{July 19, 2012}   Fairy Tales and Psychos

I saw the Disney movie “Snow White” when I was six, under the star-lit ceiling of the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. My mother dropped me off so she could go shopping at Rich’s and it was the first time I’d ever been to the movies. That experience stands out in my memory because Snow White was the tale that defined my relationship with my mother. The latest movie versions of Snow White in “Mirror, Mirror” and “Snow White and the Huntsman” explores the age old topic of a narcissistic mother’s jealousy for her daughter. The daughters in “Snow White” and “Cinderella” were envied for their beauty and moral incorruptibility. The lack of a father’s presence and protection in the stories made the child vulnerable to the older woman’s power and position in society. In real life, an abusive mother may resent her daughter for the opportunities that were lost to her, such as a better education or the freedom to travel. In retelling earlier folktales such as “Hansel and Gretel”, “Cinderella” and “Snow White”, the Grimm brothers changed the mother in the stories to a step-mother because they couldn’t imagine their own mother capable of such hatred toward her own child. But fairytales serve as an important tool in tackling the subject of parental aggression and neglect. The children in fairytales were victims of jealousy, greed, narcissism, and excessive ambition of parents or other powerful figures, but those same poisons later became instruments of justice and the child was triumphant in the end. The children in fairytales must use their own cleverness, courage and persistence to survive their conditions, often aided by powerful allies who care about their wellbeing. Abused children in particular can benefit from such tales to help make sense of their experiences in a healthy manner, so that they can eventually become heros of their own lives. My mother was the queen of our house and her kingdom was ruled by cruelty. She beat me and my brother with a belt for making too much noise while she napped away the afternoons. She spent hours before her mirror applying makeup but had no time to read us a book or take us to the park. I was made to look after my younger siblings when I was only six so she could go shopping. When I was sick, she left me at home in front of the TV with a bottle of Coke and a box of cookies so she could keep her beauty shop appointment. I feared her because she beat me at whim, not for something I did, but for who I was. I was the oldest of her three children, the first daughter to receive my father’s affection, which I believe made her jealous. The beatings ended when I left home at age 17 to attend college, but her abusive behavior continued in other ways throughout my adult life. At my father’s funeral, a well-intentioned college friend suggested she hug me, which provoked another round of cruelty. Within days, she took over the family company, fired me, and canceled my health insurance. But hurting me wasn’t enough for her. Having been listed as custodian on my son’s college account, she closed it and denied him access to the funds, despite the fact that she is a wealthy woman. In the story “Hansel and Gretel”, poverty and scarcity of food are given as reasons for child neglect and abandonment. But that was not my mother’s situation. My father was a workhorse who ran his own successful business and left the task of childrearing to her. She was provided a mansion to live in and credit cards to use as she pleased. She never had to work, so she shopped, lunched with friends, played tennis, and lounged around her pool. No one knew that the woman who sweetly chimed “hello” on the phone had just yelled curses at her child. No one dreamed that the attractive woman who sang in the church choir would later that day drag her daughter by the hair to her bedroom and beat her for the crime of walking through a neighbor’s sprinkler and getting her clothes wet. No one suspected that the Cub Scout den mother with the kind smile could be the same woman who savagely beat her daughter and strangled her with a belt for the crime of wanting to wear hose to school instead of knee socks. I promised myself early on that I would never behave like my mother, and I have kept that vow. When I became a mother, I learned how to parent without the benefit of a healthy maternal tradition by reading fairytales to my child, both those I remembered from childhood and new ones I discovered. Luckily, I also had support from my community, my son’s teachers, friends, and an understanding aunt who would listen and help me work out any problems. Today, my son treats me with the same respect I have shown him. When my son emailed me from college after having been told that his grandmother had purloined the college money set aside for him by his grandfather, he responded with words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Good, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil, triumphant.” Sometimes we need our children to remind us that such a truth is not just a fairytale.


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