Only a Mother’s Love

When ‘gangstas’ break the circle of violence.

By Kurt Shaw

Working with street children, gangsters, and thieves, I’ve had ample opportunity to see any number of tattoos. Among all of the words and images that young people choose to inscribe on their bodies, I have noticed one common thread among Crips and Bloods in New York, sicarios in Medellín, and gang members in Brazil. One message stands out among all of the rest, perhaps best expressed in a tattoo I saw in the Brazilian city of Recife last year: “Amor só de mãe:” Only a mother’s love.1

Most essays on crime and violence try to use academic knowledge to solve the problems of the inner city or the shantytown, but here I want to do the opposite. When we put the phrase “Only a mother’s love” in dialogue with the psychoanalytic and theological traditions, we see that “gangstas”2 have something to teach the academy—and the broader society. In their thought about mothers and love, they have discovered an important route out of postmodern violence.

Last August, during a workshop in Argentina, I taught a young man—once a street kid and petty thief—how to make documentary films.3 As the central symbol of his movie, Alejandro chose the passage through the sewers under the city of Córdoba, where he and his friends had always fled “after we swiped old ladies’ purses.” He managed to escape this tunnel—both the literal and the metaphorical one—only after his mother became ill. “Because of the things I was doing—things that make me feel awful now, bad things I was doing like robbing and sniffing glue—she suffered an aneurism in her brain,” he said. “If something worse had happened, I don’t know if I would have been able to forgive myself for doing that to her.” The break with his past—the moment when he “came out into the light,” as he puts it in his video—emerged only when he saw how his actions had made his mother suffer.

Amparo, a conflict mediator in the Kennedy neighborhood of Medellín, in Colombia, told me a similar story. In her neighborhood, the gang leader was Jhonny, a killer and dealer of the worst kind, but a man with a great and sincere affection for his mother. He bought one thing after another for her: clothes, household appliances, and a house. Jhonny knew that what he was doing wasn’t good, but everything he did was to improve his mother’s life. Amparo met Jhonny’s mother through a neighborhood association, and began talking to her about life in the neighborhood, about violence, justice, and exclusion. Amparo found out that Jhonny’s mother didn’t like what her son was doing, but she didn’t want to criticize him because she thought that she could lose her son if she did so. Aware of how her own life had changed after she read Gandhi’s autobiography, Amparo gave a copy of the book to Jhonny’s mother.

In the following weeks, Amparo and Jhonny’s mother talked about Gandhi, reflecting on the possibility of fighting against violence with peace and ethics. Jhonny’s mother admitted that she was part of the problem: after all, her accepting his presents encouraged her son to lead the unjust life of a criminal and a killer—it was the act that offered expiation, or at least justification, for his sins. Mother’s Day, perhaps the most important holiday in Medellín, arrived, and Jhonny came over in the morning with a special present for his mother: an expensive gold watch. The mother gathered her courage and said: “I don’t want it, my dear son. But when you bring me a present that you earn with your own sweat, that will be the best day of my life.”

Jhonny, the brutal gang boss, cried loudly enough for the whole neighborhood to hear. Within a week, he left the gang and went abroad, where he is now the director of a conflict resolution program for youth. He writes to his mother from his new home.

While working with children and teenagers from the most violent favelas of Recife, Brazil, I was stunned by their ability to memorize long and complex rap lyrics. One of the songs that every child knew was “Desculpa Mãe” (“Forgive me, Mother”), by the group Facção Central, which includes these lines: “I don’t deserve the tear that runs down your cheek/When you see the table empty for dinner . . . /Forgive me, Mother, for stealing the smile from your lips.”

Whether among gangstas in Brazil, hired killers in Colombia, or thieves in Argentina, a mother’s love is a force capable of transforming her son. I want to show here that this love is also the force that constitutes the ethical subject.

The gangsta life promises a direct path to what the French psychoanalytic tradition calls jouissance (badly translated in English as “enjoyment”): the pleasures of drugs, of promiscuous sex, and of other people’s fear and respect. What strikes me most about this criminal jouissance, however, is that its pleasures do not emerge from the traditional dynamic of desire and satisfaction, but from the more perverse Freudian logic of the Treib, the drive. For Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek, the difference between desire and drive lies in their relationship with the mysterious thing—whatever it may be—that inspires and centers what I want. With the drive, one gains access to jouissance exactly through the failure to get the desired object, by the endless circulation around it.4 Think of the shopping mall: buying more and more commodities isn’t about having, but about the strange joy of returning home, and then several days later saying: “You know, this isn’t exactly what I wanted. Let’s go back to the mall.”

Teenage heroin addicts have told me that the first time they used the drug, it was like arriving in paradise, but that every other time they used the drug, it was merely a vain attempt to recapture that first experience. What turns the drug into an addiction isn’t so much physiology as ritual: surreptitious buying, cleaning the needle, tying the band on the arm—and always knowing that it isn’t going to work, that the paradise of the first experience will never happen again. At first, the jouissance comes from the heroin, but after that it comes from the failure of the drug, the constant, pointless circulation around the object, like a planet trapped by the gravity of a black hole.

Gang life plays by the same rules, finding its jouissance in the failure of drugs, power, and sex. The Comando Vermelho—the most powerful drug mafia in Rio de Janeiro—takes as its slogan “the right side of the errant life” (“O lado certo da vida errada“), a powerful description of the drive. “Errant” means wrong and failed, but it still preserves traces of its original meaning as “wandering” or “lost,” like the knight errant or the judeu errante.5 The “right side of the errant life” means that one finds his jouissance in the act of erring, in the vain and wandering circulation around the absent or unattainable object that inspires desire.

If we frame this issue in theological terms—a language in which gang members would feel more comfortable than in that of Lacanian psychoanalysis—we might say that the gangsta sins much in order to escape original sin. The gun offers almost unlimited power to a child or teenager, providing the delusion of omnipotence, as does the easy road to bliss provided by drugs and sex. As Augustine knew quite well, lack and impotence structure what it means to be human, the incompleteness that the theological tradition names “original sin.” The gangsta’s sins endeavor to cover this gap in being; the gansta wants to delude himself into believing that bliss and completeness are possible.

Ever since Plato wrote The Symposium, one metaphor has dominated the way that the West has seen love: the story that Plato puts in the mouth of Aristophanes. In the time of myth, humans were whole, complete, and round, but in a great tragedy, these beings were split, and now we spend our lives looking for our “other halves” so that we can be whole again. The gangsta’s “errant life” plays the same role as the object of love in Aristophanes’ myth: it is supposed to make us whole, to give direct access to jouissance, to overcome original sin.

The mistakes in this theology don’t escape gang members and drug addicts. They know quite well that drugs and sex and guns do not make them whole, but instead send them into an endless spiral of failure around the thing that they want: we should take seriously their metaphors of “going nowhere” and “going around in circles” as a way to describe the dynamics of the drive. “The people who sell drugs also know right from wrong,” as a young Brazilian rap artist told me. “They just know it in a different way.”6 The fundamental question becomes, then, what can break the circular jouissance of the drive? Alejandro, the young man in Argentina, described it perfectly when he said, “If something worse had happened, I don’t know if I would have been able to forgive myself for doing what I did to her.” For him, a mother’s suffering was the only power strong enough to tear apart the drive, the illusion of completeness. In forgiving ourselves (or blaming ourselves), we fold ourselves over. One part of us forgives, while the other is forgiven. This folding or doubling permits us to look at ourselves, reflect, examine ourselves: it is as if we stood outside looking in. Here we find the philosophical definition of consciousness, the birth of the subject. When a gangsta’s mother begins to suffer, his self-contained world breaks down, he takes cognizance of his actions, and he comes to recognize that something real exists outside of his drive. “I heard my conscience, and now I want to support her in any way that I can,” Alejandro says in his movie. “And more than anything else, to value life. Life, and the people around us. . . .” This “call of conscience”—a call that divides the subject between the active, blaming part and the passive, blamed part—gives birth to the subject. Most important, this subject directs himself toward the other, toward the good of “the people around us.”

Much of European theology has come to see grace through the eyes of the Greeks—with their longing for wholeness and union—but gangstas know grace in a much more prophetic, Hebrew way. Just as the pain of a mother breaks the circular drive of crime and drugs, the call of God came to the prophets essentially as a rupture in their lives. Gangsta wisdom shows us that the truth of love is exactly the opposite of what Aristophanes and Plato taught: love doesn’t make us complete. It breaks the economy of the drive. It divides. And as such, it allows a person to see himself. When a mother’s pain and love forces her son to look at himself honestly, he can become a real subject.

A mother creates the space in which her child can become a subject. First, she teaches her child that he is not omnipotent, that he does not have direct access to jouissance, or wholeness. Then, when the child sees himself in his mother’s eyes, he also sees his mother looking at him. He sees himself as the object of the mother’s gaze, but also as a subject capable of gazing upon her. In the midst of a mother’s love, a child gains a conscience. “Amor só de mãe” isn’t a cynical slogan, nor is it pessimist or nihilist. It criticizes the myth of love as the encounter of two broken halves, but also insists that though love is not union, it still exists, and that it is powerful enough to force a gangsta to change his life.

Most important, the phrase “Only a mother’s love” shows us that love doesn’t just come from the mother. We could see this same process in a father’s love, or a husband’s, or a friend’s. Love happens when we gain the ability to divide ourselves, criticize ourselves, and look at ourselves from outside. A mother’s love gives birth to more than a child: it gives birth to the subject.


  1. In Portuguese, this phrase is much more ambiguous than in English, meaning “Only a mother’s love,” but also “Only a mother could love” and even “Love only comes from the mother.”
  2. Here, I use the slang term “gangsta” because it is more common among gang members in the United States, but also because the Brazilian slang for urban bandit (ganguista), is a loan word derived from English slang.
  3. https://shinealight.org/
  4. See Slavoj Žižek, The Paralax View (MIT Press, 2006).
  5. In Portuguese and Spanish, this is the phrase used for the anti-Semitic trope of the “Wandering Jew.”
  6. MC Chipan, in City of Rhyme (Shine a Light, 2007).

Kurt Shaw, MTS ’97, is the founder and executive director of Shine a Light, a 300-member network of organizations serving street and working children in Latin America. This article is the author’s English adaptation of a presentation he made to the Escola Brasileira de Psicanálise, Secção Santa Catarina, in October 2006.

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