When I first started this blog a few years back, the tale of Snow White was resonating with me. Her descent into the dark woods captured something of my own journey into darkness after leaving an abusive relationship and going no-contact with my mom. Years later, I’ve come to realize that Snow White’s tale encapsulates even more of the relationship between a daughter and her narcissistic mother.
Narcissists move about in the world with a mirror in front of their faces–all they see is their own reflection. The mirror obscures their view of anything or anyone else such that they’re not able to see others as separate people, only reflections of themselves. This may help to explain why they’re children can struggle to form their own identities–their experience has been that of a mirror for their moms. Children of narcissistic mothers may be viewed as good reflections of her, bad reflections of her, or as competition. We can see Snow White’s growth into a beautiful child as the growth that every child experiences when they begin to develop their own unique personalities and self-expression. As for many children of narcissistic parents, this can be viewed as a threat that must be neutralized.
Our mother’s rejection can take the form of silent disapproval, withdrawal of love, or outright attacks. Regardless of what version of rejection we experience, it can feel as though we have been cast out into the dark woods to fend for ourselves or die. For some, we will do anything to get back into her good graces and she knows this. We can see the repeated attempts to poison Snow White as the narcissistic mother’s attempts to get us to assume the responsibility of the mirror who only reflects the good in her as well as being the one who internalizes all her flaws and shame, thus protecting her from ever experiencing them herself.
Every bit of this poisonous responsibility we accept–and we have no choice as children–makes it difficult for us to breathe and be ourselves and certainly requires that we become “unconscious” if we are to exist in her world. When Snow White swallows that bit of apple, it lodges in her throat, preventing her from speaking, breathing, or inhabiting the world in all her vitality.
When the prince happens upon her, we can take this as a symbol of something new entering Snow White’s psyche. First of all, he sees her through the glass coffin. In this moment, she is not a reflection but her own person–beautiful. Just as she is. The prince might be a symbol of maturity if he is older (maturity and wisdom are also represented by the crone in fairytales) and, as he is a prince, he is a symbol of sovereignty. When Snow White regains consciousness, she rejects the poison her mother has fed her (the apple becomes dislodged from her throat and she spits it out), and she awakens to her own maturity and sovereignty over herself and her life. All children of narcissistic parents must reject that poison and open our eyes to the truth–we are more than just mirrors, we are human and must exercise our sovereignty.
In the final scene, the stepmother is invited to Snow White’s wedding (a symbol of a young woman stepping into her own sovereignty). When she arrives and recognizes Snow White, she is pained that her poison did not work. Our own mother’s may disown us when we reject their lies. Hot iron slippers are placed before her and she is made to dance in them until she falls down dead. We do not have to punish our mothers in order to heal but I do believe that we must allow them to be accountable for their behavior. Whether they are living or dead, we can accept that it was never our responsibility to reflect only the good while we carried the rejected parts of her. We can accept that it was always her responsibility, and the responsibility of every person, to acknowledge and relate to both the light and dark aspects of our psyches.
I waited to address the dwarves last because I’m less settled on their significance. Perhaps they represent the little parts of ourselves that are easily dismissed–the parts that say “Protect yourself–not everyone has your best interests at heart”. The parts of ourselves that do seek to preserve our lives are often very small at times, so small we may not know if our lives are worth preserving. But, like the dwarves, they are steadfast and keep a vigil over us even as we lay unconscious in a tomb, waiting for the day we come back to the world and decide to inhabit our lives lives. To me, the dwarves seem to be the little rays of hope that exist in all of us, ready to clothe and comfort us at the darkest points in our journey.
*A note about the illustrator: Trina Schart Hyman died in November of 2004. She was my inspiration to draw. Her enchanting illustrations sparked my imagination and nurtured my own flame as a child. I found, through art, that I could express so much of what I could not articulate with words.