The death of Robin Williams has been on my mind a lot the past few days. I’m usually not one to be sentimental about celebrity deaths, but Robin Williams really hits home. My childhood wouldn’t have been complete without Jumanji, Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jack, Patch Adams and so many more great movies, even Aladdin, which I’ve seen about a million times. As I was thinking about Robin Williams, I realized I would be amiss if I didn’t write about the idea of mental illness in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It’s there. People have always suffered in their minds.
Mental illness in the Grimm’s tales isn’t something that’s right out there in the open, but it’s there. We have characters who seem to have some form of OCD. We have bullied and belittled characters. We have characters who are constantly made fun of. There is a story about a boy who just goes and lays down in a grave because his life is so bad. There are obviously psychopaths in some of these stories who are murderers. There are children whose parents try to abandon them or turn them into animals. If that doesn’t give you some kind of complex, I don’t know what will. The story that most sticks out at me is The Story of the Youth who Went out to Learn What Fear Was.
The story is a long story. It concerns one young man. His family is constantly making fun of him and belittling him. They make fun of him all the time. They tell him he’s stupid. They tell him to get his act together. His desire in life is to learn what fear is. He wants to be able to shudder. So he leaves home after severely terrible attempts to do something useful. He stays the night in a castle no one else can stay in because they’re so scared. He stays three nights. After three nights, the curse is broken. The king rewards him with riches and his daughter. Even after all these good things, the youth still wants to know how to shudder. Finally, his wife pours ice-cold water on him while he is sleeping and he does in fact shudder.
Think about depression. If you’ve been depressed you might see some parallels with this guy’s story. He feels like he can’t do anything right. Everyone is always telling him to perk up. They say that something is wrong with him. He wants to know fear, which is a very strong emotion. It’s not the same as being bemused or titillated; it’s a very strong emotion. It’s a primal emotion. There are some feelings you feel stronger than others. The basic idea is that he’s trying to feel something, anything, and fear is a strong enough emotion that it just might work.
He then goes an encounters all this other stuff that would scare the pants off anyone else, but does he feel anything? He’s numb. He’s not scared at all. He’s numb to one of the stronger emotions a person can feel. He puts himself in bad situations just to try to feel. He’s searching for any sign that he might be real or human, instead he’s just numb. He even gets some great things, but he still doesn’t feel anything. He gets to live in a castle and marry the king’s daughter and be rich, but he still wants to feel that strong emotion. He wants to feel something. Finally, his wife throws ice-cold water on him, which would make his body react even if his mind did not.
If you yourself are depressed or you know someone who is depressed, you will know that sometimes people who are depressed are numb to most emotion. They find ways to make themselves feel. A large majority of the time this is accomplished through cutting, but there are also the fear seekers who put themselves in harm’s way. If you look at our youth in this story, this is his story. He feels like crap; he wants to feel something; he performs destructive behavior so he can feel something. I think that if we would have followed this youth further after his adventure with the ice-cold water, we would find that he would continue his meetings with ice-cold water, or something more severe. Maybe he would go for hot tar or something else. His behavior and search for shuddering would continue to escalate.
The story ends up on a supposedly happy note with a supposed laugh, but underneath, I don’t think it was supposed to. I think the young man in this story would have continued to struggle. He couldn’t erase all those years of being told he was nothing overnight. Maybe finally being able to feel something helped him turn things around. Maybe he realized that he had all these great things and life was worth it and he didn’t have to go out searching for fear. That’s the problem with these stories though, they do end, and we don’t get checkups to see how our characters are doing.
As always, remember these stories were reflections of what was going on in the real-world, despite all the fairies, dragons, and strange creatures. In the real world people do struggle with mental illness and so too do our Grimm’s characters.