Thinking Symbolically: Murder, Matricide, and the Initiation of Boys

Image of Hopi-Tewa Initiation. Artist: Raymond Naha (1933-1975)

Image of Hopi-Tewa Initiation.
Artist: Raymond Naha (1933-1975)

A correspondence last week prompted me to write down some thoughts regarding how to think symbolically about crimes that occur in our society. Without being able to consider unconscious motivations for criminal activity, people can be left endlessly wondering, “Why?!” “Why did that have to happen?” “How could we have stopped it?” Society at large must learn that in addition to conscious motivations for crimes (revenge, money etc.) there are also endless unconscious motivations that can leave everyone confused, including the perpetrator himself. Mentally ill or generally healthy, there are psychological imperatives to growth that must be taken seriously and can take control of one’s life if they are not appreciated. There have been a number of young men in recent history in the States (and elsewhere) who have killed their parents. The exploration of these actual events can provide insight into what the individual was attempting symbolically to actualize. When abuse and violence were not part of the household, a particular motivation is hard to divine. Symbolically speaking, all young men need to find a way to “kill their parents”, to kill the psychological ties to their parents that keep them infantilized so that they can live full, independent lives. This is a critical aspect of development that, if not actualized internally, can literally drive men insane. Young men with no abuse history can be driven mad with frustration and confusion about how to separate completely from their parents, emotionally, economically, and psychologically. This separation of boys from their parents, mothers in particular, was once actualized through ritual initiation ceremonies that once took place in communities all over the world (ceremonies that were archetypally extremely similar, though they could never have been influenced by one another). Boys of around 13 years of age would be taken into the forest or desert, separated from their clan, and be forced to submit to an often painful and terrifying ritual death. Their mothers back in the community would grieve their deaths as if they had actually died. When the boys returned to the villages, they would be transformed and reborn as men. They would psychologically be different, and all of their familiar ties would be altered.

Of course, this doesn’t happen any longer. Social laws protecting children would never allow such a radical form of ritual initiation. But the “archetype of initiation”, which Jungian Analyst Joseph Henderson explores beautifully in his book Thresholds of Initiation, appears in any young person unconsciously when it has not been consciously evoked.

No individual can grow to full adulthood psychologically without some form of radical separation from their parents. I would argue that the journey of Christopher McCandless, depicted in the book and film Into the Wild, chronicles a young man’s attempt to actualize this psychological imperative. Tragically, his own journey ended in his death. What should have been a symbolic death was made literal without proper mentorship and guidance. So many of the travels of young people into the world can be seen in this same light; whether it’s joining the army, or traveling abroad, or hitchhiking across country, or perhaps experiencing a painful internal crisis, the travails of many people in their teens and twenties are related to a deep, unconscious search for physical and psychological independence.

Sometimes, it can take form in an act of violence.

Andrew Solomon wrote an excellent piece for The New Yorker about the father of Adam Lanza, the Connecticut shooter, who killed his mother before his shooting spree at Sandy Hook. According to Solomon:

Matricide is usually committed by overprotected boys—by a son who wishes, as one study puts it, “with his desperate act, to free himself from his state of dependency on her, a dependency that he believes has not allowed him to grow up.”

If one feels that there is no way to wrestle oneself out of dependence on the mother, he may irrationally conclude that the only way to do so is to literally kill her. Again, the symbolic necessity of matricide may become tragically literal if it can not occur within psyche.

The journey to separate from one’s parents can be undertaken through difficult personal trials, a deeply engaging therapeutic experience, and risk taking which need not be related to drugs or violence. This pursuit may indeed be terrifying to one’s parents, but if some trust can be established with them, hopefully the process can find a healthy end in which the young person feels like an adult and not just like they have the external trappings of adulthood. In this process, mature adults, mentors, and a non-punitive society, which allows young people to screw-up without throwing them in prison, is critically helpful.


  1. marla

    Illuminating article! Are there any good practical books that you know of which can guide parents of teens on how to help encourage (or at least recognize and not hinder) this process for both males and females?

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