alexandra alger


My Life: A Fairy Tale?


The psychologist Eric Berne, a best-selling author in the 1960s and 1970s, once hypothesized that a child’s favorite fairy tale influences that child’s life choices. I read this in Alison Lurie’s 1989 book of essays, Don’t Tell the Grownups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature.  Consider his examples, as quoted by Lurie: 

“The boy who once admired Jack the Giant Killer has grown up to work for Ralph Nader; the girl who loved the tale The Frog Prince is married now to an ugly but very successful man, while the one who preferred Little Red Riding Hood still keeps getting deceived and seduced, often with rather nasty consequences for her seducer.”

The child who likes Little Red—in for a lifetime of disappointing and abusive relationships? A boy (or a girl) who admires Jack’s nervy escapades—inevitably a do-gooder? As for the Frog Prince, Berne has the story wrong: The princess doesn’t fall in love with a frog. The frog is a prince under a spell, and when the spell is broken (mysteriously), the princess marries the prince. (Come on Berne, you’ve got to up your game.)

An extreme and fantastically reductive theory, I decided. One story couldn’t dictate the path of a complex human being. 

Then with a sense of unease I remembered Cinderella. Tales about a poor girl who winds up marrying a prince exist in centuries-old folklore of many countries around the world. In the U.S., there can’t be many young girls who haven’t heard of Cinderella, her glass slipper and her romance with Prince Charming. The notion that a romance, and a wedding, can be fairy-tale perfect, has become a cliché.  Prince Charming is a noun (in dictionaries!) that refers to an ideal mate or lover.

A woman has to fight against it—at the very least confront it: Does she or doesn’t she want the fairy-tale wedding? Does she or doesn’t she want the bell-shaped poof that we all think of as the “princess” dress? I remember rejecting the princess dress, though I can’t claim to have been much of a rebel; I ended up with a to-the-toes look, despite having hopes for short and snappy. 

Disney has everything to do with why Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are the classic trio of tales that girls learn about by time they’re three or four (today Disney’s own Frozen may have dislodged them—or joined them). I myself spent countless hours listening to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty record while tracing images of Disney’s Aurora from the album cover. (Yes, this was a very long time ago.)

Could my countless hours with the fair Aurora have had an effect on how I’ve lived my life? I never went blond, even though I coveted her cartoon-lush waves of yellow hair. I didn’t stand by, a victim to events beyond my control, nor did I need rescuing from events beyond my control. I didn’t have a godmother (though I envied my friends who had godparents—all those extra presents for birthdays and Christmas).

 No, Dr. Berne, your theory doesn’t work for me. But I’m grateful to you, Alison Lurie and the Stonybrook Children’s Lit Fellows program (which assigned the reading) for turning my thoughts to fairy tales for the first time in years. 


A sleeping beauty whose parents would be very glad if she slept the whole night through.

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