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What Fairy Tales Reveal About the Transformations in a Woman's Life

Written by Joan GouldAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Joan Gould


List Price: $12.99


On Sale: November 24, 2010
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-76984-8
Published by : Random House Random House Group
Spinning Straw into Gold Cover

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What’s your favorite fairy tale? Whether it’s “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Hansel and Gretel,” or another story, your answer reveals something significant about you, your experiences, and your soul. In this penetrating book, Joan Gould brings to the surface the hidden meanings in fairy tales and myths, and illuminates what they can tell you about the stages in your own life. As Gould explores the transformations that women go through from youth to old age–leaving home and mother, the first experience of sexuality, the surprising ambivalence of marriage, the spiritual work required by menopause and aging–her keen observations will enrich your awareness of your inner life.
Full of archetypal figures known to us all, Spinning Straw into Gold also includes stories from the lives of ordinary women that clarify the insights to be gained from the beloved tales that have been handed down from one generation to the next.


Chapter 1

Snow White: Breaking Away from Mother

The youngest heroine in this book, at least the youngest emotionally, is a girl who hasn’t yet completed her first transformation of consciousness: puberty, which eventually produces an independent sexual woman from a dependent child. Snow White’s body has begun to change by the time her story is under way—we know this from the violence of her stepmother’s reactions to her beauty—but her self-awareness hasn’t taken into account the biological upheaval starting to take place inside her.

Adolescence involves a break with the past, as well as a thrust toward the future. Without any choice, either too soon or too late to suit her, a girl loses the flat, lean body that she took for granted and finds that she has become a sexual creature, obscurely desired or threatened from all sides. At this stage, she must learn to see herself as separate from her background, her parents, and her home, with as few recriminations as possible toward those who made her what she is at present. She must picture a future different from the present, taking place against a background that she can’t visualize, in which she will answer to another name. Possibility opens up in front of her, dazzling her with its prospects, but at the same time she finds herself stripped of the protection she has taken for granted until now. Liberation is always a loss as well as a gain.

How, and when, do women get to know themselves as self-willed sexual beings, distinct from their families? By looking in a mirror, especially during adolescence, which is not at all the way a boy learns to know himself. Teenage girls peer into mirrors all day long to find out how others see them, what impact they’re going to have on the world around them, what can be improved or projected better or awaited, and what can only be deplored—critiques in the mirror’s voice that change from hour to hour. (“Flat,” says the mirror. “Still flat. You’ll never get a man, not with those goose bumps you call breasts. Why don’t you rethink your hair? Some streaks—that might be good. Or a French braid. And don’t stand like a Girl Scout at flag-raising. You want to smolder. . . . That’s better. You know what? You’ve got potential, girl. Your day is coming.”)

This isn’t the time-wasting obsession that adults think it is. Like it or not, an adolescent girl recognizes that she’s an object as well as a subject, a soul encased in a carcass that’s the material she was given to work with in order to attract a mate and advance nature’s program of making a mother of her.

At any age, can a woman stand in front of a mirror for more than thirty seconds and acknowledge herself simply as an object in space, without correcting her appearance in some way—running her fingers through her hair or wiping the corners of her lips—while making some silent comment about her looks, more often than not unfavorable?

In short, looks matter. We can manage to be more than the body, but there’s no way we can be less.

“Snow White” is a story about looks, looking and being looked at, a glittery tale of a window, a snowfall, a mirror, and a coffin made of glass. The females in it are a good mother who looks out the window at a fresh snowfall, a bad mother who looks only at her own reflection in the mirror, and a daughter who lies still as death and is looked at. But any story that deals with looks and looking is necessarily a story about time, which is a force that defeats beauty.

A girl named Snow White lives with her stepmother, a Queen obsessed with her own appearance, who possesses a magic mirror. But in a palace ruled by this mirror’s pronouncements as to who is the most beautiful in the land, how is it that the heroine has no mirror of her own, or, if she has one, lacks the heart to use it? Who has convinced her that her looks aren’t worth bothering about, since no one will pay attention to her anyway? While the Queen glories in her superiority, her stepdaughter, who is just coming into her own beauty, has no idea what she looks like, none of the usual self-consciousness of adolescence, which is how we know that she hasn’t yet gone through the turmoil that is about to engulf her.

A child’s first mirror is her mother’s eyes, which determine what reflections she’ll see for the rest of her life. If a mother admires her daughter—let’s say the girl is eleven or twelve years old and prepubescent—the girl learns to use an actual mirror as a tool for self-study. (I didn’t say if the mother “loves her daughter,” since we don’t know how to recognize love in its many guises. “Admires” is the operative word here.) She does this because of the confidence her mother pours into her.

Snow White, on the other hand, has no picture of her future as a sexual creature when we first meet her. Except for the Queen, she’s the only female in the palace; there are no siblings or friends, no other images of womanhood in front of her. Her stepmother is what it means to be female; her stepmother is Queen, but the girl is nothing like her stepmother and, what’s more, never will be, which means that there must be something the matter with her. The longer she scrutinizes the older woman, the more of an outcast she feels in a woman’s world, scrutiny being the female equivalent of male sparring as a way for two people of the same gender to gauge each other’s strength.

But there are sexually mature girls, there are even grown women, who don’t acquire their own mirrors because, for one reason or another, their vision has been blinkered by their mothers and they can’t bear to come face-to-face with their unaccepted and unacceptable selves.

“I was around fourteen—maybe fifteen—when my mother paid one of her rare visits to the house where I was being brought up by my grandmother,” said a friend of mine who is now the mother of three children. “I was coming out of the shower when she walked into the bathroom and saw me naked for the first time in six months. Maybe more. From her look of shock, I understood what she was seeing: my developing breasts, nipples that had grown darker and slightly puffy, pubic hair, rounded hips and belly. She left in a hurry and shut the door. I looked in the bathroom mirror, which had been there all along, of course, but I didn’t see beauty reflected back at me. I saw danger. I loathed the body that was causing this separation between us. From that time on, I did my best to make myself disappear: anorexia, hair hanging over my face, baggy T-shirts to hide those breasts. All the sad disguises. Not until I was in the delivery room years later, giving birth to my first child, did I understand the power and beauty of a woman’s body.”

Like many of the best-loved tales, the Grimms’ story of Snow White starts with a wish.

On a day in the middle of winter, a Queen sits beside her window, watching a snowstorm while she sews. Suddenly her needle slips, she pricks her finger, and three drops of blood fall upon the snow: always three, the magic number. The red drops look pretty on the snow, and she thinks to herself, “Would that I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the ebony window frame.”

White, red, black. Seeing nothing but snow in front of her, the original Queen, who is the Good Mother, has summoned the ancient trinity of colors to compose a wish-child. Together they form a series, putting us on notice in the opening sentences that this will be a magical story in which each color, in turn, will determine a stage in the life of the child created by the wish. The heroine, who will be more luscious than blood on snow—life on top of death—will move through three phases of life to reach a fourth stage her mother has never dreamed of—gold—while, at the same time, her future stepmother, who cannot stage-manage her own colors, will be nudged against her will from red into black.

At the moment when the Queen makes her wish, the earth sleeps beneath the falling snow, pure but barren, and awaits its reawakening the way Snow White will sleep in her glass coffin later on, and so the first color to appear on the scene has to be the heroine’s name: Snow White.

White is innocence, virginity, purity, light without heat, a window into the future, but white by itself is sterile. Something more than snow is required to produce life.

The child must also be as red as the drops of blood that flow from her mother’s finger. The Queen has felt a prick, just as Sleeping Beauty will be pricked by a spindle. “Prick” is a word we still use for penis; in street language, an upraised middle finger is understood as a sexual act. The Queen’s blood is the same as menstrual blood, so common that the loss is scarcely noticed, even though it signals life’s capacity to regenerate itself. But it’s also the blood that flows from a ruptured hymen when a woman loses her virginity and conceives a child, which is what has happened to the Queen here.

Blood is red, the womb is red, the vulva is red, especially when stimulated. Paleolithic cliff tombs were painted red, to show that the earth, the body of the goddess, is the womb of life as well as its tomb. Above all, sex is red, as in Eve’s apple, a virgin’s “cherry,” Persephone’s pomegranate or the Devil’s cloak, the red-light district, red shoes, red satin boxes shaped like hearts and filled with candies to be licked on Valentine’s Day, or a Scarlet letter A for adultery, embroidered in gold on a Puritan gown.

White and red together make a child’s story, as in “Snow White and Rose Red,” but a crucial element is lacking: the perspective of time. The Queen’s child must also be black as the window frame (black as a raven’s wing in other versions), a strange condition to insist on before birth, since black is the color of unconsciousness and death. Put together, the three colors paint a picture of time and growth, the phases of the moon as crescent, full, and waning, which correspond to the ancient goddess in her triple phases as Maiden, Matron, Crone.

These colors are on the earthly level, however, leading to the fourth and final color: gold. In “Snow White,” the golden element is hidden until the story is nearly over.

But fairy tales are no simpler than real life. The heroine can’t move directly from white to red, from childhood to sexuality, without passing through a period of blackness, which in the first three stories in this book—“Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty”—takes the form of either work or sleep.

Cinderella works while living among the ashes. Sleeping Beauty sleeps. Snow White does both, as she moves from her mother’s palace through the dwarfs’ cottage and into a coffin before finding a home of her own. In each case, an interval of darkness shrouds the heroine while she goes through her transformation from one plane of existence to the next.

This may be why we remember certain patches of childhood and adolescence vividly, and others not at all. Or why we remember ourselves at school—a junior-high actress starring in the school play, a girl in the cafeteria gossiping with friends, a success on the hockey field—but not as bodies at home. What we can’t remember happened during the dark spells, when we couldn’t bear to look at ourselves yet.

From the Hardcover edition.
Joan Gould|Author Q&A

About Joan Gould

Joan Gould - Spinning Straw into Gold

Photo © Nancy Crampton

Joan Gould's work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated. The author of Spirals, she lives in Rye, New York.

Joan Gould is available to speak to groups either in person, via speaker phone, or online chats. Please contact her through her website at www.joangould.com

Author Q&A

RH: Joan, I’m curious to know what aroused your interest in old stories. What was the genesis of SPINNING STRAW INTO GOLD? And how long have you been working on it?

In one sense, I’ve been sitting in front of a computer and working on this book for 12 years, but it’s been on my mind for 60 years.

During my first year at college, when I was 16, the university awarded a prize for the best term paper by a freshman — a very big deal at the time. I told my adviser that I’d been struck by similarities between heroes in classic myths and modern comic books. Superman, for instance (who had appeared only 15 years earlier) is sent to our world from the doomed planed Krypton in a rocket ship, to be found and raised by foster parents, just as the infant Moses was rescued from the Egyptians by being put into an ark made of reeds and floated downriver where the Pharaoh’s daughter found him.

“No way,” said my adviser. I could write on that subject if I insisted, but I’d never win the prize. Why wouldn’t I write about Virginia Woolf instead?

He was right. I didn’t win the prize. It went to a girl who wrote about Virginia Woolf. But the notion that our favorite stories can change name and setting while their meaning remains intact, stayed with me from then on.

The first sentence I see when I open your book is “What’s your favorite fairy tale?” What’s the point of such a question?

This may sound like a parlor game - but naming a story on the spur of the moment can be a clue to our family background and our inner selves. The choice will change from one period in our lives to another, even from day to day.

Ten women who say that “Cinderella” is their favorite story may be thinking of ten different aspects: the heroine’s sense of being excluded from the family group, for instance; the humiliation of looking so much shabbier than her sisters (or friends); her rivalry with those sisters; or perhaps her problems with her step/mother, who could actually be her own mother as seen through a resentful teenager’s eyes.

Those who choose “Snow White” may be thinking of the scenes with the dwarfs as they appear in the Walt Disney movie — hi ho, hi ho — while Snow White plays the perfect den mother, hands on her hips, tenderly correcting their manners and insisting that they wash their hands. It’s an appealing picture of motherliness.

Another woman may remember the same story as a mother-daughter duel, starting with a mother, still beautiful and sexual, who realizes that her daughter is approaching womanhood and will soon become a Queen in her own right. The step/mother may not be jealous of the girl’s beauty — that’s a fairytale metaphor — but of the youth that’s still hers to spend, the beauty of lovers and babies and homes not yet known, the doors open for her daughter that were never open for her.

RH: Joan, you say that on the surface this is a book about fairy tales, but at a deeper level it deals with transformation. I’m not sure what you mean by “transformation”, or what it has to do with bedtime stories for children.

By “transformation” I mean those shifts in levels of being that come over us from time to time and leave us wondering how we got to where we are today. We are born to be changed, the stories tell us. We are always on the move from one stage to the next, whether we want to be transformed or not. This is why so many of our favorite tales focus on girls and women, with their built-in and obvious metamorphoses, rather than boys and men.

RH: Could you give some everyday examples?

A girl is a child before puberty and a woman afterwards. This is the story of Cinderella, who changes from a scullery maid into a Princess; Sleeping Beauty, who bleeds when pricked by a spindle; and the Seal Maidens who swim to shore on certain nights and slip out of their animal skins to reveal their beautiful legs.

A woman is one person before she has sexual contact with a male, and more alive or less alive later on. (Beauty is more alive when she recognizes her love for the Beast. Daphne is less alive when she changes into a tree in order to avoid being raped by Apollo.) Marriage is another transformation that splits a woman in two. In one part, she’s herself; in the other part, she’s half of a couple (“The White Bride and the Black Bride”, “The Seal Wife”). A woman is transformed when she’s pregnant and again when she becomes a mother. Menopause is a generally unwelcome transformation, signaling age, but becoming a grandmother teaches continuity and difference.

One thing transformation is not: It’s not a magic wand that changes a poor girl’s rags to riches, or treats her to an Extreme Makeover, which is external. Real transformation involves rising or falling from one level of consciousness to another, usually after a dark period of suffering or sleep.

RH: Do you see “Cinderella” as the drama that all girls go through at puberty?

No, “Cinderella” is just one account — though it’s the most popular - of this transformation.

We never get tired of the basic plot: Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, “The Ugly Duckling” and A Little Princess are of superior birth who suffer miserably as adolescents, but outstrip their oppressors in the end. Heroines in My Fair Lady and Pretty Woman are taught what to know in order to shine in society.

RH: Joan, we’ve all heard charges from feminists that the old fairy tales aren’t helpful to girls because the heroines seem to do nothing but lie around and mope until a Prince comes along to save them. What do you think about this?

The idea that fairytale heroines are passive creatures who wait to be rescued is a twentieth century notion that’s out-and-out wrong. Sisters rescue brothers in fairy tales much more often than brothers save sisters. Daughters rescue fathers or lovers rather than the reverse.

Beauty goes into the Beast’s castle, prepared to die in order to save her father. Hansel scatters bread crumbs to mark the way out of the woods (men like to serve as pathfinders), but it’s Gretel who pushes the witch into her own oven.

Cinderella is supposed to be the most passive heroine of all, waiting to be rescued from the ashes. Then why does she run away from the Prince three times in the German version, after dancing with him at the ball?

No, it’s not fairytale heroines who are passive victims. It’s the heroines of the Walt Disney movies, especially the earlier ones, who warble and weep on the sidelines and then accept rescue by a Prince in place of transformation.

RH: Can we still appreciate “Beauty and the Beast” stories in our culture that treats sex so casually, almost as a curriculum requirement in college?
If you look closely, you’ll see that our most popular romantic books, movies and plays turn out to be “Beauty and the Beast” with different trappings.

King Kong, the gorilla-god of his island, holds Fay Wray on the palm of his hand and plucks off the layers of her skirt as if plucking the petals off a rose, with a bemused expression on his face.

But in general, the Beast is seen as a human being, a romantic figure isolated in his private wilderness, more powerful than his civilized counterparts but misunderstood and wracked by loneliness:

The Phantom of the Opera hides behind his mask in his watery lair beneath the Paris Opera House, yearning for the young singer he transforms into a star.

Edward Rochester (in Jane Eyre), Heathcliff (in Wuthering Heights) and Rick of Rick’s Cafe (Humphrey Bogart, in Casablanca), like the skipper of The African Queen (Bogart again) are Beast-men who hide behind their ferocious scowls until tamed by a heroine from the civilized world.

In each story, the isolated Beast is devoted to the one woman who dares enter his domain. His opposite number is the Hero, who’s applauded by society, so that he’s not so evidently in need of love. In our terms, the Hero is a career man who’ll make his way up the corporate ladder; he’ll be able to support a wife and children.

RH: Then how is a woman supposed to decide which she wants — the Hero or the Beast?

Every woman should have three mates, said anthropologist Margaret Mead: The first for sex. The second for parenthood. And the third and last, when child-rearing is done, for companionship.

RH: Why do all fairy tales have to end the same way? “Happily Ever After”

They don’t. In fact, I’ve divided this book into the three phases of a woman’s life, maiden, matron and crone.

The Maiden’s story — I call it “The Age of Attraction” - begins with puberty and ends with love, marriage and motherhood, because that’s the way we keep the species going.

On the Maiden’s wedding day the Matron’s story begins — I call that phase “The Age of Attachment” - entirely different from the Maiden’s but just as full of trials and triumphs.

The final phase of a woman’s life is the Crone, “The Age of the Spirit”, which is the most challenging, giving us the chance to see ourselves in the clear, sharp light of mortality.

RH: I’m not sure that I remember certain fairy tales in detail, only the Disney movies.

I re-tell the old stories for just that reason. Walt Disney is the leading myth-maker of our time, to such an extent that his movies and books are the only version of the stories that most people know. The Disney patriarchal slant is what feminists object to, without realizing it, when they claim that heroines are passive.

Disney changes what used to be the heroine’s story of growth and transformation — in other words, nature magic - into the hero’s story of conflict: good against evil, youth against age, masculine courage against the trickiness and cruelty of old witches. In Disney’s kingdom, the hero is present from the first reel, infatuating the heroine and ultimately saving her. In traditional stories, he doesn’t appear until the end, and then chiefly as a sign of the girl’s new maturity. He’s a sort of graduation present.

With Disney, the heroine isn’t transformed; she’s rescued. The hero becomes the agent of change.

Of course, 65 years have passed since the first full-length Disney fairy tale film, and themes have changed to suit the times, especially in the new Beauty and the Beast, but the old movies are revived for each generation.

RH: Did you keep your own children away from the Disney fairytale movies?

Of course not. No one should be deprived of a chance to see the dwarfs marching off to the mines — “We whistle while we work” - or the squirrels cleaning house by sweeping the dust under the rug with their tails. Disney movies are an entertainment form all their own.

But Disney isn’t enough. His movies and simplified fairytale books teach us nothing about the mysterious pain and transcendence involved in growing up. For that, we need the old stories in their traditional form, especially Grimms and Perrault.

RH: One of the main themes in Spinning Straw is the idea that “females are the vehicles of transformation in this world.” Do you think that older women can relate well to younger women today, and vice versa? Do women from each generation confront the same issues, or has society changed so much as to render the experiences very different?

Of course society has changed radically in recent decades, but I think that the changes of the past thirty or forty years have brought the generations closer together rather than further apart. Girls of fifteen have babies, and so do women in their forties, even fifties. Women in their seventies dress like their granddaughters in jeans and sweat shirts, go hiking and camping and have love affairs and divorces. Older women remember how hard it is to work full time, and young women, just starting their careers, look forward to being homemakers as well — as soon as they have the time. The younger generation hasn’t shocked its elders since the 1970’s, now that sexuality has been pretty well divorced from reproduction, and the older generation no longer seems dreary, thanks to improvements in medicine and beauty care. Thirty years old today is what twenty used to be in your mothers’ day; fifty is the former forty.

Even our culture has melded. Because of VCR’s and DVD’s, we’ve all seen I Love Lucy and All About Eve and heard the Beatles sing “Let Me Hold Your Hand”. The past is wrapped up in the present.

RH: Would you have any advice for younger wives and mothers?

Watch. Stay awake. Busy as you are while you’re working and dating, or during the years of child-rearing when it’s a small victory to find the time to brush your teeth, try to be aware of the transformations going on around you and because of you. You bring home packages of pasta and jars of sauce from the grocery story and transform them into supper. The food you serve becomes your family’s flesh. The flesh grows and changes and produces another generation. You transform an embryo into a fetus, a fetus into a baby, an energetic and reckless toddler into a civilized member of society. Before you know it, the child you left at the kindergarten door this morning will be working in his office, too busy to take his mother’s phone calls.

Miracles are passing through you. When you become a Crone (like me), you’ll be surrounded by silence and time, in which you’ll look at young mothers with their children and see the energy — I almost said radiance — streaming from them.

RH: Now it’s your turn, Joan, to tell us - what’s your own favorite fairy tale?

When I was young, I think my favorite was the Greek myth of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. I thought this was because the pretty girl picking flowers was kidnapped by Hades, King of the Underworld, and became the Queen of the Dead. The mysteries of the spirit world fascinated me.

Then one day, when my mother was old and sick and bitter, and I was telling her this story for lack of anything else to talk about, it occurred to me that I’d never known the real reason for my preference. I was caught by the story of a mother so in love with her daughter, her only child (as I was), that she defied the gods and made the whole world suffer for her loss. This was more than I thought my mother would do for me.

But in recent years I’ve often had “Beauty and the Beast” in mind. For 35 years I was a racing skipper, sailing a small boat on Long Island Sound in calms and storms, without any member of my family on board. (I still sail, but I no longer race.) It seems to me that we’ve lost too much of the wilderness in ourselves as well as our surroundings, so that we have few occasions when we can be fully conscious of our bodies, and can exist inside our bodies, with an occasional jolt of fear to remind us that we are fragile but nonetheless present on the starting line, like our boats.

I tend to admire good male skippers - there were no other females that I know of racing without their husbands when I started - who not only sail and race as I do, but have enough knowledge of aerodynamics to judge the cut of a sail and the rake of a mast, which is beyond me. Often these skippers are dull socially, like “poor Beast”, hot-tempered and difficult, but with rare physical intelligence.

I didn’t choose to marry a Beast, however. I married a landlubber hero who never chose to set foot in a boat, but let me go right on with my racing, and I never wanted anyone else.

From the Hardcover edition.



“Brilliant . . . belongs by any woman’s bedside, inside any commuting woman’s briefcase, next to any woman’s reading chair, for its surprising yet deeply recognizable truths about women’s lives.”
–Elizabeth Berg, author of The Year of Pleasures and Open House

“Open Joan Gould’s lovely book anywhere and you will find something recognizable, as relevant today as when you were a child. That’s the magic of fairy tales. Be wise, be strong, and grab life like the heroes and heroines in Spinning Straw into Gold.”
–Nancy Friday, author of My Mother, My Self and My Secret Garden

“Taking the life of woman through her changes, from maiden to matron to crone, Joan Gould has written a passionate song of praise for life itself. Her book is as nourishing as the fairy tales she treats. Her inspired Spinning Straw into Gold rejuvenates us all.”
–Robert Fagles, translator of The Iliad and The Odyssey

“This is at once a deep yet thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable book.”
–Maggie Scarf, author of Secrets, Lies, Betrayals and Intimate Partners

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