We Are the Folk, Vol. 2: Cinderella in the Closet, Blood in the Shoe
November 27, 2012 § Leave a Comment
You might remember my post on three odd news stories that, to this blogger, had the ring of Grimm to them: a woman who wished for children and instead collected over 500 cats, a man who had a fight with his wife about soup and then became lost in the frozen woods for three months, and a girl who was promised in marriage to a man only to be shut away and replaced by a false bride who, together with the groom, tortured the young woman for years. For links, see my original post here.
All of these are real, contemporary stories, and all are perfect ammunition to use against those who claim that we no longer live in the world of “fairy tales.” What, exactly, do these folks believe fairy tales are? It doesn’t take much—certainly not an entire feudal caste system, as some have suggested—for someone to embody an archetype. Shit, brides do it all the time. Cinderella gowns! Fairy tale weddings! And if you pay attention, it isn’t just the ones tossing “Cinderella” around as an adjective who are unwittingly playing what could very well be parts in some of our darkest tales. Let’s stick to our Cinderella theme, shall we, and take a look at the news.
Down the uncanny rabbit hole we go, with a story from my old home city of Memphis, Tennessee, where the latest trend in body-altering is the strategic chopping off of the pinkie toe. Can’t fit into that stiletto with ease? Lop the offending digit clear off:
If you’re a reader of Grimm, this story should certainly sound familiar, for that’s exactly the type of violence which the wicked stepsisters enact on themselves when they find that Cindy’s glass slipper won’t accommodate their larger feet. One cuts off her own toe, and the other slices off the end of her heel. Each time, the prince takes them reluctantly away in his carriage (a man of his literal word, he had said that whomever the shoe fit would be his bride). Each time, one of the birds that populate the story as stand-ins for Cinderella’s deceased mother sings the truth—Roo coo-coo, there’s blood in the shoe!—and the jig is up. The prince looks down and sees that the glass slipper has become a vessel of blood, and he turns the carriage around to ask for the next daughter, the next mutilated foot.
The familiar figure of the stepsister, chopping away at herself for beauty, is given sad new life, you might say, by the women this Memphian news bit refers to. I could wring my hands, shake my head. These poor women! What are they doing to themselves? And all to fit into a shoe! The revulsion and pity I feel would be completely appropriate. Whether it’s the shoe itself or the man inspecting the fit that these women are after, it seems a pretty effed-up way to go about getting what you think you want. Sure, I could wag my finger.
But just like the fairy tale, this news story has a hidden lesson, which is this: you, normal person, you’ll be fine. Just look at all the psychos surrounding you. All this ash to sweep up? Verbal abuse? No sweat. That bitch over there is cutting off her toes.
The Germans have a great word for it: shadenfreude, the pleasure we take from seeing someone else’s pain. The opposite of jealousy, it’s a brand of sick comfort, and there’s no doubt that both fairy tales and their newer trash mag counterparts are full of it. Don’t pretend it’s not for you. You cheered inside when the stepmother got kicked down a hill in a barrel of nails, and when Amber from Teen Mom got arrested again. I heard you.
But shadenfreude isn’t the only valuable take-away from a fairy tale like Cinderella, not by a long shot. Just as the clumsy, self-mutilating stepsisters exist in this world, so too do their darker counterparts. Wicked stepmothers, in the metaphorical and sometimes literal sense, are everywhere. And just as fairy tales (and their instances of shadenfreude) can be an appropriate balm for those of us who need reminding of our own sanity, they’re also a necessary comfort for those need to know that no matter how wicked the stepmother, there’s a sure to be a light at the end of the tunnel.
In Kansas City earlier this year, city police responded to an anonymous child abuse tip, and entered the apartment of Jacole Prince. Her neighbors and friends knew her as a mother of two girls, ages 8 and 2, and a doting one at that. The two girls were always well dressed and well looked after, and no one of Jacole Prince’s casual acquaintance realized that anything might have been amiss.
In fact, even her relatives, the people who knew that Ms. Prince had a third child, didn’t have a clue that anything was wrong inside the apartment.
The articles about the case that are available online don’t indicate who it was that finally got wise and called the authorities, but they do adequately capture the surprise and shock of the neighbors and friends when the authorities arrived, entered the apartment, and found the eldest Prince girl, a ten-year-old who would thereafter in court records and press be referred to only as “LP,” wasting away in a closet, covered in her own waste. She was only 32 pounds. She’d been denied food, authorities learned, to prevent her from making more of a mess on herself.
She was, of course, taken out of her mother’s care. In an article published not long after LP was found, and very shortly before her 11th birthday, it was reported that LP had received over 400 cards from well-wishers, and would be receiving untold amounts of gifts at her community-wide birthday party, organized to show her “how much love and support she would have had if the neighbors had known about her.”
So, what makes this a Cinderella story? Nothing, I guess, if your Cinderella story is only about a marriage and a glass slipper. And if that’s the case, it’s your right. As I’ve quoted before, there are as many ways to tell a fairy tale as there are ways to make meatballs. But the recipe that only requires a marriage seems a little bland to me.
What of the story about a child being so unfairly treated that her circumstances are hurdled far above the line of correctness, or even right-minded believability? What about the story in which that girl gets out, by means of a fairy godmother, a flock of birds with the voice of her dead mom, or an anonymous call and the waiting arms of a Kansas City officer?
What about the story in which the marriage isn’t what’s important—what’s important is that, after years of abuse at the hands of those you wanted to trust, everything is finally going to be ok.
This is why I’ll always advocate for the full, robust, saucy-meatball reading of any fairy tale, and vehemently argue against their censorship. The late Bruno Bettelheim, whose somewhat dated ideas have managed to transcend his own faults and foibles (long story, poor Bruno), claimed in The Uses of Enchantment that fairy tales could be used as direct therapy for children—either those who had undergone real trauma or those who needed to parse through their feelings of hurt and betrayal by their parents. Am I saying that I hoped some police officer sat down with little LP and read to her from a book of fairy tales as she waited in the station or hospital to learn what would happen to her next? I’m not sure. I’m no psychologist, but maybe. What I would claim is that a child who hasn’t been sheltered from fairy tales is going to have a little bit more in her mental arsenal when the shit hits the fan, if only because they might have just that much more faith that all will turn out well, and that help, in whatever form, is on the way.
In my favorite Grimm fairy tale, “The Juniper Tree,” a small boy is brutally beheaded and then chopped into pieces by his own wicked stepmother. The murderous woman then feeds him, in a soup, to his own father, who eats it all up, slurp. In a recent interview on NPR’s On Point, Maria Tatar has much to say about “The Juniper Tree,” in response to a listener’s question regarding its appropriateness for kids. Neither the listener nor Tatar, the tale’s defender, is alone in the world of fairy tale criticism. This story seems to always be the lightning rod in arguments about what’s suitable or unsuitable for children to read. Because of this, I’ve sometimes wondered why, exactly, it was my favorite Grimms’ tale growing up. I don’t think it was the violence, per se, though when I think about it now, there was something sickeningly satisfying about all that twisted brutality. After all, I knew it would be alright in the end, didn’t I? I think the thing that drew me to the tale so strongly, though, was the beautiful image of the sister, Marlene, burying her dear brother’s bones beneath the juniper tree, and then standing back, mouth agape, and watching him rise out of the branches as a bird. No matter what version of the tale you may have, there’s sure to be a gorgeous illustration of this moment. No matter how grim or gory the tale is to this point, the bird always emerges, triumphant and ready to keep living. What a balm, that beautiful image, and that beautiful comfort.
Another On Point listener, a children’s librarian, made sure to mention a group of kids being read this tale out loud, and described how, instead of recoiling, they all cheered and laughed heartily at the end. Why? Because the bird emerges, and the stepmother gets brained with a millstone.
See, children? It’s all going to be ok.