Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
April 2009 - Volume 09, No. 4
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Cinderella’s Stepmom

For some curious reason, right now I have an unusual number of female clients who complain of a “mother from hell.” Now they don’t all use this language, but in these cases, their experience is similar. The common scenario consists of three primary parties, (1) my client - the bad daughter, (2) a sister who can do no wrong - the good daughter, and (3) the mother herself. One other significant party (4) is the father, who is either absent or passive (functionally absent). So the mother’s program runs unchecked.

One of the reprehensible faults of my profession is that we often perpetuate blaming the parents whenever something is wrong or suffered by the child. A chief of psychiatry at a hospital where I was employed many years ago reminded us that we can study certain mental health problems and discern very distinct histories of parental involvement. But, when in the general population we find these parental patterns, many or most children still turn out fine. The statistics and theories may be useful in one direction, but often woefully inaccurate in the reverse direction.

Also, I’ll always assume bias in a client story. My focus isn’t to judge the reality, but rather heal the story. And when the story is healed, the client is more free to operate responsibly and creatively in the greater world.

Albeit too, in our business we do come in contact with great cruelty behind family walls.

Bearing in mind my caution when it comes to any blaming of parents, still at this moment I have a handful of clients with the same general complaint, and their laments do have therapeutic merit. Mother carries an obvious bias against the daughter that is my client, while another daughter is protected, coddled, excused, rescued, and in general can do no wrong. And behind it all is a father who consistently gives in to his wife or just disappears.

By the way, one of my “rules” for two-parent families is that each has the responsibility to protect the child/children from the craziness of the other parent. Notably in these situations this rule is broken or absent.

A working clinical thesis is that the mother has within herself a particular “split” (cf Jekyl & Hyde), from which she projects the good half of herself onto the favored daughter, and the evil half onto the rejected daughter. According to old tradition, the rejected daughter is supposed then to go and die (or these days at least get drugged or go into therapy). The anger of the rejected daughter isn’t all her own anger, it’s also the projected anger of the mother. That’s why it’s so difficult to let go of. (And the mother will make certain that it doesn’t come back home to her.)

The great therapy secret is this - when the rejected daughter can let go of the anger, she is the one offspring most able to break free of the constricting family system, free to make a life on her own terms out in the larger world. The favored daughter, on the other hand, often can never leave home, and becomes the greater prisoner.

While explaining this one day to a client, it hit me - that’s the secret of the Cinderella story! After enduring her “cinder” (dead) time, she became the only one who could eventually break free and join the Prince. (One client, who’s had it with men as well, asked that when I tell the story I leave men out of the story’s resolution.)

The great fairy tales are frequently thousands of years old. (The Grimm brothers only collected them.) And so many of them begin with a family split - the mother dies, the father remarries foolishly, and then himself disappears, leaving the daughter in the care of a woman who hates her. (In Hansel and Gretel, the new wife even convinced the father to kill them.) It was the work of psychologist Bruno Bettelheim (1903-1990) in The Uses of Enchantment (1976), who found that children who were raised on the original stories (not sanitized by well-meaning psychologists, educators, and Disney) fared much better in the life of the real world .

So let’s pay attention to the old stories. Their purpose was to help form the psyches of generations to prevail in a world that can often be cruel and difficult. I once heard Robert Bly comment that young men raised on Jack and the Beanstalk (where the Giant wanted to eat Jack), when in the real world get fired from General Motors, are much more able to cope.

Mythologist Michael Meade, author of the recent The World behind the World - Living at the Ends of Time (2008), recounts indigenous wisdom that as long as there are stories to tell, the world will never end. The gist of his book is that in all the world’s cultures, their stories tell us that when the end seems very near, there’s something new also ready to be born.

In the unfolding of time, Cinderella did escape her wicked stepmother and stepsisters. They never got to go with the Prince, the sisters have their eyes poked out, and never ever had a real wedding. That’s the way the Grimm version goes. (In the French version, a sweeter Cinderella forgives them and she gets them husbands of their own.) Either way, let me suggest you Pay Attention to these things.

And these particular female clients, each will eventually do very well. Of that I’m sure.

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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