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What fairy tales can teach us about healing from early trauma and narcissistic abuse (part 1/3)

Growing up with a narcissistic parent has long-term harmful effects. In this series of articles I explore what fairy tales can teach us in terms of breaking this cycle of intergenerational trauma.

French version of this article

Grimm’s fairy tale of Mary’s Child (Marienkind) will serve as the thread and backbone of the interpretation, whereas better known stories such as Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, The Frog King, and The Handless Maiden will provide additional amplification and clues.

The details of Mary’s Child, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, The Frog King and Cinderella have been taken from The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: a 2014 English translation by Jack Zipes of the first two editions of Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales of 1812 and 1815. They correspond to the versions of the tales that are considered most faithful to their original oral tradition, and are therefore uniquely suited to psychological interpretation, especially in comparison to the sometimes heavily censored and embellished later editions or film adaptations.

Mary’s Child is a story about leaving our innocence behind and becoming conscious of our full potential. It is a story about individuation, integrating our shadow and growing up in the full sense of the word.

In many folk tales, myths and religious stories the first step of becoming conscious is symbolized by an act of rebellion and disobedience. We can find the archetypal theme of expulsion out of paradise (a kind of archetypal maternal womb) by doing something or looking at something that is strictly forbidden. Examples are Perrault’s Bluebeard, the Greek Eros and Psyche, and the Old Testament’s Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and are subsequently exiled.

In addition to the theme of eviction after disobedience, Mary’s Child contains another common theme that is mixed in, namely the abandonment and/or persecution of children and teens at the hands of a cruel parental figure. The most famous stories in this line are Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and Cinderella.

Although the abuse in the above stories is shocking, they give us a certain satisfaction because there are very clearly defined villains who eventually get what was coming to them.

  • At Snow White’s wedding the evil queen is forced to dance in hot-iron shoes until she drops dead.
  • In Hansel and Gretel both the child-eating witch and the mother who abandoned her children die at the end.
  • Cinderella’s stepsisters lose their chance of marrying the Prince and have to go through life mutilated after they have each cut off part of their heel or toes to fit the golden slipper.

The Virgin Mary’s Child is different because it leaves us with shock and confusion. We don’t quite know what to make of it, nor who to blame.

It is important to remember that fairy tales, or collective dreams, can be interpreted in many different ways. Some believe that there is an objective truth in each folk tale, that we can get to this objective truth by interpreting the details that are common to everyone, and that this is the most important approach. In this context the fairy tale is not about an individual, but about the collective consciousness in the culture and time period where it originated.

The interpretation that follows is a subjective one: just one of the many that are possible. My goal, as well as the choice of the details that are explored and amplified, is educational. It will ring true and be helpful for some people, while others might have a completely different, but equally valuable, reaction and take on this and similar folk tales.

The story starts off with a poor woodcutter and his wife who are distressed because they can no longer provide enough food for their only child: a three-year-old daughter. The Virgin Mary comes down in all her splendor and offers, or more precisely demands, to take the child up to heaven to raise her as her own.

The woodcutter “obeys” and gives the child to Mary. The way the story is written leads us to believe that this is a good thing: that the Virgin Mary, out of the goodness of her heart, saves the child and her parents from starvation. But is this really what happens?

If her intention was to help, then why did she not simply give food to the family, or help the parents find some way to earn their living so they could feed their family?

If we allow ourselves to forget for a moment that this magnificent woman supposedly represents the religious figure of the saintly Virgin Mary, a very different picture emerges. Instead we see a woman who takes advantage of the desperate need of a poor family to take something that is not hers to take.

As a virgin she cannot have a child herself, so she goes out and steals someone else’s.

We might also wonder why the father was so quick to give up his child. Most parents would sacrifice themselves to save their child, not the other way around. Couldn’t he at least have discussed things with his wife, thought things over carefully or tried to negotiate a better deal, for example visiting rights? He didn’t even show any emotion over losing his child. And why didn’t the mother get angry and fight to get her child back?

Both parents fail to display even the most basic instinctive reactions any healthy mammalian mother would have. So the child suffers the early trauma of neglect and abandonment, no matter how carefully this fact is obscured in the story.

Once in heaven, the child is surrounded by luxury and we are led to believe that she is happy there.

“Once there everything went well for the girl: she ate only cake and drank sweet milk. Her clothes were made of gold, and the little angels played with her.”

But upon closer examination, we have to conclude that her life lacks depth, love and true relationship. The child is spoiled with riches, but nothing is said about Mary being a loving parent or a motivating teacher. Nothing happens in her life either: no excitement, no conflict, and no opportunity to learn, grow or get to know herself or the world. She is literally in heaven: where everything is good and just, and after a while probably extremely boring.

This is not a healthy childhood where a child can grow and develop into an adult with the loving support and mirroring of good enough parents.

The Virgin Mary in our story cannot, by definition, be a good enough parent with her own unique flaws and strengths. She is too good, too pure, and too saintly. Symbolically it is thus impossible for her to connect on an embodied or instinctual level with her child, and her mothering can thus be interpreted as superficial.

From the moment the child was taken to heaven, her natural development was thwarted as life was much too one-sided and superficial. Nobody can live and grow on cake and sweet milk alone. These foods have no substance, only empty calories and absolutely no growing potential. Even the milk, supposedly healthy, is compromised by the addition of sugar. In the end these foods will only make you weak and sickly.

On an interpersonal level no one can mature and learn to relate to others by playing only with the little angels, who are always agreeable and willing to do what the child wants. Nor can anyone play freely when wearing clothes made of gold.

Children need to be allowed to play in the mud, satisfy their curiosity about the world using all their senses and get dirty, both for their psychological, as well as for their immunological, growth and future strength. It is a well-known fact that children who are overprotected are less equipped to deal with life later on. This is true for dealing with physiological viruses as well as with people who try to take advantage.

Someone who has never known anything real, or bad, has not developed a sufficient immune system and has not learned to protect themselves.

This is not to say that in the outer world adoptive parents or surrogate parents cannot connect just as deeply with their child as biological parents. They most certainly can, and they can be just as great, and sometimes even better, parents, as the desire, patience, and sacrifice they have made to have a child is often much more consciously lived than for many biological parents.

When I say that the Virgin Mary cannot be an embodied parent in this story, I’m speaking symbolically. It cannot be a coincidence that in this fairy tale the surrogate mother is the Virgin Mary, who here plays the archetypal role of the chaste and saintly woman, a woman who has no connection to real earthly or primal love. We can infer that she is ignorant and naïve regarding the possibilities of her own body and the intensity of her instinctual drives.

Regardless of whether she was in fact a virgin (innocent and naïve, as we all were at one time) when she got pregnant, the real Mary had ample time to become an embodied mother during the months and years to come. She was certainly not a virgin anymore.

But in this folk tale, and with this particular child, she has not experienced the physiological changes that occur in a woman’s body and the accompanying psychological transformation during pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding.

With the right support, and when not highjacked by our overly controlling western health care system and the collective fear of our animal nature, the physiological changes surrounding the process of giving birth are part of a deeply empowering ritual transformation that puts women, as well as the men and women who accompany them, into profound contact with the primitive power as well as the raw vulnerability of the Mother Goddess that lives in each of us.

Without this experience, the symbolic virgin simply has no access to this part of her mammalian instinctual nature, and therefore she cannot possibly relate to the child in an embodied way.

If she had taken the child at a younger age, she would have experienced the sleepless nights and the embodied messiness that accompany taking care of a baby. This could have been another way of accessing that part of herself. But she took the child in when she was already three years old, an age when children are usually more self-sufficient in terms of bodily functions and expression in words.

The Virgin Mary in the story did not have to deal with the exhausting, repetitive and sometimes tedious part of parenting a baby and toddler: night-time feeding, diaper changing, teaching a child to eat solid foods, and potty training. And thus she remained a virgin in the symbolic sense of the word: pure, unembodied, innocent, naïve, and definitely not whole.

But archetypes are always dual, and therefore it makes sense that when the Virgin Mary, one sided in our Christian myth, became popular in Western cultures, she also showed a different side in folkloric traditions. This fairy tale written down by the Grimm brothers features a Virgin Mary who, although supposedly pure, good and chaste, nevertheless shows a darker side. Since there is no place for the positive qualities of the fully embodied Mother Goddess, this side has to come out in the collective unconscious as shadow.

Disobedience and subsequent expulsion from heaven

At the age of around fourteen, when the instinctual drive of puberty gains in strength, the child in our story, who has now become a maiden, has finally had enough of this superficial and overprotected life. So when the Virgin Mary gives her the keys to the doors of the kingdom of heaven with strict instructions not to open the thirteenth door, she disobeys, thereby initiating the rite of passage of coming of age, and of becoming conscious of another side of life that was previously hidden from her.

The 2014 translation of the original text says:

“Quickly she slammed the door shut and ran away. Her heart started pounding and wouldn’t stop.”

The pounding of her heart indicates that a part of the maiden is awakened that was asleep before: the embodied part of her, the passionate feeling side and the seed of her development into a fully mature woman. And the pounding wouldn’t stop: once that transformation is triggered, it’s difficult to go back.

This is supposed to be a normal part of development, but the Virgin Mary cannot bear it, perhaps out of shear envy, for she herself has not been able or allowed to fully mature and embrace all aspects of what it means to be a woman. Maybe she is simply not capable of helping her daughter through this phase because she has not been able to go through it herself. Seeing the process put in motion triggers her and brings out the worst in her.

Paradoxically the Virgin Mary offers the opportunity, by going away and providing a temptation that she, at least unconsciously, knows the maiden will not be able to resist. But then she cannot support the child in working through the slow transformation of becoming a woman. When she comes home, she asks the girl whether she has opened the thirteenth door. The maiden denies it.

The Virgin Mary initially knows the maiden is lying because she puts her hand on the maiden’s heart and feels the pounding passion and fire. Then she asks a second time and the maiden denies it again.

The second clue that gives the girl away is the gold on her finger. The maiden has been contaminated by the “gold of the heavenly fire” that she witnessed. She can never un-witness it again. It is simply impossible to deny that she has been touched and affected by what she witnessed. Gold is a symbol of the realization of the Self: of individuation itself.

The maiden cannot go back to being an innocent child, she can only go forward to becoming a woman, and the Virgin Mary knows it and fears it. She cannot bear witnessing this transformation, just like the evil queen in Snow White couldn’t bear seeing her daughter mature and grow into a beautiful woman in her own right. And just like the evil queen in Snow White, the Virgin Mary evicts the maiden from her home and abandons her to the forest.

Both mother figures split off the part that is offensive to them – the maturation process into an embodied and powerful woman – and abandon this part to the forest or psychic wilderness.

The second article of this series discusses some dynamics of codependent and narcissistic relationships, as well as the problem of falling into the trap of carrying someone else’s shadow. 

February 2023

Article 2/3 Article 3/3

Peggy Vermeesch, PhD

Peggy Vermeesch is a Jungian-oriented therapist in private practice, who works via zoom in English, French, and Dutch. She teaches English for psychologists at the University of Western Brittany, and is a former researcher in geophysics at Imperial College London and the Universities of Texas and Southampton. She publishes articles in French and English, and acts as bilingual liaison between Jungian Psychology Space (JPS) and its Francophone mother site Espace Francophone Jungien (EFJ). She is also the author of the book Making informed decisions on childbirth: One scientist’s international perspective, published under the pseudonym of Sofie Vantiers. 

For more information, see her webpage.

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