Sarah Sands: Why it takes a mother to make the male of the species blush

No matter how powerful the man, he can always be embarrassed by his mum

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The New York racketeering trial of John "Junior" Gotti, son of the late mafia boss, so far suggests a man who knows his own mind. Gotti is accused of gutting a man in a Queen's bar fight. A witness who talked to the cops was found hanging from a low tree. Eighteen jurors in this trial have made last-minute appeals to be dismissed. Charges include extortion, kidnapping, robbery and shootings.

All this is phooey to Gotti's mother, Victoria. Why is everyone ganging up on her son? Leaping to her feet behind the defence bench she screamed: "They're railroading you! They're doing to you what they did to your father!" Turning to the judge and prosecutors Mrs Gotti yelled: "Fucking gangsters! You sons of bitches! Put your own sons in there."

The 45-year-old defendant tried in vain to silence her. "OK, mother! Ma, please," he said. "I can deal with it. I'm OK. Don't worry about it. I'm fine."

Can a man continue to chill and terrify when he cannot control his own mother? Evidence demonstrates that there is no contradiction. No man is a monster to his mother and monsters often idealise their mothers. Violet Kray, daughter of a bare-knuckle fighter, and mother of notorious criminal twins, still attracts mawkish tributes. One recently posted blog read: "She was a mum in a million, always putting her boys first and herself last but they loved her beyond beleaf [sic]."

It may be a criterion for powerful men and psychopaths to have strong-willed and uncritically devoted mothers. In his biography of Stalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore questions whether the Russian tyrant would have succeeded if his mother, Keke, had not fought for his classical education. Her volatility may also have helped to unhinge him. She beat him and smothered him. She was both pious and promiscuous, as Stalin became. According to witnesses, Stalin, nicknamed Soso, was "devoted to only one person – his mother". Even so, he dreaded her overbearing interventions. "She never hesitated to voice her opinion on everything," said a childhood friend. Keke and Victoria Gotti shared an aim and a style. They would do anything for their sons and claimed exclusivity over them.

A distinction between mothers and wives is that wives do not rule out criticism of their husbands. Their affection is often tinged with irritation. Michelle Obama talked happily, even insistently, about her husband's stinky morning breath and socks on the floor. Sarah Brown balanced her husband's heroism with his messiness. A Gotti mother might wonder why Michelle and Sarah are complaining, instead of tidying up.

Another tendency of mothers is to believe that in any dispute between their sons and the rest of the world, their sons are clearly blameless. It is ingratitude, jealousy or conspiracy on the part of the world.

The late Mrs Berlusconi, "Mamma Rosa", railed that her son "works like a slave from morning to night and in return just gets insults". When she died, aged 97, there was virtually a day of national mourning and AC Milan played with black armbands.

Every boy wants uncritical admiration and mothers will go to any lengths, on any occasion, at any age, to provide it. President Sarkozy maybe in thrall to his spouse, but it does not stop him from bringing his mother along on state visits, including to meet the Queen. When President Hu Jintao complimented the première maman on Sarkozy, she listed the achievements of all her other brilliant sons, until Nicolas implored her to stop.

Muted motherhood may be less embarrassing but it will not get your son to the finishing line. Potential brides are often warned against trying to "change" their husbands, whom they should accept as they are.

What this means is that they are far too late. You need to be there at the potty-training stage and never let up. And mothers are tutoring their children in world leadership, not domestic harmony. As George Bush said of his mother, Barbara: "Every mother has her own style and mine was a little like an army drill sergeant."

Barbara Bush kept a league table of family achievements and would not allow sentimentality to get in the way of ambition. Some critics allege that Bush's stumbling over words was connected to his fear of his mother. She drummed into him, for instance, that he must never repeat words in his essays. When he was writing about the death of his sister he reached for the thesaurus for an alternative to "tears". He dutifully wrote: "The lacerates ran down my cheeks."

When George W announced his intention to run for president, his mother's only reservation was that he should have allowed his brother to go first. President Clinton was also made – and partly unmade – by his mother. I remember when Virginia Clinton first came to light, with her painted eyebrows, gold shoes and fondness for Las Vegas, I immediately commissioned the late satirist John Wells to write a fictional weekly letter from her as a newspaper column. But it was not her music-hall qualities so much as her overwhelming maternal pride which defined her. She said of a graduation speech by Bill Clinton: "I was so proud of him I nearly died. He was truly in all his glory that night." No wonder Hillary always seemed sour by comparison. Of course Bill would seek out good-time girls with no interest in healthcare reform.

Vocational mothers are particularly evident in sport. There is a poignant discrepancy in the massive physical frames and infantile natures of sportsmen. Mothers seem to delight in the lengthy incubation of character. Sportsmen off the field are motivated by simple appetites because they cannot be mentally distracted. Wives may ask for all sorts of things, from attention to long-haul breaks. Mothers will soothingly offer a chicken, a sofa and a vast plasma TV. All they want is a child for ever.

Sometimes maternal triumphalism can spill over. The mother of the American basketball player LeBron James was in a state of bliss when her son tattooed her name, Gloria, on his arm. But when she shouted at an opponent during a match, her son, momentarily, defied her. "Sit yo ass down," said James.

Being a hardcore sport spectator demands stamina and concentration. Can wives and girlfriends ever match the terrifying single-mindedness of a sporting mother? Look at Mrs Totti, who threatened to cut off her son's "whatever" if he left Roma. Her position is clear. "I could survive, who knows how long, without food, without water, without air. But I wouldn't last a minute without my son."

A mother sees no obstacles to her son's success, no limit to his abilities, no purpose in a faint-hearted wife. Her idealisation of her own relationship to her son is generally supported by society. If you scroll through literary quotations on motherhood they are almost all reverential. "Motherhood is the name for God on the lips and hearts of little children," wrote William Thackeray. "A mother's arms are made of tenderness," said Victor Hugo. "Mother's love is peace. It need not be acquired. It need not be deserved," wrote Erich Fromm.

This supposes that romantic love is inferior because it does have to be acquired and usually deserved. Marital literary quotations are much more piquant, encompassing irritation and boredom as well as passion. "It destroys one's nerves to be amiable every day to the same human being," said Benjamin Disraeli.

A mother's faith in her son may be at odds with the world's view of him. John Gotti, who allegedly threatens to saw off the heads of those who displease him, is as gentle as a Buddhist in the eyes of Mrs Gotti. No wonder she screams like a banshee in the court of law. The son of a tigress will always have self-belief but is unlikely to achieve self-knowledge. Eventually, he must pluck up the courage to tell his mother to sit her ass down.

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