Grounded for Life

Remarking upon the impulse to lock the troublesome girl in her room.  Or an asylum.  A prison.  A boarding school.  Reform school.  Or a tower.

The Rapunzel Syndrome

Likely the single most pervasive image evoked in the popular mind by the term “fairy tale” is that of a maiden in distress leaning from a tower window and searching the horizon for a rescuer.

The Brother’s Grimm version of Rapunzel, in which a thieving mother-to-be makes a bargain with a witch, turning over her newborn baby to be trapped in a bleak tower, until a besotted prince shows up to save the long-haired girl.

Comparing this to the 1997 illustrated children’s book by Paul Zelinsky, which reaches back beyond the Grimms to a late-seventeenth-century French tale by Mlle. la Force, who based hers on the Neapolitan tale “Petrosinella” in a collection popular at the time.  Here the story is about possessiveness, confinement, and separation, rather than about punishment and deprivation.  Thus the tower the sorceress gives Rapunzel here is not a desolate, barren structure of denial but one of esoteric beauty on the outside and physical luxury within.  And so the world the artist creates in his paintings speaks to us not of an ugly witch who cruelly imprisons a beautiful young girl, but of a mother figure who powerfully resists her child’s inevitable growth, and of a young woman and man who must struggle in the wilderness for the self-reliance that is the true beginning of their adulthood.

With a quick look at Barbie (yes, the doll) as Rapunzel in a 2002 animated film in which a girl named Rapunzel has “the most beautiful, radiant hair the world has ever seen.”  She is the servant of a jealous, scheming witch who keeps her hidden deep in a forbidding forest, behind an enchanted glass wall.


Comparing early renderings of the Sleeping Beauty story – Brunhild in the “Volsunga Saga,” the 1528 Arthurian romance Perceforest, Giambattista Basile’s Italian version of 1636, Perrault’s 1697 “La Belle au bois dormant,” and The Grimm Brothers’ “Brier Rose” – with modern retellings, from Tchaikovsky’s 1890 ballet, to Disney’s 1959 animated film and Anne Sexton’s “Briar Rose,” published in 1971.

Maimed and Dismembered

A look at “Girl without Hands” by the Brothers Grimm, about a daughter whose father amputates her hands to save her from the devil, and “Boxing Helena,” Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s (David Lynch’s daughter)1993 film in which Dr. Nick Cavanaugh (Julian Sands) is obsessed with Helena (Sherilyn Fenn), a young woman with whom he had a brief affair.  Helena feels nothing but disdain for Nick, and shows it at every possible opportunity.  Nevertheless, one day the good doctor manages to lure the object of his desire to his home.  The “romantic lunch” doesn’t turn out as planned, but when Helena storms from his house and into the street out front, she’s struck by a truck and seriously injured.  Not wanting to lose Helena to a hospital, Nick elects to operate in his home lab, amputating Helena’s legs, then keeping her captive during her convalescence.  When she becomes too difficult to control, he takes things one step further and removes her arms, turning her into his prized possession, a torso with a head.

Locked in the Basement

In Charleroi, Belgium, Marc Dutroux, a convicted pedophile, murderer and supposed leader of an international child pornography and prostitution ring, kidnapped, tortured and sexually abused six girls, ranging in age from 8 to 19.  Four of the girls died.   On August 15, 1996 police raided his house where they discovered a soundproof concrete dungeon in the basement, and within the dungeon they discovered two young girls, ages 12 and 14, who were alive but had been sexually abused and filmed pornographically by Dutroux.  The youngest girl, Delhez, had been kidnapped on August 9, 1996, after being grabbed off the street, thrown into Dutroux’s car and drugged.  The older of the two, Dardenne, had been kept in the same dungeon as Delhez and had suffered sexual abuse by Dutroux for a total of two and a half months.

John Fowles’ 1963 novel, The Collector, in which Miranda Grey, a beautiful, idealistic young woman studying art in London, is kidnapped by a startlingly ordinary young man who wants only to keep her – like the butterflies he collects.  In 1965 a film was made of the book, starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar.

“The Cell,” a 2003 film in which Vincent D’Onofrio plays Carl Stargher, a serial killer whose m.o. is to abduct girls one at a time and place them in an underground secret area where they are kept for about 40 hours until they are slowly drowned.

Locked in a Room

The Prisoner (1923), the first part of the “roman d’Albertine” section of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, in which Marcel, in a desperate attempt to keep his young beloved Albertine Simonet away from what he thinks is dangerous contact with a pair of lesbians, convinces her to come and live with him in his family’s apartment in Paris, where he can keep a constant watch on her.  She becomes his captive as his love for her is grounded in jealousy and a project of control.  (In the second part, The Fugitive or The Sweet Cheat Gone, she escapes.)

Compare to the 2001 novel Albertine by Jaqueline Rose which retells the story from Albertine’s own point of view.

The Pleasure of Being Lost

The Panther Captivity: a 1787 best-seller, reprinted twenty-five times over the next thirty years, in which the daughter of a wealthy merchant falls in love with a clerk.  The father is unbending in his will to prevent a marriage, so the couple runs away to a nearby cottage, thinking to soften his heart through fear. Their plot backfires, forcing the couple farther into the wilderness, where they are captured by Indians. After watching them burn and dismember her lover, the girl manages to get away.  She wanders in the woods until she is discovered by a giant. Bound by bark and left overnight to contemplate accepting unsavory proposals, she manages to escape and kill her abductor.  Over the course of the next few days, she proceeds to chop him up and carry his body out of the cave.  His several apartments become her squatter home, which she shares with a dog she finds there.  She and her canine companion remain happily alone in this place for nine years, until they are discovered by two men on a tour of the area.  She agrees to go with them back to her father’s house, whereupon the old patriarch, shocked by her fate, gasps his regret and dies.

Early American Captivity Narratives

According to Richard Slotkin (Violence Through Regeneration), in the captivity narrative “a single individual, usually a woman, stands passively under the strokes of evil, awaiting rescue by the grace of God… The captive’s ultimate redemption by the grace of Christ and the efforts of the Puritan magistrates is likened to the regeneration of the soul in conversion… Through the captive’s proxy, the promise of a similar salvation could be offered to the faithful among the reading public, while the captive’s torments remained to harrow the hearts of those not yet awakened to their fallen nature.”

Mary White Rowlandson’s 1682 Captivity Narrative, whose full title was: “A True History of the Captivity & Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, A Minister’s Wife in New-England: Wherein is set forth, The Cruel and Inhumane Usage she underwent amongst the Heathens for Eleven Weeks time: And her Deliverance from them. Written by her own Hand, for her Private Use: and now made public at the earnest Desire of some Friends, for the Benefit of the Afflicted.”

Mary Jemison, “White Woman of the Genesee,” was captured by Shawnee Indians and French soldiers in Pennsylvania on April 5, 1758. She was later sold to Senecas who took her to Ohio, adopted her and renamed her Dehgewanus.

The Stockholm Syndrome

In 1973, four Swedes held in a bank vault for six days during a robbery became attached to their captors, a phenomenon dubbed the Stockholm Syndrome. According to psychologists, the abused bond to their abusers as a means to endure violence.

Patty Hearst, kept in a closet for many weeks before she began to sympathize with her abductors.  After two months of captivity, images of the machine-gun-toting child of privilege showed up in surveillance footage as she and her kidnappers robbed the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco.  In conjunction with robbing the bank, the SLA released tapes in which Patty denounced her capitalist roots, changed her name to Tania, and announced she had joined the group whose motto was, “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of people.”  Hearst was used as leverage to extort six million dollars in food for the poor from her wealthy family.  The public anxiously followed the story of this political kidnapping by terrorists in America and debated Patty’s role in the dramatic events.  About a month after the Hibernia Bank robbery more than 500 armed officers descended upon a South Central Los Angeles bungalow for a shoot-out with the SLA, whose members had assassinated Oakland school Superintendent Marcus Foster in addition to the Hearst kidnapping and other crimes.  The bungalow burned to the ground with six SLA members inside.  Patty’s adventure continued as she was shuttled between SLA safe houses for a year before being arrested in San Francisco near the border of Daly City.  In spite of her defense that she participated only under duress, Patty was sentenced to seven years for armed robbery following a sensational trial in which she was defended by noted attorney F. Lee Bailey.  After 22 months her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter, and then she was pardoned for her crimes by President Bill Clinton in January 2001, during the final days of his administration.

Elizabeth Smart, found veiled and submissive, cooperating with her kidnappers – a homeless lunatic fringe Mormon street preacher and his wife – after nine months of captivity and abuse.

The Diary of Anne Frank

“When I write, I can shake off all my cares.” – April 5, 1944

Anne Frank was a German-Jewish teenager who was forced to go into hiding during the Holocaust.  She and her family, along with four others, spent 25 months during World War II in an annex of rooms above her father’s office in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.  After being betrayed to the Nazis, Anne, her family, and the others living with them were arrested and deported to Nazi concentration camps.  In March of 1945, nine months after she was arrested, Anne Frank died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen.  She was fifteen years old.