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.