When I was a child, my mother ran her own version of the Scared Straight program.
Her program consisted of reading fairy tales to me and my brothers without the “disneyfied” endings. She said the Disney endings were “too sanitary” for kids.
Instead, she read us the original fairy tales in all their macabre, gruesome beauty. For example, in “The Tale of The Pied Piper,” a man rids a village of its rat infestation by playing his pipe and luring the pests out of town. The villagers renege on their payment and so the piper rids the town of its children, too. But it gets worse. Instead of the townspeople coming up with the cash to save the children (as later versions show), the piper leads the children to the river…where they all drown.
Or, take the story of “Little Red Riding Hood.” In it’s original form, written in the 17th century by Charles Perrault, it’s called “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge,” or the little red cap. Here, a well-bred young woman foolishly takes the advice of a wolf on the way to her grandmother’s house, only to be eaten by the wolf. End of story. There is no woodsmen or hunter (in the German version) to save the day, and no grandmother.
And then my mother would shut off the lights, and sweetly say, “Think about that. Good night.”
Sometimes she’d switch up her program by throwing in some of her own “fairy tales” from living through World War II in Germany as a child. She’d tell us about living in underground bunkers after her home was bombed, about her grandfather waving a white sheet in surrender, only to see him get shot anyway. She’d tell us again and again about the time she and her little friend next door found a grenade in the rubble, and how minutes after she left him (because her mother was calling her), he pulled the pin and blew off his left arm. She’d also tell us about how her mother instructed her to hide if child services came around looking for loose children while her mother was at work; one day my mother wasn’t fast enough, and off she went to an orphanage on the Czechoslovakian border. It would be years of foster care before her paternal grandmother would find her.
Then she’d leave us alone with our thoughts. . .and fears. . .again. I knew I never wanted those things to happen to me! I was going to do my best in life!
But my mother did me a favor by telling me these “fairy tales.” She didn’t hide any truth from me. She succeeded in scaring me straight by making me aware of other realities. It was her way of making sure her children didn’t misbehave, much like the morality plays did for the people in ancient Greece. It wasn’t about entertainment; it was about growing up and being responsible for my actions. She cautioned me to be aware of my surroundings and to take notice of everything. As a single mom raising three small children, she knew she could only take care of us for so long and that we needed to learn how to take care of ourselves. She taught me to be grateful for my reality because I had it so much better than she did as a child.
More importantly, my mother showed me that I have choices and that I am the only one who can make myself happy. She left war-torn Germany for America at the age of fourteen. Alone. She wanted a better life for herself, and she found it.
Not all fairy tales have Disney endings, but her’s sure does. And that’s one I can live with.