In a dense, slumberous forest, in a clearing, there is a strange hut that stands and moves on chicken legs, and in it lives the terrible and ancient Baba Yaga. No one knows how old she is, as she has been there as long as anyone can remember. She is tall and skinny, with one leg made just of bone. Her breasts hang down to her knees, she is always hungry, and her favorite food is humans. Surrounding the hut is a fence made from the bones of her meals, and on the fence stakes, skulls glare with empty eyes. 1
Fairy tales carry messages about our human experience. They have survived so long in our oral traditions because they bring a kind of medicine of understanding to human life. They help us live through lonely childhoods, survive our trials and our journeys, and find love and peace. Most of the characters in fairy tales are fairly straightforward: the loving father; the evil stepmother; the terrifying witch; the hero child. In Russia and Eastern Europe, though, in the land of my mother’s people, there is a strong and distinctive female character, Baba Yaga, a grotesque, magical woman who is both devourer and helper, a transitional figure between dark and light, evil and good, life-taker and life-bringer. I have always been grateful for her complexity, since it gave me a way to understand my mother, who, fractured by trauma, took from me and gave to me in equal measure.
The Baba Yaga fairy tale starts like any Cinderella story:
Once upon a time, a little girl named Vasilisa was born. Sometimes children are not wanted, but this daughter was long awaited and beloved. And as in so many fairy tales, the mother died and the little girl was left alone, with only a doll that her mother had made to remember her by. The father married again to provide his child with care and warmth, but the woman he married was angry at how much her new husband loved his daughter, and could not find it in her heart to like her stepdaughter. To assuage her anger, she set undoable tasks for the girl, tasks that the little girl would not have been able to complete without the help of her doll: the flowerbeds all weeded; the coal stoked; the water-jugs carried in, and the hearthstone kept hot. But still, every time the stepmother saw the girl, she felt bitterness in her heart, and she wondered how to rid herself of this pain.
On November 6, 1962, I was born. I was wanted before I was born. But once I came out, my mother disappeared from her relationship with me, lost in the face of my severe birth trauma and her own deep implicit pain about the way her world had received her at her birth. Her anticipated love sank into a pool of blankness; and the dissociation she lived with, as an after-effect of trauma, through no fault of her own, became my mother. So for 50 years, until the night that my mother died from cancer, I was part of a living Baba Yaga, source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Bilibin intertwining of our undifferentiated nervous systems, an intertwining that was, for most of that time, “regulated” by dissociation, with only the left hemisphere left behind to do the mothering. In contrast to my experience, Allan Schore describes what is supposed to happen as a child grows:
the more [the mother] allows [the child] to recover quietly in periods of disengagement; and the more she attends to him reinitiating cues for reengagement, the more synchronized their interaction. In play episodes…the pair is in affective resonance, and…a positive state occurs. In moments of interactive repair, the “good-enough” caregiver who has misattuned can regulate the infant’s negative state by accurately re-attuning in a timely manner….Through sequences of attunement, mis-attunement and re-attunement, an infant becomes a person…. (Schore, 2012, p. 32)
In these early developmental interactions, the more dissociated a mom is, the less capable she is of attuning, and the more the infant becomes a person who doesn’t get to know herself, and is likely to have difficulties attuning to self and other. The metaphor of the stepmother in fairy tales lets all of us “remember” the implicit experience of what it feels like to be unwelcomed or unwanted, to not belong. Of course, we know that real stepmothers can fall anywhere along the entire continuum of nurturance, but in these tales the stepmother represents deep non-attunement from the person who is caring for us, often unfolding as cold, harsh, rejecting, or worse. And yet, like the doll in this story, often something still remains, some precious remnant from the nurturing “other,” the mother who has disappeared.
My own mother was born in 1926 in Brockton, MA, and was 3-14 years old during the Great Depression. Her life was difficult, uncertain, and filled with loss and fear: her father was mentally ill and violent; she lost her home to arson; her father abandoned her and her mother, who then remarried; she was hired out as an au pair in her early teens; and then she was abused in the family she worked for. She survived these traumas by moving ever forward through her life, staying out of autobiography, continually working and doing without reflection. To enact this survival strategy means living mostly in the left hemisphere; in this left-shifted form of dissociation: “there is a sense of being cut off – and often a craving to be cut off – from one’s feelings, and from embodied existence, a loss of depth of emotion and capacity for empathy, a fragmentation of the sense of self…” (McGilchrist, 2012, p. 405). And with little access to her own right hemispheric processing, she had few doorways left open for attunement with me. Without the underlying connections of attunement, she utilized a left-sided, logical, linear approach to parenting: control. So I inherited pitiless and inhuman self-control strategies, rather than compassionate self-regulation, as the way to move through life.
This style of coping cuts us off from our bodies, from our autobiographical memories, from deep and intimate friendships, and from our full capacity for warmth and relationship. It also leaves our children profoundly alone. My mother, surviving by leaving her self behind, also had very little ability to recognize or remember who I was. She could track events written on the calendar, and plan, but she couldn’t remember the stories and textures: what I liked or didn’t like, what had happened to me. With her as my memory model, I got high grades and attended a good university, but I failed to track and attend my own 19th birthday party. Leaving my family of origin, I stepped into a world that had more strangeness and richness to it than I had ever expected, and which bewildered me. But I was slightly prepared by the small voice of love that my mother was able to give me from within the dissociation, just as her doll supported Vasilisa.
In her story, too, Vasilisa leaves home to encounter a strange and different world:
When Vasilisa was 12, her father died and she was left alone with her stepmother, who continued to dislike her. One night, the stepmother put a spell on all the matches in the house and sat the girl down to spin by the light of a special candle. At the stroke of midnight, the candle went out and the house was plunged into total darkness. As the stepmother had planned, nothing worked to light the candle again, and she told the girl, “You will have to go into the forest, to my sister Baba Yaga’s house, and bring back light for us.”
Vasilisa went to her bedroom for her shawl so that she could talk to the doll. “Baba Yaga will eat me! What shall I do?”
The doll answered “Put me in your pocket. While I am with you, no harm will come to you.”
Unless we are at the far end of the continuum of abuse, accumulated trauma, and neglect (and sometimes even then), there is a gift we can receive from the human beings that originally care for us (or perhaps simply from our inherent nature as relational beings): the capacity to attach. This capacity lets us find relationships that invite us to heal as adults. As Badenoch (2008) writes about our adult healing: “This experience is both tender and intense. As implicit neural nets holding these early fears reveal themselves, they become available for incorporating warmth and goodness. Then, when they are returned to long-term memory, they are changed” (p. 54).
The gifts that the shadow of my mother left within me were the capacity to recognize allies and the ability to receive love, at least in part, and to maintain relationship with my friends (even when I failed to attend my own birthday party). These gifts have been the basis of my healing journey and my integration of my ambiguous relationship with myself.
The girl reached Baba Yaga’s hut in the darkness of early morning. As she put her hand on the gate, the eyes of all the skulls on the fence posts glistened, and light began to pour out of them. In that moment, there was a terrible sound in the forest, and Baba Yaga drove up in her mortar, using her pestle to drive herself along. Seeing the girl, her mouth watered. “Good morning, breakfast,” she said. “Come inside so that I can eat you.”
“My stepmother, your sister, has sent me for fire,” the girl answered, shaking. She put her hand in her pocket to touch the little doll.
“Come inside and work for me then,” said Baba Yaga. “If you do everything I ask of you, I will send you home with fire. Otherwise, I will eat you up.”’
The meeting with Baba Yaga is a significant point in this healing journey. For the first time, we come into contact with complex truth, with a female figure who is unapologetically living a powerful, non-standard path. She is not dependent on men or society for her survival, she has strong appetites, and she cares nothing for appearance – her grotesqueness can be clearly seen and named. In my own journey, she carries the promise that we don’t have to be good and beautiful and well behaved to have gifts and to contribute.
As I was trying to understand and integrate my mother’s complex life and death, and the effect both had on me, I had the opportunity to receive a reflection from a Playback Theater group from Boston. (Playback Theater is an original form of improvisational theatre in which audiences or group members tell stories from their lives and watch them enacted on the spot.) I told them that in the last two years of my mother’s life, she had become sweet with me for the first time ever, and how confusing that was. They did an interpretive dance of my relationship with my mother, during which my mother kicked me squarely in the side, so that my representative went falling and spinning across the stage. In that moment, something inside me settled, something that had been perpetually suspended in mid-air. I got to see and name the previously secret horror of unrequited longing for my mother’s warmth, and the experience of being pushed away by the woman who had given birth to me. Siegel (2012) has insight into the way that deepening integration brings relief: “coherent narratives are created through interhemispheric integration. . . .The left hemisphere’s effort to find cause-effect relationships draws upon the right hemisphere’s retrieval of autobiographical and mentalizing representations. . . . [This] process lets us see for ourselves, and share with others, the fundamental way in which our minds come to integrate experience” (p. 372). And when our narrative is caught and reflected by others, we can come to see things we have always known but been unable to verbalize. This lets implicit experience transform into explicit memory, worded and known, giving us the capacity to see ourselves clearly and have more choice in our lives. The Playback Theater allowed me to take my partially known experience of the shock of my mother’s trauma-based recoil from my essential warmth—a recoil that felt like an emotional punch or kick—and fully witness my own pain. Then I could begin to hold the last two confusing years of sweetness with a more complete understanding of why they were so bewildering.
Baba Yaga ate dinner and then lay down to sleep on her stove. As she stretched out she filled the entire hut, with her hooked nose touching the ceiling. She said, “In the morning when I go away, you must clean the courtyard, sweep out the room, get dinner ready, do the washing, get a quarter of oats from the field, sift it all out, and make sure that everything is done before I come home again. Otherwise, I will eat you up.”
For three days, with the help of her doll, the girl completed all her tasks and made enormous dinners for Baba Yaga, who ate them up, leaving only crumbs for the girl.
Our integration and healing can feel enormous in the work of bringing together our lightness and our darkness, as Baba Yaga represents, and can take almost all we have, leaving us only crumbs of energy and self-nourishment. My work of healing and integration took the better part of 30 years, through continents, languages, professions, mentors, art forms, oceans of tears, and allies. So here I am, my mother’s daughter after her death, with her unadulterated DNA fueling my mitochondria, my maternal line’s engines converting the chemical energy from food into a form that my cells can use. And my questions about my full inheritance may be shared by many: How do we open our hearts to joyfully receive the gift of life from our human and flawed parents? How do we acknowledge the good that comes mixed with the disconnection and the intergenerational pain? How do we accept all the gifts and sweetness of our parents’ lives, living behind the bitterness? And for me personally, can I now claim what my mother has given me: love of discovery, a longing for a better world, and a capacity to keep the faith and advocate for positive change? In a way, this is the healing that many of us need to do, even those of us who have had less troubled relationships with our parents. We need to find the love and care wrapped up in our parents’ survival techniques that constrained their parenting, their lives, and perhaps our own. In a way, we learn as we heal not to take our parents’ wounding personally, in the most personal of all relationships. We learn to let the energy of life contribute to us fully, without fighting it and without saying “but…”
The girl answered, “By my mother’s blessing.”
“Ah, then, get off with you as fast as you can, blessed daughter. No one blessed can stay with me.” Baba Yaga turned the girl out of the room and kicked her to the door, took a skull with its burning eyes from the fence, put it on a staff, gave it to her and said, “Now you have fire for your stepmother, for that was our agreement.”
Then the girl ran home as fast as she could, with the skull’s eyes lighting her way through the forest, until she reached her dark home, where her stepmother had surprised herself with the power of her own dark magic, and had been unable to rekindle fire again.
The stepmother met Vasilisa at the door, surprised that she was still alive. “Thank you for bringing back fire, my daughter,” she said. “May it light this house again.”
They took the skull into the room, and its burning eyes looked into the stepmother’s and singed her eyes out. Wherever the stepmother went, she could not escape it, for the eyes followed her everywhere. In the morning she and the skull were both burned to cinders. The girl swept up the ashes and put them into the fireplace. After this, the fire and the candles could be lit. With the help of the doll, the girl went on live happily ever after, and to marry the tsar, as told through many other tales of Vasilisa the Brave.
As we heal, we let go of the false mother, the stepmother, the masquerade of self-regulation that uses the left hemisphere for control and domination, and we step into relationship with our true mother—the capacity for warmth, for reassurance, for self-love and self-trust, for resonance with self, that we have been thirsting for throughout our life’s journey. For me, as I read this story, I am Vasilisa. And all the female figures in this story represent different parts of the Sarah who was born to, and grew up with, my mother. I have been my own false mother in the way I have carried on my mother’s dissociation; I hear my mother’s love in the small voice of the doll; I have the complexity of light and dark intermingled in Baba Yaga, and her illumination became available for me to claim and take away in my own skull lantern as I differentiated myself from my traumatized, intelligent, and powerful mother. In my journey through ambivalence and the dark night of Baba Yaga, I found nurturance and released control, and could own the whole of my life and the ways that my mother impacted me.
This journey came to maturity on the night that my mother died. On July 1st of this year, 2013, at 3 a.m., I was awakened by a phone call from someone at the assisted living facility that was caring for her, letting me know that she had passed. My brother lived only 10 minutes from the facility; so when I called him, he had already been notified and was there. He held the phone to her ear for me so that I could speak to my mother’s body. “I love you,” I told her. And in the face of her death, I felt released to tell her what I had been striving to find a way to say when she was alive, what I had been working to understand and see during all the years of Baba Yaga’s night, to fully accept her as she was, and receive the gifts she wanted to give me. And I told her—and I can only wish that enough of her spirit was left to hear the gratitude and the celebration: “You were the best mother for me.”
_____ 1 There are hundreds of Baba Yaga stories. The story in this article is an original rewrite of this fairy tale, using strands from different sources, including Russian Folk Tales by Afanas’ev, and Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, by Mayer.
Afanas’ev, A.N. (1916). Russian folk-tales. Boston, MA: E.P. Dutton.
Badenoch, B. (2008). Being a brain-wise therapist: A practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology. New York: W. W. Norton.
Johns, A. (2004). Baba Yaga, the ambiguous mother and witch of the Russian folk-tale. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.
Mayer, M. (1994). Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave. New York, NY: Morrow Junior Books.
McGilchrist, I. (2012). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world. (Rev. ed.) New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Schore, A.N. (2012). The science of the art of psychotherapy. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Siegel, D. J. (2012). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are (2nd ed.). New York, NY: W.W. Norton.