Demeter and Persephone: A Prime Example of Borderline Personality Disorder in a Mother and Daughter Relationship

Demeter and Persephone:  A Prime Example of Borderline Personality Disorder in a Mother and Daughter Relationship

Growing up with a mother who has Borderline Personality Disorder can wreak havoc on the child’s psyche.

In her book, Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable and Volatile Relationship, Christine Ann Lawson states, “Children who grow up with borderline mothers live in a make-believe world that is neither fiction nor fantasy. Borderland is an emotional world where loving mothers resemble storybook characters (Lawson 4).”

Indeed, they do.

Boundaries are rarely drawn, emotional crosses are either hidden or are too heavy to bear, and a child is often left wondering what behavior will incite praise or pique. As a child of a borderline parent, it is rarely clear how one should act in the presence of the mother, as even the slightest infraction can result in what feels like an irrevocable exile from the mother’s heart. Growing up with a borderline parent often means that the “children in Borderland are puzzled by the contradictions of their world and live on the fine line between sanity and insanity (Lawson 5).”

Or, in other words, on that fine line between the lush world of growth and harvest and the dark underworld of death and decay. In the case of Demeter and Persephone, we have a ripe example of what it means to grow up with a borderline mother and the consequences of her often overbearing, over-possessive love of her progeny. The focus on her child as the resource for all of her happiness, emotional stability, indeed, for her entire existence, places undue stress on the child of the borderline. A stress that can feel insurmountable and inescapable without dire consequences to the fragile borderline mother who’s greatest fear is not of death, but of abandonment.

Borderline mothers are likely to have suffered some kind of major loss or neglect as a child, which feeds into their erratic and unpredictable behavior as adults. We see this clearly in the case of Demeter’s tragic, motherless upbringing. As a newborn, she is swallowed by her father Cronus and is never exposed to a proper mother/daughter relationship. Not only that, but she spends her developmental years in the belly of her father, a kind of underworld in and of itself. Cronus swallows his brethren out of fear, literally ingesting them to keep them hidden in the only place he deems safe – within his own body. Once full grown, her escaped brother, Zeus, saves her and her other siblings by feeding Cronus a potion that makes him vomit all his children. As a reaction, Demeter sets off to have a daughter to relive and enjoy the mother/daughter relationship she so craves.

She summons Zeus, for a one-night stand, surely knowing that copulation without procreation is unheard of in the world of the gods. She bears her daughter, Persephone, and literally raises her without involvement, or even mention, of her ancestry. It is almost as if she gives birth immaculately, keeping Persephone entirely for herself and engrossing herself in her daughter, making her an extension of her own being rather than allowing Persephone to flower as her own, independent goddess. As an example of a borderline mother, Demeter “invests enormous effort in preventing abandonment, and family members (Persephone) may feel suffocated, intimidated and controlled (Lawson 14).” It is clearly Demeter’s hope that Persephone and she remain together locked in this indistinguishable mother/daughter enmeshment.

But, the inevitable occurs: Persephone grows up. Having lived a life engrossed in her mother’s eternal spring and knowing only sunshine, Persephone is finally presented with a different life – probably the only one she could safely lead away from her mother. In the woods with several other young maiden goddesses, Persephone encounters a beautiful Narcissus flower. Not knowing that it had sprung there upon Zeus’ agreement to marry her off to the adoring god of the underworld, Hades, Persephone plucked the flower and a chasm opened up underneath her. It swallowed here then and there, and she was wiled away to the underworld to be Hades’ consort.

The myths tell the story in a few different ways – some say her grandmother, Gaia, put the flower there. Some say that Venus planted it out of jealousy. All agree that whatever happened in regards to the flower, after Persephone picked it, she was no longer in the earthly realm. In viewing this from a BPD perspective, one might ask, “Where else could Persephone have gone to escape her mother’s grasp and be her own woman?” Because the “borderline’s emotional thermostat consists of two settings: on and off (Lawson 21).” If Persephone ever wished to leave her mother’s overbearing and overprotective grasp, it would require cutting her off completely. This is actually often the prescribed remedy for how to deal with a borderline parent.

In Surviving a Borderline Parent: How to Heal Your Childhood Wounds and Build Trust, Boundaries & Self-Esteem, authors Kimberlee Roth and Freda Friedman suggest:

For some adult children, not having any involvement with a parent is the easiest answer. They may not know exactly how to set limits with their parent, or their limits may be continually tested and breached. They find it easier to sever ties (Chapter 6, Section 2, Paragraph 1).

For those with a borderline parent, the opportunity to know oneself largely can only exist outside of the entangled relationship. The child becomes the focus of the parent’s adoration and rage, with little to no warning as to when the switch between one or the other will occur. Children of borderlines remain locked in stasis, often unable to express themselves or their emotions fully for fear that it will trigger the darker side of mom’s errant personality. “Adult children raised by a parent with BPD likely have a hard time trusting their own perceptions, their own judgment, their emotions and knowing what’s normal (Roth & Friedman, Chapter 9, Section 2, Paragraph 1),” and so in order to break from the so-called reality dominated and determined by an overbearing parent with Borderline Personality Disorder, the child must run from borderland to a safe location where he or she cannot be touched by the unstable guardian. In Persephone’s case, picking the flower – whether knowingly or unknowingly – may actually have resulted in the best possible scenario for her own development and well-being.

As Persephone is dragged down to Hades’ realm of the underworld, she is safely out of her mother’s grasp. She finally gets to be the queen of her own domain and as the myths largely describe, Hades’ clearly adores her and defers to her as his queen. She holds dominion in this new world, and eventually comes to eat of it’s fruits, as Hades “secretly gave her sweet pomegranate seed to eat, taking care for himself that she might not remain continually with grave, dark-robed Demeter (Evelyn-White).” Now, whether Hades secretly fed her this potent fruit, or she ate it of her own accord makes no matter. She belongs to the netherworld where her mother can never go unbidden. She is safe from Demeter’s cloying, smothering grasp.

Demeter, however, is absolutely lost without her daughter. In anguish, she banishes herself into the form of an old woman, casting aside any desirous aspects of herself as a symbol of her bereft state. Above all things, borderlines fear abandonment and go to great, sometimes terrifying lengths to avoid it at all costs. When Demeter is abandoned by Persephone, it is as if her own life ceases to exist. Without a process of mourning and by living in complete denial, she wanders the earth in search of her daughter, and as punishment to the heavens and earth for this abandonment, she abandons her duties as the progenitor of all crops and harvest.

It does not matter that the earth starves. Demeter does not care, so long as she is bereft of her beloved daughter. In Persephone’s absence, Demeter eventually turns her attention to the son of King Celeus, the lord of Eleusis. As she focuses on a new surrogate son, she tries desperately to cling to him as she did to her Persephone. In order to erase the deep-seated abandonment invoked by the loss of Persephone, Demeter tries ensuring this new son will live forever. She begins a nightly ritual, unbeknownst to the parents, of placing the baby boy in a fire in order to burn away his mortality. When confronted by the rightful mother of her sadistic ritual, Demeter reveals herself in all her godly glory and is furious with the mother for challenging her.

This reaction is typical of what Lawson would classify of a Queen mother, drawing the similarity to the Red Queen of the Alice and Wonderland Tales who would settle difficulties with a cry of “Off with his head!” (106). Queen mothers like Demeter “expect her children to dress the part, to reflect her importance (Lawson 108).” They demand that their children compliment their own existence to a tee, and so the newly fostered baby boy must be an immortal like her. To deny that perceived right to Demeter is an affront to her sense of self, and so she automatically devalues, demeans or punishes those who stand in the way of this perfect image of herself. When the baby boy’s mother does this, she then condemns the city to ever-lasting wars, saying they can only be abated by consistent rituals in her honor…which of course, she will teach them.

These kinds of grandiose demands and displays of dramatic power are hallmark of Queen mothers who are quick to “emotionally sacrifice their children. Their children may go to their graves protecting her” just as Persephone literally went to the underworld as an escape from Demeter (Lawson 118). In fact, this young baby boy grows quickly, but is never at ease because “he was not comforted, because nurses and handmaids much less skillful were holding him now (Evelyn-White).” Furthermore, a borderline queen’s insatiable desire for admiration and attention can never be fulfilled, though her grown children will often try.

In their attempts to quell the Queen’s fire, grown children will often sacrifice their own health, well-being, intimate relationships, and in Demeter’s case, real live pigs (for the Eleusynian mysteries) in order to try and placate the insatiable needs of this kind of borderline parent. The gods even go so far as to compromise with Demeter, as the “borderline’s fear of abandonment can lead to tragically desperate acts (Lawson 122)” and she continues to exact a price so great that they eventually bend to her will. Demeter withholds the harvest and any further growth until her lost Persephone is returned to her. No sacrifice can do it. No appeal from Zeus can do it. Demeter stops at nothing to have the mirror of her importance – her daughter Persephone – returned to her.

Finally, the compromise is reached. Zeus agrees to appeal to Hades to have Persephone rise from the underworld back to her mother. But, before she leaves, she eats of the pomegranate fruit – a fruit long associated with fertility – and becomes irrevocably attached to the underworld forever. Myths largely tell of this eating of the pomegranate seeds as an act of deviousness on the part of Hades to make sure Persephone would return to him. We might ask if it was an act of deviousness on the part of Persephone to make sure she would not remain forever in the clutches of her mother who would demand that she “relinquish her own needs for hers (Lawson 108).” Persephone undoubtedly found some freedom, respect and ownership in the underworld, whereas her own existence in the face of her mother was unfailingly diminished. Ensuring her attachment to the underworld, Persephone returns to Demeter.

When Demeter asks if Persephone ate anything, she is dismayed to hear of the pomegranate seeds. It means that her daughter cannot remain in her clutches forever. They can only spend half the year with one another. During the other half, Persephone returns to her own life and post as the Queen of the Underworld. This is a life that her mother can never understand, and never be a part of. Still infuriated by this forced separation, Demeter causes the half of the year without her daughter to be barren, while the spring signifies the reuniting of the two. With this compromise, Persephone has successfully drawn clear, unmovable boundaries with Demeter. Perhaps this is the only real way to have any kind of successful relationship with a borderline parent, particularly the queen borderline mother. As Christine Lawson states:

Attempting to separate from the Queen mother can cause volcanic eruptions. The Queen mother and her children are like tectonic plates along a geological fault line. Once belonging to the same whole, they are separated by a fine line that is vulnerable to tremendous strain and pressure. Although nothing can be done to prevent such disasters, adult children can learn to predict that their occurrence will coincide with attempts at separation (253).

Quite literally, a natural disaster occurs at every separation of Demeter and Persephone. Demeter sees Persephone’s attempts at individuation as aggression and reacts by denying the world its bountiful fruits. Everyone must suffer in cold, darkness and hunger with this particular Queen mother. Persephone has made successful light of this darkness, however, by becoming Queen of the underworld. She is the master of her domain, far from where her borderline mother can reach her and safely out of bounds from her cloying grasp. While many children have great difficulty navigating any kind of relationship with a borderline parent, Persephone has actually created the best kind of relationship: one with strong, impermeable boundaries, and one in which she gets to lead her own life, “learning to serve and mirror her own ego (Lawson 262)” instead of her mother’s, and affirming her own individuality as separate from her mother’s.

Works Cited

Borderline Personality Disorder. N.p.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Print. National Institute of Mental Health.

“Hymn To Demeter.” Hymn To Demeter. Trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Loeb Classical Library, n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. <>.

Lawson, Christine Ann. Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 2000. Print.

Roth, Kimberlee, and Freda B. Friedman. Surviving a Borderline Parent: How to Heal Your Childhood Wounds & Build Trust, Boundaries, and Self-esteem. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2003. Print.