The familiar plot of Cinderella gave me the opportunity to write about shame and narcissism, themes not traditionally addressed by other iterations of this classic fairy tale. Snow White, my current project, allows me to write about the experience of envy and jealousy, usually the most prominent feature of every version of the story: the envy felt by the Wicked Queen for Snow White’s youth and beauty, obviously experienced as a narcissistic injury or threat. As in the original version of the fairy tale, before the Brothers Grimm altered the story to make it more emotionally acceptable to their audience, the Queen in my story will be Snow White’s biological mother. What kind of woman would feel so envious of her own child that she wants to destroy her? Rather than a monochromatic “evil” queen, I’m trying to envision a fully dimensional character and what might drive her.
The envy parents sometimes feel for their children has been on my mind of late, not only because I’m writing about it in Snow White but also because I’m feeling it. This envy is not the poisonous, destructive kind of hatred parents sometimes feel for their kids, but one that mingles with pride and genuine happiness for my children’s success. It’s a wistful kind of regret: I wish I could have had that, too. My oldest graduates this weekend from a top university and, at 22, will step into a fascinating job with an excellent company. My second son, only 19, attends college in London and will be spending his summer as an intern in Paris. Neither one has had to take out student loans or work their way through college — all thanks to the education trust established by their maternal grandparents. Oh my, these are fortunate boys!
When I was in high school, I wanted to attend an Ivy League university on the East Coast. I had the grades and SAT scores to get into Harvard but my father refused to pay even though tuition back then was much more affordable than it is today, well within the means of our family. I went to UCLA instead, a good university but not an Ivy. I worked at least 20 hours per week throughout my four years and have always felt that I missed out on a lot of college. I feel that I didn’t have enough time to devote to my studies. One of my biggest regrets is not having had the kind of immersion experience that my oldest son enjoyed. I envy him, but it’s not a bitter feeling. It doesn’t make me lose sight of my own accomplishments and the very real goodness in my life so far.
I believe my own father envied me, too. Early in high school, he had to drop out and help support his family during the Depression. Although he never said as much, I know he wished he could have finished high school and gone on to higher education. I was the only one of his children to do so. When I earned my doctorate and built a life as a professional, he felt a mixture of pride, vicarious fulfillment and envy.
I graduated first in my high school class. Years later, I learned that for months after, Dad had carried the little slip announcing my class rank in his pocket, showing it to friends and business associates. He was obviously proud, though he never told me so. It strikes me as a narcissistic sort of pride, about him rather than me. Many of you will relate to this experience. In your comments to my posts, you’ve told me about parents who exploited you for narcissistic gain. I don’t think my father was a bad man, or that his experience of pride was particularly unusual. Don’t most parents like to brag about their child’s success because it reflects well upon them? When I speak of my sons’ lives, I feel pride in them as well as myself.
One day when I was in my early 30s — married, a homeowner, in private practice — my sister-in-law Debbie told me the following story concerning Dad. She had been talking to him about troubles with her own son, who was struggling to make his way as an independent adult, borrowing money, often in need of help from his mother and father. Dad said to her, “It never ends, Debbie — I’m still supporting Joe.” In actual fact, I’d been financially independent for years. I was married to a lawyer and we were both earning respectable incomes. Why did Dad lie to her? Why did he want to diminish me and my accomplishments? Envy and narcissism, I’d say. He envied my education and my success; he wanted to make himself look “big” by taking credit for them. Sure, my life seemed to be a success but only because he was subsidizing it.
All of this feels like ancient history, no longer a source of much pain. I’ve spent enough time regretting what Dad couldn’t give me and at this point in my life (with Father’s Day coming up), I’d rather recall his strengths as a man: his powerful work ethic, his perseverance in the face adversity (he nearly went bankrupt more than once but refused to go under), the aura of emotional calm he usually exuded. I don’t think he ever felt sorry for himself. These are qualities I greatly admire. I think I resemble Dad in those first two traits; but as I wrote in my post about self-pity, I’m liable to feel sorry for myself, a trait I do not respect. If I’m careful and heed my own limits, I can manage my emotional life well enough not to inflict my pain and stress on those around me. I don’t always succeed but I try. I’m good in an emergency, becoming extremely calm and clear in a moment of crisis.
In any event, if Dad envied me, it didn’t play a major part in his experience. A parent’s envy wasn’t a continuous emotional factor in my life, as seems to have been the case for some of the readers who responded to my earlier post about narcissistic mothers. Plus, I think a certain amount of envy for your children is normal. After all, my kids are young and at the beginning of their journey; I’m well past the middle of my own. They haven’t made any major mistakes so far; I have a number of significant, painful regrets about choices I made. Of course I wish I could be young again, with my whole life ahead of me. That doesn’t mean I want to deprive my children of enjoying their own time.
Envy gets a bad rap but there’s nothing unusual about it. Envy, as I’ve said before, can teach you what you want. Problems only arise when it links up with shame, as I’ve written about before. When the success/beauty/youth enjoyed by someone else makes us feel like a loser in comparison, our envy may become poisonous. In the illogical unconscious, we may feel as if it is precisely because the other person has the trait or thing we want that we cannot have it. We may feel that the only possible relief would be to destroy the object of our envy.
A deeply shame-ridden woman with powerful narcissistic defenses — that’s Snow White’s mother in a nutshell. Her psychology seems clear enough, and not particularly ground-breaking. What interests me more is the huntsman. What was his relation to the Queen, and why would he obey her command to kill Snow White?
Most intriguing to me are the dwarfs. After reading Andrew Solomon’s new book, Far From the Tree, I’ve become interested in the way disability groups seek to escape social stigma by intentionally separating themselves from the mainstream. What if those seven dwarfs weren’t cute little fairy tale figures but actual dwarves, born into the “normal” world? How did they come to be living together and what sort of life would that be? How would they feel when a normal-sized person wandered into their world? Would they envy her?
Snow White at the Dwarf Colony. Stay tuned.