The shadow that is innately ours has become intertwined with the shadow that we are forced to carry in projection. Under these circumstances the choice between hiding or admitting our larger-than-life shadow becomes a matter of life and death.
This article discusses some dynamics of codependent and narcissistic relationships through the lens of the fairy tales of Mary’s Child, Snow White, and The Little Mermaid. It also explores the problem of falling into the trap of carrying someone else’s shadow and the symbolic meaning of not having a voice.
In the first part of this series of articles (What fairy tales can teach us about healing from early trauma and narcissistic abuse) I explored what we can learn from the interpretation of Mary’s Child about the effects of growing up with a narcissistic parent. I interpreted the events leading up to her eviction from heaven and her coming down to Earth, where she finally had the opportunity to mature and grow. I also started exploring the parallel with the story of Snow White.
Both Snow White’s mother and Mary cannot bear the idea that their daughter will mature and grow into a beautiful, embodied and powerful woman. So they split off the part that is offensive to them and expel it into the forest.
Both mothers do this in the most horrible way. Snow White’s mother goes as far as to send a huntsman to kill her daughter and take her lungs and liver so that she can eat them. The intended persecution is physical and final, resulting in death. She becomes the literal embodiment of the Death Mother archetype.
But from a psychological point of view the Virgin Mary’s abuse is even worse : she effectively guilts, shames and blames the maiden, without taking any responsibility for her own cruel, vengeful and inappropriately harsh reaction.
She says :
“You’ve disobeyed me and lied. You’re no longer worthy to stay in heaven.”
Whereas it is fully acknowledged that the queen is evil in Snow White’s story, the Virgin Mary’s shadow is hidden and projected onto the maiden who has to carry the full load as shame.
After sheltering and spoiling her in heaven for eleven years, the Virgin Mary now plunges the girl into the other extreme : complete abandonment in the forest, left to fend for herself without a voice to call for help, or any chance to escape or even look for help. And she does this without any warning or explanation, without saying goodbye and without giving the girl any time to recover from her shock and take responsibility for her disobedience, let alone understand what is happening.
“All at once the girl sank into a deep sleep, and when she awoke, she was lying on the earth beneath a tall tree surrounded by thick bushes so that she was completely encircled. Her mouth was also locked so that she couldn’t utter one word.”
It is at this point that we start to feel somewhat confused. What went wrong ? And who is to blame for this dreadful situation ? Is the maiden malicious because she stubbornly kept lying and didn’t take responsibility for her actions ? Or is the Virgin Mary malevolent for dishing out such severe and disproportionate punishment ? But how could the Virgin Mary possibly be evil ?
Every parent, in fact almost every person on this Earth, would agree that what this child did was completely normal and predictable. Every child is curious and will go and look at what they’re forbidden to look at. It’s part of the growing up process : it’s part of all the small acts of rebellion against Mummy and Daddy, which show that a child has a healthy drive to grow and get to know the world beyond the safety and confines of their childhood paradise. At puberty this behavior is expected to intensify, but at the same time the teen will have learned to take some responsibility for their behavior.
But this child didn’t have a normal childhood with small conflicts to learn from and small acts of rebellion and boundary seeking. She grew up in heaven and led a superficial life where nothing ever happened. This means that when she is fourteen, she is actually still a child and cannot possibly take responsibility for what she did. The story leads us to believe it is the maiden’s fault. In any case she’s the one who is forced to bear the consequences.
Read in this way, there is a parallel with the behavior of a codependent enabler, or at the extreme end : a narcissist. These kinds of people will either enable or subtly manipulate the people close to them into a dependent position isolated from the world. Their target becomes incapable of dealing with the world. They set them up to fail, and when they do, they then blame, shame and punish the dependent as if the whole thing was their fault.
Similarly, Mary sets the child up for failure, first by neglecting to teach her about life and responsibility, and then by putting her in a situation in which she is bound to fail.
A slightly different reading shows a parallel with the effects of fear from unexpected and inappropriate aggression. The fact that Mary’s child stubbornly keeps lying about her actions afterwards is expected behavior for a child when confronted with the disproportionate rage of a person in power over having done something forbidden.
A real-life story comes to mind of a child who locked her grandmother out of the house as a joke. If the grandmother had laughed at the childish naughtiness and clumsy form of humor of the child, they could have giggled together, and the child would have unlocked the door very quickly. But as it turns out, the grandmother got triggered, panicked, and started yelling at the child as if she had committed an unforgivable sin. The child was so afraid that she went to hide inside the house so she wouldn’t hear her grandmother anymore.
Eventually the child realized that it was only getting worse and she gathered all her courage to unlock the door. Punishment was severe : aside from having to spend some time in the dark and very scary cellar on her own, she mostly remembers the shame at having done such a despicable thing, and the confusion since she didn’t understand what was so despicable about it.
In addition, despite her tender age, she was the one who had to calm down and find the courage to do the right thing, as her grandmother was unable to act as a mature adult. Roles were reversed and the child had to be the adult and effectively mother the grandmother.
Alone in the forest
The girl in the story is completely alone now, alone with her guilt and shame, without any possibility of relating to another person or experiencing any kind of human (or animal) warmth, understanding, empathy, or love. Snow White at least had the dwarves for company. Mary’s child has no one.
But she has finally come down to Earth. And in contrast to Heaven, Earth has everything she needs to sustain her in terms of shelter, food and heat.
The hollow tree, symbol of the earthly mother, protects her from the elements. The Earth’s roots and wild berries give her much more substance than the cakes and sweet milk she had in heaven. In addition, she has to walk far to get them and work hard to dig up the roots and pick the berries. She becomes stronger, more in touch with her body, and learns to provide for herself. Over time she goes through a complete transformation, and she sheds the golden clothes she was given in heaven that are now worn, torn and useless : « one piece after the other fell off her body ».
She gets deeply in touch with her wild natural side and learns to trust and appreciate all that nature has to offer, including the feeling of her long untamed hair and the warmth of the sun on her naked body : « Her long hair covered her on all sides like a cloak. »
The pounding in her heart has matured and she has now become aware of the sensual pleasures of her body. Naturally this is the moment when a man comes into the picture, and not just any man, but a King : another symbol for the Self or driving force of individuation.
The King finds her, is mesmerized by her beauty and invites her to his castle. After a while they get married.
We would think that this sacred marriage between Queen and King is the perfect fairy-tale ending. But there are some hints that they will not live happily ever after without overcoming some obstacles first. The first hint is that when he asks her to come with him, she cannot answer because she doesn’t have a voice.
This is a theme that we know well from Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid. In this fairy tale a naïve mermaid Ariel, who has led a sheltered life, in this case at the hands of a one-sided overprotective father figure, is tricked by a witch into giving up her voice in order to have legs and feet and go up to the surface to find love. But when she gets there her prince decides she cannot possibly be the woman he thought she was and with whom he fell in love when he heard her sing because she cannot speak.
Without her voice she is but a superficial shell of herself. Without a way to communicate she literally cannot show who she is.
Likewise, Mary’s child is incapable of relating on a deep level with anyone as long as she cannot speak. Her lack of feeling is also suggested by her lukewarm response to the King’s invitation :
“She merely nodded a little with her head.”
That is not a very enthusiastic or embodied response at being saved by a handsome King ! And the King is no more passionate than she is.
“Soon he became so fond of her that he made her his wife.”
There is no mention of true love, and certainly not passionate, embodied love. There isn’t even a kiss. He married her because he was “fond of her”.
But life goes on and a year later she gives birth to a beautiful son. Interestingly, the Virgin Mary didn’t interfere when her daughter found love in the arms of the King, but she did when her daughter gave birth to her first son.
We could explain this by the fact that, in contradiction to the Little Mermaid story, the King did marry the girl despite her inability to speak and show her true self. But we can deduce that it is a somewhat superficial love, based on outer appearances and his projections of what a perfect woman should look and be like. Without the possibility of dialogue and truly relating to each other their relationship never gets the reality check it would need to turn into real earthly love.
But relating to her new-born baby son and sharing a deep attachment and love with him doesn’t require a voice. So with the birth of this baby the queen has another chance at love and at forming a true relationship, and thus the Virgin Mary interferes again.
She seductively offers to give the queen back her voice if she admits to unlocking the forbidden door. At the same time she threatens to take her baby away “if she is stubborn and won’t confess”.
Again Mary projects the evil and stubbornness in her own heart onto the queen. The queen lies again and loses her new-born child. The loss of a child would be utterly devastating for any mammalian mother, but it doesn’t seem to set off any transformation or even the slightest reaction in her because she simply doesn’t have access to her feeling side.
In addition, the projection of Mary’s shadow has taken hold even more and now the people around her start seeing her as a child-eating monster.
« The next morning, when the baby was no longer there, a rumor began circulating among the people that the queen was an ogress and had eaten her own child. »
A year passes and the same thing happens again. This time the queen is even less capable of fighting the projection and ”the king’s councilors demand that she be executed”. But the King protects her despite the overwhelming evidence that something is wrong.
Another year later she gives birth to a daughter. The Virgin Mary interferes again but this time takes the queen to heaven where she is allowed to watch her two sons play.
The queen still cannot take responsibility, or in other words : integrate her shadow, and thus loses her third child. This time even the King cannot save her from his councilors who are convinced that she is an ogress who has eaten all her children. Since she can’t speak and defend herself, she is sentenced to be burned at the stake.
The love of her husband, the King, saves her two times, but the third time he cannot rescue her anymore. There is a parallel with Snow White, where the dwarfs save Snow White from the witch’s poison two times, but the third time they are also unable to protect her.
Mary’s child, as well as Snow White, must bear the consequences of their actions on the third attack.
Snow White’s mistake is relatively obvious : she knew that the evil witch wanted to kill her, so she shouldn’t have trusted that the stranger’s apple was safe to eat. Part of her lesson was discernment : learning to recognize evil and protecting herself from it. And the way to do this is to get to know your own shadow, so you can recognize it in others. Although it’s not clear to me how she learned that lesson in the fairy tale.
In the case of the child of Mary, her mistake was to keep lying and not take responsibility for her actions : for her shadow.
How can we understand the queen’s extreme and illogical stubbornness, to the point of being willing to die for it ? As readers we’re all thinking : just admit what you’ve done ! It wasn’t worth losing your children over, and it’s certainly not worth dying for !
But that’s at least in part because we do not see the transgression as an unforgivable sin. And it’s not. So why couldn’t she take responsibility for the innocent and understandable mistake of her youth ?
The answer lies in the projection. Just as a child in outer life would never expect their parent to be bad, Mary’s child never expected her saintly surrogate mother to act unjustly or vengefully. Therefore, any punishment, no matter how severe, is interpreted as being deserved.
The shame of being such a bad and unworthy person is unbearable and eventually gets pushed away, hidden, interiorized, and forgotten. It goes into the unconscious, where it leads a secret and autonomous life. Although it may be forgotten on a conscious level, it remains just below the surface, sometimes giving rise to physical symptoms, and easily triggered by the slightest perception of somebody being unhappy with us or when we suffer any kind of disappointment.
The shadow that is innately ours has become completely intertwined with the shadow that we have been forced to carry in projection. The choice between continuing to hide or admitting the existence of our larger-than-life shadow then becomes a matter of life and death.
No matter how many times the Virgin Mary tells the queen that admitting her initial disobedience and her subsequent lie will save her and make her happy again, she simply cannot do it. Because accepting this horrible and sinful shadow means plunging herself into utter despair of shame, worthlessness and annihilation.
The queen has succumbed completely to the projection. She is forced to live out the evil and stubborn part of her narcissistic parent. Deep down she believes that she is stubborn and bad, and therefore she deserves to die a cruel and painful death at the stake.
In the third and last article in this series I will discuss intergenerational trauma and how narcissistic abuse often stays unrecognized and hidden.
Peggy Vermeesch, PhD
Dr Peggy Vermeesch is a Jungian-oriented therapist based in France, an English language teacher at the University of Western Brittany, and former researcher in geophysics at Imperial College London (UK) and the Universities of Texas (US) and Southampton (UK). She writes articles in French and English and acts as bilingual liaison between Jungian Psychology Space (JPS) and its Francophone mother site Espace Francophone Jungien (EFJ).
For more information, see her webpage.
- Toni Wolff’s structural forms of the feminine psyche
- The need to acknowledge the archetypal forces within
- What fairy tales can teach us about healing from early trauma and narcissistic abuse (part 1/3)
- Tricked into carrying someone else’s shadow (part 2/3)
- Intergenerational trauma and healing (part 3/3)
- Star Trek’s Borg : symbol of the collective unconscious in its devouring and annihilating shadow aspect
- Collective shadow projection and scapegoating : Skin of Evil