Fairy-tales are not only stories for children. They speak the language of our souls and can help us in challenging times of our lives.
Dale Kushner, published poet and novelist, explored becoming a Jungian analyst but ultimately chose to become a writer instead. She wrote about this momentous life decision in “Treating Patients, Creating Characters.” Her debut novel, The Conditions of Love, was published in May 2013.
You can find more information about her on her website dalemkushner.com and her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/dalemkushnerAuthor/
After reading her insightful article “How Snow White’s Cruel Stepmother Helps Us Cope with Evil”, I knew I had to ask her for an interview on the connection of fairy-tales with our psyches.
Dear Mrs. Kushner,
Thank you so much for taking the time to give us this interview.
First of all, you studied psychoanalysis after Carl Gustav Jung. Where did you study (if you want to share this information), why did you choose this rather special way of looking at psychology and what did you enjoy most in your studies?
Dale Kushner (DK):
I fell in love with Carl Jung when I was a student in a Master of Fine Arts program in Vermont. One of my fiction teachers encouraged me to read a book that ultimately changed my life. Books can do that, give us a high voltage jolt that catapults us into a new way of thinking. Jung would have called it a synchronicity when the right book falls off the shelf and into your hands exactly when you need its wisdom. Synchronicities are surprising coincidences that carry meaning but cannot be rationally explained. For example, you have a dream about a blue butterfly and the next day you discover a blue butterfly clinging to your windshield. The hair on your arms goes up but you can’t explain why. Man and His Symbols, the book my writing teacher suggested, and one I highly recommend to anyone interested in the mind, is a richly illustrated and very readable introduction to Jung’s theories about the psyche. Between the book’s covers, I found a language and a methodology that opened me to a lifelong investigation of the mysteries of soul and self.
I should clarify that I am not trained in psychotherapy. After finishing my MFA, I spent two summers in intensive study at the C.G Jung Institute in Switzerland and have been a student of Jung scholarship ever since, but I’m a novelist and poet, not an analyst. I’ve posted a piece online about how I made this difficult decision. Given Jung’s favorable attitude toward self-expression and artistic creation, it’s not surprising how many artists, myself included, have sought him out. Lastly, I should clarify that the term “psychoanalysis” is used to describe the method Freud developed in working with the unconscious, and “analytic psychology” is the term used to describe Jung’s method.
P: Psychoanalysis nowadays is seen as old-fashioned among the other forms of psychotherapy. How does psychoanalysis still have its validity in our postmodern times? In your opinion, why has psychoanalysis come to be neglected?
DK: Those are complicated questions. Psychoanalysis and analytic psychology are definitely not trending! I can speculate on several reasons: the cost and availability of health care, particularly for mental health; new imaging techniques and advances in neuroscience that have led to treating the brain versus “the mind” (more on this in a moment); Big Pharma. These reasons piggyback on each other and reflect a shift in cultural values away from an interest in unconscious processes that rely on dreams, imagination, artistic self-expression, and by today’s standards, a longer relationship with a depth psychologist, in favor of a limited number of visits to a therapist and a prescription for pills. For some mental conditions medication is essential and without it, the afflicted are at risk, but we are a society that likes quick fixes and instant cures, and Big Pharma uses these inclinations to advance its corporate success. The brain is an organ of tissue and blood. We can see it on an MRI, examine its cells under a microscope. We can map how parts of the brain function. In contrast, the mind is more difficult to study. There is no anatomical part we know of that creates music, inspires us to seek love or a connection to the divine. In some cultures, the mind was believed to dwell in the heart, not the head. Jung was a trained and practicing psychiatrist, a “medical man,” but after his break with Freud in 1913, he began to explore esoteric subjects like alchemy and the I Ching. He believed a force larger than the ego guided our destiny, and that we could access this soul-making capacity by making our unconscious conscious and by working with dreams and the healing images found within. Just as the body knows how to heal itself by creating new cells, Jung believed the psyche had the capacity to heal itself. Humans, he felt, were not doomed to suffer the past but could transcend it. Freud and Jung lived in another century. Some of their theories are outdated, but most analysts practicing today have discarded what no longer fits with our postmodern psyches and have incorporated more recent psychodynamic theories into their practices. New scientific discoveries about the brain appear in the media every day; the mind, I’m afraid, is an orphaned stepsister.
P: In the fairy tale “Snow-White,” the opening scene seems rather peculiar, as the fairy tale could also have started with just stating that the mother had died. Why, do you think, do we have this special first scene? Would you say that with an all-good mother, we cannot fully mature?
DK: Don’t you love the “Snow-White” story? The introduction of a story with “once upon a time” tells the reader she has entered a timeless realm of fantasy. Unlike legends and myths, fairy tales do not take place in a named historic place or time, but beckon us into our wild imaginings and instruct us with wisdom we did not know we knew. Like most stories, the opening scene in a fairy tale starts the action for what will follow. “Snow White” begins with her birth mother sitting by a window, sewing. Snow is falling. She pricks her finger and three drops of blood fall onto the snow. Winter is the season of death when plants go underground and many animals hibernate beneath the cold earth. Blood signifies death and rebirth. The queen wishes for a child like herself, a daughter, and we feel her longing and melancholy, and an impending loss. The mother dies as Snow White is born. The situation is one of abandonment: an infant is born into the world without a “good mother” to care for it and must forge her own resilience through trial and error. Thus commences Snow White’s heroine’s journey to become her true self. Jung called the transformative process of separating from familial and cultural expectations and becoming who one truly is individuation. The journey is made much more difficult by the loss of a good mother figure early in life. Eleanor Roosevelt is an example of a shy and motherless child who grew into a fierce and compassion champion for social justice. I explore these themes in more detail in a recent article about “Snow-White.”
P: All fairy tales start with some kind of deficiency. How do we notice the deficiency in our own lives?
DK: Great question. The “deficiency” often presents as a state of suffering, a feeling of dis-ease, or as a specific symptom such as anxiety or depression. We may be able to name the cause of our anxiety— a situation at work, a relationship, an event in our outer lives—but we may continue to feel troubled by something we can’t name. “Something” is missing, a sense of joy or peace or confidence or self-worth. We hope that by fixing the outer deficient situation we will fix the pain within. Often this does not eliminate the pain. That’s when it’s helpful to look at what our dreams are telling us about our unconscious, interior lives. Dreams are like snapshots of what’s going on in our psyches that we may not be aware of. Dreams and fairy tales are maps to our psychological states, to our needs and conflicting desires, and offer clues on how to work with them.
“The king or queen has died” is a common opening for fairy tales. Symbolically speaking, this means the ruling and organizing patriarchal principles of the culture have collapsed and a new order must be established. Psychologically speaking, the dead king might symbolize that we are ourselves in need of a new set of principles to guide us. The hero’s task is to go in search of new principles that will renew the culture. In “Snow-White,” the good mother has died and her daughter is left to the wicked stepmother. To claim our own identity, all of us must leave the Garden of Eden of the good mother. In “Snow- White” as in “Cinderella,” the journey to “take up the burden of selfhood” begins at birth.
P: Snow-White is a story about the development of the female psyche. How does the evil-stepmother manifest in a female’s life? In comparison to that, how would, for example, a male figure like Bluebeard show his influence?
DK: One way to interpret fairy tales, as with dreams, is to view all the characters in the story as aspects of oneself. Within us, existing as archetypal patterns, are the king and queen, the stepmother, Snow White, the dwarves, the prince. These figures are unconscious and manifest as drives or inclinations. Where in our lives do we feel abandoned by soothing and comfort (the motherless child), or industrious but stunted (dwarves), or youthful, questing, and exuberant (the prince)? The image of the negative mother or witch represents the destructive side of our feminine natures. Are we sometimes cruel or dismissive of our self or others? Self-sabotaging? Do we envy others we deem better looking or more accomplished? Do we wish them ill? This would be how the negative mother complex operates in our psyches and not just in the psyches of women.
Something similar can operate unconsciously in men as well. Jung postulated that men have an unconscious female aspect called the Anima. A man’s anima can be a source of great inspiration and soulfulness, but she can also lead him into destructive patterns like addictions and attraction to hurtful partners. Jung made a startling statement about the consequences of ignoring our unconscious: what we do not make conscious comes to us as fate. Concerning Bluebeard—he’s the hot guy at the bar you know is trouble. He’s the sexy flirt with an edge of danger women find enticing. He’s the serial killer who charms his victims and then kills them. He represents power, wealth, and sexual aggression. On an outer level, he may manifest in a woman’s life as a charming but cruel and dangerous man, and on an inner level, as those same forces that seek to annihilate from within. The male counterpart to the anima, the female within a man, in a woman is called the animus and is the masculine aspect of a woman’s psyche. In view of what we now know about gender fluidity, it’s helpful to think of the anima and animus as part of a picture of psychological wholeness, something like the yin-yang symbol, rather than tie them to literal gender interpretations of masculine and feminine. The destructive shadow anima and animus attack by belittling and devaluing a man or woman’s worthiness with inner taunts and accusations. It demeans, makes him or her a fury of envy and aggression. When the anima or animus takes over, one feels possessed.
P: In your article on “Snow-White,” you spoke about the differences between the hero’s journey and that of the heroine. Could you explain more about those differences? Do you think movies and books today give credit to those differences?
DK: Traditionally, the hero’s journey involves dangerous adventures, confronting and overcoming monstrous foes, and returning to renew and rejuvenate the old order. The heroine’s journey often involves a descent into the underworld, that is, into the unconscious and the darkness to confront and reclaim the lost parts of herself. The myths of Persephone and Inanna speak of the terror, sadness and loneliness these heroines must face and overcome before they can return to the light of the upper world. The descent is an initiatory experience of inner and outer transformation. In the fairy tale “The Handless Maiden,” a young girl’s father has made a pact with the devil and as a result, her hands are literally cut off. The imagery is brutal. Without hands, she has lost her ability to grasp things, to take hold of the world. How can she eat, take care of herself? Isn’t this how we feel when we are cut off from an essential part of ourselves, and our ability to function in the world is hampered? The girl goes through excruciating trials, including facing the devil, but her contact with an angel and the natural world redeems her, and eventually, her hands grow back. A woman undergoing a heroine’s journey may become depressed, inaccessible, cut off. She may need to remove herself from her everyday life. But when she returns to us, she brings with her knowledge of the darkness that will enrich our day-world. Hollywood and especially YA fiction give us more female role models, but to my mind, these fierce heroines are male-modeled, full of their own gender machismo. This is understandable since it’s easier to portray an action hero(ine) than to show the slow and agonizing journey to discover one’s soul.
P: Finally, what do you think is the meaning behind the death of the evil stepmother and her magic shoes?
DK: Not all the versions of “Snow-White” conclude with the violent death of the stepmother. The older versions of the story satisfy our need to see that evil gets what it deserves. But the brutal ending might also show us a less chaste and romanticized story that has not been Disneyfied or cleaned up for children’s picture books. These older versions depict life as it was and sometimes still is: children are murdered, innocents raped, revenge and jealousy outsmart kindness and good will. I will end here with a question to your readers: what is your favorite fairy tale and how does it relate to your life?