Below is an analysis of the fairy tale Girl Without Hands. (Click here to read the fairy tale in its entirety.) I find it helpful to examine fairy tales as if they are plays, dividing them into separate acts, which I do below with Girl Without Hands. When interpreting a tale, I think about societal conditions that led to the writing of the story, while also approaching the tale as if it were a metaphor for inner conflicts and the process of psychological integration — what CG Jung called individuation.
For Girl Without Hands, I use the concept of betrayal trauma to interpret the maiden’s recovery. Her tale demonstrates how to overcome two major obstacles to growth after sexual trauma: the relationship with power and feelings of alienation. Both of these consequences of sexual trauma can interfere with becoming whole, authentic, and empowered.
Act I: The Miller and the Evil Spirit
In the eighteenth century, when fairy tales were commonly shared in parlors and kitchens, and told to adults and children alike, the miller would have had outsized power in his community. As owner of the mill, he would have made money grinding his neighbors’ grains into flour. Should he choose to do so, he could charge exorbitant prices. This is the shadow side of his position, which reflects the shadow side of power — greed, stinginess, laziness, and exploitation (von Franz, 1993/1972).
The miller in Girl Without Hands lives this shadow side of power. In the first act of the fairy tale, we learn the miller has fallen onto hard times. Yet he doesn’t want to face his predicament and do the difficult work of changing his circumstances. He’s vulnerable to the Evil Spirit who asks, “Why work so hard?”
Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz pointed out the miller also represents the psychological split that prevails in civilization due to inventions like the mill that give power over nature — a split she witnessed in men’s psyches who deny ‘feminine’ aspects of themselves such as eros and embodiment.1 The miller thus reveals how a certain ruthlessness settles into communities and psyches when fragmentation becomes prevalent and normative. The perils of psychological splitting is witnessed when the father chooses to cut off his daughter’s hands rather than sacrifice himself. According to von Franz, “A woman who has such a father has not been nourished by his eros function.”2 She too is at risk of aggressiveness and putting worldly success above a compassionate heart.
Whereas I see the truth in von Franz’s observations, I prefer to interpret this tale in terms of the consequences of profound betrayal the maiden experiences. When Girl Without Hands was regularly told, fairy tales would have been a way to give voice to threats and dangers not spoken of explicitly. Sharing fairy tales would have warned children of dangers, whereas for adults they would describe the process of overcoming trauma (although some fairy tales are bleak and without redemption). Because so many fairy tales describe betrayal and persecution of young people, it is reasonable to assume that early life wounding was a common threat that had to be resolved in order to reach full maturity.
Girl Without Hands can also be viewed as an account of sexual trauma in which “father” represents someone close to a girl or young woman that she depends on for survival. As is known today, most victims knew their perpetrators prior to the abuse. There is no reason that this situation would be any different in the eighteenth century, given communities were even more interdependent and men had even more power. Therefore, Girl Without Hands can be interpreted as a description of what today is called betrayal trauma, along with its causes, consequences, and process of recovery.
The cause of betrayal trauma, as Girl Without Hands demonstrates, is the father’s lust for power and his absence of compassion. He maims his daughter to protect himself from his own failures. Researcher Sandra Butler noted a similar attitude in men who molested their daughters or stepdaughters.3 These men sought to absolve themselves of feelings of inadequacy. Rather than do the hard work of soul-searching and honest reflection on themselves, they instead exploited their dependents for their gratification.
The loss of the daughter’s hands in this fairy tale is significant. According to von Franz, “The motif of not having hands, as far as I have seen, is one that only occurs in heroines.”4 This makes sense in patriarchal societies in which women have limited expressions of agency. Hands are a wonderful representation of the capacity to act purposefully, including defending oneself. The loss of hands symbolizes the daughter’s damaged relationship with power. She must acquiesce to her father’s perversity, stating, “Father do what you want with me. I’m your daughter.” Such submissiveness is the norm in response to early life sexual abuse that is perpetrated by someone on whom the victim is dependent. To survive, the victim must split off the natural impulse for self-protection, along with the rage associated with being betrayed. Nevertheless, these parts of herself still exist, along with the child part whose innocence was lost to her perpetrator’s narcissistic brutality.
We see in this first act the nature of the wounding: split off aspects of the self that must be retrieved in order for the maiden to return to wholeness. We also see the first steps towards recovery. Once the miller gets what he wants, he’s quite happy to provide for his daughter, who has paid dearly for the care that is her birthright. Yet she knows she cannot stay with her abuser. This is often a difficult lesson to learn, especially given how many sufferers of early life betrayal dissociate their memories of the trauma — an experience reflected by the maiden’s loss of her hands.
In modern psychology, concepts such as Stockholm Syndrome and trauma bonding describe a victim’s continued attachment to a perpetrator. Trauma bonding can lead to an ongoing relationship with the abuser. More generally, the dynamics that emerge in the relationship with the perpetrator become habitual — including submissiveness, self-sacrifice, and low self-worth, as well as holding the projected shame.
A first step on the journey to recovery is the willingness to walk away from who one became in response to being abused and scapegoated. As Jungian analyst Donald Kalshed observed, “Instead of masochistically and passively ‘belonging’ to the father who has maimed her, [the maiden] takes the first steps into her own irreplaceable individual life. To do this she must embrace her own suffering, and this means turning down the temptation of the father’s offer to keep her with his ill-gotten gains from the Devil, i.e., to keep her in a half-alive, half-dead Limbo forever.”5
Act II: The Angel, the King, and the Silver Hands
In the second act of Girl Without Hands, the maiden benefits from divine intervention. First the angel helps her reach the fruit tree; second, the king — historically a mediator between his people and the divine — marries her and gifts her silver hands. The spiritual aspects of recovery are pronounced in this part of the tale, although there is a lack of embodiment. Therefore, dissociation and psychological fragmentation continue to plague the maiden.
Because she decides to “depend on the kindness of people” rather than succumb to an unholy existence, the angel, a symbol of goodness, rewards the maiden’s convictions and nourishes her soul. Yet the maiden does not identify with divinity or her own piousness. When the priest asks, “Are you a spirit or human?,” she replies, “I am a poor maiden forsaken by all except God.” Here she reveals the courage to accept her vulnerability, if not also her shamed state. Kalsched observed, “this amounts to an acceptance of one’s own ‘crippled’ condition and its attendant sense of unworthiness or unloveableness, and a willingness to live anyway and not to hide from life and relationship.”6
The maiden’s acceptance of her fate is rewarded by the king with security and silver hands. She gains the kindness she deserves. For many who have been scapegoated, gaining a sense of belonging is foundational for recovery. Unfortunately, belonging is rarely enough to reach wholeness and an authentic and empowered sense of self. Ursula Wirtz noted, “these protheses [the silver hands] do not help her achieve independence and autonomy. Rather they bind her to the king through gratitude and the feeling that she owes him something in return.”7 Such dependency interferes with developing the willingness to authentically express oneself without fear of abandonment.
The maiden’s silver hands are ‘faux’ power. She can assimilate dominant norms by acquiescing to “the kindness of people,” who provide her a measure of security. This is one of the potential pitfalls along the journey to recovery — social acceptance becomes more important that agency and authenticity.
There is also a quality of ‘happily ever after’ in act II. The maiden becomes the queen, lives in a castle, and no doubt wears silver gowns and slippers to match her silver hands, which although limited in their usefulness, the queen never has to notice since servants take care of all her needs. At least, this is the fantasy. Trauma survivors often live in fantasies because reality is too painful. This is the problem that would arise if this fairy tale ended at this point: the maiden would retreat to a fantasy world, never address her wounds, attain wholeness, and individuate.
One of the greatest obstacles to the journey of recovery from sexual trauma, especially when it involves betrayal by someone depended upon, is the relationship with power symbolized by the maiden’s silver hands. Like many women who endured sexual abuse as betrayal trauma early in life, the maiden had to submit to power’s excesses and abuses. As a consequence, there is a tendency to relate to one’s own power as if it has the potential to abuse. In efforts to avoid the excesses of power, there is the tendency to avoid expressing anger and aggression, which can render one passive and lacking in agency. Von Franz provided this explanation: “As soon as she touches anything on the side of life activity she may fall into … a power drive and become as cold, ruthless, and brutal as her father was. All she can do is to keep right out of the life of the spirit.”8 The maiden thus protects herself by being pure, but the consequence is a lack of authentic engagement with the world.
Just as there may be fear of one’s own aggressive impulses, there is also the possibility of feeling frightened of life. Kalsched witnessed this in one of his patients who shared,
“Any kind of conflict terrifies me. I’m pathologically nice. The tension in my body is tremendous. I walk around in the world as if I’m afraid I’ll be hit, contracting in order to make myself smaller. I hold myself together … I can feel it in my shoulder, my throat, my hips … like I’m always ready to run.”9
Power may instead be expressed like the king — in the role of savior, taking care of others’ wounds rather than addressing one’s own heartache and inner fragmentation. This is a common reaction to trauma taken by women. Traditionally, women have gained acceptance, if not prestige and protection, from our roles as private and professional caregivers. When care is given in the quest for power and agency, there is always the risk of one’s efforts becoming mechanical — like metal hands — rather than arising from compassion and in the spirit of eros (von Franz, 1993/1972).
Act III: The Evil Spirit Returns
In the third act, the king goes off to war and the queen gives birth to Sorrow. Letters sent to the king celebrating his son’s birth are intercepted by the Evil Spirit. As a result of what are believed to be the king’s aggressive demands, animals are sacrificed and the queen once again must leave her home, this time with Sorrow.
The name of the child, Sorrow, is significant. Mourning was taken more seriously in past generations than it is today. The child Sorrow would have signified a developmental process, one that addressed the inevitability of loss and the necessity of adapting to new circumstances.
In the treatment of trauma, grief is seen as a central aspect of recovery. Sometimes therapists speak of the grief of relief to describe the sorrow that arises when we begin to feel the trauma is behind us. We can finally start the process of mourning. As many of us have discovered, mourning signals a new stage in the process of recovery: integration — what Pierre Janet identified as the third stage in the Phase Oriented Model of trauma treatment. At this point, we begin to turn away from what happened to us and start to address who we have become as a result of living through sexual trauma and the alienation it caused. We often have neglected parts of ourselves that hold memories of sexual trauma. We may even be hateful of that part (or parts) and feelings of vulnerability, as well as the tendency to act submissively when feeling threatened. Emotionally, this abandoned part (or parts) of the self resonates with the sacrifice of animals — the two calves killed in an effort to remain loyal to the king. Self-sacrifice is a common reaction to betrayal trauma, and was discussed in prior posts in terms of structural dissociation. We abandon vulnerable parts of ourselves, yet are also protective of them. Fight and Flight parts are continually activated in attempts to avoid retraumatization. The structural dissociation of our psyches must be understood and overcome for us to reach a state of wholeness. We must regain a relationship with the vulnerable aspects of ourselves — what some refer to as the inner child. Yet we must also become aware of our defenses and cultivate them so we can truly feel empowered.
Once sexually abused and scapegoated, we are fearful of power’s corruption. Nevertheless, because we are human, we feel aggression, hate, greed, lust — the entire Pandora’s box of ugliness that make up the shadow side of humanity. We cannot become whole until we deal with the shadow aspect of ourselves. Jung wrote:
“We do not like to look at the shadow side of ourselves; therefore there are many people in our civilized society who have lost their shadow altogether, they have got rid of it. They are only two-dimensional; they have lost the third dimension, and with it they have usually lost the body.”
The queen cannot regain her hands — that is, heal her dissociative fragmentation and return to embodiment — without dealing with the aggression inevitably ignited by her victimization. To be whole and empowered, she must acknowledge the introjected aggressor, if not also identify how her own anger comes out ‘sideways’ — that she too can be hurtful.
None of us is purely good or perfect. To attempt perfection is to ignore the reality of rage unleashed by scapegoating. There is also the likelihood of remaining phobic of our own body sensations when we cannot acknowledge what we are truly feeling. Jung noted, “The body is a most doubtful friend because it produces things we don’t like: there are too many things about the body which cannot be mentioned. The body is very often the personification of this shadow of the ego.”10
Because the queen is still caught in a self-protective state of passivity, she is prone to dissociation and ignoring her own emotional impulses. The messenger she depends on falls asleep along the way, much like getting caught in a dissociative state. The Evil Spirit returns and mucks things up, just as our own anger does when we have not yet accepted all that we are and feel. Avoiding our own aggression leaves us unskilled in the use and expression of anger. We are more apt to either hurt ourselves or someone we love. At this point in her journey, the queen has not yet integrated her defenses or acknowledged her shadow aspects; hence, she has further to travel.
Act IV: A Seven Year Reprieve
Crying bitterly, the queen leaves the castle. She retreats to the forest where for seven years she lives in a cottage raising Sorrow with the help of an angel. During this time she grows back her hands.
The number seven is significant. There are seven days in the week, representing the completion of a cycle. Seven also represents perfect groupings, such as the Seven Heavens and the seven orders of angels. The number seven also signifies new beginnings and regeneration.11 Seven years also implies that it takes time to reach wholeness. We also need faith in the process (the snow-white maiden who attends to the queen), as well as a reprieve from worldly pursuits in order to focus on inner growth.
The time the queen spends in the woods is akin to the dark night of the soul that symbolizes the descent into hidden aspects of ourselves. During this time in recovery, we commit to inner integration, reclaim disowned parts of ourselves, and retrieve part of ourselves still stuck in the past. We don’t erase those parts of ourselves, but rather begin to create the inner dialogue that supports rejuvenation and harmony. This is a time when we move from suffering the wound to healing the wound. Bitterness, depression, irritability, anger, and loneliness, as well as feeling discarded and devalued, are replaced with self-examination, self-forgiveness, self-acceptance, trust, courage, compassion, and often authentic creative expression.12
Central to the process of transformation is making peace with solitude. The cottage in the woods signifies the shamanic journey historically envisioned as a retreat into the wilderness, which the scapegoated individual fears as another experience of alienation.13 Befriending solitude can be very difficult for those who have been sexually abused by someone depended upon. Feelings of alienation tend to arouse the fear of abandonment. There is often a resistance to feelings of loneliness, which makes it difficult to access the creative aspects of solitude. To live authentically and empowered, we must eventually find peace in our own company, and this takes time. Von Franz observed,
“In ‘The Girl Without Hands,’ for many years the woman drifted more and more out of life and was cured only by accepting the fact that she had to stay quiet in the woods, and temporarily not go back to life. … From the outside it looks like complete stagnation, but in reality it is time of initiation and incubation when a deeper split is cured and inner problems solved. This motif forms a contrast to the more active quest of the male hero….”14
Central to our heroine’s quest is ‘raising’ Sorrow — developing the capacity for sadness and grief beyond the staleness of depression. Otherwise, we cannot fully embrace our power. We must be able to tolerate our own sadness and loneliness, else we risk repeatedly sacrificing ourselves, if not settling for others’ versions of reality (which includes their interpretations of us).
The process of integration is not focused solely on raising Sorrow, and hence the growth of our own inner child. Rather, the purpose of the reprieve is integrating parts of the self that have been held separate, bringing forth all aspects of the self — becoming powerful and compassionate, rational and intuitive, spiritual and embodied. As the sign above the door on the cottage announced, “Here May Everyone Live Freely.”
With effort, we lose our dependency on others to give meaning to our lives. We begin to trust our intuition as our own bodies become our guide. Jungian analyst Nancy Quall-Corbett associated this transformation with regaining feminine wisdom. She wrote, “Women who are conscious of their true feminine being are attentive to the wisdom of the heart, they do not allow themselves to be contaminated by collective norms and ideals.”15 Once this process is complete, the queen regrows her hands, signifying her newfound agency, empowerment, and feminine wisdom.
Act V: “For God’s Sake”
In act V the king returns. His mother tells him she remained loyal to his wishes. After witnessing his grief, she tells him his wife and son are still alive. The king then journeys to find his wife and son. When he finally reaches them, he acquiesces to the queen’s demands, and more importantly, to her boundaries.
The king represents aspects of the self as well as integration with the outer world. Masculine characters have historically been associated with aggression and dominance. The king’s emotional surrendering to the love he feels for his wife and son reflects the inevitable softening of defenses as we mature into wholeness. Yet the king’s reactions also suggest how attempts to heal ourselves also can heal the men in our lives. They too can be inspired to give birth to their own sorrow and take their journeys to wholeness. We all have traumas we must overcome and integrate.
Those of us who go through the process of recovery while in an intimate relationship (regardless of gender) also need our relationships to grow and adapt to accommodate the changes we are making. Our ‘kings’ (or ‘queens’) will find themselves in search of us and who we are becoming. Like the king in Girl Without Hands, our partners will encounter our newfound empowerment as well as our commitment to wholeness. The king must adapt. He can’t just storm into the cottage. He has to say three times, “For God’s Sake,” not only respecting the queen’s boundaries, but also revering the profound spiritual wisdom that results with recovery from trauma. (And I would add he’s a better person for his efforts.) The queen’s growth also becomes visible in the outer world when she uses her newfound agency to create the life she wants and deserves.
Act VI: Happily Ever After
In the final act of Girl Without Hands, the king and queen eat a meal with the angel before returning home. This is an important moment. It symbolizes the necessary attitude of gratitude towards the mystery of spirituality that plays a central role in trauma recovery. It also stresses the ingesting of the wisdom of integration — that we come to embody the process and know it as part of who we are. Hence, the cottage disappears; the queen now contains the wisdom within.
Like many myths, Girl Without Hands represents an initiation process, which is also expressed by the cottage’s disappearance. Reaching integration is also associated with maturity. To get on with life and fulfill our earthly obligations, we must leave our pasts behind.
Of note, happily ever after is not a constant state of happiness. Quoting Jung, “Life demands for its completion and fulfillment a balance between joy and sorrow.”16 Happily ever after is the state of reconciling seeming opposites — joy and sorrow, masculine and feminine, heaven and earth (spirit and body), consciousness and unconsciousness. We no longer escape in dissociation or fragment in our efforts to tolerate reality. If we must, we have ‘ingested’ the process of integration, and can intuitively find our way back to wholeness.
When the mind and body are in one place (i.e., the absence of dissociation), we have a relationship with ourselves and are present in our relationships with others. This is a great joy, but one that can only be experienced by first giving birth to Sorrow.
Activities to ponder: How does this interpretation of Girl Without Hands relate to your experience of recovery? What doesn’t relate? What interpretations have I omitted that are central to your recovery journey?
1 Franz, Marie-Louise von. (1993/1972). The feminine in fairy tales. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
2 Ibid., p. 88.
3 Butler, S. (1978/1996). Conspiracy of silence: The trauma of incest. Volcano, CA, Volcano Press.
4 Ibid., p. 85.
5 Kalsched, Donald. (2013). Trauma and the soul: A psycho-spiritual approach to human development and its interruption. New York: Routledge, p. 299.
6 Ibid., p. 300.
7 Wirtz, Ursula. (2014). Trauma and beyond: The mystery of transformation. New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal, Inc, p. 293.
8 Von Franz, p. 90.
9 Kalsched, 2013, p. 288.
11 Chevalier, Jean, & Gheerbrant, Alain. (1996/1969). The penguin dictionary of symbols (J. Buchanan-Brown, Trans.). London, UK: Penguin Books, p. 859.
12 Marks, Dana. (2013). “Engaging the feminine heroic.” The Writer’s Journey Conference. Pacifica Graduate Institute. April 26-28.
13 Perera, S. B. (1986). The scapegoat complex: Toward a mythology of shadow and guilt. Toronto, Canada, Inner City Books.
14 Von Franz, p. 106.
15 Qualls-Corbett, Nancy. (1988). The sacred prostitute: Eternal aspect of the feminine. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, p. 141.
16 Quoted in Kalsched, p. 97.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).