The Trauma of Living A Fairytale

You had a violent stepfather? So your life was kind of like a fairytale. When I read these words today, directed to someone else on the internet, my heart stilled for a moment. Over the past thirty years, I've been using fairytales as a healing tool for people. Stories of hurt children forced into the dark forest ... disenfranchised girls ... transformed boys ... They speak of the suffering so many people experience. I too have know suffering (haven't most of us?) and fairytales help me work through it.

And yet, when I read those words, my first reaction was no. Even though I appreciated the sentiment, I feel that to be locked out in the cold, mentally tortured, or whatever other torments occured beneath the phrase "you had a violent stepfather" can not be described as a fairytale. Because while many fairytales do depict awful experiences, they do not tell about the crush of the soul, the pain of the cold, the terror of blood in the mouth and stars in the darkening vision. They do not confess that, even with a happy ending, trauma remains in the cells of the body, that it changes how the brain operates, that it can cause infertility, addiction, and chronic illness, and that it will be passed down through DNA to the next generation and the one after that.

Furthermore, fairytales have a resolution, usually a joyful ending where children are reunited, princes returned to the castle, heroines wed to the gallant hero. But in real life, a girl must drag herself out of suffering, through hope, into whatever happiness she can construct for herself. Very few actual heroines are rescued, whether by talking birds or handsome princes. And even if they are - perhaps being taken to a shelter or a foster home, or running away to university, or finding the first man who will marry them - there still may be years, decades, forever, of painful memories, physical effects, to deal with.

There is also grief involved - the grief of not having had the kind of childhood that would have supported you in becoming your best self and left you with beautiful memories.

So no, to have had a violent stepfather is not to have lived a fairytale. This isn't to devalue such stories as healing metaphors - really, they are wonderful in this way. But they are not real. That's the whole point. They allow us to touch lightly on ... to look sideways at ... the unbearable pain of the real.


  1. "to look sideways at ... the unbearable pain of the real."

    To see it without it seeing us.

    1. When I was a child, I lived in a house haunted by awful monsters who had crawled in from the forest. I would see them out of the corner of my eye and knew the most important thing was not to look at them so they didn't see me seeing them, and know that I knew they were there, thus breaking the protection that innocence lends.

      So yes, to see it without seeing us.

  2. my heavens, who would say such a thing to someone about their suffering? i too use fairytales as a tool for understanding and working through pain, but the way that was phrased just sounds so...callous... *ouch*

    my husband grew up with a mother so abusive, so terrifying and violent, that she made the wicked step-mothers or evil witches in tales sound pretty manageable... she even liked to set him impossible tasks, like telling him to collect every single stone out of the woods or else be starved and beaten. his father didn't help matters, when he was around, and worked away from home much of the time. even the other children in his neighbourhood attacked him regularly. this was his life until his mum killed herself when he was around 9 years old. it had all the ingredients of a very dark fairytale, and i think that reading some and pondering them deeply could be therapeutic... but i don't think i would say to him, "oh, your childhood was just like a fairytale".

    funny how there is often a gulf betwixt truth and tact.

    1. What a deeply sad story. I'm so glad he grew up to find love.


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