Folklore and Psychology

Mermaid Fountain, Allerton Garden, Kauai

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt, beginning on page 404, conveys a concept near and dear to my heart: the stories we gravitate toward reveal aspects of ourselves that we don’t consciously understand. This episode took place at a particularly bleak time in Elena’s therapy. She was on an enormous quantity of psychiatric medications and was a somnambulant shell of her former vivacious self. I was staying with her in lodging while she underwent full-day therapy at an eating disorder center about a thousand miles from our home. The therapy wasn’t going well.

It was the morning of our weekly family-therapy appointment, the one day a week when I got to have a pleasant chat with a real living, breathing person who was looking me in the eye. Today, Susan, the therapist, leaned toward me and remarked brightly:

“Elena says you think she’s possessed by a devil.”

Well, isn’t that lovely! I thought.

Elena and I had been at Clove House for about a month. She was marginally more wakeful but still very subdued. To me, she seemed like a zombie, and our relationship had gotten so bad that neither one of us tried to converse anymore. Elena wanted to go home; I wouldn’t take her. That was where things stood.

It was true that I hated Elena’s eating disorder so much that I pictured it as a devil. My imagination showed it to me as a big, ugly, flabby demon with shiny, sweaty skin, crouching at the center of her soul. It opened its wide, froglike mouth and guzzled down great gulps of loneliness and isolation. It grew fat and sleek on her misery. Meanwhile, it let fall just a few crumbs of peace now and then—just enough shreds of satisfaction to keep Elena working hard to feed it that feast of hunger and pain.

Of course, Elena knew perfectly well that my imagination showed me everything in images like that. It pictured problems in metaphor and story. That’s how I could write. But Elena must have known that Susan wouldn’t get this, and she hadn’t made any attempt to explain. She must have gotten a good laugh out of telling Susan about this devil and watching the therapist’s shocked reaction.

Possessed by a devil—what a stupid thing to say!

“Well, I certainly don’t think Elena needs to go through an exorcism with bell, book, and candle, if that’s what you mean,” I said.

Susan tilted her head, very professional and interested and coy.

“Can you tell us what you do mean?”

Us? There was no us, as Susan knew perfectly well. Elena was sitting beside me on the couch, but mentally, she was a world away. Her eyelids were drooping, and she had sunk into the cushions. Ten to one, she was already half asleep.

That left Susan, and Susan had brought this topic up with that slightly smug smile that says, Until proven otherwise, I am going with the assumption that you are a superstitious, ignorant moron.

Oh, yeah? I thought.

Time to open up a big ol’ can of academia.

“You know I’m a writer,” I said. “My writing is based on folklore—on myths. These are the oldest stories we have, and even today, we still can’t stop telling them. They center on themes that are ancient and universal. Pluto drags Persephone off to the underworld; the Phantom of the Opera drags Christine off to the caverns below Paris.”

In my mind, my goblin King brushed his striped hair out of his bony face and gave me a wry smile.

You, too! I told him, and he nodded.

“Stories like that exist in every country, in every language,” I went on. “I think they explain how we deal with the psychological demands of our world. They may even have to do with how our brains are wired.”

“I see,” Susan said cautiously.

I could tell that Susan was disappointed. She’d probably been angling for emotional hot buttons between Elena and me. Maybe she’d hoped for a nice knock-down-drag-out fight over religion. But Elena was almost asleep. And I wasn’t a professor’s child for nothing.

“When it comes to anorexia nervosa,” I said, “the first thing I think of is Ophelia. Did you know that Ophelia-style mermaid stories occur all over the world?”

Susan fidgeted. “Ophelia isn’t a mermaid.”

“The story repeats all over the world,” I said again. “Ophelia is just the best example. Think about it: think about who Ophelia is. She’s the girl who’s been used and tossed aside. She more or less admits that she slept with Hamlet, and she may even be pregnant. Then Hamlet turns on her. He tells her that he doesn’t love her and won’t marry her, and that she can’t marry anybody else, either. Presumably, he’s reminding her that she’s no longer a virgin. He insults and humiliates her. He even kills her father.

“So Ophelia does what wronged girls and unwed pregnant girls have done since the oldest days of story. She finds some water nearby, and she drowns herself.”

Susan glanced at Elena. “But to get back . . .”

“Compare that to the Little Mermaid,” I continued, ignoring her. “And I mean the real Little Mermaid, not the Disney one. Andersen’s mermaid gives up everything to win her prince—not unlike Ophelia. But her prince doesn’t love her. She even has to dance for him and his bride on their wedding day. Her sisters try to persuade her to kill the prince, but she throws herself into the water instead.”

As I spoke, I remembered the day when my mother first introduced me to that story, the story where the mermaid doesn’t win her prince. So powerful was the spell it put me under that I could remember everything about where I was with the new book she had bought me: in my parents’ room, sitting on the edge of their bed as the two of us turned the pages. My feet were swinging. They didn’t touch the ground. That book was a board book, I was so little. It was designed so preschool children wouldn’t spoil the pages.

A preschool board book about a woman, brokenhearted, unlucky in love, who can either commit murder or lose her own life. Wouldn’t Susan have a field day with that!

Not that she would ever hear about it from me.

“So, I ask you,” I went on in my blandest lecturing voice, “why has the legend of the Little Mermaid stayed with us? Why is Ophelia one of the most memorable teenage girls in literature? Why are there pools all over the world, watched over by the spirits of drowned girls who pull men down to their deaths?”

Susan’s brow furrowed. “Pools?”

“You’ve never heard of a rusalka?” I countered. “That’s either a drowned girl who was wronged and killed herself, like Ophelia, or a water nymph, like the Little Mermaid. Either way, the rusalki are predatory spirits that haunt sources of water, and they drown men without pity. Deadly female water spirits show up all over Europe and Asia. I know of a mythic water demon like that from Hawaii.”

Susan leaned forward, intent again—but probably just intent on bringing this lecture to a close. She asked, “But how does this ‘water demon’ relate to you and Elena?”

That was a good question.

I didn’t know.

“It’s a pattern,” I concluded. “An age-old human pattern, like Pluto kidnapping Persephone. But this particular age-old human pattern has a special meaning for Elena. She surrounds herself with images of mermaids.”

And she didn’t even grow up like I did, I thought, with the tragic mermaid who loses her prince. In her generation, they’ve tampered with the story to make it work out to a happy ending.

When was it? I mused. When did my daughter first start showing me pictures of mermaids and Ophelias? She would do Internet searches and scour library books to find them. Most important was Millais’s famous Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, so delicate, surrounded by flowers. Her clothes spread wide, and mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up . . .

Was it? Yes, it had to be. It must have been after the rape.

Would I be sharing that with Susan?


“So, if you sum up the patterns,” I concluded, “the mermaid/Ophelia embodies a history of sexual violence or mistreatment. She wanted a normal life, but it was a man who took that life away from her. Heartbreak drove her into the water—or back into the water. It was a step from life toward death, and the mermaid is happy to repay the favor. Think about this: the mermaid is the strong one when she meets a human man. He’s the one who needs to fear for his life. Is that why mermaids bring mistreated girls such a sense of satisfaction? Is that why they seek out water? Because mermaids have transcended a man’s mistreatment, and now they can kill?”

Susan declined to comment. I brought up religion, she was probably thinking. I wanted indignation, vulnerability, and a reexamination in a new light of this family’s most fundamental structures. I wanted to break something open, to get something started. This has nothing to do with what I wanted.

Well, no. Because her approach had been idiotic.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of the Mermaid Fountain, Allerton Garden, Kauai, copyright 2016 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

This entry was posted in Anorexia nervosa, Books and reading, Folk traditions, Hope and Other Luxuries, Jungian archetypes, Writing craft. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *