The Abuse of Rapunzel: Healing from Attachment Wounds, Part 1

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Alexandra Metz as Rapunzel in ABC's "Once Upon a Time"

Our ancestors gifted us with stories that boil human problems down to their essence and wrap them in words of wisdom. It’s easy to see a story like the Brothers Grimm’s “Rapunzel” as a children’s story or to rail against it as an archaic sexist trope.

But “Rapunzel” is also an excellent case study in attachment trauma -- specifically, what it is, how it happens, and how we can heal from it.

Attachment as Core Parenting Task

Rapunzel’s story begins before she's even born. Her pregnant mother has a craving for a vegetable growing in the neighbor’s garden, and her father climbs over the garden wall to steal it. When the wicked witch who lives there (who is also called fairy, enchantress, sorceress, and Dame Gothel in various versions of the story) discovers the man’s crime, he cuts a deal to avoid immediate punishment: He trades his freedom for his newborn baby, avoiding the witch’s wrath in the moment but sealing the unhappy course of Rapunzel’s entire childhood.

This deal with the devil represents the core wound that underlies all child abuse and neglect: the wound of disturbed attachment. Attachment is a central driver of emotional health starting before birth. While it’s important throughout life, a healthy attachment is especially critical from the prenatal period through about age three, when the brain is building its foundation for lifelong relationship patterns and expectations.

A healthy attachment isn’t contingent on any particular action (e.g., breastfeeding or co-sleeping) as pop psychology sometimes promotes but, rather, on an ongoing attention-and-response dynamic led by the parent. When a parent looks lovingly at her infant, snuggles him, coos at him, responds competently to his cries, feeds him when hungry, changes dirty diapers promptly and gently, and does all the other mundane tasks of daily parenting, something very deep is happening simultaneously: Collectively, all these small nurturings grow lifelong emotional resiliency on a neurological level.

This moment-to-moment attention-and-response is the primary psychological responsibility of parenting in general, but especially during early childhood. In fact what’s been termed “attachment” might more accurately be called “attunement.” And Rapunzel’s father’s tragic flaw is giving into his own fear of harm rather than tuning into the primacy of his child's physical and emotional needs in the moment she needs him the most.

Types of Attachment Breaches

When parents don’t attune to their child with compassion and consistency, we say the attachment is wounded or breached. Of course, no parent is perfectly attuned one hundred percent of the time -- and, in a funny twist of the psyche, that’s actually optimal. Appropriate breaches in attachment help children become more independent by challenging them to practice tolerance of unwanted feelings and experiences.

For example an infant may receive snuggles and coos most of the day but then the parent leaves the child’s side to use the bathroom or answer a phone call. These little separations become longer and more frequent the older the child gets, until by adolescence and adulthood the time apart is substantial. This is an example of how an attachment breach can promote emotional resiliency and psychological growth. It must be well-calibrated, though, to maximize the challenge without going too far.

Sometimes attachment breaches occur too early, too frequently, or in ways that are irreversibly harmful to the relationship. Some examples of attachment breaches are: leaving a toddler alone all day (breach comes too early), criticizing a child so frequently she develops low self-worth (breach is too often), or hitting, punching, kicking, or sexually abusing a child (breach is irreversibly harmful to the relationship). (Of course these categories are not mutually exclusive.)

Before we look at the potential impacts of unhealthy attachment wounds, let it be said unequivocally that no attachment breach results in children themselves being irreparable, only that overwhelming breaches can gravely harm the parent-child relationship. The emotional fallout of abuse and neglect can be horrific, and healing from it can be arduous, but it’s not impossible. In other words, being abused as a child does not mean the child herself is broken or "damaged goods."

And we see this in Rapunzel: She is never returned to the parents who gave birth to her -- the breach was irreparable -- yet by the story’s end, she is fully restored to herself.

Long-term Effects of Attachment Wounds

Book cover by Katalin Szegedi

Early, frequent, or overwhelming attachment breaches compromise the capacity of the child (and the adult she eventually becomes) to tolerate and negotiate negative emotional states like anxiety, frustration, and disappointment. The wounded child grows up to expect people to, for example, be uninterested in her or overcritical of her or inappropriately intrusive, or any number of unhealthy patterns that weaken her sense of self. She may then unconsciously seek out these patterns as an adult, and become triggered when they inevitably occur.

We seek out these old patterns not because we're broken but because they’re familiar: They just feel right, even if we know they're not healthy. But we also seek them out because they hold something for us that needs to be repaired or completed. This is the psyche trying to heal itself. It isn’t to say we need to relive the old wound over and over -- not at all. It’s not the reliving that’s healing; it’s becoming aware of it and working consciously to throw a wrench in the old pattern in favor of a newer, healthier one. We are drawn to the unfinished healing project. The past needs completion, and as long as the wound remains open, it is incomplete.

It’s Rapunzel’s father who perpetuates her original wound by failing to protect the child’s basic attachment needs. But it’s the witch who repeats the pattern. After participating in the original wound of separating the girl from her parents, she then isolates Rapunzel from the rest of the world in a doorless tower, deepening Rapunzel’s traumatically wounded attachment. Then, when the witch discovers Rapunzel has been receiving the prince in secret, she casts the girl out into the wilderness away from anything familiar or physically safe, again failing to recognize, much less protect, her charge’s attachment needs. Rapunzel is stuck in the pattern with no clear path out: Though she's out of the physical tower, the doorless tower is now inside of her, a pattern whose escape route is murky and dangerous.

Escaping the Inner Tower

Early attachment experiences don’t just magically disappear when we turn eighteen or leave our childhood home. They are so embedded in our brain development, so entangled with the way we negotiate everyday relationships, that we engage the pattern without even realizing it. Avoidance of intimate conversation, fear of abandonment, running at the slightest hint of conflict, exploding at the drop of a hat -- these kinds of behaviors are often rooted in attachment wounds that have not yet been resolved.

But healing within the confines of the tower isn't possible either. Rapunzel has to get away from the witch before she can begin to resolve her attachment wounds: Healing can’t happen when there’s ongoing abuse. (Note, though, that it's important to distinguish being triggered from being abused. People and situations may trigger us without being abusive. Robust healing work can happen within triggering relationships if the partners are willing to work together.) 

While Rapunzel cannot physically escape the tower on her own during most of her confinement, she does have one way of reaching the outside world that eventually proves to be her escape route and the thread that connects her to the larger world: singing. We'll spend more time in another post exploring the importance of Rapunzel's voice in her healing journey, but suffice to say for now that attunement to her inner life is a critical first step on that road.