When Rebecca was 12 years old, her father took to audition for the prestigious youth orchestra in their Midwestern city. For years, her parents had enjoyed bragging to their friends that Rebecca was on the road to becoming a concert pianist. When Van Cliburn came to town, her father took her to see him perform, and told her that that would be her one day. Rebecca was not selected for the highly competitive youth orchestra. Her father was silent on the way home. He didn’t speak to her for two weeks.
Much later in her life, Rebecca became my patient, and we worked together to excavate the enormous father wound that had held her captive, leading her to a life of addiction and abusive relationships. The Grimm’s tale Rumpelstiltskin sheds light on the inner landscape of someone like Rebecca. It is a story that illustrates how paternal narcissism can rob a woman of her creativity.
Once upon a time there was a miller who was poor, but he had a beautiful daughter. Now, one day he happened to talk to the king and said, “I have a daughter who knows the art of transforming straw into gold.” So the king had the miller’s daughter summoned to him right away and ordered her to spin all the straw in a room into gold in one night, and if she couldn’t do this, she would die. Then she was locked in the room where she sat and wept. For the life of her, she didn’t have the slightest inkling of how to spin straw into gold. All of a sudden a little man entered the room and said, “What will you give me if I spin everything into gold?”
The miller has few resources of his own, and decides to profit off of his “beautiful” daughter. He boasts about her to the king, almost certainly to make himself look good. Meanwhile, his brag has delivered his daughter to a state where her very life is in danger.
The plight of the miller’s daughter is a poignant expression of what a father wound of this type does to the psyche of a daughter. When paternal love feels conditional – on academic performance, for example – a daughter can feel exposed and vulnerable to crushing feelings of shame and inadequacy. She can feel as if her very existence is at stake.
When a parent has co-opted a child’s interest and talents to further their own narcissistic agenda, that child’s creativity and achievements are no longer at the child’s disposal. They have been made to serve someone else. Their talent can then feel demonic, as if their mood or sense of self depends entirely on their ability to perform and achieve.
My client Cecily was a talented singer in high school. She loved to sing songs from the Renaissance, and had a sweet, clear tone that was well-matched to that music. As a junior, she was the only person from her school accepted into the All State Chorus, an accomplishment of which she was proud. When she heard the news, the meaning she made from this was that she did indeed have some vocal talent. Her corporate executive father, however, interpreted the achievement differently. He didn’t support her interest in music, and hoped that his daughter would follow in his footsteps and work in the business world. “You really have a competitive spirit!” he told her when she told him she had passed the audition. “You succeed at whatever you try!” Cecily recalls being crushed by this “spin” on her accomplishment. She says it was as if her father took it away from her, and made it something that he could value.
When our creative potentials get split off in order to serve a parent’s narcissistic agenda, creativity can become compulsive, dark, and even dangerous. In his book Ungifted, Scott Barry Kaufman talks about the research on passion conducted by Robert Vallerand and his colleagues. They distinguished between two very different kinds of passion – harmonious passion, and obsessive passion.
“People who are obsessively passionate have lost control of their activity. They feel pressure to engage in their activity either because of contingencies such as social acceptance or self-esteem, or because of an uncontrollable urge. They often can’t disengage until the compulsion runs its course. What’s more, their activity has not been well integrated into their overall self-concept. Their ego is dependent on the activity, and their rigid persistence frequently conflicts with other aspects of their lives.” (Kaufman, Scott (2013-06-04). Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined (p. 105). Basic Books. Kindle Edition)
In the research, obsessive passion was correlated with negative emotions such as shame and anxiety. No matter how well someone performed in their domain of passion, the activity did not inspire sustained joy, but was rather a kind of torment. The girl’s desperate effort to spin straw into gold with the help of her split off creative daimon is a powerful image of obsessive passion.
The miller’s daughter has no idea what her own talents or desires might be. She has been told by her father what she ought to aspire to – and it is indeed an impossible task. In fact, she does have vast creative ability, but she is unable to claim it as her own. It appears to her to be outside herself – a grotesque little man, who can work prodigious magic. But just as with any creative process that has become compulsive, it does not feel nurturing and joyful, but rather torturous and impossibly demanding. Rumpelstiltskin keeps upping the ante, taking everything she has in the present, and then finally demanding the ultimate creative offspring in the form of her first-born child.
The miller’s daughter is presented with a harsh choice – perform at an extremely high level, and I will marry you and make you a queen, or fail, and I will kill you. This is very much the choice my client Rebecca had. We can imagine that if she had gained admission to the youth orchestra, her father would have been thrilled, and she would have been showered with praise. Children who grow up in such an environment often find themselves later in life in relationship that recapitulate the childhood wound, as was true for the miller’s daughter. Cecily had a series of hurtful relationships with men, in which she was treated as if she were “never quite good enough.”
The miller’s daughter, of course, does have a child, but is threatened with having it taken away from her, as her earlier creative offspring was. This time, however, she doesn’t give in so easily. Once she is able to accurately name the inner compulsion that has held sway, it loses power over her, and disappears. Psychologically, this is an image of reclaiming one’s creative energies for oneself, allowing them to be experienced harmoniously and joyfully.