I know a woman whose life was partly made by a book of fairy stories. As a young woman she was a great beauty with her broad cheekbones, large dark eyes and long eyelashes and dark curly hair, even now, in middle age she is handsome.
She said, “Until I was about nine I thought I was a princess! It is not surprising really but not because we were rich! My family were very poor. We lived in a one roomed house with an earthen floor. There was my mother and father and my brother and my old Grandma in the house. We were so poor that we only had one children’s book, as far as I remember. It was a book of fairy stories and my mom used to read one to me every night to help me go to sleep.
“Nearly all the stories were about princesses. The princess always began as a poor girl and then found a handsome prince, married him and lived happily ever after. Well, I was poor, I knew that. So, naturally, I assumed that I was a princess. But it was not only the story but the pictures which made me believe that I must be a princess. The illustrator had chosen to draw a girl who looked just like me! I used to hold up the book in the mirror next to my own face…there she was, broad cheek bones and big dark eyes, and curly dark hair.
“By the time I was ten or eleven I suspected that I wasn’t a princess. I worked hard at school; it was the only way to lift myself out into an interesting world. In my teens I knew for sure I wasn’t a princess but I also knew I was attractive to boys; they were always turning their heads or trying to talk to me.
“In my twenties I passed my degree and got a job at the university as a lecturer. One night I was at a party and saw a man on the other side of the room. He was tall, dark and handsome. I felt love at first sight. I felt sure that he was my prince. I didn’t notice then that he was astonishingly like the prince which the illustrator had drawn in our fairy story book, at home.
“I had no problem in crossing the room and talking to him. He was nice. We got on. We began going out together.”
I have met him, he is a nice man and certainly tall, dark and handsome.
I have seen their wedding photographs. Not those of the actual ceremony but photographs taken later in the forest on the edge of town. It was in the autumn. The forest was an embroidery of golds, reds, yellows and umbers. The bride was in a traditional white wedding dress and light veil. He was in a pale pastel suit and wore a blue bow tie with white spots. The photographs were enlargements and the photographer had asked the two of them to run through the wood. In one photograph she was running, holding her long white skirts with one hand and he was running behind her, reaching out as if trying to catch her, in vain. In another photograph she was hiding behind a thin tree, her large white skirts sticking out on one side and her beautiful face with eyes coquettishly turned behind the veil, on the other.
The photographer had made the outside parts of the print, ‘out of focus’ and the inside of the print, ‘in focus’, giving the viewer the impression that it was a privilege to be allowed to glimpse this secret, joyful, golden, and everlasting moment.
The last line in her fairy stories was, “And so they lived happily ever after!” These photographs were the last lines in their story!
But, they woke up next morning.
The food we eat makes our bodies and the stories we experience make our minds! These people in the story, like the rest of us, were influenced by the stories they had been given in making major decisions about their lives …about marriage. The stories did not encourage them to think of the other person as a particular individual but as a function: husband, prince, etc. It is possible to act the part of a two dimensional functional figure for a while but then you really do have to be yourself as an individual and then the problems begin…you may not fit into the other person’s life story.
How often do you see people around you as two dimensional cut out figures rather than as real people? Does it mater? When does it matter?
I have told this story quite often to students aged 14 and above. It is a useful precursor to discussing where people’s ideas of what is a good partner come from.