Cinderella: A Tale of Narcissism and Self-Harm

Cinderella Cover

It is with great pleasure that I announce the release of my first work of fiction in over 30 years. While it lacks the imprimatur of a mainstream publisher, I’m nonetheless proud.

This re-telling of the classic fairy tale asks the following question: How would Cinderella actually have turned out if she’d grown up surrounded by people who hated and abused her? It unfolds in three chapters and runs about 75 pages in length, exploring my usual themes of shame and narcissism, along with the tumultuous emotions associated with self-injury. It’s fairly dark, and not for the faint of heart. Cinderella does not live happily ever after.

Below is a sample from the opening of the book. This excerpt should give you a feel for just how different it is from the classic version, with hints of its darkness.

Chapter One

Sometimes at night, curled up on her pallet beside the cooling hearth – the musty smell of old straw in her nostrils, in her ears the sound of mouse claws scratching on the stone floor – Cinderella felt as if she belonged amidst the ashes. She always felt dirty, though she kept her hands fearfully clean, washing them many times each day before cooking or serving, before changing those linen sheets upon Griselda’s bed or helping her sister to dress. As for her own clothes and body, she could do little but brush away the ashes then scrub her face and arms with old dishwater. Mother left her no time for proper bathing. By the time she’d finished carrying water in steaming pails from the kitchen cauldron to Griselda’s tub – up and down the stairs seven, eight, nine trips – new chores awaited her. Sweeping, mopping, cooking, sewing.

Cinderella did her best with these chores but her best never seemed quite good enough. Her stitches lacked refinement, her cooking was too bland; she inevitably missed dirt in the corners when she scrubbed the floors, or left streaks of grease on the dinner plates when she returned them to the cupboard. It sometimes seemed as if she could do no right and her sister no wrong. No matter how badly Griselda played the piano – Cinderella wincing below stairs at the wrong notes, the plodding tempo – Mother called it “delightful.” However indolent or pettish, Griselda never heard an unkind word.

Reading Mother’s face, listening to her differing tones of voice when she addressed them, it was obvious she felt blessed with one perfect child and burdened by the other.

Sometimes at night when Cinderella thought back on her life, a surge of bitterness made the kitchen shadows go deeper; she heard the skittering mice and wanted to smash them with the frying pan. Their hairy skins would split open, spilling blood and guts onto the stone floor. After another long day void of kindness, with the warmth of fading embers at her back, she would imagine a different mother, one who might love her in spite of her ugliness. She felt ashamed of having such a dream; she would never have told a soul about this imaginary mother, even if someone had cared enough to take an interest in her dreams, her thoughts, what passed unnoticed within her.

The lovely image would flood her thoughts with light. My fairy godmother – that’s what Cinderella called her. Dressed all in white – a pearlescent white aglow with kindness – she would smile from the corner where Cinderella had conjured her. Fairy Godmother never spoke, but the way she beamed – the way she fixed her smiling eyes on Cinderella’s face and never looked away – seemed to tell her, You are beautiful, too. As beautiful to me as I am to you.

Occasionally, on mornings after Fairy Godmother had come and lingered long into the night, Cinderella could almost believe it to be true. Catching a glimpse of herself in the looking glass upon Griselda’s dressing table, she’d think, “Perhaps I really am beautiful!” She compared the lines of her own figure with her sister’s physique, seen and felt each day upon dressing, and briefly believed her own form lovelier, more pleasing in shape.

If her father hadn’t died when she was so young, life might have turned out differently. She had few memories of Father, and not one of his face. She did recall his hands, their massive size, the feel of them. She remembered sitting on his lap and the look on Mother’s face when she saw them together.

“Leave the girl alone.” That’s what she remembered Mother saying.

The Narcissistic Mother Revisited

Angry MotherI’ve written about narcissistic mothers in two earlier posts, one about my own (mostly bad) mother, and another that differentiates healthy parental pride from narcissistic over-involvement. In particular, I’ve talked about the struggle to find the goodness in mothers who largely failed their children. I focus on this issue not only because it comes up in therapy but because it personally matters to me; I feel I’ve made peace with the memory of my father but have continued to hold a grudge, so to speak, against my mother. Lately, I’ve felt the grudge begin to ease its hold on me. To my surprise, I’ve found myself feeling more compassionate about what I imagine to have been her struggles.

I have a vivid memory from the time when I was in fourth grade. My mother was driving my best friend Chuck and me to the movies, I believe; as we traveled along Manchester Boulevard in Westchester (a suburb of Los Angeles), Chuck was reading storefront signs and billboards aloud, a way to pass the time. After he’d gone on for a couple of minutes, my mother told him, with barely concealed rage, “Yes, Chuck — we know you can read.” A simple moment that has stayed with me for years. My mother was always going off that way, or hitting you with the blunt force of her sarcasm. Recently, I had an experience that gave me a deeper, more sympathetic grasp of what made her behave that way.

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Diary of a Shame Attack

On Saturday, I made a short new video, making use of what I’d learned in media training. I felt very good about that video because I’d confronted some underlying shame and the related wish to remain invisible — that is, relying on a blank facial expression and little modulation in my voice in order to reveal as little as possible. I uploaded it to my YouTube channel and wrote a short post about it here on After Psychotherapy. Not long after the post went up, I received a supercilious, mean-spirited critique from one of my readers. Even after 2-1/2 years writing this blog, I still find it difficult to bear when site visitors say hurtful things to me. I have not developed a thick skin. In posting the video, stating explicitly that I felt good about it, I had made myself vulnerable; receiving that comment hurt. I felt humiliated.

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Why Free Association is So Difficult

Most people understand what free association means: to voice all thoughts, feelings and ideas that come to mind during a therapy session, without deciding in advance whether they’re relevant or “worth saying.” At the beginning of traditional psychoanalysis, clients are instructed to freely associate and occasionally reminded to do so as the treatment proceeds. We call it the “fundamental rule” of psychoanalysis; we believe that free association brings apparently unconnected ideas into relation with one another, revealing links that give us access to the unconscious.

Here’s an an example. In session this week, my client Tom was discussing his work schedule. Tom is a highly successful entrepreneur with several thriving businesses; he works enormously long hours and operates himself as if he were a machine, with little regard to his needs, feelings and limitations. In this particular session, Tom spent a long time discussing the demands of the workplace in a light-hearted manner, telling jokes about problems he encountered, making light of his frustration. In a practical vein, I kept pointing out that he could say “no” to certain demands upon his time. I wondered aloud whether he had room to acknowledge just how exhausted he felt, how far beyond his limits.

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What Hurts the Most

I don’t usually relate to the trending topics on Twitter — often about celebrities I don’t know and TV shows I’ve never watched — but earlier this week I noticed that #WhatHurtstheMost was a popular hashtag for the day. Out of curiousity, I searched the term on Twitter and read through a hundred or so tweets to see what it was that people found especially hurtful. There was a variety of answers, but the most popular one involved romantic rejection or unrequited love. Here’s a sample of the variations on that subject:

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