I just remember the long hair plats… but the story is of a couple longing for a child, who steal some rampions (vegetable with root for salad) from a wicked witch. She allows them to live in exchange for allowing them to have a baby that, according to the agreement, she immediately locks in a tower. End of parents.
Naturally Rapunzel is the most beautiful, yadda-dadda, with the longest and golden-est hair—oh, a great singing voice. When the witch wants to talk (?), she calls for Rapunzel to drop her long hair and the witch clambers up. If I had any memory of the tale at all, it was to wonder why that didn’t hurt. Then a king comes along, hears her beautiful voice, climbs up and saves her. Murky memory at best.
But in the original, the witch realizes there’s a guy involved; Rapunsel has fallen in love with a man. She sends Rapunzel to a far-away desert, and tricks the king into climbing up the now-shorn hair plat. He is astonished to find Ugly Witch and falls, falls, into briars and they scratch out his eye. Wanders blind. For years. One day he hears The Voice. Despite blindness and perhaps near starvation, he finds her and their twins, now 12 years old, and they all love happily if a bit un-royally, thereafter.
Why do our memories stop at the good part, with a beautiful maiden and king living happily ever after? And what does that have to do with prison grievances, you might ask. Well…
A part of the fascination of Rapunsel was her innocent imprisonment. Taken from her birth parents over a stolen onion, she lives in solitude, without education or companionship, isolated from the world. She is intelligent enough to distinguish between the ugly witch and the man who climbs into her window, but she does not have the social experience to decide if he is “the one” or merely “the rescuer.” I wonder… how many of the people who made bad decisions made them based on scant knowledge of alternatives? One death-row inmate described how he and his siter hid under their porch from teachers because their father threatened that teachers take children and make them work all day and night. Today, awaiting his execution date, he wonders what might have happened if they had crawled out, into the larger world. Would the teachers have run away? Called authorities? Taken them to orphanages? He is an intelligent, sensitive man who writes poems to me and asks me to pretend he has sent bouquets, which he describes from long-ago memories.
Why didn’t we all cry out when we heard or read about the witch, and then king, climbing up hair? Surely it would have pulled her bald-headed? Or did she somehow twist it around a spinning wheel, etc? No, we focused on the length or the hair: it was “12 ells.” (18” = 1 ells, so the tower was a mere 18 feet tall, but then people were shorter in the early 1800s) If we read about this child abuse today, would we act to save the child? If the act of cruelty were hidden behind prison walls, would we investigate?
Even the cruelty of taking her from her birth parents and isolating her was ignored. Why? Almost 80% of those in prison have been in foster care at some point. What does that do to a developing mind, of a sense of security in the world? On the other hand, what does growing up in an environment devoid of loving parents and support system create?
Perhaps that is why we are drawn to fairy tales to begin with: they put into words and images situations we either know too well (and try to ignore or erase), or situations that we suspect are true but don’t want to confront.
Consequences of both separation from parents (foster care) or childhood abuse are seen throughout our criminal “justice” system. It is society’s task to unravel the threads that have led to repetitive jail terms, overcrowded prisons, abuse behind the walls of prisons. It is up to each of us to insist on seeing behind the walls, to insist that we have Independent Oversight of our system as well as a stronger social network that keeps young people from harm.
Maybe we should each step up and be counted as opposing any system that continues to de-humanize those who made a terrible decision, and will have to pay for it over and again, alone.