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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. IX, No. 1
Spring, 1985



One of Louis Sheaffer's many original contributions to our knowledge of the O'Neill family has to do with the dependency of Ella Quinlan O'Neill on morphine: in particular, that as early as about 1914 or 1915, she permanently rid herself of the habit (Sheaffer I 280-281). Given the topic, it is remarkable that any evidence at all exists. The evidence Sheaffer presents must be considered fragmentary and circumstantial, but the conclusions he draws are plausible and persuasive.

Sheaffer learned from Agnes Boulton that Eugene told her that "a few years" earlier his mother had freed herself from a drug addiction. Sheaffer does not say when Agnes heard of her mother-in-law's problem, but a likely time may have been in early March, 1922, just after Ella's death, when, as both Sheaffer and the Gelbs report, Eugene described the family nightmare to Saxe Commins (Sheaffer I 86; Gelb 498), With the floodgates open on the old secret, it may have been the same night that Eugene also told the sad story to his wife. Whenever the conversation took place, Agnes formed the impression that the cure had happened in 1914 or 1915. Drawing inferences from a "flurry of items in the New London newspapers," Sheaffer judges that the time was spring, 1914.

Sheaffer adds that Ella went to a convent, perhaps in Brooklyn, rather than to a sanatorium. Without indicating other sources of information, he concludes that a return to her childhood religion helped Ella where medical treatment had so often failed. It is reason-able that Ella, who disliked and distrusted physicians, might have found a better cure by returning to her faith than going to a hospital. Hospitals had repeatedly ended her physiological dependency, but had not shown her how to tolerate the miseries and frustration of daily life in a difficult family. Something would have had to give her the "will power" to confront the stresses of her life without resuming use of the drug for the remaining eight years of her life.1

At least some events of the ensuing eight years would test the strongest person's resolve. Most notably, in April, 1919, Ella O'Neill underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer (Sheaffer I 440, 441). In addition to tolerating the psychological shock of disfigurement, Ella would almost certainly have been re-exposed, post-operatively, to morphine. That she did not become re-addicted is remarkable. To understand how she withstood re-exposure seems to require a fuller understanding of both her problem and the various factors that may have contributed to its cure.

It may be that physical addiction was not Ella's primary or only problem. While authorities do not agree about an "addictive" or "pre-addictive" personality, they do find certain traits that consistently recur in addicts. Various authors emphasize that addicts tend to meet "conflicts and anxieties about aggression, dependency, and sexuality" passively, "by avoidance rather than by aggressive acts." In the opinion of such experts as Wikler and Rasor, and Nyswander, "opioids suppress the source of certain conflicts and anxieties, permitting the addict to make a passive adaptation to his inner tensions. Addicts seem to take advantage of the powerful action of the drug to mute and extinguish their emotions and to solve, at least in the short run, problems associated with interpersonal questions" (Freedman 1596).2

The conclusions seem aptly to describe the personality of Mary Tyrone as O'Neill portrays her (in Long Day's Journey Into Night); they also fit with most of what we know of Ella O'Neill. It is appropriate to add here that the actress Florence Eldridge, who first played Mary Tyrone, consulted one of the experts just cited, the respected psychoanalyst Marie Nyswander, about the character of Mary. According to Miss Eldridge, Dr. Nyswander believed, on the basis of reading Long Day's Journey, that O'Neill had portrayed a person whose psychopathology extended beyond her addiction (Eldridge 286-287).3 In childhood, Sheaffer tells us, Eugene accounted for his mother's erratic behavior with the belief that she was "mentally unstable" (Sheaffer I 80); and in adult life, the numerous portraits of Ella that fill the plays show that her son did not change his mind.

Sheaffer asks, most poignantly, the question that plagued Eugene and the other O'Neills for the remainder of their lives: "If she could free herself after all these years, after the habit had its claws into her so deeply, why couldn't she have succeeded at the start, before she had bequeathed him a legacy of lifelong guilt feelings?" (Sheaffer I 280). No matter when the cure took place, we require a fuller explanation to account for the ability Ella found in 1914 or after, but not before, to return to her Catholicism and end her addiction.4

The following thoughts may add a little to our understanding of the problem. In the spring of 1914, Ella would have been about 56 years old. She ought to have completed her menopause by then, and thus would be free from fear of pregnancy, a condition she dreaded. Her younger son wrote in a private autobiographical document (printed in Sheaffer II 510-512) that she had had a "series of brought-on abortions" between the death of the second child, Edmund, and the conception of himself. Sheaffer emphasizes that Ella wanted no more children after the death of Edmund, and carried Eugene to term with great reluctance (e.g., Sheaffer I 4, 19, 21).

Eugene could not help but be a biased witness; nevertheless, keeping alert to his interest in the matter, we must continue to listen to his testimony. He portrays Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey as a woman whose thoughts, under the influence of morphine, consistently revert to a time before her marriage when her most important relations were with nuns at her convent, and where she dreamed of a celibate life as a nun. Nothing in her recollections of childhood suggests she looked forward to becoming a mother, and little in her relations with her sons or husband suggests anything but aversion to maternity and its obligations.

O'Neill clearly connects his mother's drug use to her aversion to maternity and to a complex response toward her own sexuality. Late in Act IV of Long Day's Journey he has Edmund ask in a childlike way for his mother to acknowledge the severity of his illness and give him the comfort he craves. In so doing he "grabs her arm." Her reaction is most striking: she appears to believe that someone has made a sexual overture to her for "her expression becomes terrified," she gives "a command to herself, No!" and then retreats into her morphine-induced detachment, seeming to regard Edmund not as her son but as a strange adult, and herself a convent girl. "You must not try to touch me," she tells the stranger, her son. "You must not try to hold me. It isn't right. I am hoping to be a nun." Nothing in the context suggests any other possible origin of an improper thought or act than her own mind. In a certain sense, it must be her own thoughts, apparently sexual thoughts, that terrify her, and cause her to retreat even more deeply into narcosis.

It is consistent with the episode in Act IV that O'Neill also shows her, while under the influence of morphine, avoiding her husband's bed by sleeping in the spare room when she is using the drug, a fact to which her sons pay particular attention. In her final speech of Act IV she says she was "shocked" that Holy Mother advised her to go home and live "as other girls lived, going out to parties and dances," rather than remaining for-ever in the convent as she then wished to do. Another portrait of Ella, as Emma in the underrated Diff'rent (1920), shows the emergence of a kind of psychosis at two stages in a woman's life when her sexual fear and fascination erupt. Christine Mannon and Deborah Harford, both partly modeled on Ella, mingle a virginal quality with overtly incestuous behavior. Numerous other portraits in the plays repeat the pattern her son perceived.

The private autobiography and various plays clearly convey O'Neill's belief that his mother dreaded pregnancy and its consequences and suggest that she habitually thought of herself as a virginal convent girl. The aversion to maternity seems to have been related to a highly complex attitude toward her sexuality. One way that Ella apparently controlled terribly troublesome conflicts about her sexuality and especially her fear of pregnancy was apparently to use morphine, and when she no longer had to fear pregnancy, she was able to give up the drug.5

--Stephen A. Black


Eldridge Eldridge, Florence. "First Curtain Call for Mary Tyrone." In O'Neill: A World View. Ed. Virginia Floyd. New York: Ungar, 1979, pp. 286-287.
Freedman Freedman, Albert M., M.D. "Opiate Dependence." In Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry III, Vol. 2, 3rd ed. Ed. Harold Kaplan, M.D., et al. Baltimore and London: Williams and Wilkins, 1980, pp. 1591-1614.
Gelb Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill, enlarged ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.
Sheaffer I Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill: Son and Playwright. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968.
Sheaffer II Sheaffer, Louis. O'Neill: Son and Artist. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973.

1 We do not know how long Ella's periods of abstinence lasted following her medical cures. The currently standard summary of the topic, "Opiate Dependence" by Albert M. Freedman, M.D., states that although withdrawal symptoms of "the abstinence syndrome" are intense for only 2 or 3 days, and are "generally milder than the dramatic depictions of cold-turkey withdrawal," the symptoms may persist for 6 months or longer (Freedman 1604). Recurring symptoms of withdrawal of whatever intensity would be immediately relieved by resumption of the drug, only to return when the immediate dose wore off. It may be that Ella's periods of abstinence were simply not long enough to permit her to become completely free from the influence of the drug. But the matter of her low tolerance for distress would surely play a part in her resumptions.

2 Freedman's article exemplifies a problem of multidisciplinary studies--that experts tend to find persuasive conclusions that stem from their particular points of view, but which may not fit with the equally persuasive conclusions of other disciplines. When discussing the pharmacology of addiction, animal studies are adduced to support the conclusion that anyone at all may become addicted if exposed to a narcotic (Freedman 1597). However, "Interpersonal, Familial, Developmental, Psychodynamic" considerations (1595-1596) lead to the some-what different conclusion cited in my text.

A recent work which disputes the "exposure" theory is Bruce K. Alexander and Patricia F. Hadaway, "Opiate Addiction: The Case for an Adaptive Orientation," Psychological Bulletin, 92:2 (1982), 367-381. I am grateful to my former student Jim Janz for referring me to this article.

3 See also Geraldine Fitzgerald's complementary view of the character, "Another Neurotic Electra," also in Floyd, pp. 290-292.

4 The passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 must be considered as possible additional confirmation of Sheaffer's date. The act restricted the sale of such nostrums as Dr. Barton's Brown Mixture, and Dover's Powders, which contained opium, and which are believed to have made addicts of huge numbers of white middle class American women from Civil War times to 1914 (Freedman 1592). However, O'Neill shows Mary Tyrone obtaining prescriptions from physicians to satisfy her needs, so the evidence for the date remains inconclusive.

5 My wife, Sylvia A. Thorpe, Ph.D., lent me her expertise and experience as a clinical-psychologist during several conversations about Mrs. O'Neill's difficulties; however, she is not responsible for my conclusions or my possible errors.



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