Rapunzel's Rebellion: Bad-girl Stories as Liberation Narratives

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One thing’s for sure: Eve ate the apple.

Pandora opened the jar.

Persephone picked the flower.

And yes, Rapunzel raised her voice, snuck the prince into the tower, and slept with him. Enthusiastically.

Everyone told them not to. Gods, mothers, stepmothers: Don’t wander far, don’t eat the fruit, don’t open the jar, don’t embrace anyone but me. Do as I say. Mind your manners. Be good (and by “good,” I mean “compliant with my demands”).

It’s easy to hear these stories as finger-wagging tales about obedience, blame, shame, and consequences: If only they’d obeyed, life would have continued status quo: eternity in the garden of Eden; smooth sailing for the men of ancient Greece; Demeter clinging forever to her daughter; Rapunzel spinning out an entire life in the confines of the tower.

But what if … what if doing the forbidden thing was exactly the point?

Not as self-destruction, not as wanton rule-breaking or ill-informed fuck-yous.

But what if their rebellions were well-timed, deeply chosen, profoundly necessary? Tasting pleasure and quenching curiosity and testing their own magic and mettle -- jumping eyes-open feet-first out of windows, seeing where long strange paths might lead -- growing wild past the gates that someone else bolted into place -- stretching the edges of experience, slurping the juice of some new fruit, letting it drip down her chin in a bright garden somewhere -- what if that was exactly what Rapunzel and Eve and the others were meant to do?

And what if they (by which I mean we) were meant to break rules well, not so we could become scapegoats for the downfall of man, but so we could become fully and vibrantly ourselves? And then could proliferate that fullness, that vibrancy, that unequivocal statement of self-possession out into the world? What if we could see these old as stories not as misogynistic tales about how women broke the rules and shame on them, but instead as stories about how women broke the chains that others wrapped around them?

Imagine if rebellion were exactly what both heroine and humanity needed.

Imagine that humans were meant to leave the garden all along -- to wake up, to be delightfully surprised by the truth of ourselves, to explore together the merits and pitfalls of hiddenness and exposure, of toil and pleasure, of finger-pointing power and looping, spiraling intuition.

Imagine we were meant to crack open Pandora’s jar, to make it lighter, to share the burden it carried, so we might grapple together with the ills and pains of the world rather than forcing one woman alone to carry them, holding onto hope the whole way through.

Imagine we were meant to get kicked out of the lonely tower, not trapped in innocence beyond our time, wandering instead in the wilderness to wrestle with the work of being a fully-formed human, to bump up boldly against fear and courage, weakness and mettle, unprotected, bringing life and abundance to the wasteland.

Imagine we were meant to be swept away like Persephone into darkness, to feel torn between two choices, to eat the fruit that simultaneously roots us in shadow and pushes us up toward the light, to be bound at once to both future and past, flesh and spirit, living and dead, rough rock and tender green shoot -- to span the gaping gorge between irreconcilable opposites.

What if radical progress is not always clear, not always innocent, not always officially sanctioned and written in law?

What if it almost never is?

There are no good stories without change. The best stories propel the protagonist -- breath held, eyes shut tight -- not toward a completely new, made-over self but toward a greater, deeper, truer self that is already staunchly, if secretly, present. And in doing so, the rising heroine pushes the collective past its comfort zone -- often kicking and screaming -- into a freer, wider-open, more interesting, more complex, more deeply human place.

Yes, that place is also more tense, more fraught, way more work than the paradise of innocence. That’s what being human is. Simple serenity isn’t the outcome, only the source. And it’s not true serenity, anyway. If it’s forced, if it’s legislated, it’s mostly just a veneer.

And pulling off the veneer -- eating the apple, opening the jar -- timed right, done from the depths, that’s where liberation lives.

Image licenses: apple, gate

Vulcan/Hephaestus: Patron-deity of Shame, Abandonment, and the Sweaty Arts

Vulcan/Hephaestus is everywhere here, everywhere in most cities, in the metal sculptures that dot the urban core, in the great bridges that span it, in the tools that heat and bend the things of earth in the service of building the things of humans. But this is not a cheerful story (content warning: abandonment).

Vulcan (Hephaestus in the Greek) was thrown off Mt Olympus by his mother, Hera, for being ugly and/or as revenge against her husband, Zeus, for one of his many affairs (abandonments, betrayals), in other words Hera treated Hephaestus as Zeus had often treated her; and like his mother Hephaestus was wounded for life, walked around with a limp as a constant reminder of that earliest pain, reacted swiftly and vengefully to further rejection when it came. (continued below image)

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I want to talk about how that kind of abandonment sticks with you as shame, how people are so often puzzled by their deep sadness when there's no obvious trauma in their past -- "I have a great life! Nothing to be so upset about! I just don't understand it!" but the more we inquire the more we see that there are lots of subtle little abandonments along the way, quiet ways a person feels the core self subtly rejected to the point that acceptance seems accessible only through the crafting of a false self, a facade that conforms to the collective rather than celebrating the core uniqueness of the individual. How devastating that is for gods and humans alike.

I want, too, to write about how Hephaestus was fostered by sea nymphs -- by beings who were at home in the waters of the emotional unconscious -- and then how, when he was grown, he became a smith, a god of fire and hammer, of anvil and art. Not the so-called finer arts like painting and drawing but the muscled arts, the big fierce arts, the ones that require volcanoes and heaving and sweat.

I want to notice how intense emotions are deeply physical, how shame, horror, anger, loathing, and others lodge themselves in the body, sometimes get paralyzed there, until something comes to soften them, to bend them, to work them out: the pounding of a hammer, the fierce wielding of a torch. The making of knives and swords and armor, the creation of thrones fit for gods. The hoeing of a garden bed. The stirring of a bubbling stew. The hiking of a long, rough trail. Things of the senses, things of strength, things of power.

I want also to talk about how easy it is to reawaken and reactivate shame, as when Hephaestus caught his wife, the beautiful Aphrodite, in bed with Ares, the god of war, how he used his art to exact his revenge, crafting a golden net to catch the lovers in the act so the other gods could laugh at them. From Hera, to Hephaestus, to Ares and Aphrodite, the rejection and shame get passed like a ball of fire, sometimes repurposed toward something good, sometimes slipping and burning others with it yet again.

I want to acknowledge the reality of how easy it is for us all to slip into that rejection and shame cycle, and how equally hard it is to throw a wrench in it forever, to sweat through that fire instead of succumbing to it, to bend metal with heat and muscle, to make something beautiful and strong through the burning-through, over and over and over again, of primal grief.

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Kissing, Consent, and The Frog Prince

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Mention frog stories and anyone familiar with European fairy tales is likely to respond, "The Frog Prince!" -- it's indisputably the most famous frog story in the western canon. The modern imagination puts a kiss at the center of the story, implying that everyone deserves a chance no matter the other's feelings, implying that kissing someone we'd rather not will transform both parties into lovey-dovey crooning sweethearts.

First, yuck. But second, that's not actually the (old) story at all. The old story is so much better.

In the Grimm Brothers' version, a princess loses her golden ball down a well, and a frog says he'll fetch it for her if she promises he can be her companion everywhere: sit next to her at the table, sleep next to her at night... The princess is so desperate to get her golden ball back that she agrees.

But she's surprised and afraid when the frog shows up at the palace: she'd made the promise out of desire for the ball, not desire for the frog, and didn't really expect to see him again. Indeed, the frog took advantage of her vulnerability to secure a promise the princess didn't really want to make.

Her father, the king, colludes with the trick, welcoming the frog to dinner, making the princess keep her promise despite her fear and abhorrence. That night the frog expects to sleep on her pillow. Horrified and disgusted, the princess hurls the frog across the room. When he hits the wall, he turns into a prince.

A kiss implies consent but in the case of this princess, at least, it would be coercion. In fact, in order for the needed transformation to take place, the princess must not submit to the demands of the king and the frog. No! She must assert her strength and independence. Speaking her truth unequivocally is not only her prerogative, it is the magic that frees the princess from her promise and frees the prince from the dark spell he himself is under. When both are their true selves, then they may join together fully and freely.

The postscript to the story is just as important. The prince has a friend, Iron Henry, who put iron bands around his heart to stop it from breaking when the prince was cursed. When the two are reunited, the bands snap apart, freeing his heart in profound happiness. What we learn from Iron Henry is that authentic friendship and deep connection -- grounded in abiding faith in each other -- enlarge all of us, free us into the joyful fullness of ourselves.

The frog carving in the picture above is part of a bench crafted from a log in the outdoor preschool area at the Tacoma Nature Center. Surely the Grimms' version of The Frog Prince is a better lesson for preschoolers and the rest of us than one about kissing someone you'd rather not.

Baba Yaga at Snake Lake

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Snake Lake in central Tacoma is not actually a lake. It’s a swamp. I suppose we call it a lake because that rhymes with “snake,” and that’s fun, and also “lake” is a better word for promotional purposes than “swamp.” But let’s be honest: this ain’t no lake.

One side of the swamp is mostly a wet, tangled mess of broadleaf trees -- cottonwood, ash, alder -- while the other, the uphill side, is a dryer, hushed cathedral of red madrones and Douglas firs. The cathedral side changes only subtly throughout the seasons, but the messy side swings wildly from lush and buzzing in the summer to, right now, mostly naked, exposing skinny angles, sharp edges, threaded shadows, dense layers, and the muddy, mucky swamp in the middle of it all.

Were it not for the freeway noise, I’d almost expect to find a certain fairy tale witch lurking there.

The Baba Yaga is the Slavic folk expression of the wise old woman archetype. Like many such figures, she lives by herself in the deep wild, connected to the natural land and the things that live and grow there. Baba Yaga’s shrieking hut is said to sit atop chicken legs, protected by a fence crafted of bones and skulls. She flies around in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. She is companioned by faithless animals who repeatedly ally with the hapless children who wish to escape her clutches.

Popular culture has, unsurprisingly, reduced the wise old woman archetype into a wicked witch caricature that emphasizes her frightfulness and acts as a warning: Don’t go near the swamp, the wilds, the deep shadows of the forest! It’s frightening there! Wouldn’t you like instead to sit by the fire in your warm home with a cup of tea and go to bed early? Pretend the swamp’s a lake and cross your ankles under the chair. Swamps and Baba Yaga are understood to be ugly, wicked, and scary, with an unfortunate penchant for swallowing people. We’re supposed to be afraid.

Fear might be the right response, but not because Baba Yaga is evil. She is deeply wild and powerfully wise and those things can be terrifying in a world that prefers to brighten up shadows and smooth the wrinkles of our years. She is terrifying because she lives outside the bounds of convention, because she tells the truth unvarnished, because her compass points unflinchingly toward the center. She is scary because she has demands for us that we’re not certain we can fulfill without turning everything inside out.

Baba Yaga embodies the kind of power that demands our deepest work in service of our own sturdy transformation. If she threatens to eat you up, it’s not out of hunger or greed -- she is wholly self-sufficient, after all -- it’s because swallowing you whole is the only way to effect your vital transformation. And she won’t apologize for it, either -- much to the dismay of a world that would prefer its women to be smooth and simpering and its dark swamps to be limpid blue lakes.

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The Abuse of Rapunzel, Part 2: Types of Attachment Wounds

In my last Rapunzel post, we covered what attachment is, why it’s important, how it gets compromised, what happens when it does -- and how all this is reflected in the well-known fairy tale “Rapunzel." As promised, we’ll explore in a future post how Rapunzel brings about her own healing journey. But before we do, we need to deepen our understanding of the specific attachment wounds seen in the story.

Attachment Wound #1: Failure to Bond

The witch takes baby Rapunzel away. Source unknown.

The witch takes baby Rapunzel away. Source unknown.

Bonding with a loving caregiver is the core attachment need of early childhood. The bond waters and prunes the neural pathways needed to establish a foundation of safety in the world -- safety that grows into a sturdy sense of self, an ability to form and maintain healthy relationships, and baseline emotional resiliency for carrying us through rough patches.

The bond develops through the attunement-and-response dynamic described in the previous post. Unfortunately, the three adults in Rapunzel’s early life collude to revoke the baby's chance at that bond: Not only does the witch demand Rapunzel’s separation from her parents at birth, her father does not fight the demand, allowing instead for his fear of the witch to traumatically overpower his love for his child. Rapunzel’s mother then colludes in the trauma by also failing to fight to keep her daughter.

In the real world, failure to bond is not always as dramatic as removal of the child from the parents. (And indeed sometimes removal to a non-biological family represents the best chance for the child to form healthy bonds.) Sometimes failure to bond comes, for example, from a persistent but subtle pattern of missed cues, or from a parent's distracted overwhelm by, say, an unrelated crisis, or from a mental health issue such as depression or PTSD that makes bonding more difficult.

Whatever the case, the effect is that the child is shorted the connection with a loving other needed to forge the further connections -- in her brain, in her psyche, and in her surroundings -- that she needs to build emotional resiliency and healthy relationships throughout her life.

Attachment Wound #2: Parentification

In abandoning their sacred task to bond with baby Rapunzel, the adults in the story start the process of parentifying her. This means they flip roles with Rapunzel, giving her the responsibility to prop them up emotionally rather than taking on the adult task of fostering the child’s emotional foundation. As a result Rapunzel has nobody to help her contain her own feelings and learn to self-soothe. Emotionally, she’s on her own from the very beginning.

Because it’s not that Rapunzel goes to live with the witch and then everything is fine. Instead, Rapunzel's life becomes the receptacle for the witch’s wrath. We don’t hear about her pre-adolescent childhood in the story, but given the rest of the story and others like it, we can easily surmise the witch is rather like Cinderella’s or Snow White’s stepmother: a demanding woman with a narcissistic need for reassurance that she is, as Snow White’s stepmother put it, “the fairest of them all.”

In the real world, parentification is sometimes obvious, for example the child who puts the drunk parent to bed or protects younger siblings from a parent’s rage. But sometimes it’s not so obvious: It’s a needy parent demanding expressions of love or loyalty; it’s a child trying to smooth over an argument between parents; it’s scrambling to clean up the house before Dad gets home to prevent him yelling at the dog. In short, the child takes on the adult task of anticipating, preventing, and pacifying the adult's own overwhelming feelings.

(Some kids are naturally intuitive and compassionate and so will reach out when a parent is upset. This isn't necessarily parentification. The difference is that, in parentification, if the child does not rise to meet the expectation of caring for the adult's feelings, negative consequences accrue. The parentified child becomes vigilant to guard against this dynamic.)

Attachment Wound #3: Infantilization

Ironically, just as Rapunzel reaches adolescence, the parentification pattern is compounded by a move toward infantilization. Like parentification, this attachment wound is a mismatch between parental demands and the child’s developmental stage. But instead of abandoning the child’s inner world, as seen in parentification, the parent intrudes on that inner world in a way that violates the child’s blossoming selfhood.

It is actually possible to both parentify and infantilize the same child at the same time, and young fairy tale women such as Rapunzel are classic examples of how: She is expected to placate the witch so the latter doesn’t fly into a rage (parentification) and, simultaneously, comply with the witch's directives about chores, clothing, social life, self-image, movements outside the castle/tower, opinions about the outside world, and anything else that feels threatening to the older woman's sense of her own primacy in Rapunzel's life (infantilization).

In fact everything from clothes and makeup to dating and sexuality to feelings, values, privacy, and more are subject to approval and directives and demands from the infantilizing parent at a time when, developmentally, the child should have more, not less, freedom and responsibility. It can happen at any age, but it's not uncommon for it to occur at puberty, when adults can literally see children becoming separate from themselves. The child, in her turn, is watching peers venture out and test grown-up behaviors while she is forced to remain at a developmentally younger age to fulfill the narcissistic requirements of the needy parent. Resentment grows, as does the urgent need to find a way out.

For Rapunzel this infantilization is symbolized, of course, by her imprisonment in the tower: a powerful symbol for freezing time and cutting a girl off from her own growing-up.

Attachment Wound #4: Rejection and Abandonment

Despite the witch’s efforts to prevent Rapunzel growing up, the girl blossoms into a young woman with a beautiful voice, which catches the attention of a prince as he passes by. He gains access to the tower and ends up giving Rapunzel gifts nobody else ever has: he appreciates her voice, he wants simply to spend time with her, he recognizes she is trapped, he teams up with her to help her escape the witch. Rapunzel must feel both confused and happy to have someone who treats her with such love and respect.

Image from Paul O. Zelinsky's "Rapunzel"

Image from Paul O. Zelinsky's "Rapunzel"

Rapunzel and the prince also have sex. This is a critical point: The witch does not allow Rapunzel contact with anyone (remember: infantilization), yet Rapunzel chooses to have the most intimate contact of all with the prince. The witch is so enraged at this that she cuts off Rapunzel’s hair -- a symbol of cutting off the relationship in an unhealthy, abrupt, utterly non-compassionate and unsupported way. She also physically throws Rapunzel from the tower and leaves her in “a desolate land, where she had to live in great misery,” driving home the point that Rapunzel is completely alone and must now fend for herself in everything. (The prince is ejected from the tower separately. We'll discuss the couple's separation in a future post.)

It’s easy to read the witch's rage as being about Rapunzel flouting a cultural or personal moral code about female chastity, but underneath that it’s really about the girl’s direct rejection of the witch’s primacy in her life. Simply put, sex with the prince means the witch has been displaced as Rapunzel's most important relationship. In a single moment, the abusive parent realizes she no longer has power. Rapunzel will no longer sate the witch’s emotional hunger.

An important note: Despite the fairy tales, it is not necessary to have sex, or get married, or even find a romantic partner to escape an abusive family. Sex between Rapunzel and the prince may be read here as a symbol of her empowered choice to replace the wounding witch with a loving connection -- a connection that will propel her into the next phase of her life. The connection could have occurred in a nonsexual way with any supportive person (friend, teacher, mentor, neighbor, therapist, minister) or even with pets, nature, creative pursuits, or, importantly, with a connection to an empowered, affirming, self-compassionate inner figure.

Rapunzel’s singing reflects this last example nicely.

Attachment Wound #5: Physical Abuse

We must highlight a few things about the forced hair-cutting and forced ejection of Rapunzel from the tower. These acts represent not just rejection and abandonment of the young woman but also, more literally, the witch's physical abuse of her. The level of the witch's perceived need to control Rapunzel extends to her body, and as a result the means she will use to control and punish the girl do as well. 

Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse profoundly wound the child’s potential bond with the abuser, trust in people, sense of safety, and healthy expectations for future relationships. In addition:

  • The abuser uses the child’s body as a repository for his or her emotional dysregulation.
  • The child must develop a constant vigilance in an effort to head off the adult’s inappropriate emotional expression.
  • The child develops neurological, behavioral, relational, and even psychospiritual habits geared toward avoiding or minimizing harm rather than toward the flourishing growth that is their birthright.

When an adult abuses a child, we might say they are having an adult tantrum. They're experiencing overwhelming emotions and acting out those emotions in damaging ways. When a child has a tantrum, the parent's role is to help the child contain those unwieldy emotions, teach self-soothing, role model boundary-setting, teach mature conflict resolution, and provide examples of healthy relationships. None of us does this perfectly every time, but most parents do it well enough, and consistently enough, that eventually the child learns to contain, self-soothe, and problem-solve the distress in more appropriate ways.

But abuse constitutes abandonment of these responsibilities and leaves the child emotionally untethered, unsure how a strong, secure, healthy attachment and emotional resiliency and self-regulation look and feel. So when Rapunzel first meets the prince she is, naturally, frightened: She fully expects him to treat her poorly as others in her life have done. And when he doesn't, of course she falls in love.

The Medicine in the Wound

In a way, the witch’s enraged, abusive rejection neatly bookends Rapunzel's very first attachment wound. Originally the witch forges a connection with Rapunzel by exploiting the father’s fear of her power, and in the end she cuts off that connection because she cannot tolerate the loss of her own power. Through the rejection, she reveals the secret she's harbored for sixteen years: She is terribly afraid of being alone. Yet by her own actions -- by placing herself above Rapunzel in importance, by exploiting Rapunzel’s desire to be a good daughter until that desire is spent -- the witch brings about the very aloneness she fears.

In the story’s ironic resolution, this final attachment breach is also the thing that kicks off Rapunzel’s healing journey. It’s not the ideal kick-off -- that would have been deep wound repair on the part of the witch, the father, and the mother -- but it’s probably a much more realistic one. It’s almost impossible for a narcissist to realize her own part in relationships gone wrong, much less to do the humble, vulnerable work that must be done to make repair. Instead, Rapunzel must find her way to an environment that challenges her to build her own resourcefulness and self-reliance -- and to nurture healthy bonds with herself and her own children in the process.

It must be said in closing that childhood attachment wounds, while painful, don’t have to be a lifelong sentence. The brain is malleable, the psyche is always seeking to grow, and we are capable of healing even the deepest wounds all the way through the lifespan. No matter what happens to us in childhood, we are never beyond hope or healing. Rapunzel’s story demonstrates this. We’ll talk more about how in future posts.

Cope, Adapt, Transform: A Roadmap for the Healing Journey

What do you want to get out of psychotherapy? The answer will differ depending on who you are and where you are in your healing journey. This rudimentary framework might help you define your therapy needs. It could also help you talk to your therapist about where you are now and where you'd like to go from here. 

Cope

If you're overwhelmed by trauma -- especially a recent one -- you might be seeking healthy ways to cope and get through the day-to-day. Our psyche tries to help us with this task in the way it processes traumatic memories (memory sequestering, dreams and nightmares, emotional expression), and we can also work consciously to use productive coping tools and establish healthy habits. Sometimes we land on healthy coping skills like going for a walk, talking it out, or doing creative work. But some coping skills aren't so healthy -- for example isolation, addiction, and self-harm. Therapy can help you identify and put into practice the right coping skills for you so you can get on with living your life beyond trauma.

You might need help coping if you're having trouble working, relating, or maintaining a basic routine or schedule; if things seem to be okay sometimes but fall apart easily; if you've fallen into bad habits as a way of coping; or if you're paralyzed or lashing out emotionally. If you think you can't manage to get into therapy, check out these resources -- some offer affordable options for therapy. You might also find a support group or a hotline helpful. If you're in immediate danger, please call 911 or go to the nearest hospital emergency room.

Adapt

Maybe you're mostly functioning fine. You're able to hold down job, school, and/or family responsibilities. You get enough food, sleep, and exercise (at least sometimes); you have at least one or two decent social relationships. But sometimes your emotional life goes into overdrive. You can't sleep or you sleep too much; you overeat or have no appetite; your motivation is stuck going nowhere; your mind is flooded with anxiety or sadness or stress to the point of paralysis or, alternately, fight-or-flight. You might even know what triggers these things. But you don't know how to get unstuck. You would very much like a life that's not punctuated by these emotionally challenging low points. Therapy can help you process those low points so you can get on with the business of building your own inspired and authentic life.

If you're in a place where you're coping just fine but dealing with everyday life is still a tough haul, you might be trying to figure out how to adapt. This means bringing your emotional rollercoaster under control -- not to block out bad feelings but to deal with them more smoothly. It also means better understanding and negotiating the relationships you're in: why some things trigger you, how to manage those triggers with less intensity, and how to manage your life in a smoother, more confident, less volatile way. Therapy can help with this.

Transform

You've learned to cope with life after trauma. You've established an existence that's not constantly being interrupted by flashbacks and fallout. You're functional and adapted to life in the present. But you know there must be more. You long for the kind of life that comes not just from adapting to the outer world but from being deeply, sustainably connected to your inner world. You get glimpses of this life in your dreams, your creative work, your close relationships, even in the struggles you manage to handle now with grace. But you're stymied about how to manifest those moments in fuller, stronger, more consistent ways. Therapy can help you recenter your self so you're working more and more from that transformed space than not.

If you're dealing just fine but keep thinking, "Is this all there is?" -- then you might be on the doorstep of deep transformation. You can bring consciousness of your inner world to bear on how you shape your external life, your relationships, your goals, your surroundings, and your actions. You can live a life that is strongly connected to and reflective of your sense of your deepest self. Therapy can help you understand that deepest self, develop a relationship with it, and live it out in ways that are fulfilling, meaningful, and authentic. 

The Journey Can be Jumbled

Here's a little secret: These stages aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. In some ways you'll be well adapted while in other parts of your life you're still struggling to cope. The next day you might get glimpses of your highest self through nature or creative work or something else that makes you feel great. It can be confusing. And in any case, it's hard to do any of this alone. Wherever you are in this jumbled-up life journey, you deserve support, insight, and respect along the way. Check out the rest of my website or go straight to my contact page if you think you'd like to explore psychotherapy with me. 

Inner Life of the Damsel: The Survivor Archetype in Fairy Tales

There are few tropes more common, and few more criticized, than the Damsel in Distress who meets Prince Charming. In the western canon Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, other old fairy tales, and even some ancient myths follow this story arc. Today the idea seems quaint at best, offensive at worst. And though some contemporary media have either skewered it or updated it, the theme still hangs on in the culture unironically in children’s stories, romantic films, love songs, and more.

At first glance it’s easy to dismiss these tales as sexist or old-fashioned. But at second glance it's clear these stories may be reclaimed to empower survivors of abuse and other forms of emotional control, servitude, or abandonment. For a closer look reveals these stories not as blithely sexist romances but as something much deeper, much more urgent to the lives of survivors. It’s a cultural tragedy that we’ve come to believe the Damsel in Distress represents the passive, weak feminine-in-waiting, and that what she’s waiting for is to be rescued by Prince Charming who is, of course, active, strong, and pursuing his destiny: the classic masculine-in-charge.

In fact, that cultural fantasy couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s not how these stories go at all.

Gritty, Gutsy, Resourceful Young Heroines The longstanding cultural narrative is that fairy tale Damsels are dewy, innocent, helpless victim figures waiting for a Prince to rescue them. This impression may have more to do with what we’ve come to project onto women and girls than it does with the actual tales. In fact the young heroines of these stories, by and large, show more grit and guts than the Princes who appear at the end. It’s a particularly important and poignant reality to notice at this cultural moment when a global storm of women’s voices gathers to decry real-life harassment and abuse.

Cinderella, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, like so many real-life women, are victims of child abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Cinderella is emotionally abused, essentially imprisoned, and enslaved while her father does nothing to protect her. Snow White, too, has a hapless father who leaves her to endure the jealous, hateful projections of a narcissistic stepmother that culminate in stalking and several attempts on the girl’s life. Sleeping Beauty is cursed by a jealous, spiteful fairy and then sheltered and isolated by overprotective parents as a result. Rapunzel is bargained away to an enchantress by a weak father trying to avoid the consequences of his own actions. Later the girl is imprisoned, isolated, physically abused, and ultimately cast out to fend for herself.

Anyone can see these girls are not passively sitting in castles waiting for Prince Charming to gallantly spirit them away. Abused and neglected children have a job to do, the primary task of which is to stay alive and awake until they can get out. The second most important task is to consolidate resources, plans, and contacts to support their getaway. And the third is to actually bring about their own escape. That is exactly what these Damsel-heroines do:

  • Cinderella grieves her mother, maintains an unfailingly kind demeanor with her abusers, does all the chores demanded of her, befriends birds and mice, and somehow finds the courage not only to ask to go to the prince’s ball – but to do it anyway, in secret, when her request is denied. Does anyone really think she left him one glass slipper by accident?
  • Snow White survives her mother’s death, ingratiates herself to her father, convinces her would-be assassin to spare her life, finds her way through the dark forest to safety, befriends the dwarves, and survives three attempts on her life by her abuser-turned-stalker.
  • Sleeping Beauty survives a childhood of overprotective isolation, follows her own sense of adventure and curiosity, and finds the courage to ask an old woman if she can try her hand at the spinning wheel – something the young woman had never seen before.
  • Rapunzel endures four years of imprisonment, survives physical and emotional abuse, and teaches herself to sing. Once she meets the Prince she flaunts the rules by developing a relationship with him (even, in some versions, becoming pregnant in the tower) and resourcing her own escape – all in secret. Afterwards she survives single motherhood while lost in the desert for years until happenstance reunites her with the Prince.

In short, these fairy tale heroines are anything but helpless or passive. Facing horrible abuse, neglect, and exploitation, they find ways to console themselves, get through each day with pride, discover and nurture hidden parts of their interior lives, forge connections with the outside world, and ultimately find the courage and resources to escape – sometimes through frightening ordeals. Rather than helplessness, these heroines model grit, resourcefulness, and courage.

These fairy tales are not romantic froth. They are hardcore survival stories.

Emotional Prince and Immediate Marriage What’s more, the Princes in these tales are most definitely not agents of survival, healing, or rescue. They're actually quite simple: Prince Charming sees the young woman and instantly falls in love. Typically the first question he asks is not “What do you need?” or “How can I help?” but “Will you marry me?”

Certainly we could understand this as the type of impulsive emotionality the culture likes to project onto women (making the idea of Prince Charming as strong savior all the more laughable!). But this is a fairy tale, the playfield of the archetypes, so we must feel our way into a deeper understanding of the Prince’s impulsive emotionality and marriage proposal. The two are inextricably tied.

In the realm of the archetypes, a marriage signifies the coming together of two opposites to create a new, vibrant, creative energy. If a fairy tale features a marriage, it compels us to ask which opposites are being united. In the emergent understanding of gender as nonbinary, it is no longer sufficient to say, well, Prince Charming is male and thus represents the Masculine archetype, and Cinderella et. al. are female and thus represent the Feminine archetype, therefore their marriage is a union of two opposing gender archetypes, end of story.

No, the opposites seeking union in these tales are not gender-related, despite their costuming. What’s opposite are the specific traits of the specific characters themselves. The young women have traumatic histories; they are gritty, resourceful, courageous, and resilient; they actively plan and pursue their freedom. (They are in more ways than not representative of the traditional Masculine archetype, for those who insist on the gendered terminology.)

On the other hand the Princes, we can guess, have led fairly easy lives; they are a bit soft, impulsive, pliant, and emotional; they respond from their feelings to opportunities that arise but do not plan much of anything, which is more a reflection of the classic Feminine. (To be fair, Rapunzel’s Prince has a bit more verve and initiative than the others.)

After a lifetime of trauma, our heroines have earned the archetypal Prince Charming – not the external man but rather the tenderness, easiness, and especially the unconditional love he represents. They have earned it by enduring the cold darkness of their childhoods which were largely devoid of love, safety, warmth, or compassion.

So Prince Charming is not an external reward. He is the young women's psychic experience of internalizing these softer traits so the heroines can provide for themselves the tenderness nobody else has ever offered them. Prince Charming is the final piece of the Damsels’ emotional growth to fall into place. If she can develop the safety and unconditional love for herself that the Prince represents, then she has truly left her abusive past behind.

These are tales of survival and development, not tales of helplessness and external rescue. By surviving loss and abuse, by seizing on her own inner resources, by making independent and even defiant choices that are attuned to her inner life, by casting aside fear and embracing courage, by forging new and healthier connections on the outside, by finally coming to a place where she can engage in tender and protective self-care, in the end the Damsel-Heroine is the one who rescues herself.

This is what “happily ever after” really means.

Myth and Fairy Tale: The Use of Old Stories in Psychotherapy

I love telling stories in therapy.

I don’t do it frequently, but sometimes the work unfolds in such a way that, in a given moment, a particular story seems the most resonant and helpful response.

Usually the stories I tell are myths or fairy tales -- the Old Stories -- stories of imprisoned and enslaved women like Rapunzel and Cinderella; of orphaned or unwanted children such as Vasalisa, the Ugly Duckling, and the Greek Hephaestus; of trauma and redemption, for example the Mesopotamian story of Inanna's descent to the underworld, or the Japanese tale of the Crescent Moon Bear; stories of individuation, such as the Grimm Brothers’ “Fitcher’s Bird” or “The Frog Prince.” There are many more, of course: many more stories and many more universal themes of human existence.

Of course, people love a good story: that’s one of the things that makes us deeply human. But modern society is replete with options for entertainment, so what makes the Old Stories unique? More pointedly, what makes them so valuable in depth psychotherapy?

Archetypes and Your Internal Life

The importance of the Old Stories unfurls far beyond entertainment or historical interest. Their therapeutic value is less in their overt content than in their symbolic depths: the Old Stories are archetypal. That is, they bring to life invisible blueprints for diverse parts of the human psyche, intangible reflections of the basic impulses that exist within each of us. We tend to favor, and sometimes get hooked by, certain archetypal aspects of ourselves, for example the peacemaker, the yes-man, the victim. Simultaneously we often repress the opposite -- say the warrior, the rebel, the rescuer. (Which are favored and which are shunned will be different for each person, of course.)

Everyone more or less chooses unconsciously which archetypal energies to express (and how), and identifying these tendencies is nowhere near as simple as taking an online quiz. We are not so cut-and-dried as to choose a particular way of being and stick with it consistently across all situations: some things trigger us more, or differently, than others. Moreover the archetypes are not so two-dimensional either. Each one is a complex constellation of energies, each of which may bloom or wither depending on the context.

Many people are familiar with human- and animal-like archetypes such as the king and queen, the golden child, the orphan, the rebel, the witch, the peasant, the beast, and many more. But in and around each of us are also archetypes of other kinds: forest, flood, tower, war, beauty, love, sex, birth, death, underworld. The list goes on and on. Often even entire stories are archetypes -- stories of descent, rebirth, journey, struggle -- and in these tales other archetypes, like those named above, act within the story’s framework. In fact, it’s fair to say that the entirety of history (and prehistory too) is a bustling bazaar of archetypal energies all intermingling, interacting, and influencing one another.

When Archetypes Meet Story

Certainly archetypes are interesting enough to study in isolation from one another, but when they constellate together inside of a story, that’s when they wake up and really start moving. Then we can see their many varied aspects and deepen our understanding of the world, of each other, of ourselves.

Snow White.jpg

Imagine the character Snow White without the forest, without the wicked stepmother, without the huntsman, the dwarves, or Prince Charming. The young woman may exist, but we don’t know much of anything about her (or, more pointedly, about the archetype she represents) until we see her in the landscape of the story, interacting with various types of people -- various other archetypal figures. The stepmother awakens one aspect of Snow White (the meek daughter), the huntsman another (the free woman), and the dwarves still another (the generous matron). And we haven’t even got to the disguised stepmother or Prince Charming yet!

Who would you be in that story? We might all like to think we’d be the brave, kind huntsman who lets Snow White run free. But can we really say there is no part of us that is the jealous stepmother, fearful of the loss of her beauty? Or the weak father, afraid to stand up to his powerful wife? What about the besotted prince with perhaps a bit of a rescuer complex -- is there any of us who hasn't felt such an impulse? Do we not all have within us a truth-telling mirror, a dark and dangerous forest, a cozy cottage, a poison apple? What is your poison apple, and which part of you persists in delivering it? Which part of you succumbs to it? Which part will pull you back from the effects of that poison?

Now we begin to see how any single person may manifest a countless number of archetypal energies. Now we begin to see how self-inquiry coupled with story may lead to consciousness and how that, in turn, may give us a wider array of choices about how to act. 

Now we begin to see what purpose the Old Stories may serve in psychotherapy. 

Seeing Ourselves in the Old Stories

Through story we learn who we are.

Stories first remind us that we’re not alone, that neither our anguish nor our triumph isolates us, that the full spectrum of feeling is, in fact, a key legacy of being deeply, fully human. We recognize ourselves in the longings and the foibles of our ancestors' stories – for example in the Ugly Duckling who longed so hard to fit in that he almost lost sight of his true self, or in Rapunzel’s father, who made a deal with the dark side to avoid being punished – only to subject himself to greater punishment in the end. Stories are revelations that others have confronted and survived such terror and awe as our own.

Stories also remind us of truths we’ve lost, re-inviting us back into awareness. We learn to trust our instincts through the dark wilds of the psyche, to sort through the daily noise to get at the things that really matter. We find missing parts of ourselves. With the Russian Vasalisa we rediscover our intuitive voice; with the ancient goddess Inanna we learn to sit with our pain rather than fight so hard to dispel it; with Frodo and Sam we realize the value of shedding the extraneous in order to power through what seems unbearable.

We learn we can, after all, bear the very thing that seems most unbearable.

And finally, the Old Stories evoke images that live within us as a counterbalance to the toxic personal stories we tell ourselves -- stories like “I don’t have what it takes” or “I always mess things up” or “I’m unloved and unwanted.” In fact these poison darts are the mundane starting-points, respectively, of the stories of hobbits and Hercules and Vasalisa -- all of whom came through their trials greater and more truly themselves for it.

If we let them, such characters will sit with us like strange and wise companions, little daemons that curl up in our guts, tap on our shoulders, and resound in our chests -- bidden or not -- when we need that reminder. If we listen to their stories, if we take the time to understand them, if we really make friends with them, and let them live in our psyches like enduring stories do, they’ll be there waiting when our mundane modern selves most need to feel connected, and speak truth, and summon the courage for a new way forward.