BACK STORY — THE ENGINE OF THE UNCONSCIOUS, By Art Smukler, author & psychiatrist

Remember how tasty and comforting it was to be breast fed? How you fought and yelled when you had to stop pooping in your diaper and had to use the potty?

You don’t remember?

No worries.

99.99 percent of us have no clue as to what happened before age 5. What’s left of that distant past are only shadows and vague innuendoes (psychiatrists call them screen memories), but because we’re walking the streets in our big boy pants, we can assume that toilet training was a rousing success. Also, as a well deserved aside, the male obsession with breasts is also connected with those early not-remembered experiences.

What if, like Joe Belmont, in Chasing Backwards, you had to spend a year in a pediatric hospital, or like Tom Wingo, in Prince of Tides, your father’s brutal behavior haunted you on a daily basis or like Henry Skrimshander, in The Art of Fielding, your father’s critical perfectionism almost ruined you? And what if all those traumatic experiences were only vaguely remembered or not remembered at all?

Most of us weren’t extraordinarily traumatized, but just average kids trying to survive a strange and unfamiliar world. But since all parents are imperfect, every one of us has been to some degree wounded.

Our forgotten past, the Back Story that occurred before we could think clearly, is often the real story. It is the engine that gives us passion or takes our passion away. It is the engine that drives writers to write, physicians to heal, teachers to teach, mechanics to fix and on and on and on.

Art Smukler MD is the author of Skin Dance, a mystery, Chasing Backwards, a psychological murder mystery, The Man with a Microphone in his Ear, and the blog, Inside the Mind of a Psychiatrist.


The saint I’m referring to is Theresa Belmont, my main character’s mother (In Chasing Backwards). The anger towards “the saint” is one of the novel’s driving forces. Sometimes I feel a little guilty about that anger, but most of the time I just accept it — no problems. Sometimes I even enjoy it.

One of my favorite author’s, Pat Conroy, is a genius when it comes to mothers. In Prince of Tides, his opening lines in the first chapter are awesome.

“It’s your mother,” Sallie said, returning from the phone.

“Tell her I’m dead,” I pleaded. “please tell her I died last week, and you’ve been too busy to call.”

“Please speak to her, she says it’s urgent.”

“She always says it’s urgent. It’s never urgent when she says it’s urgent.”

How can there be such anger towards someone so important? She gave us life and had ultimate power over our ability to survive. We weren’t like little colts who stand immediately after birth. Without intense care, we wouldn’t make it. And it gets even more complicated. In this breast driven society, the image of suckling at your mother’s breast is horrifying to most men (I don’t think women see it exactly that way). Yet horrifying as it may be, from puberty on, our fantasies of breasts and all parts of female anatomy are common obsessions (very pleasant obsessions).

Ambivalence, a combination of love and hate, are common feelings towards dear old mom. There’s no way that anyone can be perfect, including mothers. It’s not possible.

For a writer, the essence of great fiction is conflict. Ambivalence is wonderful! Loving and hating the same person is what it’s all about. It happens in our fiction and it happens in our lives. Wiggling out of impossible, conflictual situations, makes great reading and gives us a chance to learn how we can deal with the difficult problems that present in our own lives.

Thanks, Mom.