Cinderella and Abuse: She Can’t “Just Leave”

IMG_0307This is not a post about Disney, or Cinderella, or the movie that I haven’t seen. This is a post about a post, by a mom who wants to explain “What Cinderella Teaches Girls About Abuse.” To paraphrase, she says that the movie teaches girls that the answer to all of life’s problems is to be kind, even when that means sacrificing your very self. She writes that this Cinderella, “is indeed kind, but somehow she thinks that courage is needed to endure abuse rather than to flee.” I have no patience for this remark, because an abusive narrative is never that simple.  Whatever the movie has to say about kindness and courage, this mother taught her girls a dangerous and false lesson about abuse.

It glares out from me in this line: “Even my seven-year-old  turned to me and said, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ Good question. ”

No! This is not a GOOD question! Every time I read and reread this, I want to rush into that moment, grab their hands, and say “This is an important question, but the answer is: she does not leave because she has nowhere else to go.”

I thought more of us knew that it is not ok to ask an abuse victim why she hasn’t left yet.

If it’s true that this Cinderella film contains an abuse narrative, then this Cinderella has no self to sacrifice. I don’t know if this iteration of Cinderella is brave, weak, simpering, courageous, selfish, annoying, and it doesn’t matter. By the time you’re old enough to go to a ball, as the child of an emotionally and verbally abusive parent figure, you don’t have a clue where you end and she begins. Or he, in my case.

I took ONE STEP outside the lines my father drew for me, and it brought down a rage that I had never experienced, not directed at me. He did it over the phone, and he left me in a puddle in the grass in the courtyard of my dorm. I will never forget how sick I felt, when I began to unpack the lies. My father’s lies, and my stepmother’s complicity, will haunt me forever, but I also have to live with memories of begging them to love me and trying with all my little heart to be everything I thought they wanted. I am not ashamed. I asked them to love me, because they were supposed to love me.

This moment describes a courage, missed by this blogger, that perhaps only an abused child can recognize: “Cinderella is locked in the attic by her step-mother in an attempt to keep the Prince from finding her. What does Cinderella do? She briefly questions her step-mother about why she is so mean and hateful towards her. ”

A single question – why?

Why do you do this to me, when I have tried all my life to be everything you want? I am good. I am kind. Why?

Every abused child asks herself this question every day. To vocalize that question, to actually ask for an answer, is not something that I ever had the courage do to. The writer mentions Stockholm Syndrome – well, I didn’t know that there was anything wrong! Call it Stockholm Syndrome or Gaslighting, but abuse victims, especially the youngest, rarely see the abuse that is so obvious to everyone on the outside, looking in.

I am angry, and I’m afraid to say that I’m angry, that this woman’s featured post received praise from so many for teaching her daughters that an abuse victim who stays is weak. Yes, she is on point when she tells them, “that they are never to sacrifice their own self-worth in order to be kind.  I let them know that girls and women can draw their own boundaries and let people know when they have crossed them. That’s okay.” But I did not see boundaries and watch my father cross them, tell him to stop, and go save myself, when he didn’t.

I did not learn to protect my self-worth effectively or to draw healthy boundaries because the person in charge of protecting me did not teach me these things. Where was my own mother, in this story? For most of my life, she was in the same predicament. Life was about survival, and to survive in an abusive home, you never rock the boat. By the time I stopped the cycle, I was married. I had a child. And the best I could do was back away, in total silence, from a great geographical distance, and simply stop answering his calls and emails. I didn’t speak up. I said nothing. I was an adult, and I am still terrified that he is right: I am worth nothing, without him.

It’s not hard to get this one right, even with Cinderella. Steven Sondheim nailed it, in Into the Woods, with “On the Steps of the Palace.”

“So then which do you pick:
Where you’re safe, out of sight,
And yourself, but where everything’s wrong?
Or where everything’s right
And you know that you’ll never belong?”

When safety and abuse are synonymous, and you do not believe that you deserve anything better, you can’t “just leave.”

When you talk to your children about self-worth and kindness, bask in the privilege that they possess, the privilege every child should possess–self-worth that no one has trampled, and boundaries no one has crossed. I pray that my own child never knows what it feels like to have his boundaries erased, to feel violated, to feel that he is worthless. Feel the sun on your faces and enjoy what ought to be a right, and seems too often, to be a privilege granted at random.

AND

It is never a good question to ask, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” Teach your children to stop asking that question.

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