Monday, September 21, 2009

Fairy Tales and Psychology

No, I'm not bringing out Bettelheim or Jung or von Franz today. I wanted to offer a link to this article: HUMAN MATTERS: Failure to trust own knowledge, instincts can lead to catastrophe by Steven Kalas.

Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor with a regular column and a book. In this week's column, he uses fairy tales to illustrate his points about trusting our instincts. Little Red Riding Hood is the star of the examples and I appreciate the article and its message. I wish I could just quote it all right here, right now. But here are some key parts:

The Brothers Grimm are sometimes criticized for being, well, grim.

See, children suffer in these fairy tales at the hands of cruel parents and witches and sometimes the teeth of wild animals. Sometimes the children are rescued by fairy godmothers and other assorted providence. Sometimes they escape to freedom by their own wits and resourcefulness. Other times they don't. Sometimes they die.

Just like in real life. Which is why I dig the Brothers Grimm. Classic fairy tales are so human. So real. And they do more than entertain. Classic fairy tales teach us, young and old alike. They ask us to look at ourselves and our culture.

Wonderful. I want to borrow that well-worded answer every time I'm asked about the suitability of fairy tales for children. But the article isn't really about children's but more about women's issues.

The classic "take" on Little Red Riding Hood is as a morality play about the dangers of naivete. But, I suggest that Little Red Riding Hood's problems are far worse than that. Here's the deeper question: Hey Red! What is it in you that keeps overriding your own senses! Keeps overriding your own experience.

It ain't your grandmother! Run!

I'm thinking of buying several copies of "Little Red Riding Hood," so I can have them on hand to give to patients in therapy. Especially female patients. I can't explain why, but most therapists (including myself) will tell you they encounter a higher number of women than men who consistently don't and won't believe their own eyes, their own ears and their own felt experience, especially as it regards love relationships with wolves. Er, some men.

And that's all I'll quote but there's at least twice this in the article itself, including more food for thought and some examples from his practice. Click through and read it.

The article reminds me of what The Path video game is trying to accomplish, using Little Red Riding Hood to explore women's dangers and fears in the world. Kalas is discussing less physically dangerous relationships, but the message applies to more.

In a related vein of thought, I had a great conversation this past weekend with Brian Hull, a professional puppeteer (more about him in days to come!) who regularly adapts fairy tales and other stories for children's theatre. He told me that of all the fairy tales he performs, Hansel and Gretel always receives the most resistance by parents and teachers for multiple reasons, one being that the witch is not redeemed but destroyed. Hull explained his reasoning that redeeming the witch, giving her a change of heart, negates the cautionary aspects of the tale. "The witch is the stranger in the park with candy," he said. "Why would we want to make the stranger a good person?"

When one equates the witch with the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood (or even Three Little Pigs), it's more scary to consider making these tales less scary, to negate their messages that the world is dangerous and to be savvy and aware. Unfortunately, the message is an important one and feeds into everyone's deepest fears whether they be child or adult. But it is one that cannot safely be forgotten or ignored.

So keep reading the fairy tales. Perhaps not at bedtime but during family time when life lessons are taught with love and a hope for safety. And I'll borrow from Kalas' article again, quoting a wise woman:

"When people show you who they really are, believe them." -- Maya Angelou


  1. An insightfull post. Will definitely help.

    Karim - Creating Power

  2. This is one of my favorite posts of yours so far! Wonderful and insightful, great job. :)