Fairytales: One Antidote to Bullying

by Elizabeth Cunningham

“Life is no fairytale,” people say, meaning there is a dearth of happy endings. But that last traditional line “and then they lived happily ever after” is not what the story is about. In most fairytales there are terrible perils and ordeals. The hero is often the victim of bullying and malevolence and must discover both internal and external resources in order to survive and ultimately triumph.

In many stories there are three sons or three daughters who in turn set off into the world to seek their fortune. Before any one of them has gone far, they encounter someone in need, an animal, a beggar, or an old man or woman. The hero is the one who stops to show kindness or to share whatever meager store of food he or she has. Later, in the time of trial, the act of kindness becomes a saving grace, and the animal or old beggar becomes a powerful ally. The bullies, or the ungenerous, generally come to a bad end, though sometimes the former victim chooses to help them and restore them to the human family. 

I grew up reading fairytales and then novels that were inspired by fairytales. I just missed the chance to read Harry Potter to my then teenaged children who read the book themselves and now and then read bits out loud to me. Unlike many adults, I never became a Potter aficionado, but it always makes me happy to see children lugging around huge books and losing themselves in long, imaginative stories of children who have to face danger and cruelty with bravery and wit.

I can’t help but wonder if lives have actually been saved because of stories, the lasting solace and courage people find in them. And I can’t help wondering if lives are being lost because people have no stories or are in the wrong story. Is the despair of victims and misfits more abject because they can’t foresee a reversal of fortune, feel bereft of allies, can’t conceive of themselves as heroes in disguise? Are the bullies more vicious for having no mirror held up to them, no warning of the consequences of cruelty to character and fate?

We are living in harsh times where fear and insecurity are increasing our human tendency to scapegoat and bully. The internet which, like any tool can be used for good or evil, has made it easier for people to be cruel anonymously and for the acts of cruelty to be more indelible. It’s bad enough to be taunted on the playground or in the cafeteria, but when cruelty can go viral, the victim must feel even more helpless, even more without a refuge. It should be noted that while anyone can be a victim for any reason, hatred of gay men and boys seems to be particularly virulent of late.

There is no one antidote to bullying. Schools are definitely on the frontline of response and my heart goes out to parents who must navigate the complex and treacherous worlds of social media. One of the most moving responses to the targeting of gay teens is Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project  where older gay and lesbian people tell their own stories of trial and ultimate triumph. Critics say the project does not go to the root of the problem or address some of the prejudices within the GLBTQ community. But I can imagine these stories acting as life lines to someone in the midst of what seems like hopeless, endless suffering.

We need to foster a culture of storytelling in schools, in community and religious centers: People of all ages telling stories, of all sexual orientations and ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds. We also need to foster the art of listening to a story, for in hearing another’s story we suspend fear and judgment and come to identify with the teller, no matter how different he or she appears to be. We need a curriculum in all schools that approaches literature as the healing art it can be. We need to rediscover stories as a source of courage, resourcefulness, and compassion.

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Elizabeth Cunningham October 12, 2010 - 9:44 pm

Maeve speaking. Elizabeth need not wonder if stories can saves lives. She knows it for a fact about one story in particular. Mine.

Unknown October 13, 2010 - 3:22 pm

I can think of other stories that shape lives, too. In some cases, those stories become frameworks for survival and triumph: like my mother, whose father was absent for her whole childhood–he sent her mother gold coins, instead. My mother's story was that she was not abandoned; she was important, the center of the story, even a fairy-tale princess.

Now, at 97, she still enjoys life, and its fruits, mostly self-made, and still looks forward, telling me, "I'm not going to die anytime soon."

Laura October 13, 2010 - 5:28 pm

As a performing storyteller I *know* stories save lives. I routinely have audience members come up to me after a performance or contact me later, letting me know that something I said had a significant impact, let them know they aren't alone, or otherwise affected them deeply. We need to tell our stories of survival, connection, overcoming and redemption so others know that this is possible.

Brooke October 14, 2010 - 5:16 pm

I can't believe how timely this blog was for the content of my life! I was just having a frank conversation with another mother about a class bully, with the hopes that this 8-year-old might be brought into the fold, rather than begin her social life as the enemy. I think it is so important to bring together the perceived victims and perpetrators. What better way to do this than by the mirror of storytelling? I do think it has been lost to our children, or at least deadened.

This idea resounds with me, and I must tell you that it is being birthed here, in Oregon, and even being supported by public school money and private patrons, which I still can't believe! It resonates with the kids and adults alike.

My artist friend, Shelley Moon, http://creativevoiceinyou.com/ goes into public schools, and performs dramatic renderings of various of her stories with subjects such as racism, sexual abuse, etc. The kids in turn write their own personal narratives to perform for each other.

I have been literally blown away by the repsonse of these kids coming together to share in love and acceptance, as they express their most intimate or meaningful stories, and feel embraced by their peers– as these kids experience something for the first time in their lives that resembles something real, or at least touches something real within them.

I believe that telling the stories is the first step in being able to move past them.

Your story of Maeve was a powerful mirror for me, and your bravery in telling her story without reservation continues to stoke something in me. Thank you, as always, for your wisdom, and for taking the time to put it into the written word.

Maura October 19, 2010 - 12:47 am

"Remember only this one thing," said Badger. "The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other's memory." – from Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez


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