Myth as Metaphor for Abuse

I’ve been powerfully blocked in my writing for quite some time now. I’ve never even believed in writer’s block. Needless to say, I feel miserable. So I’ve been seeking out inspiration for the story I’m working on. It’s based on the Child’s Ballad “The Twa Sisters”. Loreena McKennitt does a wonderful version called “The Bonny Swans”. Altan sings another wonderful version “The Wind and Rain.”

I arranged the Loreena McKennitt version for a Celtic Group I played with several years ago. I listened to it so much that the story got stuck in my head. In the story, the young lover falls for the younger sister over her older sister. The older sister drowns her younger sister in jealousy and someone fishes the drowned sister out of the river and makes either a fiddle or a harp out of her hair and bones, depending on the tradition. The instrument sings and plays of its own accord and the only thing it can sing is the story of her sister’s betrayal. Gotta love Irish songs.

So I’ve been laboring away at this story for ages and ages and while I love the story, I can no longer make myself write it. So instead I’ve been reading about mythology. I came across another writer’s account of writing a myth-based story and she drew parallels between mythic stories and abuse that I thought you all might find interesting.

The author is Ellen Steiber and she’s talking about writing a story based on “The Night Country” in which a brother and sister run away into the woods from their evil stepmother–a witch. She arranges for the brother to be turned into a doe when he drinks from a stream and the sister keeps him safe until he begs to be allowed to join in the hunt. The King is led back to their cottage in the woods and begs the young maiden to marry him.

This is where Steiber’s commentary on the tale gets really interesting (and I’m taking this from The Journal of Mythic Arts online which is alas no longer writing new things, but has all of it’s material archived.)

The tale itself continues:

. . . and they lived for a long time happily together; the roebuck was tended and cherished, and ran about in the palace–garden.

But the wicked step–mother, because of whom the children had gone out into the world, had never thought but that the sister had been torn to pieces by the wild beasts in the wood, and that the brother had been shot for a roebuck by the huntsmen. Now when she heard that . . . they were so well off, envy and jealousy rose in her heart . . . and she thought of nothing but how she could bring them again to misfortune. Her own daughter, who was ugly as night, and had only one eye, reproached her and said: “A Queen! that ought to have been my luck.” “Just be quiet,” answered the old woman . . . “when the time comes I shall be ready.”

And Steiber says:

There were a few things in that that brought me up short. The first was an acknowledgment: “the wicked step–mother, because of whom the children had gone out into the world.” Abusive backgrounds often drive the children out of the family and into the world. If you are lucky enough to survive, being driven out into the world can be a very good thing. Clearly, one reason the brother and sister were living in the palace was because they’d been driven out into the world. It is worth recognizing that however lethal she may be, the stepmother is an agent of change. This is not to condone the role of the abuser, but to see the act of “getting out” as more than escape, as entry into the fullness of life.

The second thing that struck me about the passage was that the step–mother’s own daughter, the one who stayed home and didn’t get out, had only one eye. She was half–blind.

One of the subtler effects of growing up in an abusive household is that it distorts your vision. Sometimes the distortion sets in because you can’t bear to see what’s going on. Sometimes blinders are deliberately put on you. Sometimes you become astigmatic by osmosis — a result of growing up in a household where everyone around you has unconsciously agreed to see only part of the picture. In any case, you compromise the ability to see clearly, and many things, including the ability to distinguish between those who will help you and those who will devour you, become confused. When you get yourself physically out of the household and yet continue to live with your vision shut down, the abuse has become internalized and self–perpetuating. When you are surrounded by others whose vision is similarly distorted, you get buried.

The story continues. The evil step-mother manages to kill the girl and places her own half-blind daughter in the King’s bed instead. Steiber continues:

Again the story stopped me, this time with the image of the witch’s half–blind daughter taking the place of the true queen. If you’ve been shut down, it is often a half–blind imposter self that goes through the world in your stead — the “good” girl or boy, carefully designed not to bring down wrath; the “clown,” an equally careful design bent on defusing all tension with humor; or like Devon, the “bad” boy or girl, the ones who get their own by going farther into rage and danger than anyone else in the household. The list goes on. There are endless roles and combinations thereof that we take on when our own being is not welcome, when we have to become someone else in order to survive.

. . .

Folk tales, coming as they do out of the ancient myths, are deep ground. They lend themselves to many interpretations, and so there’s a danger of turning any one of them into too personal a metaphor. There was a part of me wary of reading too much into “Brother and Sister.” And then I came to the witch’s instructions to the king, and chills went through me, so closely do they describe the devil’s bargain made in nearly every abusive home: “For your life leave the curtains closed; the Queen ought not to see the light . . .” Abusive households breed a conspiracy of silence and lies in which no one is allowed to see the light, in which everyone consents to blindness “for their lives” rather than risk the consequences of seeing the truth. This is the syndrome of the battered child who takes the stand in court and swears, possibly believing it herself, that her parents never hurt her. This is the belief that what goes on in an abusive household is “normal” and loving when, in fact, it’s eating its young alive. This is a metaphor for all the lies and denials that perpetuate destructive environments — the line that says someone is always to blame, or that the child in question is worthless or evil or deserving of cruelty.

There’s another level to being shut down, an aesthetic one if you will. What we also stop seeing, beyond the harsh truth, is beauty, and this loss is even more critical. We stop seeing the splendor in the natural world because the beauty has been leached from our lives; instead we see a reflection of what it is that has surrounded us. We stop seeing love, seeing instead fear or treachery. We lock ourselves into narrow parameters that have been set for us by others. Limited, and finding comfort in the familiarity of those limits, we stop seeing the possibilities for growth and joy. We stop seeing the colors. We abandon our dreams. We live half lives.

. . .

Fairy tales are journey stories. They deal with initiation and transformation, with going into the forest where one’s deepest fears and most powerful dreams are realized. Many of them offer a map for getting through to the other side. Out of curiosity, I went back to the patterns of three in the tale, since the very rhythms of repetition set them off and give them importance. There are three brooks, three days of the hunt, and three times that the queen’s ghost speaks. Each of these patterns presents challenge and transformation; they are the places of power in the story, the points where true magic occurs. In the first the brother is thirsty; he needs nourishment and finally gets it, a difficult metamorphosis being the price. In the second he must either follow his own nature or “die of grief”; at great risk he runs with the hunt, and that act takes both brother and sister farther along on the path they must travel to a new state of being. (It’s worth noting that in the fairy tales one can rarely remain in the forest — one takes what was found there and brings it back into the world.) In the third challenge, the king must recognize the queen, an act that will restore her to life and lead to a redress of wrongs, a final ending of the curse, a coming into balance. As abuse takes many forms, so does salvation. Here are three of many acts that can get you through: nourishing yourself, following your heart even at great risk, and being seen for what you are.

Vision is one of the five senses, a gift that’s easy to take for granted. It comes to us so easily. We simply open our eyes and “see.” And yet there are levels of seeing. As the fairy tale tells us, when we constrict or confuse our vision we are primed for betrayal and destruction; we are in the hold of the witch. To free ourselves we must both try to see clearly and allow ourselves to be seen. These are acts of courage and of power. If we can go beyond that and see compassionately, we may even partake in acts of grace.

The whole essay is definitely worth reading, but I thought these pieces were particularly relevant to my own writing. And if you’re curious, the photo’s are by Sarachmet–my new favorite photographer who I also discovered while seeking inspiration.

Happy writing, y’all.


About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
This entry was posted in Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Myth as Metaphor for Abuse

  1. abwestrick says:

    I’d never thought about half-blindness as a metaphor in this way. Now I’ll be looking for it. Fascinating stuff, Pam. Much to consider. Thank you for sharing this essay.

    On writer’s block… my latest method for getting unstuck (this will change, I’m sure, but for now…) is to go deep into minute details in a scene — any scene. I try to enter into a moment and smell it… taste it… without worrying where the story is going or whether that particular moment will make it into the manuscript as a whole. I let go of ideas and plot lines and try to feel/experience the world of my characters… Just a thought… (I throw away an awful lot of writing… Did I say an awful lot? Tons!) Good luck with that.

  2. pamwatts says:

    I’ll try that, Anne. Thanks.

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