A story is a story. It doesn’t have one fixed meaning any more than a dream does. It would be wrong for me to say that the familiar children’s story Hansen and Gretel was simply a parable of addiction. It is, but that’s not all it is, and the story would never forgive me for putting it in a little cage (well-fed though it might be.) However, the story IS very instructive as a paradigm of addictive processes and I believe it encodes a great deal of information that can be extremely useful to those of us who are interested in these pathologies and who are prepared to respectfully allow the story to disclose its wisdom.
“Childhood trauma is really what puts the rocket fuel behind addiction.” -Drew Pinsky MD, addictionologist.
As the story opens, there is “a great famine” that has come to the land. The poor woodcutter, his children, and their stepmother have become desperate and hungry. The children, Hansel and Gretel, hear their stepmother propose, and their father agree to, a plan to abandon the children in the woods where “wild animals would soon come and tear them to pieces.”
The story suggests that vulnerability to addiction begins in childhood trauma. Children are dependent on their parents for care and protection, and fears about losing parental care are common. Hansel and Gretel are already dealing with the stress of hunger and poverty; their parents unreliable are unreliable caregivers, a common source of childhood stress—now add to that they are actively plotting to send the children to a gruesome fate, and the kids are fully aware of it.
The first step is denying you have a problem
The night before they are to be abandoned, Hansel consoles his weeping sister: “Don’t worry, Gretel. Sleep well. God will not forsake us.” This is a refrain repeated in one form or another by Hansel at several points in the story when Gretel observes the desperation of their circumstances. It is a form of denial and wishful-thinking. There is no explicit supernatural intervention in the story on behalf of the children. The supernatural elements are always to their detriment. It is only the actions of the children, not their wishes or beliefs, that make them better or worse off.
Bread and stones
The first attempt to abandon the children is foiled by Hansel, who has left a trail of stones (gathered by moonlight), which allow the children to find their way home. In one version of the story the stones are gathered from the family garden.
Stones suggest permanence (Matthew 16: “upon this rock I build my church”) as well as the solidity of facts. However what the children need most is bread, nutrition, and the family’s garden has yielded only rocks. Following the stones, in the moonlight of the subconscious, leads them right back to the source of the trauma. When the children arrive back at the house, they are subject to guilt and shaming by the wicked stepmother: “You wicked children, why did you sleep so long in the woods? We thought that you did not want to come back.”
The children are again abandoned to the woods, but this time Hansel has been prevented even from gathering stones. Instead he drops a trail of bread crumbs from the little piece he’s been given and assures Gretel that this will allow them to find their way home again. “Wait, when the moon comes up I will be able to see the crumbs of bread that I scattered, and they will show us the way back home.” Since Hansel has no bread left, his sister shares her piece with him. If Hansel and Gretel partially represent anima and animus, it could be said that the sick masculine, having been abused and abandoned, looks to the feminine energies for nurture.
Unfortunately the one piece of nutrition their parents gave them is completely gone, having been devoured by birds. And even this was not a symbol of parental care, but simply part of a ruse to lead the children to their death. Victims of childhood abuse often tell stories of acts of ‘love’ by parents that were anything but nurturing. One woman I know says “it was the only time my father my father took me somewhere, but now that I look back I think he just wanted to get out of the house to get a drink.”
Heaven on earth
The hungry and abused children eventually happen on “a snow-white bird” with a beautiful song which leads them out of the wilderness to a magical house made of cake and candy. This seems like the solution to all their problems, and they immediately begin to eat. When the owner inquires who is eating her house, the children sing back a deflecting lie.
Nibble, nibble, little mouse,
Who is nibbling at my house?
The wind, the wind,
The heavenly child.
They’ve moved from trauma and denial to lies and rationalizations and lost their identity in the process. Addicts repeatedly say “it isn’t me” or “I wasn’t myself.” Because it isn’t. It wasn’t.
Notice too how seductive the witch of addiction is. She doesn’t scold or threaten the children, but welcomes them in and promises “no harm will come to you.” She even reminds them of the source of their trauma-“who brought you here?” The children can hardly believe their good fortune.
“She took them by the hand and led them into her house. Then she served them a good meal: milk and pancakes with sugar, apples, and nuts. Afterward she made two nice beds for them, decked in white. Hansel and Gretel went to bed, thinking they were in heaven.”
Addicts often describe the euphoria of drug use as a feeling like going home, being welcomed, cared for, loved.
But of course this is all a terrible lie and a trap. When the children awake from their sleep, they find themselves diabolically trapped. Gretel is enslaved by domestic servitude as the witch’s kitchen assistant, while Hansel is locked in a cage. There seems to be no hope of escape.
Hansel buys himself time by tricking the witch. She is voracious but nearsighted, and when she tries to feel whether he is ripe enough to eat, Hansel sticks out an old bone instead of his finger, thus confusing her. But it is Gretel’s trickery which ultimately saves the children and destroys the witch. Up to this point in the story, Hansel has been the savvy one, ready to lie to extricate the children from difficulty. Now the female energy has shed its naivete and learned to engage in subterfuge to save the day.
Lie to me
What does this say about escape from the prison of addiction? Maybe that one trick demands another. Addicts frequently complain about being ‘tricked’ into rehab, into intervention scenes, into therapy. “They lied to get me here…” And it’s the nourishing principle—the worried spouse or parent or friend—who is often forced to deceive the addict (or more properly, the addiction) in order to outsmart the malevolent witch.
As soon as the children have been freed and the witch is dead, treasure chests full of precious jewels miraculously appear in every corner of the house, and the children collect these, thus securing their future, just as they once collected stones from their parents.
The story doesn’t end there though. To escape the witch-woods and return home, the children must cross a large lake. Gretel calls over a magic duck which will take them over the lake on its back. With his persistent impulsivity and capacity to deny reality, Hansel suggests they both ride over at once, however Gretel correctly points out that this will be too heavy for the animal, causing them both to drown. At her direction, they cross the lake to freedom and “happily ever after” by riding over one at time on the duck’s back. Thus the anima, having shed its naivete, is again the source of salvific wisdom, and the previously fractured elements of the personality, both respected now as essential (“ ‘It should take us across one at a time.’ That is what the good animal did…”), may offer the addicts safe passage home, where the evil has died and the good parent is waiting to greet them.