America’s Dark Fairy Tale

Asylum seekers gassed by U.S. border agents


The sight of ICE officials teargassing asylum seekers, including women and children, joins those nightmare images of crying toddlers and children in cages that we owe to the Trump administration. The president’s obsession with exclusionary walls continues to bring out the worst in us.

Tomorrow in my Anglophone class we will discuss a horrifying Nadine Gordimer story about a family that finds ever more ways to shield itself from the outer world. It functions as a parable about how Trumpian fear destroys what we most treasure.

“Once upon a Time” opens with the author reflecting about a request that she write a children’s story, even though she doesn’t write such stories. When she is told that every author “ought to write at least one story for children,” she says she doesn’t “accept that I ‘ought’ to write anything.”

Nevertheless, the story comes to her one night when she is awoken from sleep by creaking in her house. Suspecting an intruder, she thinks of her vulnerability. Her house has “no burglar bars, no gun under the pillow,” and her windowpanes could “shatter like a wineglass.” She thinks of people who have been murdered, including one in her neighborhood.

It so happens that the creaking is not caused by an intruder but by something with symbolic significance given South Africa’s brutal mining history. Notice her use of the pun “undermined”:

The house that surrounds me while I sleep is built on undermined ground; far beneath my bed, the floor, the house’s foundations, the stopes and passages of gold mines have hollowed the rock, and when some face trembles, detaches and falls, three thousand feet below, the whole house shifts slightly, bringing uneasy strain to the balance and counterbalance of brick, cement, wood and glass that hold it as a structure around me.

The situation reminds me of an actual fairy story, George Macdonald’s Princess and Curdie, where the greed of a king undermines the capital so that the entire city is swallowed up. I wrote about the story in a post about how we sacrifice our environmental future for present-day gratification.

Gordimer makes a similar point. Once she understands why the house is creaking, her rapidly beating heart slows down, “tailing off like the last muffled flourishes on one of the wooden xylophones made by the Chopia and Tsonga migrant miners who might have been down there.” While she herself doesn’t face immediate danger, falling rocks may be burying miners in “the most profound of tombs.” In other words, her world is precarious because it is built on the backs of brutalized labor.

Her “fairy tale” is about similar fears of vulnerability. We are introduced to a man and a woman

who loved each other very much and were living happily ever after. They had a little boy, and they loved him very much. They had a cat and a dog that the little boy loved very much. They had a car and a caravan trailer for holidays, and a swimming-pool  which was fenced so that the little boy and his playmates would not fall in and drown. They had a housemaid who was absolutely trustworthy and an itinerant gardener who was highly recommended by the neighbors.

Note how, from the first, “happily ever after” gets conflated with a safe and secure middle-class existence. “Sleeping Beauty,” the Grimm Brothers story referenced in Gordimer’s story, begins similarly:

Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who were very unhappy because they had no children. But at last a little daughter was born, and their sorrow was turned to joy. All the bells in the land were rung to tell the glad tidings.

 The king gave a christening feast so grand that the like of it had never been known. He invited all the fairies he could find in the kingdom—there were seven of them—to come to the christening as godmothers. He hoped that each would give the princess a good gift.

Unfortunately, the king has forgotten to invite one fairy and, when gift-giving time arrives, she utters a curse:

When the princess is seventeen years old, she shall prick her finger with a spindle, and-she-shall-die!

She is followed by a “wise young fairy” whose counter spell offers the promise of a happy ending. Nevertheless, the king attempts to control the future by destroying all spindles.

The “wise witch” in Gordimer’s story is the husband’s mother, who terrifies the family with stories of what could go wrong. She warns them “not to take on anyone off the street.”

The story was written in the final years of apartheid (in 1989, a couple of years before the white government ceded control) and is filled with social unrest and white fears. The family’s version of banning spindles is buying insurance and subscribing to the local Neighborhood Watch, which provides the plaque YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED on the gate. They also forbid entry to all black South Africans with the exception of “reliable” housemaids and gardeners.

These precautions don’t feel enough to the wife, however, as she watches “buses being burned, cars stoned, and schoolchildren shot by the police”:

Yet she was afraid that some day such people might come up the street and tear off the plaque YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED and open the gates and stream in.

The family therefore adds more and more protection to the house so that they come to see the world through the bars on the windows and hear it through the “keening” of burglar alarms that the cat sometimes sets off. Then the “wise old witch” gives the family, as a Christmas gift, bricks to build the wall higher.

For his part, the little boy gets two gifts that involve protective enclosure: a spaceman’s outfit and a book of fairy tales, within which one can shut out the outside world.

When even the higher walls don’t feel safe enough, the family opts for a special kind of wire:

Placed the length of walls, it consisted of a continuous coil of stiff and shining metal serrated into jagged blades, so that there would be no way of climbing over it and no way through its tunnel without getting entangled in its fangs. There would be no way out, only a struggle getting bloodier and bloodier, a deeper and sharper hooking and tearing of flesh.

And now for the horrifying denouement:

One evening, the mother read the little boy to sleep with a fairy story from the book the wise old witch had given him at Christmas. Next day he pretended to be the Prince who braves the terrible thicket of thorns to enter the palace and kiss the Sleeping Beauty back to life: he dragged a ladder to the wall, the shining coiled tunnel was just wide enough for his little body to creep in, and with the first fixing of its razor-teeth in his knees and hands and head he screamed and struggled deeper into its tangle.

By the time they rescue the child, he has become an “it”:

[T]hey carried it—the man, the wife, the hysterical trusted housemaid and the weeping gardener—into the house.

Fairy tales, as Bruno Bettelheim and others have taught us, provide us with a reassuring way to handle fears and dark thoughts. By choosing the fairy tale structure, Gordimer seems to promise the same.

But there is no fairy tale ending when we allow our hysteria to demonize strangers and, in the process, dehumanize ourselves. Such hysteria, beginning with birtherism, fueled Trump’s rise to power, and it will continue to rip us apart and shred our ability to empathize. It will destroy what remains of our innocence.

Trump signals that putting America first means sanctioning the murder of journalists, siding with autocratic regimes over democratic ones, and using force against asylum seekers. If his vision ever takes hold, then farewell to the U.S.’s promising “once upon a time.”

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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