In Child of God, Cormac McCarthy presents readers with the story of Lester Ballard, a young man abandoned by and expelled from society. Ballard’s is a gothic tale overflowing with depravity, libidinal pressure, necrophilia, and psychopathy, yet it is also a testament to the ways in which a society can create monsters out of men. McCarthy creates an empathy for Lester Ballard via flashbacks and personal discussions between various residents of the fictional Sevier County, Tennessee. Readers are given Ballard’s life, as presented in the book, as an exemplar of the various stages of psychosexual development in Freudian theory, and there are numerous symbolic actions and images within the novel which prove this. While Ballard serves as a disenfranchised, quasi-Everyman with whom readers can identify and sympathize, his horrific actions set him apart as a psychological deviant. Thus, he simultaneously personifies the stages theorized by Freud and showcases the outcome of what occurs when those stages are not traversed completely and/or adequately. Furthermore, the novel proves that, rather than aiding human development, society sometimes makes it impossible for humans to advance psychosexually.
From McCarthy’s anonymous narrator and the town residents, readers learn that Lester Ballard’s mother “had run off” and that his father committed suicide when Lester was very young (21). The novel never explains Ballard’s care or living situation. The information of his parents’ death is delivered by an anonymous townsperson after the reader has been introduced to the adult Ballard. This introduction takes place on Ballard’s property—a property that is being auctioned off for what can be assumed to be a failure to pay taxes (3-8). The interim between the suicide and the auction is largely unaccounted for, but the fact that Ballard is still in possession of his familial homestead suggests that he has been there all along, in the absence of parental figures.
The scene of the elder Ballard’s hanging frames the first image of Lester Ballard presented by McCarthy. The novel states that Ballard “moves in the dry chaff among the dust and slats of sunlight with a strained truculence…Standing in the forebay door he blinks. Behind him there is a rope hanging from the loft” (4). Immediately, readers are shown that Ballard is quite literally living in the shadow of his father’s death. Readers are later informed that Ballard showed no emotion upon seeing his father’s dead body cut down from the barn loft. McCarthy writes, “He stood there and watched, never said nothing [sic]” (21). This is the earliest moment in Lester’s life to which readers are privy, so it marks the birth of the character in the readers’ minds. Ballard’s inability to orally respond to his father’s death is symbolic of his inability to work through the oral phase of his sexual development. Dino Felluga, in his explanation of Sigmund Freud’s theory of sexual development, explains that the initial phase of this development is centered on the “lips and… mouth.” The mother’s breast is the first object of desire in this phase, but it is eventually replaced by the mother herself. Boys incorporate their fathers into this stage—and eventually into their own internal parental authority (or superego) –by imitating the father’s actions. As these feelings of desire for the mother and mimicry of the father grow, boys begin to see that their fathers are competition for their mothers’ affection and comfort. Thus, the Oedipus complex is established: boys wish to possess their mothers in the sexual way that their fathers do, and so they want their fathers “out of the picture.” Realizing that neither of these is a socially acceptable act, boys repress these feelings (Felluga). Ballard’s development is stymied, though. When readers first meet him, his mother is absent, connoting a lack of the familial comfort associated with the oral stage; and his father is dead by his own hands, thus fulfilling, on one hand, the Freudian desire to destroy the father and, on the other, negating Ballard’s ability to overthrow his father on his own. Ballard is left in limbo, with no proper means of finding either the comfort he needs or the feeling of power of overcoming his father. He has no way to work through the Oedipus complex because he has no parents and no apparent substitutions.
To reinforce the novel’s depiction of an unhealthy oral phase, McMarthy creates a graphic scene of animal cruelty enacted by a grotesque child. Ballard visits an acquaintance’s house only to find that the man, Ralph, is gone, but the man’s wife, teenage daughter, and toddler son are home. Previously, Ballard had caught a robin under a cedar tree, and he brings the bird as a “playpretty” for the youngest child (76-77). Billy, the toddler, is described as something aberrant—the narrator questions if the child should even be called such—“a hugeheaded bald and slobbering primate that inhabited the lower reaches of the house, familiar of the warped floorboards,…perennially benastied and afflicted with a nameless crud” (77). The view of the reader is momentarily taken away from Billy while Ballard, the wife, and the girl make small talk. Their talk is interrupted when the girl calls from the other room “I wish you’d looky here Mama” (78). She has returned to find that her younger brother has bitten the feet off of the bird (79). This is a dark example of the oral sexual stage. Billy has learned to attain pleasure and comfort through his lips and mouth, as Felluga paraphrases, but his pleasure is derived from an act of violence. “Ballard grinned uneasily,” the novel tells us, “‘He wanted it to where it couldn’t run off,’ he said” (79). Billy is an expression of Ballard’s younger self, and Ballard seems to understand Billy’s need to take comfort from pain. He knows from the loss of his parents that stability and comfort are fleeting, so he instantly recognizes that the child’s biting off of the bird’s legs is an act to keep the bird from leaving.
Felluga says, “Among those individuals who do not progress properly into the genital phase, the Oedipus Complex, according to Freud, can still be playing out its psychodrama in various displaced, abnormal, and/or exaggerated ways.” These abnormalities appear in numerous horrific ways in Ballard’s story. He is incapable of fulfilling his initial pleasure instincts—the sexual union with his mother and the mimicry/destruction of his father—so he seeks out extreme surrogates to work through the ideas and instincts he has repressed. Freud says:
…the instinct-presentation develops in a more unchecked and luxuriant fashion if it is withdrawn by repression from conscious influence. It ramifies like a fungus, so to speak, in the dark, and takes on extreme forms of expression, which when translated and revealed to the neurotic are bound not merely to seem alien to him, but to terrify him by the way in which they reflect an extraordinary and dangerous strength of instinct. (“Repression” 423)
Ballard’s ways of expressing his desire for his mother are horrendous: he becomes a necrophiliac and a murderer who wears the undergarments and skins of his victims (McCarthy 140, 173). He cannot possess his mother, so he has projected the idea of that possession onto the women he kills. His first foray into necrophilia, though, does not include murder. While hunting on Frog Mountain—the local spot where young couples go parking—Ballard comes across a parked car, its engine still running, on a country road. The two young people in the back seat are in the missionary sexual position, but they are both dead, presumably from the car’s exhaust fumes (85-88). Ballard rolls the man off of the young woman and has sex with the woman’s corpse in the backseat (88-89); he then carries the corpse back to his shack for future use (89-91). This violation of the woman’s body is the “extreme form of expression” discussed by Freud, and it only gets worse from there. Ballard repeatedly has sex with the corpse, and the novel makes it clear that he feels that he has a relationship with this young woman. The narrator says that, during the initial intercourse, “[Ballard] poured into that waxen ear everything he’d ever thought of saying to a woman” (88). He buys her a new dress and new underwear (96-98), brushes her hair (102), and positions her in various ways so that he can gaze upon her through the window of his shack; at times, he sits holding her (103). Even when there is sex, it is not the rampant, rushed variety one might expect from a deviant in lust. Ballard “undress[es] her very slowly, talking to her. Then he pull[s] off his trousers and [lies] next to her” (103). There is an obvious desire for a relationship and a form of comfort. When his shack burns down and the corpse is consumed by the flames, Ballard begins to murder women and to collect multiple bodies (149). He is attempting to recreate his missing family unit, but specifically the relationship with his mother.
The novel contains a few notable moments wherein Ballard’s lack of ability to reconnect with the maternal/feminine are apparent. When he goes to visit Reubel, the dumpkeeper, Ballard walks into “a clearing where two cars lay upturned at either side of the road like wrecked sentinels” (McCarthy 26). This yonic gateway leads to the home of the dumpkeeper and his nine daughters—an allusion to the inspirational Muses of Greek lore. Yet, Ballard finds no inspiration here. Despite his concerted efforts at flirting, he is laughed at by Reubel’s daughter (28-29). The next failed attempt at making a connection with a female is when Ballard visits Ralph’s home and makes advances towards his daughter (118-120). Again, the denial of live female companionship takes place in a domestic sphere to which Ballard will never belong. Ballard is keenly aware of the fact that he is psychosexually stunted, as presented by one of the most moving scenes in the novel. When spring returns after a harsh winter, Ballard sits and watches “two hawks couple and drop, their wings upswept” (169). He hikes into the mountains and watches a man bringing an empty wagon back from town stop to let his mule drink (170). The novel states that he watched not only the coupling of the birds and the tending of the mule by the farmer, but also the gray fields returning to life and “the slow green occlusion that the trees were spreading.” At this point, he squats, hangs his head between his knees, and cries (170). Ballard realizes, perhaps not for the first time, that he has a part neither in the natural coupling of the world nor in the new life it creates.
Ballard’s obsession with his absent mother, however, finds its culmination in his crossdressing and wearing of female flesh. Á la Norman Bates, Lester Ballard tries to recreate his mother by donning the clothing of his victims. He begins to stalk John Greer, the new owner of his confiscated and recently-auctioned house. After a few observations from afar, Ballard attempts to shoot Greer as the new homeowner is digging a spot for a septic tank behind his house. Just as Ballard fires his rifle, Greer raises his shovel, deflecting the shot that was meant to kill him (McCarthy 172). Greer races to the front of his house with Ballard close behind him. As Ballard races into the doorway of his previous home, Greer shoots him. The novel reads, “He looked like something come against the end of a springloaded tether or some slapstick contrivance of the filmcutter’s art, swallowed up in the door and discharged from it again almost simultaneously, ejected in an immense concussion backwards…” (173). This depiction is poignant in that it emphasizes the idea that Ballard has been expelled from a traditional family unit. He has no mother, no father, no true friends, and so he is literally propelled out of the domestic sphere. When he finally gets a good look at Ballard, Greer finds that he is dressed in “skirts” (172) and is wearing a wig “fashioned whole from a dried human scalp” (173). Unable to find a true return to the maternal via these pseudo-relationships with corpses, Ballard constructs the maternal around himself via women’s clothing and women’s skin.
The second stage in Freudian theory, according to Felluga, is the sadistic-anal phase. Felluga says that this phase is “split between active and passive impulses: the impulse to mastery on the one hand, which can easily become cruelty; the impulse to scopophilia (love of gazing), on the other hand.” Furthermore, the pleasure center associated with this phase is “the rectal orifice.” Felluga again paraphrases Freud when he explains that the child’s pleasure is taken from his or her ability to produce something of his or her own—in this case, feces (Felluga). The two main problems encountered in this phase are anal-retentiveness, in which a child attains pleasure by holding in his/her excrement/urine and refusing to release them at appropriate times; and anal-explosiveness, in which a child attains pleasure (and power) by releasing excrement/urine at will and whim (“Three Contributions…” 108-110). It is this second tendency which explains Ballard’s actions. When readers first see Ballard, he is urinating in his open barn (4). Later, after he has been evicted and has taken up residence in an abandoned shack, Ballard bypasses the spot where the outhouse had been and “went behind the barn where he trod a clearing in the clumps of jimson and nightshade and squatted and shat” (13). His ignoring of the conventional and appropriate places to relieve himself foreshadows his future explosive personality. By choosing to urinate in an open barn rather than behind it and to defecate in the weeds rather than in the more socially acceptable remnants of an outhouse, Ballard is expressing his power and control, a same power and control he will wield over his victims in the coming months depicted in the novel.
The novel contains numerous fecal symbols associated with this anal stage. Immediately after the scene with the outhouse, Ballard takes pleasure in cleaning out the waste strewn about his new home. According to the text, “…with a piece of cardboard…he swept up the old newspapers and he swept out the dried dung of foxes and possums and he swept out bits of brickcolored mud fallen from the board ceiling with their black husks of pupae [emphasis added]” (14). When he goes to bed on his worn mattress, he sees the “belly and tail of a blacksnake” hanging from a board over the window. He “prods” it with his finger, at which point it “drop[s] to the floor with a thud” (16). These images either explicitly state or overtly imply fecal matter, and Ballard has no qualms about engaging with them. There are further references to Ballard in a squatting position (91, 107, 137), to Ballard covered in filth from crawling into the mouth of various caves (107, 133) and to Ballard living “in the bowels of the mountain” (135). Even Ballard’s one friend, the dumpkeeper, makes a mention of finding random “piles of rags in a corner. Small lumps of yellow shit wrapped up and laid by” (27). While the transiency of Ballard’s oral psychosexual phase results in his psychopathy, his obsession with the anal phase results in the explosive nature of his murders.
Freud’s third psychosexual phase is the phallic phase, in which the penis (or clitoris) becomes the center of libidinal focus. This phase is marked by a fear of castration brought on by, one, the new focus on the penis as an erogenous zone, and two, the need to limit or control the pleasure principle. The phase also begins the resolution of the Oedipus complex, at which point a child chooses to identify solely with his/her father or mother (Felluga). Ballard’s phallic phase is marked by the absence of his father and his chilling attempt to recreate his mother around himself. Ballard is incapable of typical human sexual interaction, so he uses a phallic symbol—his rifle—to represent his emergent sexuality and his need for a connection to the masculine. When he finds another couple parked, he shoots the man in the neck and makes the girl get out of the car. He turns her to face away from him and then fires into the base of her skull ((McCarthy 150-151). He has, in essence, penetrated the living girl with the bullet from his rifle so that he may have intercourse with her dead body. The rifle is the means by which he attains both the normative act of penetrating a living being and the macabre act (and thus the only one he can fully accomplish) of having sex with a dead body.
This phallic symbol is present in most of Ballard’s scenes, and he constantly carries it in his hand or manipulates it in some way. When he is carrying the first dead girl back to his shack, he has the rifle in his hand (McCarthy 89). The rifle is also there when he stores her in the attic space and when he climbs down the ladder again (101), when he moves into the cave after the burning of his shack (107), and when he traverses the river to set up residence in a cave in a sinkhole in the mountain (158). He pays special attention to the rifle’s upkeep. When he comes home alone at night, he “sits and dries the rifle and ejects the shells into his lap and dries them and wipes the action and oils it and oils the receiver and the barrel and the magazine and the lever and reloads the rifle and levers a shell into the chamber and lets the hammer down and lays the rifle on the floor beside him” (67). This constant handling of the rifle is masturbatory imagery, and masturbation usually begins in this phase of development. Ballard, fearing castration/removal of his power, perpetually reminds himself that his rifle/phallus is still present by keeping it in his hand. The rifle helps him to identify with his father, as it represents the anatomical feature that they share, yet it also helps to shift Ballard’s focus onto the sexual pleasure found in the opposite sex. Freud explains that masturbation causes a fixation on one’s own genitals, but that fixation eventually leads to a focus on the genitals of the opposite sex; thus, it promotes the healthy sexual lifestyle to come in the future (“Three Contributions…” 115). Ballard’s rifle, with its connotations of masturbation, does create his eventual sexual expression, but his expression is unnatural because he never properly participated in the preceding psychosexual stages.
After Ballard is shot and caught, he is taken to the local hospital. There, a mob of angry townsmen come and force him to tell them where he has hidden the bodies of his victims (McCarthy 177-183) He leads them into the caves in the mountains, and he quickly loses them in the labyrinth of turns and crawlspaces (184-185). The problem is that Ballard goes so deep into these unfamiliar chambers that he cannot find his way out. The text reads that he wandered “for three days…in an attempt to find another exit (187). This is symbolic of Freud’s fourth stage of sexual development: the latency period. It is a time marked by a decrease in sexual development and libidinal energy. Dino Felluga says that it also may contain an element Freud called “infantile amnesia:” the repression of early memories found to be too traumatic or overly sexual. Felluga also states that this is a time of overcoming the Oedipus complex by freeing oneself from both parents. This time in the caves is Ballard’s latency period. His flashlight gives out, and he is forced to wander slowly in the darkness (McCarthy 187-188). He eventually finds a smaller cavern in which a single ray of sunshine falls through the ceiling, so he begins to dig through the dirt and rock above him to escape. Ballard’s time in the cave is a symbolic gestation. He has returned to a primordial Mother to restart his developmental process, and the struggle to be reborn—wandering in dark, tight tunnels; clawing and scratching his way into the sunlight—helps him to finally separate from his parental influence. When he emerges from the cave, his rifle is nowhere to be found; this is the first time in a long time that Ballard has been separate from it, and his lack of concern over this fact is telling. Also, he is dressed in men’s clothing for the first time since the middle of the novel—he had left the feminine clothing/flesh behind as well. He walks across fields and hops fences until he finds a road. McCarthy writes, “Seeing that uphill it led toward the mountains he took the other way and soon was hobbling along weak but able, the night being as fine as you could wish and a faint bloom of honeysuckle already on the air” (190). Ballard, who previously would have sought the comfort and distance from society granted by his caves, now chooses to walk towards that society. Another first happens here: McCarthy’s writing takes on a hopeful tone, with the “fine” night, the whiffs of “honeysuckle already on the air” (190), and the roosters of Sevier County “calling” out to each other as if they “sensed a relief in the obscurity of night…” (191). Ballard has found not wholeness but progress. He has moved through the latency period and out of the “obscurity of night” and into a more adult role. This is further symbolized by his brief encounter with a boy riding by in a bus. As the bus “clatter[s] past,” Ballard observes the people in the windows, and
At the last seat in the rear a small boy was looking out the window, his nose puttied against the glass. There was nothing out there to see but he was looking anyway. As he went by he looked at Ballard and Ballard looked back. Then the bus rounded the curve and clattered from sight. Ballard climbed into the road and went on. He was trying to fix in his mind where he’d seen the boy when it came to him that the boy looked like himself. This gave him the fidgets and though he tried to shake the image of the face in the glass it would not go. (McCarthy 191)
Ballard has a face to face encounter with the boy he once was, and the bus quickly moving away as Ballard walks in the opposite direction signifies that he is moving into the adult period of his psychosexual development. Andrew Bartlett, in “From Voyeurism to Archaeology: Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God,” explains it this way:
Previously, Ballard has looked intently at the posters of the wanted in the town post office, perhaps for his own face (McCarthy 55). He has almost touched his own image, Narcissus-fashion, in a pool on the Blount county side of Frog Mountain (127). But not until this relatively random visual confrontation—only relatively, because the church bus is appropriately ironic, and the exceptional boy’s puttied nose directing the vision out the back window instead of straight ahead like all the others is suggestive—not until this mirroring event occurs does the direction of Ballard’s actions change” (14).
Ballard looks for himself among the wanted signs in the post office, but he fails to see himself there amongst the “men of many names” (55) because he is a psychopath who has no idea that he is a psychopath. He fails to see himself in his own reflection because, at that point in the novel, he is still crossdressing and wearing human flesh. It is only after these things have been stripped away by his descent and ascent in the cave that he is able to identify himself. This encounter is so new and disconcerting that it frightens Ballard (“gave him the fidgets”) ; it lingers with him (“it would not go”) long after the other images have faded because it is the truth.
The change from the latency phase into the final genital phase of Freudian psychosexual development is expressed when Ballard makes his way back to the hospital willingly: “I’m supposed to be here,” he says to the nurse (192). This admission marks his first acquiescence to social normalcy—he has accepted his place and goes there of his own volition. Felluga explains that the genital phase is when an individual progresses into a normal sexuality aimed at reproduction and, thus, the continuation of the human race. It is at this point when “the individual enters adulthood and ensures the survival of the species” (Felluga). Ballard enters adulthood by shucking the remnants of his past—his paternal rifle, his maternal clothes and flesh—but he never attains the proper sexual encounter. After his return to the hospital, he is sent to a state mental facility, where he lives for several decades more (193-194). Upon his death, his body is donated to science, and he is “flayed, eviscerated, dissected” (194). He never attains true sexual intimacy with another living being, and thus never fully evolves into what Freud would call the normal sexual aim.
Lester Ballard is a poster boy for Freudian psychosexual development. Each stage of his life presented in the book is representative of one of Freud’s phases, but he also represents what Freud believed would be the outcome for anyone who did not complete each of those phases. Ballard is physically stunted—“small, unclean, unshaven” (4)—and he “never could hold his head right” after he lost a fistfight on the day his home was auctioned (9). His physique serves as a visual representation of his psyche. His inability to properly work through the process of the Oedipus complex leads him to seek sexual gratification in one of the most taboo and socially reprehensible ways possible. His lingering obsession with the anal phase creates the explosive nature exhibited during his murders and the subsequent sexual encounters with his victims. His latency period—the time when these urges are supposed to be repressed or sublimated into acceptable avenues of expression—is the shortest phase represented in the book. It lasts mere days while the others last for years. Thus, while he engages with this phase long enough to allow him to enter into a more logical, adult role, he does not linger there long enough to move into the final adult stage fully. By the end of the book, he is a child still, although a more mature and less aggressive one.
McCarthy’s book repeatedly points out that Ballard is “a child of God much like yourself” (4). It posits that “people are the same from the day God first mad one” (168). Thus, it is societal acceptance or denial which creates what humans are. Is Ballard then a monster created by the society that abandons him, ostracizes him, and hunts him? Or is he a monster from birth because of his inability to move through the stages of his development correctly? The answer is a combination of the two questions. Ballard is a monster because of his inability to progress, but his inability (as represented by the portion of his life observed in the book) is brought about largely by the society in which he lives. Rather than creating the impetus by which he could progress smoothly through these phases, his society hinders him at every juncture. With no real explanation as to why they are doing it, they take Ballard’s homestead (McCarthy 6-7); when he visits his friend the dumpkeeper, he is not invited into the house (37); when he tries to help a woman sleeping on the side of the road, he is attacked and accused of rape (42-43); and the sheriff, aptly named Fate, has a long-standing hatred of Ballard (56). The struggle between the pleasure principle—human desire to attain pleasure or to avoid pain—and the reality principle—the idea that one cannot attain pleasure or avoid pain simply whenever one wishes—is largely created by societal norms (“Civilization…” 774-775). That is, people in a civilized society cannot do what they want whenever they want without consideration for what is acceptable in that society. Thus, social pressures, either those enforced in the home during the oral and anal phases or those enforced by society at large in the later phases, are the stimuli by which humans move through these phases. Lester Ballard receives no such stimuli. He is excommunicated from society, but given no hope of reconciliation. This makes the citizens of Sevier County culpable in Ballard’s destitution. The society has not fulfilled its end of the Freudian bargain, and so Ballard has no way of fulfilling his. The citizens see Lester Ballard as some deviant Other, but in reality they are projecting their own unfulfilled role and social irresponsibility onto him.
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