How would you feel – lost, deep in the forest, when the sun is going down and it is getting dark? Would you feel like Hansel and Gretel? The darkness, the helplessness and hopelessness overwhelm you, and your loneliness, despair and fear are boundless. Usually, the trees are your favorite companions when you walk through a forest. They are tall and strong, with sunlight playing happily in their leaves. But with the twilight, these dear friends turn into monsters, and at night they appear terrifying and threatening. You way back seems to be cut off – maybe it is. You feel alone and hopeless, abandoned and in despair. There is no one to turn to, no help you can reach. There is no escape from your black loneliness.
Have you ever thought about perspective in human relationships? When you stand on a mountain, your view extends over other mountains and valleys, and you see the wider geographical context. The view from the valley is different. From there you see the mountains rising tall and huge, but you see only the limited world of the valley, and no further.
There is one area in human relationships, which we are accustomed to see from only one perspective, as though from the top of the mountain: the relationship between parent and child. The parents’ perspective is every day knowledge. The child’s is almost unknown. While we have learned to see the suffering of oppressed victims, the significance of childhood suffering is completely unexplored because of the commandment: ‘Honor thy father and thy mother.’ This only provides a one-way protection – for the parents, the powerful. But why do they need such protection from their children when it is their responsibility and duty to protect them? This commandment enshrines the last great taboo: the ban to question parents’ love, the ban to criticize them.
Every description of parental behavior seen from the child’s perspective throws light on the true nature of parental actions and attitudes. Once you recognize what it means for a human being to be beaten, once you know who the victim is, be he or she a prison inmate or a child, then you look with different eyes at the person who is handing out such cruelty.
The story of Hansel and Gretel shows the perspective of a child who is confronted by a mother’s anger and violence. How does a child feel when, as here, the mother turns against the child, when the beloved source and centre of the child’s life hits, hurts and abuses her or him?
As so often in childhood, this can happen for the simple reason that the child has been happy and having a good time. Who cares if the broom-making is finished, if the stocking is finished? It could be done later. Why doesn’t the mother join in the dancing? And why are the children so frightened of her? What a sad scene: her children’s happiness makes her angry; they are not the ‘perfect’ children she desires. Her rage is, from the children’s perspective, the situation, which is expressed so movingly in this famous fairy tale, its eternal theme – two children lost, deep in the forest.
A child, confronted with a furious mother, has lost his home and his harbor. It has turned into a place of horror and fear. There is no one to turn to any more, no help. The overwhelming feelings that a child experiences in this situation are contained in the image of being ‘lost, deep in the forest.’
The intensity of childhood feelings is hard to imagine for the adult. In psychotherapy, they can come alive again, after years of denial and suppression. Their strength is frightening, overwhelming. But they are a gate to a world, which was previously unknown and unconscious, although it has existed since childhood within us: the emotional world of our childhood, formed and imprinted by its atmosphere, by our experiences and by the traumas we had to suffer from the personalities, feelings, attitudes and actions of our parents. And so we learn how deeply we still carry within us emotionally the child we once were, trying to deal with and survive the turmoils of childhood.
Only in symbols can we call evil by its name: a witch is a safe way to express how frightening and dangerous a mother can be, when seen from the perspective of the child. The witch is the mother who punishes, is angry, screams, beats, is mean and bad to the child, revengeful, or violent tempered. The witch and the mother are one.
Many more images of childhood reality can be found in the tale. The child cannot, for instance, trust the sweetness of such a mother any more. The sweetness of the gingerbread house is only a disguise, a lure to draw the children close, to catch them, to eventually kill them.
Illusions help people survive. Just as some religions tell us that one day we will be well and happy – of course only if we believe certain things, which a god or higher being demands from us – Hansel and Gretel seem to be able to conquer their tragic fate. But this only happens in fairy tales. The reality of beaten children is dark and remains grim. Such experiences with parents can kill a child’s soul, especially if there is no one to comfort the child, to help it realize that it is abused, a victim. As some religions teach, one day all the dead will arise, so the murdered children come alive again at the end of Hansel and Gretel. This expresses the hope of so many people that one day their souls, murdered through tragic, traumatic, difficult childhoods, may come alive again one day.
Published in 1987 by the English National Opera in a program accompanying the opera “Hansel and Gretel.”
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Screams from Childhood