The Individuation of Adrienne Porter

Laura Lax

Jung defines the collective unconscious as a shared part of humanity’s psyche in which exist certain archetypes based on collective human experience, represented by consistent imagery which appears in art and dreams throughout human history. It is differentiated from the personal unconscious in that while the collective unconscious is inherited and shared by all, the personal unconscious is acquired via individual experience and unique to each person (56-57). This is a fundamental aspect of Jungian psychology.

Within the collective unconscious exist specific archetypes which must be in balance with each other and with the conscious psyche in order for a person to achieve individuation, or to become “whole” and live in a balanced state where neither the conscious nor the unconscious is repressed (Fordham 77). This wholeness signifies a sort of enlightenment; the ultimate knowing of oneself so that one can achieve ultimate discovery of self and purpose. Not everyone achieves individuation (or even desires to) but for those who try it is often an arduous journey of self-discovery.

This is the journey which is represented in Lorrie Moore’s A Terrific Mother. Adrienne begins the story in a frightfully unhappy place, having just experienced the unthinkable: the accidental death of an infant at her hands. Much in the way that she is flipped onto the ground by the rotten wood of the picnic bench, her entire psyche is upended by the death of the newborn she held; this trauma begins a journey of reluctant self-discovery in which she metaphorically regresses to childhood and then once more becomes an adult as the individual pieces of her psyche finally fall into balance. Adrienne’s journey demonstrates that the pursuit of individuation, whether we set out to discover it intentionally or are forced onto the road with no other choice in the matter, is not a burden to accept lightly; it very well may drive us to the brink of insanity, and only if that precipice can be carefully and softly trodden do we have a chance of catching our balance and becoming whole.

Adrienne’s moment of trauma is the catalyst for her journey, but it is not the beginning; at 35 she begins to be watched as she holds babies and so it makes her uncomfortable to do so. She has no children, but society thinks that by this age she should, so she feels like they are observing her — grading her on her potential motherliness. Because of this scrutiny, holding a baby is “no longer natural” and she equates it with “womanliness and earthly skills” (Moore 2). She has entered the years in which people are trying to pigeonhole her into the Mother archetype by emphasizing her waning fertility (Jung 90) but she, ironically, is moving out of it.

The beginning of the story is where we see the start of the imbalance of Adrienne’s animus, this subtle shift represented by her sudden discomfort with holding babies. When she loses her grip on the baby and he dies, this much less subtle event signifies a complete loss of the control a woman must have over her “male principle” (Fordham 56) in order to achieve a centeredness of “self” (Fordham 63). The self is often represented in Jungian theory as a child (Fordham 64) and therefore the loss of the baby symbolizes Adrienne’s loss of self. After this event she becomes much more controlled by her animus as she begins to completely reject the feminine role of caretaker and becomes, instead, the cared-for, somewhat regressing into the role of a child herself.

Adrienne’s loss of self is further exemplified by lapses in her persona. She tells Martin, “Normal life is no longer possible for me. I’ve stepped off all the normal paths and am living in the bushes. I’m a bushwoman now.” She feels “big, like a beefy killer in a cage” and describes her own hand as “something murderous and huge” (Moore 4). These are responses to her trauma — she has done the unthinkable and broken that which is most fragile, despite doing everything she could to prevent it — but they also represent the encroachment upon her psyche of her shadow, the “uncontrolled, animal part” (Fordham 49) of herself. This is a definitive shift from the persona she exhibits at the picnic when she coos at the baby and acts as though she is perfectly motherly (Moore 2).

It is actually in Martin that we see the Mother archetype that Adrienne’s peers had tried so hard to find in her, as Adrienne sinks into a depression and Martin becomes her caretaker. Hinting at his own unbalanced self with the overt presentation of his anima, he makes sure that she eats and, in his monumental effort to shake Adrienne out of her depression, even offers to marry her so that she can accompany him to Italy. He even falls for a moment into the negative aspect of the Great Mother archetype, which can lead to feeling that everyone around oneself is “helpless or dependent” (Fordham 61): “‘I’m going to marry you, whether you like it or not… I’m going to marry you until you puke’” (Moore 4). The assertion is meant facetiously — Martin’s words are spoken as he disrobes and treats Adrienne gently — but Adrienne is psychologically in no position to decline, even in jest.

As Adrienne becomes more childlike (“Whales got my crystal”) Martin begins to pull out of the caretaker position he has created for himself. “He’d been better when they were just dating, with the pepper cheese” (Moore 5), she laments as they arrive in Italy and he begins to treat her indifferently. This is not solely Martin’s doing, however, as Adrienne also projects her own behavioral changes on him — it is not only that he is becoming less capable of understanding her, but also that she is becoming more erratic and difficult to understand as she continues to regress into childlike behavior.  Martin does not consistently retreat from his self-assigned caretaker role, but alternately pulls back and then reasserts himself, refusing Adrienne’s request for a divorce immediately after needing to be cajoled into complimenting her dress (Moore 6-7). Similarly, Adrienne does not fall headlong into a childlike state, but is one moment childlike and the next not, such as looking for an opportunity to show off new knowledge in the company of the academics (Moore 6) and killing spiders as an art project (Moore 7) not long before astutely coming to the realization that Martin “needs” her (Moore 8). This back and forth on the parts of both Adrienne and Martin exemplifies the difficulty of forward progress; growth is not a straight line, but a progression of hills and valleys.

Adrienne’s full regression into a childlike state happens at the hands of Ilke, the American masseuse. Her first visit to Ilke takes place in a “baby’s room” (Moore 15), the back room of Ilke’s business, decorated with clouds, stars, and snowflakes, and gently lit with a blue light. As Adrienne climbs naked onto the massage table, Brahms’ lullaby plays from the speakers, and she realizes that she is to “become an infant again” (Moore 16). Ilke becomes, in this moment, a mother figure to Adrienne, replacing Martin in the caretaker role. This role lasts for significantly less time for Ilke than for Martin, however, as Adrienne goes through a rebirthing process during this first massage; Ilke is briefly a mother figure before becoming a representation of regrowth, as what began as a calming and nurturing experience becomes, at least for Adrienne, almost sexual (Moore 16). She even feels more adult as she exits the building and buys ice cream, comparing the liqueur-like ice cream of Italy with the cookie-filled ice cream of America (Moore 17).

Adrienne experiences a metaphorical maturation in successive massages until finally, in her second-to-last encounter, as the imagery of sexuality replaced that of infancy, imagery of infirmity and death replaces that of sexuality (Moore 23-24). She meets metaphorical death naked and vulnerable in the field near her studio in a representation of a funeral rite, surrounded by grass and staring at the sky in an echo of the death of the Spearsons’ baby (Moore 26). She has only one last brief appointment with Ilke after this, filled with imagery of witches, ghosts, and vampires – imagery of things which have no right to exist, echoing Adrienne’s discomfort at returning to Ilke when she no longer needs to and thus has no place there.

It is after this last appointment that she discovers that Martin has also been seeing Ilke, and the conversation runs much in the vein of the discovery of an affair – but it is her relationship with Ilke over which Adrienne is protective, not her relationship with Martin. It is in this instance, with Martin deflated and in tears, that he is fully relieved of the caretaker role. Adrienne, however, does not take up this mantle. She comforts him, but she does not mother him, as she has finally managed to balance her psyche, forgive herself, and achieve individuation.

Adrienne’s journey to become whole begins with the death of a newborn. In order to overcome her trauma, she feels the need to metaphorically travel the same road that the Spearsons’ baby did, regressing through childhood to birth before “dying” and being reborn a fully actualized adult. It is only after this brush with insanity and psychological rebirth that she is able to return to life as a functional, and perhaps more enlightened, human being.

Works Cited

“Chapter 7: Minding the Work: Psychological Criticism.” Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory, by Steven Lynn, Pearson, 2016, pp. 195–219.
Fordman, Frieda. An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology. Penguin, 1953.
Jung, C. G. Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 9 (Part 1). Edited by Gerhard Adler. Translated by Hull R F C., Princeton University Press, 2014.
Moore, Lorrie. “Terrific Mother.” The Paris Review, 1992, pp. 3–31,


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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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