There was a thick volume of Grimm’s fairy tales in my hometown library that I read over and over again. I would pull it down from the shelf and sit on the floor, knees to chest, swept into another place by stories of beauty and horror. The library was an old building, made of stone and must. The rooms were cramped and cozy, so packed with books that there was little room to squeeze by. It was the perfect place to probe my fear. Where, safe from the real world, I could grapple with death and betrayal. Where I learned about loyalty and love. Grimm’s fairy tales were far more gruesome than anything I encountered in suburban life. They promised that whatever my experience was, it could be worse. Somehow, I found this reassuring.
Who wouldn’t want their child to know these morally ambiguous tales? These stories open up a conversation, if not with others, in one’s own mind, about right and wrong, darkness and light, fear and love.
Sophia was only three when I introduced her to my own abridged crumbling copy of Grimm. I read her a pre-Disney version of Cinderella. In which, birds on Cinderella’s mother’s grave dress her in finery for the ball—not a fairy Godmother, and the step sisters hack off parts of their foot so that they might squeeze into Cinderella’s slipper, only to be returned as false brides, when they leave a trail of blood as the prince carries them off. When I finished, Sophie squealed:
“Read me the part with the blood again!” She loved its gory truth almost as much as I did.
Here is the great irony: I go to great lengths to protect Sophia from violent imagery on television—from the news, adult dramas, and cartoons that either horrify or numb one to death and destruction. These potent images leave nothing to the imagination. They are what they are. And they either get stamped on one’s brain (I will never forget the scene in Carrie where the other girls threw sanitary napkins at her in the shower, which, by the way, I found much more frightening than the knives flying into her mother, the blood being poured over her head at the prom, or the hand that reached through the earth at the end.) Or, they are easily forgotten among heaps of expendable bodies.
But I will let her read these stories. Stories of which she must conjure the images out of her own dark self. Stories that take on her fantasy of what is most fearsome. Or not. She has control over what she sees. She becomes its mistress. Her fear conforms to what she can handle.
And in turn it makes the world more tolerable. A place safe from fear.
“Mommy! Come look at what I read in the newspaper!” She is excited. Just a week ago she said, hopefully, “Maybe next year I will read a newspaper!” Apparently, she has discovered she can.
“Just a minute Sophie.” I have just stepped out of the shower. My hair is dripping down my neck. My body is still too damp to put on my clothes. “I have to get dressed.”
It is 7:30. Sophie is dressed, but she has her polka dot robe knotted tightly over her tutu, “to be cozy.”
I come into the kitchen, where Sophie is kneeling on a chair, pen in hand. She has been doodling on the paper. There are hearts all along the top and a dark underline scribbled beneath one article.
“Listen to this: ‘Dr. Kermit Gosnell is charged with killing seven babies born alive.”
I am horrified.
Sophie, however, is exhilarated. Her eyes are shining with delight. “I can read it by myself mom!”
“Sophie, what do you think about what you just read?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, how does it make you feel?”
She thought for a minute. “Sad.”
I nodded. “Me too.”
“Why did he kill those babies, mom?”
“I don’t know. Some people do terrible things. “ She was still listening. “But you know, it’s my job to protect you. It’s my job and daddy’s job to do whatever we can to keep you safe.”
“I know,” Sophie replied. “And grandma. And grandpa too. And my teachers.”
“That’s right. All those people keep you safe.” She looked content. Unperturbed.
Of course, I was the one who has already seen too many terrible things. Who could see those babies. Who wanted to sob at the thought. For Sophie it was a witch. A wolf. A bad guy. Read about in a safe place to probe her fear.