The Brothers Grimm were Jacob and Wilhelm, German born in the later 1700’s, and best known for publishing fairy tales, such as Snow White, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretal, Rapunzel, and the Frog Prince.
The Brothers Grimm are sometimes criticized for being, well, grim.
See, children suffer in these fairy tales at the hands of cruel parents and witches and sometimes the teeth of wild animals. Sometimes the children are rescued by fairy godmothers and other assorted providence. Sometimes they escape to freedom by their own wits and resourcefulness. Other times they don’t. Sometimes they die.
Just like in real life. Which is why I dig the Brothers Grimm. Classic fairy tales are so human. So real. And they do more than entertain. Classic fairy tales teach us, young and old alike. They ask us to look at ourselves and our culture.
Which brings me to Little Red Riding Hood. You remember …
Girl wearing a red cloak walks through the forest alone on the way to visit her sick grandmother. She meets a wolf that is hesitant to eat her in public. Decorum, don’t you know. The wolf suggests Red tarry to pick flowers for the visit, and takes advantage of the delay to get to gramma’s house first.
Wolf eats gramma. And then dons her nightgown and cap. Crawls into gramma’s bed. And waits.
You know the drill. Little Red Riding Hood arrives, stares at this wolf wearing nightclothes and all she can think of to say is, “My, what big eyes you have!” And the wolf says, “All the better to see you with.” To which Red says, “What big ears you have!” You guessed it, “All the better to hear you with.”
Then the teeth. Red notices aloud that gramma has really big sharp teeth, to which the wolf replies, “All the better to EAT you with.” And so he does. Eats her. In the original tale, nobody comes to save Little Red Riding Hood. She gets eaten.
And she deserves to get eaten.
The classic ‘take’ on Little Red Riding Hood is as a morality play about the dangers of naiveté. But, I suggest that Little Red Riding Hood’s problems are far worse than that. Here’s the deeper question: Hey Red! What is it in you that keeps overriding your own senses! Keeps overriding your own experience.
It ain’t your grandmother! Run!
I’m thinking of buying several copies of Little Red Riding Hood, so I can have them on hand to give to patients in therapy. Especially female patients. I can’t explain why, but most therapists (including myself) will tell you they encounter a higher number of women than men who consistently don’t and won’t believe their own eyes, their own ears, and their own felt experience, especially as it regards love relationships with wolves. Er, some men.
I once knew a woman who walked into her own master bedroom to find, in her marital bed, her husband and another woman. Naked. And, two months later, she was still mulling the veracity of the husband’s story that they didn’t have sex and that, while it was “probably inappropriate,” well, he was just trying to comfort the woman who’d had a bad time recently.
A part of the Little Red Riding Hood Syndrome in men and women actually speaks highly of us. Lots of times the phenomenon is fueled by our own inherent goodness. We like giving people the benefit of the doubt. We like extending good faith to people, especially the ones who have pledged to love us and whom we love in return. We value forgiveness. And, when firmly grounded in self-respect and a radical commitment to reality at all cost, these attributes ARE good things.
But sometimes we clutch and grab at these virtues rather than wield them from a place of strength. I’m saying that a part of why we might override obvious reality is because our own virtues have turned against us.
Pride is another part. We don’t want to believe that we have chosen badly. We don’t want to believe that our beloved is shallow, mean, insensitive, or capable of calculated betrayal. It’s embarrassing to extend your heart to someone, then too late discover that this someone is not who they seemed to be. And, if it serves them, they will discard you. Disdain you. Or even gobble you up.
But what Little Red Riding Hood lacks the most is faith in herself and sufficient self-respect to act on that faith. And I don’t think these things can be taught. They must instead be risked. Or not.
It’s not gramma. It’s a wolf.
“When people show you who they really are, believe them.” (Maya Angelou.)
(Steven Kalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org)