement that his mother’s illness is a longstanding problem and the fact that he is the only one who mentions it stresses an emotional vulnerability when it comes to his mother. This is reinforced when he visits her in American Psycho and notes,

My mother and I are sitting in her private room at Sandstone, where she is now a permanent resident. Heavily sedated, she has her sunglasses on and keeps touching her hair and I keep looking at my hands, pretty sure that they’re shaking. She tries to smile when she asks what I want for Christmas. I’m not surprised at how much effort it takes to raise my head and look at her. I’m wearing a two-button wool gabardine suit with notched lapels by Gian Marco Venturi, cap-toed leather laceups by Armani, tie by Polo, socks I’m not sure where from. It’s nearing the middle of April. (AP, 351)

This passage is extremely important as Patrick’s fear of his mother’s gaze, along with his continual glances towards her hair, points towards their complex attachment. At this point, Bateman’s mother resembles Freud’s description of Medusa as the castrating mother who ‘makes the spectator stiff with terror’.[2] Due to Patrick’s unnatural fear of his mother, it appears that the castration complex was not resolved during childhood and, I would argue, this shows that Patrick has failed to fully separate from his mother. Ego psychologist, Margaret Mahler,  introduced the separation-individuation stage of development, wherein a child moves from emotionally unity with the mother to becoming a psychologically separate individual. Whilst this is the normative process experienced by an infant, Mahler revealed that ‘symbiotic psychosis’ can transpire when the child excessively rejects separating from the mother. This can be caused by the ‘illness of a mother’ or the ‘birth of a sibling’[3] – both of which occur during Patrick’s childhood. The child ‘fears being reincorporated by the mother and thus [he is] unable to separate himself from her’.[4] In many cases, this leads in to the development of autism or schizophrenia, both of which can be said to be the symptomatic diagnosis of Bateman’s delusional behaviour and psychotic aggression.[5] Evidently, Bateman’s trembling hands show that he fears being engulfed by the mother, and to combat this, he says ‘I’ve spent the last hour studying my hair in the mirror I’ve insisted the hospital keep in my mother’s room.’ (AP, 351) While Patrick may try to focus upon himself, he is unconsciously mirroring his mother by obsessing with his hair as she touches hers.  In Lacan’s mirror stage, when a schizophrenic individual looks at their reflection, they see themselves and the Other – the source of castration – and thus, their ability to form a self-identity is foreclosed.[6] By imitating his mother’s actions, it is clear that the ambivalent relationship between mother and son is due to their undissolved attachment. Due to this, Patrick is unable to disidentify with his mother and therefore he is never completely in control of his emotions. Although Bateman attempts to forge an identity constructed of commodities, when he visits his mother, it is the only time in the novel that he does not know what brand his clothes are. Noting that he is ‘not sure’ where his socks are from shows that his mother has the ability to deconstruct his counterfeit persona instantaneously; and thus, it is apparent that Patrick’s mother still has the ability to control her son’s identity.

The idea that Bateman has a disturbed attachment to his mother is particularly evident when he witnesses other women with their children. This is emphasised when he says, ‘nearby a mother breast-feeds her baby, which awakens something awful in me.’ (AP, 285) Here, the mother and child who are joined in a necessary symbiotic attachment repulses Bateman. The word ‘awakens’, shows that he has a dormant side of his psyche, which is activated in moments of revelation of his own traumatic childhood attachment which still exists in his unconscious. This psychological distress is particularly noticeable when Bateman kills a young child and says, ‘I kneel beside the mother before an interested crowd gathers around us and I pry her arms off the child’. (AP, 287) By physically forcing the separation of mother and child, Patrick acts out his own desire to be psychologically separate from his mother. It is apparent that Patrick projects his own trauma onto the external world around him and this causes him to loath any maternal figure – and thus, almost all of the woman in the novel are subjected to verbal and physical abuse. Interestingly, the majority of Bateman’s violence towards women is directed at prostitutes, who he blatantly regards as inferior beings. Russell Campbell notes that male violence ‘against a prostitute may have their roots in resentment against the mother for the emotional power she is able to wield over her dependent child’[7]. As previously discussed, Bateman’s mother has the ability to manipulate him psychologically and thus, his anger towards her may certainly be displaced onto prostitutes within the novel. As Bateman’s father has failed to prohibit the oedipal complex – which will be discussed in the next section – Patrick may act out his incestuous fantasies with these women. The mutilation and destruction of prostitutes’ bodies is therefore an attempt, on Bateman’s part, to fulfil his oedipal desires and, simultaneously, terminate the power that the maternal body holds over him.



[1] Catherine Spooner, ‘Crime and the Gothic’, A Companion to Crime Fiction, [eds.] Charles Rzepka and Lee Horsley, (West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010), p.256
[2] Sigmund Freud, ‘Medusa’s Head’, Sexuality and The Psychology of Love, [ed.] Philip Rieff, (New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1963), p.202
[3] William G. Austin, ‘Childhood Psychosis’, Encyclopedia of Special Education: A Reference for the Education of Children, [ed.] Cecil R. Reynolds and Elaine Fletcher-Janzen, (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007), p.433
[4] George B. Palermo, The Faces of Violence, 2nd edn, (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher Ltd, 2004), p.51

[5]Two excellent studies reinforce this argument. For more information on Bateman’s autistic symptoms, see: Berthold Schoene, ‘Serial Masculinity: Psychopathology and Oedipal Violence in Bret Eason Ellis’ American Psycho’, Modern Fiction Studies, Vol.54, No.2, (Johns Hopkins University Press, Summer 2008), p.378-397

For schizophrenic symptoms, see: Christopher Schaffer, ‘Examining the Personality of Patrick Bateman of American Psycho’, Available: http://www.academia.edu/349102/Examining_the_Personality_of_Patrick_Bateman_of_American_Psycho [Accessed 20 January 2016]

[6] Alphonse De Waelhens and Wilfried Ver Eecke, Phenomenology and Lacan on Schizophrenia: After the Decade of the Brain, (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2001), p.159
[7] Russell Campbell, Marked Women: Prostitutes and Prostitution in the Cinema, (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), p.371

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