I do not identify as a princess, but I have always respected the hell out of Cinderella. What a great martyr. Everyone treats this poor girl like trash! As if it weren’t bad enough that her mother died and her father remarried a hellish shrew with two ugly-as-sin daughters, then her father died, too, leaving her to a life of indentured servitude. She had to live at the dingy top of a castle turret with only rodents and birds to confide in?! Despite this, she got a thousand chores done by dawn, became the goddess of the forest creatures, created her own couture gown from rags, sang like an angel, and was so smokin’ hot that they literally had to hide her underground lest she outshine them and snag the prince.
I deeply identify with the “Cindersoot” part of this story. Cindersoot (not from the movie but from the story) was the horrible nickname the three hags called her, because, among other things, she had to sweep the cinders and was constantly covered in soot. Condemned to a life of serfdom, Cinderella found her solaces where she could - humming, barefoot glide-dancing, chatting up mice, and dreaming. And that brings me to the crux of the matter. Namely, Cinderella’s song, "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes”.
When I was a psychiatric social worker in a day treatment program, one day I came to work and immediately started telling my friend Ben, an attending psychiatrist, about the dream I’d had the night before. After recounting, in great detail, every nuance of the dream I could recall, and doing so in the animated kind of way that talking about myself seems to engender, Ben took a beat before kindly smiling and saying to me, “You know, Gina, if you want to tell your dreams to a friend, you might want to choose one who isn’t a psychiatrist.”
In spite of this sage advice, I am going to tell you about my recurring dream. I am in a huge house with many stories and there’s kind of a circular shape to it - like the Guggenheim but taller, narrower, and more dilapidated, When you go downstairs, you’re really walking down a gradually descending spiral. In this house, there are dozens, maybe even hundreds of people. It’s not clear if this house is mine, or if it’s more of a hotel situation. Sometimes it’s the night after a party and the place is a wreck - littered with bottles and with ashtrays overflowing. It’s also unclear if the people in the house are my friends or family - or both, or neither. What I do know for sure is that it is my job to wake them all up. We are late for something, or we have to be somewhere, or there’s some kind of danger and we have to evacuate. It’s early morning, just before sunrise, and I am the only one awake. I haven’t been awakened by a fleet of aproned birds, mind you, but it’s still a very Cindersoot vibe.
I start at the top of the tower and I work my way down, all the while knowing that just after I’ve successfully awakened one group of people and moved onto the next, the first group has fallen back asleep. I am frantic and panicking. The futility of my task is so overwhelming to me that I am screaming and crying. Nevertheless, I persist, walking and waking everyone and feeling so completely hopeless and helpless to actually accomplish the mission. (Is there a name for this type of dream? Sisyphus Dream Syndrome?)
Anyway, back to the song, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes. A dream is a wish your heart makes? Really? Are you kidding me, Cinderella? Is this true? And if it is true, why on earth is MY HEART WISHING TO BE IN SPIRAL, DRUNKEN, GUGGENHEIM, 5 A.M., PARTY-HOUSE, DEN MOTHER HELL?
My interpretation of the dream has always been the same - that this is the psychodrama to which any child of an alcoholic can relate. Feeling responsible, being parent-ified, trying in vain to control everything - these are hallmarks of codependency. However, someone who I love very much recently said to me, “I think this dream is about you trying to get yourself to wake up.” Not only did this extremely hot take catch me by surprise, I was shocked to realize I had never considered any alternate symbolism. I, who could find the psychopathology in a grouping of rocks, had failed to properly analyze this.
To make matters worse, I had failed to find any meaning in the dream that didn’t equate to me being the victim. Kids who grow up in chaotic family systems often become adults who see themselves perpetually in the victim role, and then we look (however unconsciously) for opportunities to get hurt again. Not because we like it, but because we know it. In this way, the Cinderella story - the part about her voluntarily staying in this bondage, anyway - isn’t so far-fetched. The protective function of this worldview is feeling like nothing is ever your fault and there is always someone else to blame. The destructive function of this worldview is feeling like nothing is ever your fault and there is always someone else to blame.
At the age of 23 and in a new relationship, I found myself surrounded by a class of people that I had never experienced. Rich, or semi-rich folks, liberals, intellectuals, people who, at a minimum, know people who vacation in Gstaad, even if they don’t do so themselves. The kind of people who have at least one photograph hanging on their wall of African or Mexican or Peruvian children that they had taken while on vacation, or on safari, or on a do-gooder mission to teach English or build houses. Photographs about which people would say, hand to their heart, eyes closing, something about how it was the most personally powerful and moving experience of their entire lives.
This new world was intimidating but also fascinating, a whole new paradigm for me to tour. I learned about mid-century modern furnishings and Cape Cod and boarding schools. One Sunday afternoon, one of my boyfriend’s friends invited us and some of our friends to his parent’s home in a very tony part of San Francisco. It was the kind of home always depicted in films set in San Francisco, and in which only a very slim percentage of the real residents actually live. The occasion was a family birthday party - a seemingly typical kids party for twin six-year-old girls but catered, and one where all the Tory Burch moms and Vineyard Vines dads drank champagne while their nannies ensured no little darlings fell from the the balcony. Once the majority of the guests had gone home and just a handful of us were still chatting and taking in the view of the bay, the friend’s mother asked me to help her serve a second round of food to her son, my boyfriend, and our friends. I obliged but did think it was strange that I was the only person she asked, especially since I was also the only one she had never met before. Wasn’t I a guest? Don’t get me wrong - I was used to doing such tasks as I did make my living as a cater waiter, and I was used to pitching in this way at familial parties, but I couldn’t understand why I was being asked to work here, at this party, to which I’d been invited, and for which I was not being paid.
Over the years, I have come to one of a handful of conclusions about my perceived oppressors in situations like this, but they’re all usually some version of: that person is an honest-to-goodness, Grade A Asshole. Correspondingly, what I conclude about myself is usually quite generous - that I am a good egg, a mensch, even a HERO. That night, crafting plates of leftover salmon and finger sandwiches to a group of my friends and feeling like Cindersoot, I thought my friend’s mother was not just an asshole, but truly wicked. I’d been told that she had grown up with money, but then eschewed it in favor of a hippie lifestlye in the in the 70s and 80s. But by 1999 she was the Silicon Valley Cinderella who had found her Dot Com Prince - and left the cinder-sweeping to her full-time staff. I didn’t see her as Cinderella, though. I thought she was the evil Stepmother. Or maybe even the cat, Lucifer.
In truth, it doesn’t matter what hero or villain she or anyone like her embodies. What matters is what costume I choose to wear in these little scenes, how I draw my own cartoon character. I tend to forget that I enter the stage, ready to receive these insults, to blame others for playing out the role I gave them, serving as confirmation of my own bias about myself. Why should I expect anyone to ask me to the ball as I stand there, covered in soot?
Accountability is exhausting. Owning my part in any given dysfunctional interaction is completely enervating. I prefer to be asleep - to cocoon, to hide, to dream. Nothing is quite so energizing as finding fault with anyone but me. I love a good David and Goliath story. I love to hate bullies - Druzilla, Anastasia, Harvey, Jeffrey, Bill, Donald. I love to feel a fiery rage on their victims’ behalf. I like to slide cozily into head shaking, tsk-ing mode, while conveniently ignoring the ways in which I treat myself, automatically, as a wretch, and teach other people to do the same.
I don’t care for mice and I don’t believe in fairy godmothers, but I do believe in personal growth. I believe that I can’t expect others to see something in me that I don’t show them, and certainly not if I don’t see it myself. I'd like to forgive the wicked stepmothers of the world, but I'd also like to let go of the preciousness with which I have carried around my own victimized identity and find another new paradigm to explore. I hear that girls can be superheroes now and that princesses are on the outs. I hope one day - tower or not - I’ll truly wake up. This is the wish my heart makes.