Rapunzel has been haunting me.
Rapunzel, one of the few Grimm’s fairy tales that has an active, living mother as a main character. More commonly, most of the mothers, all of the good ones, are dead. Of course, Rapunzel’s “mother,” Gothel, is actually a witch who took Rapunzel as an infant, but Rapunzel doesn’t know that. She is raised by her mother, isolated in a tower; their familial relationship creates a mother/daughter text, although it is founded on a lie. The story’s dark warnings for mothers and daughters endure, whether their relationship is biological, mythological, or ideological.
I walked into therapy at twenty-eight sure that my issues lay elsewhere. My mother? I chirped brightly. We get along fine.
I had my daughter at thirty-three. I’ve spent most of my life so far relating to the daughters. My mother was imperfect; all mothers are. My therapist friend says it’s the basis of patriarchy, the oldest betrayal. Our mothers make mistakes before we’re mature enough to give them any leeway. They disappoint us irrationally, unconsciously, but our rage remains. So we, all of us, lash out at our mothers. We hold them to impossible standards; we hate them for never meeting the bar. We take some pleasure in asserting domination over our mothers. Crone. Witch. Old bag. Bad mom. Lazy mom. Teen mom. We blame our own mothers specifically, and all mothers, generally, and even beyond that we blame our potential mothers: women. It makes us feel, in the dark, where we can’t quite see it, finally powerful.
I had forgotten, as an adult daughter, that I still held that unconscious rage.
I found Rapunzel through a dream. My daughter dropped a hairbrush into the sea. She wanted to swim for it, but she didn’t know how. I had to dive down to fetch the hairbrush from the coral, but I wouldn’t let her follow me. She can’t swim, and anyway, the deep was… I just knew I didn’t want her down there.
I always thought that fairy tales were for children. The mothers were a warning: appreciate your mother. If she’s too good, she won’t last. If she’s wicked, you’ll find freedom. There are no day-to-day, complicated, human, sometimes loving and sometimes terrible mothers in fairy tales. Except Mother Gothel.
Two weeks after the hairbrush dream, after Rapunzel was already on my mind, my daughter found Tangled (the Disney movie version of Rapunzel). My husband bought it for her on iTunes, and I came home one evening to the tune lilting: Mother knows best, listen to your mother…
For their research on mother/daughter relationships, Disney directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard asked the women in their office to tell them about the things their mother did to drive them crazy. “Mother Knows Best,” Gothel’s song, is full of humorous, realistic zingers like “gettin’ kinda chubby.” Gothel alternates insulting Rapunzel’s intelligence, worldliness, and looks with classic mom-guilt lines such as “Go ahead and leave me, I deserve it. Let me die alone here, be my guest!”
I laughed at Disney’s Mother Gothel. She’s one part Cher, one part Broadway mama: all belt, and that dark, simmering, knowledgeable middle-aged sexuality. Greno and Howard spoke in interviews about how they created Gothel as a foil to their Rapunzel (young, blonde, innocent). I forgot that in my daughter’s life story, I’m not Rapunzel at all.
Anne Sexton wrote the poem “Rapunzel” in Transformations, her book of retold fairy tales. The opening line sets a different tone, far from Greno and Howard’s shallow “what do you hate about your mom” interviews.
who loves a woman
is forever young.
Sexton herself maintained that she had been abused as a young girl by an aunt, her father’s sister. She also claimed that her father sexually abused her, sometimes with his sister listening at the door. After Sexton’s death, her daughter, Linda, wrote a memoir, Searching for Mercy Street. In it, she included her mother’s sexual abuse history alongside allegations that Anne had sexually abused Linda in similar ways. Some of the allegations that I found most disturbing involved Anne asking Linda to be her mommy instead, forcing Linda to pretend that she was the adult, and Anne was the child.
I first loved Anne Sexton as a high school senior. In AP English, where I was gagged with Hemingway and taught to worship Joyce, I secretly read Transformations and wondered at the darkness lurking beneath the familiar. I didn’t know the phase “emotional incest.” I could see almost nothing about my mother and me in those pages, and yet, my subconscious mind grasped the poems like they were golden ropes of hair. Rung by rung, I climbed out of the dark of the forest, and into the tower. Or maybe I was always in the tower, but I couldn’t see.
In college, as a poetry major, I wrote a term paper on Sexton’s Rapunzel, noting, in clumsy twenty-year-old fashion, that a repeated phrase in the poem, “mother me do,” connoted an incestuous relationship between Mother and Rapunzel. I didn’t know about Linda’s memoir then. I read Sexton’s Rapunzel as a warning: beware of the older women suckling off the youth of younger women. Beware of their mentorship lest the line between mentorship, motherhood, and sexual intimacy blurred gray. This shadowy, slippery, sexually inappropriate relationship echoes what Sexton claimed happened with her aunt, and what Sexton’s daughter, Linda, claimed happened with her. At the cusp of adolescence, I looked to my mothers, literal and imagined, for guidance. What would I become?
It is in that liminal, not-quite-said space that I found myself, where emotional intimacy crosses a boundary into something that is very nearly erotic. I didn’t have words for that relationship, and I still don’t. For many years, I could not see, but I was raised to live in that small, right castle. I was groomed to never leave.
How did I get out? Am I out?
Disney’s Gothel is not a witch, but she is ancient. She’s stayed alive all this time through the magic of a certain flower. When the Queen nearly died while pregnant, the kingdom harvested the magic flower in its entirety in an attempt to save the Queen and unborn child. This is a change from Grimm’s version, where Rapunzel was just a girl, and her parents were just parents. The charm of the flower—its healing magical properties—passed to the baby in utero and becomes Rapunzel’s enchanted hair. Realizing this, Mother Gothel kidnapped the baby and raised her in a tower and stayed young by brushing Rapunzel’s magic-imbued hair.
When I was in middle school, I grew my hair past my shoulders for the first time in my life. I had wanted the long, beautiful hair of my best friend, Brooke, but my mother told me that I would have to let her brush it, and she didn’t want to, or didn’t believe that I’d sit still or tolerate it. She kept my hair short, cropped, manageable.
At thirteen, I decided to finally grow my hair out. And my mother promised me a beautiful new Aveda paddle brush if I did manage to grow it. I remember it came in a soft white branded bag—this coveted beauty tool that until then I had never had much use for. And I remember that, within a year, the back of the brush had shattered and cracked. Maybe I was careless, dropped it or smashed it in a bag. All I know is I kept it, even though it caught in my hair and ripped strands out. It was the expensive paddle brush my mother had given me. It meant something to me, more than I could say.
My mother didn’t have long hair herself. She didn’t wear much makeup, and by the time I was in high school, none at all.
That year, I went on a school trip to Washington, DC. We stayed for a week, taking in the sights and going to the museums—a group of us seventh graders together. While on a lunch break one afternoon, my friends and I stumbled past a tourist shop that could put your face on other bodies and print the picture. We had great fun posing for the magic camera, seeing our faces superimposed on monkeys, He-Man. And then I saw a swimsuit model, in a high cut, one piece, stars-and-stripes bathing suit. Her dirty blonde hair swung long at her waist, and her perfect torso screamed grown woman. After I saw my face on that body, I was never again the same. I had seen myself, not as a mother, but as a sexually mature woman. I wasn’t ready to handle the world that way, but I equated sexual maturity with other maturities. I believed that I was ready. I had seen myself made woman. It was a form of enchantment.
Greno and Howard decided to take Mother Gothel’s magic away. Instead, she became a masterful manipulator, convincing Rapunzel that life on the outside was too dangerous, too dark, and that Rapunzel would die if she left the tower. Disney’s Gothel controlled through fear and lies and a version of the world that was inaccurate, but not wholly a fiction. Young girls alone in the world are often food for the wolves. Bad things happen to pretty blondes with no parents. I thought Grimm’s fairy tales were written for children, as warnings. But they were actually collected as folklore, and told to and by adults.
Manipulation is a kind of magic, as magic itself is grounded in manipulation: a sleight of hand, a disappearing quarter, a seemingly impossible illusion. Aren’t gaslighting, lying, constructing a false world based on truth and facts, all forms of enchantment?
My therapist friend tells me that we might know our mothers more intimately than we know anyone else. We became inside them. We have drowned and been buoyed by their psyches. Perhaps this merged identity and the differentiation of maturity is what makes mothers impossible. Impossible for everyone, yes. But particularly impossible for daughters. Impossible for daughters, yes, but particularly for those who become mothers of daughters themselves. Impossible for me.
I was my mother’s everything. There aren’t words that exactly capture both what was right, and what was wrong. I have been the center of her happiness. I have been her disappointment. I cannot put my finger on what, exactly, we had.
I could not mother my mother as her child, but I tried. I felt a sense of obligation for her happiness, a sense of shame for letting her down. My mother wanted good things for me; in that I was lucky. But what she wanted was her idea of a good thing. She wanted me to love hiking and to believe in magic. What I loved was window shopping and realism. That wouldn’t do, so she just ignored it; dragging me on long hikes that she’d promised were “just walking.” She wasn’t capable of seeing, really seeing, that I was not her, not ever, and especially not anymore.
Sometimes when I think of my mother, I am filled with dread. A dread I can’t justify to the people that know her. My mother is charming. She’s delightful and fun. My friends have always liked her, and that made it hard to explain why it was that I wanted to keep her so far out. Out of my life, out of my brain, and, especially, out of my body.
I tried to listen when she told me of her premarital sexploits. Tried to laugh when she made bawdy jokes in the supermarket about the sizes of cucumbers. Tried to stay in my body, or at least, stifle my cringe, when she held my developing breast in her hand and said, “You’re getting there, kid.”
My mother believed in magic all of my life. Not magicians, but the magical potential of the universe. Magical thinking. Fairy lights and signs from the dead. Goddesses, rituals pulled from whatever culture she felt drawn to, sacred objects lined up on an altar in her bedroom.
Enchantment. Lying. Are they really so different?
Grimm’s Rapunzel is banished from the tower by her mother after she’s caught making love to the Prince. Anne Sexton described it this way:
What is this beast, she thought,
with muscles on his arms
like a bag of snakes?
What is this moss on his legs?
What prickly plant grows on his cheeks?
What is this voice as deep as a dog?
Yet he dazzled her with his answers.
Yet he dazzled her with his dancing stick.
They lay together upon the yellowy threads,
swimming through them
like minnows through kelp
Sexton makes clear that this is not just a mother’s fury at being disobeyed; this is the mother’s jealousy at being replaced. Not only by the Prince, a man, who dazzled her daughter with sex, but by Rapunzel herself. When daughters become women, they replace their mothers. Generation after generation, mothers raise daughters as though they are their own child-self, and become furious, disappointed, dangerous, when they realize that Rapunzel has become a woman, differentiated in her own right. She could be a mother, too.
Banished into the forest and left to wander, pregnant, Rapunzel had twins. She became a mother alone.
My mother is not my only mother. As I grew, I found other women to learn from, emulate, and desire to become. In college, I found feminist foremothers; in law school, I found mentors. While pregnant, and in the earliest years of my own motherhood, I built whole circles of mothers whose experiences, insights, and companionship still guide me today. My choices as a mother are entwined with my mother’s choices. She is my baseline archetype. Everything I do is either with her or against her, just as everything she did with me was either with or against my grandmother.
Is this maternal history? The daughters become mothers, who run from their own mothers, and do something else with their daughters? Are we just springboarding from end to end, skipping through generations, trying to be something else? And when older women spend their prestigious editorial pages chiding younger women—their metaphorical daughters—for their mores, their sexual independence (or lack thereof), their feminism, clothes, choices, and on and on, do they know they’re grooming Elektras? Or, as Susan Faludi put it in her 2010 essay, “American Electra: Feminism’s Ritual Matricide,” “How can women ever vanquish external enemies when they are intent on blowing up their own house?”
Disney’s Mother Gothel bound and gagged Rapunzel and used her hair to lure Flynn Rider (not a prince in their story) to the tower. Once there, Gothel stabbed him in the gut. Rapunzel, knowing her magic hair could save him, offers her mother a bargain: I will stay with you forever, and never again attempt to leave, if you’ll allow me to save his life. Mother Gothel takes the deal and allows Rapunzel to save Flynn. As he opens his eyes, he cuts Rapunzel’s hair himself, breaking its magic spell, and causing Mother Gothel to hyper-age into dust. The daughter’s adulthood obliterates the mother, quite literally, before our eyes.
Does it have to end this way? Once Rapunzel finds a man, and leaves her mother, there is no more between them, “proving that mother-me-do / can be outgrown,” as Sexton puts it.
her heart shrank to the size of a pin,
never again to say: Hold me, my young dear,
and only as she dreamed of the yellow hair
did moonlight sift into her mouth.
In addition to the disappointing (and predictable) heteronormativity, neither Grimm’s version or Sexton’s offer an ending that is satisfyingly feminist. Grimm’s version has Rapunzel give birth to twins in the wilderness, alone. She becomes a mother herself before she finds her Prince again.
I imagine, as most daughters who become mothers do, Rapunzel will then feel differently about Mother Gothel and the tower. They were neither the best, nor the worst days of her life. They were the days when she was loved as an appendage, and free from the crushing expectation of offspring. She may always blame her mother, but she will also herself be blamed. Old mother. Teen mother. Lying, overprotective, boundary-violating mother. Obliterated mother, gone to dust before she hit the ground.
Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.
The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.