Baba Yaga and the Wooden Child

There is a Jewish joke about a mother and son out for a day on the pier when a wave comes along and washes the boy out to sea…

too close to the edge…

The horrified woman turns to a crowd of fellow daytripers carefully stood a sensible twenty metres further back and screams…

”Who will save my baby….?’

After much shuffling of feet a hero steps forward, strips off and dives into the furious brine. After an eternity of battling mountainous seas our brave swimmer drags the half drowned boy from the foam.

Mother scampers across the pebbles, takes one impassive look at her bedraggled son before turning angrily to the saviour,  ”and the hat?”

Deeper than the expectation to be helped in her plight is a bedrock of belief that says life is always disappointing. Not even having her child restored to her can shake this conviction.

The hero goes away feeling like a failure but what of the boy? Can you imagine what it must be like trying to live up to the expectations of such a mother on a daily basis?

…perhaps that he somehow has to keep mother herself afloat…?

Is that how he managed to find himself so close to the jaws of danger in the first place? Flushed with heroic power and entitlement?

i cannot drown and drown me now

What symbiotic, omnipotent collusion between mother and son places him so close to the edge?

He is carrying something, or rather, being run by something,a construct so powerful, so destructive, that it overrides the instinct for self-preservation.

But, what?

Parental expectation might parade as ‘I only want what’s best for you,’ but it has a pernicious and hidden aspect that impacts on the child and shapes Being itself, one powerful enough to warrant the construction of narcissistic defences.

answer the frikkin question, expectation of what?

..that the child lives out and fulfills the secret and unintegrated aspects of the parental psyche…that s/he carry parent’s archetypal expectations, do heroic deeds on their behalf and redeem them from their fate. Nature abhors a vacuum and top of the inheritance ledger for kids is the dubious legacy of their parents’ unlived lives. All of which leaves the child with a mechanical or wooden approximation of their own.

A story that shows us how this happens comes from Russia. It is one of many  about Baba Yaga and Vassilisa the Brave.

In this version of the story a childless couple wrap a log of wood in a blanket. The old man chisels a babe from the wood which becomes the child, Vassilisa.

We have the expression ‘a chip off the the old block’ for a person carrying on the legacy or destiny of another, their own unfolding compromised.

Such a child grows super-alert to signs of parental expectation since their emotional world depends upon anticipation of the chisel’s line.

‘If you project the shadow long enough, it will appear.” CG Jung.

…all the disallowed parental creativity, sexuality and symbols of spiritual life will be picked up by the child. Once they’ve taken root in a psyche other than the one that spawned them these contents are bound to lend that life an automated and perfunctory appearance as spontaneous being is swallowed up by efforts to compete for affection with the idea of itself, intojected from the other.

Jung tells the story in his autobiography of a local girl he knew who became a prostitute. He knew the family, a puritannical wife and a henpecked husband who seemed to share only a loathing of the body. The daughter was loaded down with all the unintegrated, primitive sexuality in the family. Once she grasped that her motivation to prostitute herself had been unconsciously engendered in her and that she was living out her parents’ shadow, she got a day job.

If the child is a’ blockhead’, ours to mould or carve, when we fail to trust her own innate knowing of how to be, then the child’s instinct to live up to expectations becomes a cruel trap.

because the expectation is to betray herself….

‘My Mother said, I never should
Play with the gypsies in the wood.
Your hair shan’t curl and your shoes shan’t shine,
You gypsy girl, you shan’t be mine!’ Children’s folk song

What happens when someone says, ‘be nice’…?

especially, three seconds before knocking on the door of the people you’re about to have dinner with…?

Why would you say such a thing unless deep down you felt that I was not nice and had to be reminded to bolt social convention onto my rough hide?

I’m expected not to be nice.

Ok, so… that’s what I’ll be. The instinct for social co-operation pays more attention to conviction than imperative.

Vassilisa is told,  ‘don’t go into the forest whatever you do’,.. stupid wooden headed girl who is bound to just wander off…

and so she does.

Such expectations..

’cause much traffic in lost child departments and when mixed with a ‘watch out, you’ll hurt yourself!’ promise, a good number of drownings, serious falls and road accidents.” J Liedloff.

At a local independent senior school a teacher become so frustrated with students loosing their pens that she buys a barrel of them and sets it up at the front of the class. After a week all the pens are gone but still nobody has one….

the underlying reality is that the kids are being excessively babied by the teacher’s unconscious needs. They aren’t expected to be responsible. So they aren’t, their maturity is gobbled up by Baba Yaga, cruising the playground in her ‘hut on hen’s legs’…

on the lookout for tasty boys and girls.

Baba Yaga is somewhat like Kali from Hindu tradition only Kali is also depicted giving birth as well as devouring her babies. In the West the fragmenting of the Divine Feminine has lead to a more demonic, chaotic version of the goddess, contaminated with unlived potential that lends millenial weight behind mundane situations.

Parent and child on a garden path.. the child is fascinated with all the bugs…  sees one, a big beetle and goes over to inspect it. Mother shouts, ‘don’t kill it!’ The child stops short having learned something new and unpleasant about herself. The beetle survives but the child’s curiosity does not. It lies crushed upon the path.

To whatever extent the parent prescribes for the child some fragment of their own forbidden heart they devour the child’s own unfolding life by the same measure.

Baba Yaga captures Vassilisa. The child is overwhelmed by unintegrated parental shadow..

worthless child…!

and archetypal expectations to fix everything that is wrong in that parent’s’s life..

my hero….!

Either way Vassilisa is prevented from going further on her way through the forest.

She is in the belly of the beast….

…not quite a real girl for as long as she remains unseen apart from all the hopes and dreams and nightmares that others have invested in her which, paradoxically, her instincts for self preservation, rooted in learning by example and social expectation, are urgently trying to assimilate.

The conflict between the wish to be a real girl (but with all the hurts and betrayals of life) and the false self (with all its perks and free dinners) renders her response to life mechanical, even robotic.

she’s havin’ the life sucked out of her.

Deprivation is not just the absence of something….

not just..

‘the unfulfilled expectations of a linking (or) lack of emotional linking.’ Lederman.

It is the presence of something that is devouring, life consuming, alien.

Psychoanalysis has trouble facing this. After all Baba Yaga is pretty scary. But for the want of acknowledging the impact of parental projections with their gamut of expectations onto children the subsequent narcissistic adaptations are  bound to be made baby’s fault. The child is made to feel that she is ill because of …

‘her defence against introjecting the maternal environment…’ ibid

as though Mama was all cream puff and apple pie.

the baby is …

‘a baby that does not link….’ ibid

Perhaps, just perhaps, she had a good reason for that.

and cannot draw on good memories of infantile feeds…

hard to enjoy if its interrupting mother’s busy schedule, if she’s frustrated, depleted, crashing through the undergrowth and secretly looking to baby to make it better.. or holding baby responsible..

and so the cart is put before the horse.

‘the defences of the self prevent the baby from using any of his sense organs to introject the breast and the maternal environment.’ ibid

he died not because he was pushed from the cliffs but because he fell upon the rocks..

…and yet allowed a moment of whimsy as to the fate of Frankenstein’s monster, a more modern symbol for the constructed child, Lederman acknowledges in poetry what she cannot in psychoanalytic theory..

The constructed child..

‘on account of utter rejection and forced isolation is driven to destroy…’ ibid

If you have gone away I must have destroyed you so that is what I do. I attack myself and those I love.

Stay in the belly, it is at least a familiar hell..

though paranoid

for what else is paranoia other than poisoned expectation?

Baba Yaga holds Vassilisa the Brave for a long time. She uses the child’s instinct to live up to others’ expectations against her. Eventually, Vassilisa’s true self wins through, but only after an eternity of sweeping Baba Yaga’s hearth and fulfilling all her bidding. One day she up and stuffs Baba Yaga’s daughter in the oven, a bit like in ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and escapes onto the roof during the ensuing mellee.

A passing goose, who happens to be there at the right moment, who is the right moment, carries her to safety and freedom. What seems to happen is that when something is instigated to tip the balance of life in our favour, when longing for authentic experience becomes a great need, then something unaccountable, mysterious, turns up out of the blue to save the day.

The goose is ‘avis hermetis’, Vassilisa’s own wild soul, restored to her once the spell of having to live out the destiny of another can be resolved.

With a boot.

The problem with the hut on hen’s legs as a containing vessel and the reason Vassilisa spends so long there is that for her to escape she has to trade in the heady magic of being so important to her captor, the buzz of being invested with Baba Yaga’s need. She has  begun to identify with her aggressor.

And so the burden she carries begins to feel like priviledge, her true being, which authentic feeling would contradict…

annihilate, in fact.

So tricking Baba Yaga’s daughter, the self she’s supposed to be, and escaping up onto the roof is a brush with death..

flushed with the kind of feelings you might associate with stuffing someone into an oven….

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Psychotherapist/writer/artist/ author of, 'Going Mad to Stay Sane', a psychology of self-destructiveness, about to come into its third edition. Soon to be printed for the first time, 'Abundant Delicious.. the Secret and the Mystery', described by activist Satish Kumar as, ' A Tao of the Soul'. This book documents the archetypal country through which the process of individuation occurs and looks at the trials and tribulations we might expect on the way. In the meantime..... Narcissisim is the issue of our age. This blog looks at how it operates, how it can damage and how we may still fruit despite it.

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