As energy, fire is passionate and angry : a force that must be reckoned with. The physical touch with the reality principle shatters the projection. It allows us to regather our feeling faculty and capacity for relatedness. We can finally become who we truly are.
In this last article I discuss intergenerational trauma and how narcissistic abuse often stays unrecognized and hidden : to the person at the receiving end of it as well as their community. Narcissistic love bombing, isolating, and gaslighting can be identified in the fairy tale of Mary’s Child. Finally, a comparison with Snow White and The Frog King provides some clues on how this kind of relational trauma and split can start to be healed.
In the first part of this series of articles (What fairy tales can teach us about healing from early trauma and narcissistic abuse, part 1/3) I explored what we can learn from the interpretation of Mary’s Child about the effects of growing up with a narcissistic parent.
In the second part (Tricked into carrying someone else’s shadow, part 2/3) I drew parallels with the dynamics of being in a relationship with a codependent enabler or a narcissist. I examined the effects of being manipulated into carrying someone’s projected shadow and the symbolism of having no voice. In addition, I explored the initial healing processes that take place once expelled from paradise.
If we forget for a moment that the surrogate mother in the story is the Virgin Mary, and we allow ourselves to think of her as the villain, the story becomes much more congruent and easier to digest. Now we know how to feel about it and to whom to assign the black-and-white roles of perpetrator and victim. The story is about an evil person, somebody who steals a child, and then uses her power as a parent to inflict pain, suffering, and even death onto her child : somebody driven by the Death Mother archetype.
It is the name and idea of the Virgin Mary that trips us up, that makes us blind to the fact that she plays the role of the evil witch or wicked stepmother that we know so well from fairy tales such as Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and Cinderella.
When it is a stepmother or a witch, we are all too ready to see her actions as evil. Intriguingly the original 1812-1815 versions of Snow White as well as of Hansel and Gretel portrayed a wicked mother, not stepmother. The Grimm brothers and their early 19th century public must have felt just as disturbed as we do by the idea of a mother abandoning the children she gave birth to in the forest or plotting to kill them, even more so since their book was marketed to children.
There are several, not necessarily mutually exclusive, ways in which we can understand the contradiction of the saintliness and goodness of the Virgin Mary on the one hand and her cruelty and stubborn righteousness and subsequent evil actions in this story on the other hand.
We can see the wickedness of the Virgin Mary in fairy tales as a shadow compensation for the one-sidedness of our good, pure and unembodied western mother symbol. As a symbol of the Great Mother archetype, the Virgin Mary is fundamentally flawed and lacking. If her opposite side is pushed into the unconscious, it can only come out in its shadow aspect, whereas if it would be allowed into consciousness and light, its positive aspects would also be shown.
On a collective cultural level this results in the Virgin Mary showing a hidden shadow side in fairy tales. This is consistent with the fact that on the personal level, when we read the fairy tale, we don’t quite notice how badly she behaves. Instead we fall for her righteousness and despite feeling somewhat uneasy about it, we tend to join the projection (initially at least) and believe that the child should have been honest : that she is the one to blame and therefore she deserves her punishment.
Narcissistic love bombing
On a personal level we might interpret the Mary in this story as an extreme narcissist who is very clever at hiding her true nature : so clever that even readers of the story fall for it. On the surface she does a good deed by taking in the child and showering her with lavish attention and such luxury as she could never have imagined. This corresponds to the phase of love bombing and it is designed by the narcissist (consciously or unconsciously) to make the object of their manipulation feel attached, dependent, trusting, and committed to the relationship.
A red flag in the story is that the child is not given any opportunity to grow up and mature : she does not learn to cook or take care of herself and she never has to help out or do any chores. Another red flag is that she is kept isolated from other people, and only plays with the little angels. In this aspect as well, she does not learn to relate to others. She knows no conflict and doesn’t learn to handle any problems that might occur in her life.
She is completely isolated from the real world and thus completely handicapped in terms of dealing with real life and relationships. She is thus kept wholly dependent on the Virgin Mary in all aspects of her life.
Narcissists as well tend to isolate the object of their affection from the rest of the world in order to have maximum control.
But, as often happens in long-term relationships with a narcissist, at some point the narcissist becomes unsatisfied with the supply, and the abuse begins, or worsens. Whether it’s because the narcissist always wants more, or there is a drive in the other person to rebel and gain consciousness, the narcissist slowly and gradually turns up the abuse. And when the narcissist feels as though their control is slipping (the child finally stands up to the Virgin Mary and says no, I’m not cooperating anymore), she is cast out and abandoned without any explanation or goodbye.
Because the dependent person is so attached and has lost any connection to the real world by now, the narcissist is able to trick the dependent person into carrying any projection they bestow. The child has no chance of resisting the gaslighting techniques of the Virgin Mary and now truly believes that she is the stubborn and evil one who is to blame for everything bad that happens to her. She carries the full weight of the guilt and shame.
And when she starts healing, and she finally finds some happiness and a chance at love, the narcissist cannot stand it and has to ruin every single chance at growth, keeping her dependent and trapped in the projection. Because taking back the projection and thus admitting their own shadow means annihilation, so narcissists will go to extreme lengths to keep the status quo.
Intergenerational trauma and splitting
An additional way of looking at the contradiction is through the lens of intergenerational trauma and splitting. If we imagine Mary as a woman who, due to her own trauma, perhaps in her own upbringing by a not-good-enough parent, has not been able or allowed to develop her full potential as a woman, and she hasn’t worked this out in later life, then she cannot possibly provide the support her daughter needs in order to do that.
When confronted with the rebelliousness, the sexual awakening and coming of age of her daughter, she is triggered and cannot bear it. Everything about the situation screams danger to her. She therefore does anything within her power to prevent the girl’s natural development and to split it off in her daughter as she split it off in herself.
In her pain and suffering she goes to extremes. The daughter ends up suffering the same trauma and is destined in turn to do the same to her own children.
And she does ! As a direct consequence of not growing up and taking responsibility for her actions, Mary’s child loses her own children one by one. The children are in turn abandoned by their mother, and raised by a narcissistic surrogate mother : the Virgin Mary.
The generational trauma goes on and on, until one person breaks the cycle by doing the hard and lengthy work of dealing with the trauma and finally heal, something which can be accomplished in part, for example, in a long-term analysis.
In the story of the Virgin Mary’s child a crucial moment of healing happens at the stake, when “the fire began to burn all around her”.
« Her heart was moved, and she thought to herself : Oh, before I die, I’d like to confess to the Virgin Mary that I opened the forbidden door in heaven. I’ve been so wicked by denying it all this time ! »
As the fire of transformation burns, in the moments before her death, the feeling in her heart returns and she is able to admit and integrate her shadow. Previously her feelings had been split off due to the repeated trauma she had suffered : first by the neglect and subsequent abandonment by her biological parents, then by the subtle narcissistic abuse she suffered in heaven, and finally by the cruel abandonment and persecution once she refused to be a good girl and serve as supply to the narcissistic Mary.
Healing thus ultimately consists of integrating one’s shadow and casting off the projection.
In the story of Snow White we could imagine that she has had time to ingest and integrate the poison of the apple little by little, thereby rendering it harmless, even transformative, as poison can be in very small quantities. This corresponds to finally integrating her shadow in bite-sized portions while she was asleep in her glass coffin. But this doesn’t ultimately release her. Something extra is needed.
When the time is right, a Prince comes along and in the original 1815 version of the story, he convinces the dwarfs to let him take the coffin to his kingdom. He becomes obsessed with Snow White and has his servants carry the glass coffin from place to place in his castle so that he can constantly look at her. Here as well we can see that Snow White is in relationship with a Prince who loves her, but it is a superficial relationship : a minor coniunctio. Snow White cannot participate in the relationship as she is asleep in the glass coffin.
Marie-Louise von Franz writes in The problem of the Puer Aeternus that the glass material of the coffin indicates that Snow White can still see and be aware of life, but she is cut off from the smells, the temperature, the wind or any kind of feeling.
Likewise the Prince has no place for true feeling or relationship as he is poisoned by obsession over her physical beauty and his anima projection onto her.
Transformation finally comes about when one of the servants, who is thoroughly fed up with all this nonsense of carrying around a heavy glass coffin with a dead maiden in it, takes Snow White out of the coffin and pushes her back with an angry gesture.
“The servants, who had to carry the coffin from place to place in the castle all the time, became angry about this, and at one time a servant opened the coffin, lifted Little Snow White into the air, and said : “Why must we be plagued with so much work all because of a dead maiden ?” On saying this he shoved Little Snow White’s back with his hand, and out popped the nasty piece of apple that had been stuck in Little Snow White’s throat, and she was once again alive.”
There is no literal fire as in Mary’s Child, but there is anger, and the sudden contact of Snow White with reality, in the sense of an angry servant not taking seriously the illusion of the Prince’s love for a person who cannot participate in the relationship.
We could say that the physical touch with the reality principle shatters the projection and allows Snow White to wake up, i.e. regather her feeling faculty and capacity for relatedness and become who she truly is.
A similar healing moment driven by anger occurs in Grimm’s story of the Frog King. The cursed frog turns back into the King and thus becomes himself again after being flung against the wall by an angry princess who refuses to participate any longer in the nonsense of catering to every whim of a frog with completely unrealistic and sickening demands.
Again, it is the physical touch with the reality principle that shatters the illusion.
Coming back to the Virgin Mary’s child, it took years of work before being able to get to this point of healing : a year of isolation in the forest, maturing and learning to take care of herself, then three years in a healing, though flawed, relationship. But this was not enough, just like in Grimm’s story of the Handless Maiden, an incomplete sacred marriage is not sufficient to heal, and in addition it will not last.
It is only when her life is threatened in a bodily way that she has the courage to confront her own shadow and do what needs to be done. She has suffered horrible abuse before, but those punishments were bearable because of her defense of cutting off her feelings.
In the end only the desperation of the ultimate ending – death at the hands of fire – brings about the transformation that is needed. Fire changes nature. It provides both warmth and energy. Its warmth can thaw a frozen heart and recover feeling. In later versions of the story we read that “the hard ice of pride melted”.
As energy, fire is passionate and angry : a force that must be reckoned with.
Ultimately it is the anger of the people, symbolized by the fire, at the disappearance of her three children, their subsequent interpretation of her being a child-eating ogress, and their refusal to play along with the King’s illusory love for her, that brings her in contact with the reality principle, the flames constituting the physical touch.
The illusion, as well as the projection, is shattered. As soon as she is able to admit her own personal shadow to herself in thought (she has no voice), the fire goes out by itself and the Virgin Mary comes down and says :
“Since you want to speak the truth, your guilt is forgiven.”
Mary then gives her back her three children as well as her voice, and “bestows happiness on her for the rest of her life”.
This is wonderful for the queen. She has integrated her shadow (at least the infantile part of disobedience and dishonesty) and since she has her voice and children back, she now has a chance to live up to the full potential of who she is and commit to earthly love and true relationship.
And that’s where the story ends. But what happens after that ? What about Mary for example ?
Mary presumably goes back to heaven, alone now without anyone to carry her shadow, and without any chance of redemption or healing, since she doesn’t even realize that she did anything wrong. Her shadow is as unconscious as it ever was.
We can imagine that in time the split-off shadow part will start gathering in strength again, and she will find another subject to manipulate and project it onto.
This is the reality of many severely traumatized and narcissistic people : they repeat the cycle over and over again, and they never get better.
The ending of the stories of Snow White and Hansel and Gretel feels more satisfying to us in terms of our desire for vengeance and closure because the villains clearly get what they deserve : a cruel death. That’s what we want for the narcissists who have hurt us, ruined our lives, and manipulated us into believing we were inherently bad. We want them to pay for what they did.
And more importantly, we want to show, to ourselves most of all, but also to the world that they were wrong about us !
At the end of the story, Snow White is free from the shadow projection. The danger from the evil queen is eliminated because she is forced to dance in hot-iron slippers until she drops dead. Snow White and the Prince are finally able to have a true relationship : a sacred marriage or major coniunctio. The path of individuation is clear.
But Mary’s Child shows a different outcome. Just as with many extreme narcissists, Mary gets away with the abuse and projection without ever having to come to terms with her own shadow. She believes in her holier-than-holy righteousness to the very end. Even when the object of her affection and manipulation finally grows up and she is forced to let her go, there is no change in Mary.
She will stay in her own private hell (even if in the illusion it is called heaven) until the end. She will continue to hurt and manipulate others, possibly without ever realizing it.
And what about Mary’s child ? Against all odds, under terrible circumstances, she has accomplished the first step of growing up, of admitting and integrating her infantile shadow. We could say that the projection has dissolved because her children are back, and therefore she can no longer be accused of being a child-eating ogress.
But as readers we feel it in our gut that the ending of the story is not sufficient. Mary is still too powerful and could come back at any time to further manipulate and abuse her. The solution is not final. We can’t quite trust it when Mary “bestows happiness on her for the rest of her life”.
Mary’s child shows no signs of healthy anger or of taking her life into her own hands. Instead she continues to passively endure what happens to her, even now that she has her voice back. Mary “bestows happiness on her”, and she simply receives it.
We would feel much more optimistic if she had taken a stance and demanded happiness. If she had told Mary that she didn’t deserve her punishment, and that it was Mary who was the stubborn and evil one.
But instead, Mary’s child continues to be vulnerable to future narcissistic manipulation and abuse, whether it comes from the Virgin Mary or from other people. Even if she is a queen and mother now, she is only at the beginning of the road of individuation.
Because of the early trauma and severe narcissistic abuse her development has been much delayed, in the most painful way. In addition to facing the natural obstacles on her path, she must also mourn what she missed in her childhood and youth, which can never be replaced.
But there is hope that with time and hard work she will heal and fully mature, for she now has her voice, her children, and her sacred marriage with the King : a union of opposites with the potential to bring forth something new.
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 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 the healing power of anger (part 3/3)