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.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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54 comments

    Brilliant! A long over-due reality check which deals with modern day monsters and how to dump those demons of destruction!!!

    I am very interested in reading this, but I don’t have a kindle. Will other versions become available?

    I have been a member of Joseph Burgos Blog for a little while now. I joined with some trepidation, as I am a bit wary of joining Blogs but am glad I joined as its agood one.

    I was grateful to be one of the recipients of Joseph`s new book ` Cinderalla ` . Its a small but great book and Joseph has taken an old fairytale and skilfully woven it into a take of dark psychological overtures. As a Primary Care Physician, I see many Cincerallas in our practice. The numbers I am certain is only the tip of the iceberg. Many people outwardly prety and smiling and apprearing as happy and confident but inside burning up with great distress, self loathing, self pity and a feeling of being worthless ..all in many or most cases due to trauma visited upon them in the way of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Joseph has done a great job in showing the dark side of the characters , that most of us have inside us, and which are well hidden in day to day life. Many readers will surely recognise themselves and their dark unsavoury or pitiable nature in the characters and hopefuly this book will help a lot of readers to face their traumatic past and realise that that do9es not have to dictate the way their lives will move forward and do well in life. I shall be passing on copies of this book top a few people who I think will benefit from reading it. Well done Joseph on a well written book and best wishes to its sales and your success.

    omig Joseph – the story is amazing. I just read it from end to end! I nearly yelled when it came to ‘the end’. Salutary! I was totally engrossed :-) Oh I wish there had been more:-)
    Ok – questions:
    I read Mum, sister and PC as narcissistic. Was Isabella also narcissistic in this sort? Or bd based on history? FGM – I couldn’t figure this role? Good or bad? How was FGM accessible then inaccessible? ie what does this character represent in Isabella’s psyche?
    Was Isabella desperately trying to find a voice when she engaged in responses to people that were provocative?

    potentially becoming narcissistic herself.

    These are some important questions … but I’m not quite ready to go into the clinical aspects of it. I didn’t think it through too carefully but just let it unfold the way that felt right. Eventually, I’ll go into all of the issues you raised in an accompanying essay.

    I have the same questions especially about Fairy God Mother – agree, such a good book, makes you think and reflect which is so valuable. Can’t wait for the accompanying essay Joe.

    I didn’t really think through it as I was reading, but I almost think of fairy godmother as a defense. Defenses can work very well until we become overwhelmed and they stop working. I saw FG as her ability to split…at the beginning FG is all good and stepmom is all bad. After a while, she can’t maintain the split anymore. She starts to realize that FG isn’t all powerful and all-good and then she holds a more realistic view of her family that holds the split of both good and bad. However, moving from the paranoid-schizoid (or splitting) position, to the depressive position (or the part that holds both good and bad) turns out to be too much for her and ultimately leaves her without ways to cope with the struggles that she is facing. Not sure if this fits perfectly, but that is my best guess.

    That’s a very insightful take. It’s not very often a reader use Kleinian terminology on this site! My analyst was a Kleinian, or a post-Kleinian — he was analyzed by W.R. Bion.

    I definitely dont practice in a Kleinian fashion ( I consider myself a structural family therapist and intersubjective/relational therapist), but find the dialectic of the the paranoid-schizoid position and depression position very helpful in understanding splitting. What is most helpful to me is the idea that when we split, we dont need to fully grieve the loss of an object. Splitting also leaves us with the feeling that we are an object, things happen “to” us, events are random ect instead of seeing our complete narrative (and all the pain associated with it).

    I don’t practice in a Kleinian fashion either, but like you, I find many of her ideas to be very useful. In particular, her understanding of the transition from P-S to D seems crucial.

    That is a really interesting analysis of FG. I had felt while reading that she was a part of Cinderella I just couldn’t figure out how – I thought she was some sort of coping strategy. The way you put it anon fits perfectly with what I had thought (I just didn’t have the skill to explain it). Thank you for that.

    Hi Joe, I posted my comments too soon. I wanted to share other wondering about your book.
    1. I can relate to the sexual fantasy world – I read it as Isabella a) being aroused ie mobilized by this based on her history and identifying her being as a ‘waste OBJECT’ for the Other and b) possibly the incident with the peasant being a form of physical contact that was better then none? Also in the place of Object here? ie all this creating a blue print for her subjectivity and signifies?

    2. The demand of the Gaze was astounding. You really nailed other there. At
    first I intellectually recognised it as classic demand in such nrsct people. But then

    emotionally it resonated something in my own childhood. Adapting/Adopting
    right down to microscope (!!) level – becoming force of habit, not even aware that one is carefully circling, how one learns to be for Other and have no subjectivity. Mindblowing. I now get what my analyst has been saying for the past year, twice a week (:-)) about putting the Other first

    argh phone is difficult to type on:-) but to continue – being for the Other – I understood that at a surface level, putting others first but didn’t grasp the depth inherent in his words- a depth I knew he was meaning but I couldn’t grasp. Your words really brought me there. Not so much the fairly ordinary stuff of putting others first if I have something to offer or even as in the past, being a people pleaser to some extent – what I discover in your description is how fundamental/ microscopic the origins

    of this tendency are – if you get my drift? ie if I learned to appease to the demand even at the level of the gaze, looking to appease –

    Your several comments have brought home to me again the value of fiction, how it can convey certain experiences in a more visceral way, even if we understand them.

    I just finished reading it. I found it fascinating. I never before had been able to begin to understand why people would cut themselves. I wonder if you will explain some of the reasons behind her behavior, such as why she turned on Charming (not that he deserved any better), or the nostalgia for her old home (“not all the memories were bad…”). If nothing else, after reading books like this it reminds me to be kinder to all people regardless of their actions towards you because you never know what horror they face in their lives.

    Hi Joe,

    Once I’ve written the next two tales in this collection, I intend to compile them into a full-length book; at that point, I will include an essay for each tale that goes into the psychological issues at play (from a “professional” perspective). Thanks!
    1!

    to Joe reader here, I would say how even in the difficult childhoods nothing is TOTALLY bad. that’s what can be very confusing -if I love my mom or miss a vindictive sister , maybe they weren’t bad but maybe i am? in analysis and therapy some of the work is identifying the hurt but also the ok stuff. It can be very confusing. usually our pain is that the hurt out weighs the ok stuff by a significant degree. In Dr Burgo’s story it seems to be a ‘the devil you know’. And lots more.

    ….looking itself as ‘ appeasing ‘ the Other and as you know – a massive demand of t narcissistic – well any surprise that children of nrscts are people pleaser?!
    3. You show the generation and inter generational narcissism- passed on in the great grandmother.
    4. I wonder when Cinderella writes replies to her mother but not to G – is this that the child finds it difficult to ever give up hope in the mother? Does she decided not to reply to G – as anger? revenge? or just that it’s easier to cut ties with anyone except Mother? Is this ‘failure’ to cut the mother ties what leads to the scene she witnesses with G and ‘
    what Char ‘ loves so much’? ie at least she might have retained her place and found a better way if she hadn’t stayed connected to Mother and G?
    5.Transformation to lower ‘behaviors’ – I read that as in expressing her own rage etc that she identifies with Mother, G and C. This brings to mind the difficulty of adult children of being able to accept, feel comfortable with, or even know how to express negative but normal emotions. The image/ fantasy being ‘ I am just like them/ I am better in how I

    behave/ I must be a narcissistic too/ I am turning into a narcissistic myself’. Such adults a) sometimes only have a childhood narcissistic model of how to express anger, disappointment etc b) or view emotions as a horrible thing.
    Would you agree that modelling is indicated in Isabella’s sarcasm, intolerance of C’s little habits, fork in face thinking etc?
    Is such rage fundamental to ALL of us in some circumstances? or is it narcissism?

    Finally and with apologies for the bitty postings postings here – I am left particularly with the impact of the gaze demand. Pre my own therapy, I as very sensitive to the gaze of the Other – like the inverse of narcissistic parents demand in childhood- with boyfriends, I would feel rejected, wasted, worthless and disrespect if they didn’t affirm me publicly. It was very painful but also tough on them because I would have rage meltdowns accusing them of dissing me etc as I had no sense of my own worth in the world. I don’t think I have NPD – – I would say shoot me and do the world a favour if I have– but it’s very
    frightening and painful to recognise narcissistic traits/ behaviours/responses
    overt and covert in myself. 13 years of therapy have helped me challenge and knock
    best I can, these narcissistic leanings. Entering my second analysis last year is
    helping me to a) really identify my narcissistic leanings/ internalisation of narcissistic parent…. very painful but it has to be done b) accept it and learn

    new ways to experience and respond to the world. Before this analysis I was
    convinced I was not at all narcissistic – so opposite to Parent and some siblings.

    Now I sometimes seriously worry if I am THE narcissistic in the family. But I
    think that may be stretching it a bit. My only consolation is that if I have NPD- I
    work very hard to get better and not to hurt others. Whether I have NPD or not
    – it seems I have been trapped in this cage fundamentally and it takes many years and big commitment to therapy/ analysis to recover. I could be a total of 20 years or in therapy forever but it’s worth it as it keeps my world together

    hi Joe, i hope my comments are useful to your story development later. i am just as happy not to have the more personal stuff posted and it’s badly laid out too. :-(

    Wow, quite impressive! I was immediately hooked and couldn’t stop reading until I finished. Not only is the story well-done, but the writing on a line level, along with your fresh and evocative word choices, held me captive and appreciative throughout.

    I’m an author with a Big Six publisher (we DM’d recently) and I don’t often crow about others’ writing, but yours deserves it. It’s Big Six level writing. Obviously you have a gift.

    If I were you, I’d continue to write books incorporating the psychological angles as you did here. Pretty amazing! I just alerted my agent to this book. You never know with agents, no promises there, but she has to read this.

    E

    I’ve been driving across country all day, but email on my phone lets me know when comments have been posted — yours made my day! As a fellow writer, your praise is especially valuable to me. Your advice coincides with my wishes and plans: I’m going to write two more such tales (Snow White and Rapunzel), then compile them into a book available in POD and digital formats. The book will differ from the individual tales in that there will be a short essay after each one, in which I discuss (more as a professional) the psychological issues at play. If a Big Six publisher wanted to publish this book, I would be thrilled!

    Thanks so much for your encouragement, and for drawing my novella to your agent’s attention. Have a great weekend!

    Joe

    Hi Joe.

    My pleasure, truly. So glad it made your day, and I hope your trip went smoothly!

    As a writer, when you read someone else’s writing and think to yourself, wow, I wish I’d written that — you know it’s something special.

    In the YA and NA (young adult and new adult) circles, fairy tale re-tellings are very marketable.

    Yours has a special spin due to the psychological angle and your background.

    Another option you’d have is to bring your story to 50,000 words or more (standard novel length) and turn it into a publishable novel — and you could discuss the essay as added bonus material here on your website for free.

    You are very generous with your time and your expertise, which is lovely to see. Turning the novella into a novel could be a way to share, also, yet still get monetarily compensated for your time, knowledge, work.

    I bring it up in the sense that you’d reach a broader audience, if it were a novel. But you’re the writer, so of course your work is up to you.

    I’ll let you know when I hear anything, but I’ll take it to email.

    So much is subjective in this business, that’s fact, so either way, just know you wowed this writer who isn’t easily wowed.

    Enjoy the rest of the holiday!

    Emily

    Self-injury has been part of my life since I was a child (I’m now in my late 50s), and after many years of therapy and hard work, have only recently stopped cutting. While i am intrigued by your novella, I’m concerned that the story may be triggering. What do you think?

    It was triggering but also validating and made me understand myself so much better that the trigger felt different. It was like being reminded of a familiar ‘friend’ that you no longer feel belongs in your life. It was upsetting and distressing and I spread it over two nights because I got too overwhelmed after the first night but with newly learned grounding techniques and mindful meditation I re-centred and read on the following night. It was valuable to me and I have read it a further two times since and each time found a new angle – something new to learn and notice. Be prepared and read on is my opinion.

    It’s interesting, isn’t it? “Upsetting” and “distressing” are such negative words, but those sorts of feelings only exist in a fictional context if the story being told is powerful and effective. Even if it limits your audience, it still means you’re able to make that audience feel something, and as an author, that means a lot.

    There’s a lot to be said for emotional honesty — delving deep into the psychology of a damaged character isn’t for everyone, but seeing that pain laid bare seems like it might give us an opportunity to increase our compassion and empathy (especially since a lot of popular stories gloss over the emotional impact that the things that happen to the protagonists ought to have).

    And, at least in my experience, I’ve found that writing upsetting and distressing stories tends to have a pretty significant impact on me, too.

    Dr, Burgo,

    You write with a potent agility about what most moves us; your posts and longer works are full of articulate clarity and forthrightness about the drives, defenses and disabilities so maddening to those of us drawn to your words. I shall read “Cinderella” in full when I feel more resilient; its themes are somewhat too raw at present.

    For now I salute both the art and the discipline that produced it!

    Many thanks for that — and I’ll look forward to hearing what you think about Cinderella when you feel up to the challenge! Because I was so immersed in writing it, and the emotional story felt so “true” to me, that I didn’t anticipate how difficult and often triggering it might be.

    Thanks, Julie. As time goes by, I’m feeling better and better about this novella and more comfortable with the fact that it won’t be for most people. It’s difficult and dark; most people don’t want to go there — but I’m glad and grateful that you do!

    A very interesting twist on an old tale by delving into a more truthful what-if scenario (ending) than fairy tale hokum. I remember being read the Disney version of Cinderella as a small child followed by other versions like the Grimm Brothers. One of the better ones that comes to mind is the Chinese Cinderella story written by A. Ling Luey where the ending had a bit of a darker ending for the stepmother and stepsister unlike Disney’s version. Although, Yeh-Shen (the heroine) still ended up with her handsome prince and happy-ever -after despite being ridiculued and abused. I know as a child I scoffed at the idea that such a thing was possible and I recall saying to my mother that in real life she would have hated her stepmother and sister. And why was it only beautiful girls were rewarded and not the ugly ones? A central theme of the Yeh-Shen story. There’s a South Korean movie called “Cinderella” and it’s a rather thematic and almost satirical horror spin on the cultural pressures that South Korean women face in their neverending pursuit to be beautiful and perfect. I’ve often felt that Cinderella was the poster child for narcissim par exellence and that it imparts the (un)real message that only beautiful people will succeed, that no matter what kindness can prevail, and that being abused will not leave a person with scars – i.e. if they weather their abuse with great courage, fortitude, and patience, eventually they will be rewarded. A scenario that is obviously very deviated from real life situations.

    Congratulations on having your book published. :)

    Dear Dr. Burgo,

    Thank you for putting all the effort and dedication into writing this book. I loved the variation of the Cinderella story and I – hmm – identified with Cinderella. I always did. But even more so after reading your book. You know what that means and I do, too. It was fascinating that, when I had to stop reading at the point when the clock turned midnight, I started thinking of how the story might end. And I fantasized different endings. Probably more reflecting on my wishes and fears, than logically continuing the story. When I actually read the end, I was tormented by the gruesome but somewhat predictable ending that you imagined for Cinderella. This is a great piece of art and is well informed by your work. Again, thank you for the story. I would be highly interested in the interpretation from your perspective, as you mentioned in another post. And I hope for a better ending for my own story – but I am working on that.

    Kind regards,
    mostly_sunny

    Thanks so much. To me, once the pieces were in place — self-injuring child of a narcissistic mother who marries a narcissistic man — the end did seem inevitable to me. I most certainly wish you a happier ending than C!

    Hi Dr. Joe,
    My computer crashed and I just got a new one!! I just purchased and read the novella last night and was really impressed and related to lots of the story. I agree with you that this fictional story is able to “convey certain experiences”. Especially the transitions Cinderella made from being fearful of her mother and sister to anxiety, anger and ultimately turning on her self. With the added “benefit” of the pain helping to completely disassociate her from the feelings. I’ve never seen a description of cutting that articulate and clear. I stopped cutting a long time ago but…self destructive behaviors are hard to understand in general and I thank you for more clarity. I feel like reading this other (albeit fictional) woman’s experience, helped me understand and grieve my own experience and forgive a little. It’s just such a bizarre thing to do (even to the cutter) and you have made it human. Thanks

    It was a great read.. I don’t cut and yet I found it to be quite triggering. Goes to show how real you write. Great job!

    Although my experience wasn’t as dramatic as Cinderella’s, I did find myself relating a lot. My father used to take us to the beach and have my sister and me have races in the sand, knowing I wouldn’t have a chance at beating her due to orthopedic conditions. Then, as we were running, he’d stand by and cheer my sister on… almost as if I didn’t belong to him.

    im getting this book but a little scared that i won’t be able to read it all. seems it could be very triggering for cutters and ppl with cptsd??
    while my mother wasn’t a narcissist…there were other things in the beginning of the story that i related to…namely the monstrous shame.
    i’d honestly all but given up hope finding a book or other resource out there that accurately portrays self injury. this looks promising and i hope i can get through it. if you have managed to do what so few have and can help people understand self injury- then blessings to you and i’ll give a most emphatic recommendation and you’ll have my gratitude, for all that’s worth.

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