I spent an hour in Laurel’s fourth-grade classroom last week talking to a bunch of nine and ten-year-olds about the Disney movie, Frozen. I was supposed to discuss how poetry works using Elsa’s ballad “Let it Go” as an example, but the kids couldn’t stop telling me random things about the movie. So I loosened the search for figurative language and gave in to the enthusiasm of die-hard Frozen fans, who had no trouble finding a connection between Elsa’s situation and their own personal lives.
“How many of you have been so frustrated and mad you wished you could make ice crystals shoot out of your fingertips?”
All of them, it turns out. They longed for the power to zap brothers and sisters and parents and treacherous BFFs. By the time their teacher played the song for us a second time, we were all casting imaginary ice shards into the air and mouthing along with Elsa.
I was attracted to “Let it Go” as a teaching tool simply because I thought kids would enjoy seeing a video rather than reading a boring old poem. But as I was watching the video in the classroom that morning, I realized there is no better metaphor for my own post-divorce experience than Elsa’s retreat to a palace made of ice.
In Frozen, Elsa’s icy touch first harms her sister while they are playing together as children. It’s an accident. Horrified, her well-meaning parents arrange to have the early memory erased, but the price Elsa pays for repression is a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. When she feels, bad things happens. So she learns to distance herself not only from other people but also from her own emotions.
The worst thing is, her fear is justified. At the coronation ceremony where she is made to take center stage after years of seclusion, Elsa can’t keep her anxiety at bay. Her powers are unleashed, to the scorn and horror of everyone gathered there. It’s a self-conscious person’s nightmare. She is a monster.
Fleeing to a “kingdom of isolation” and shutting herself in an icy fortress is the only choice Elsa has. Not understanding the strange power of her emotions, she can only perfect her skills of avoidance. As Jennifer Lee, the director and writer of the film, explains, “It’s not a perfect thing, but it’s powerful.”
To me, the film is not just about fear and repression. It also reveals an underlying truth about how society copes with trauma. In her book on stress disorders, Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman argues that we encourage the victim’s isolation by believing the lies the perpetrator tells in order to escape judgment. The person who inflicts trauma, she writes,
“Marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it on herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on.”
You could say that Elsa is a perpetrator because she inflicts harm on other people. But the real villain in the film is Hans, the dissembling con man who attempts to steal the throne by seducing Elsa’s loving sister, Anna. While Elsa casts off the glove her parents forced her to wear and claims her lonely power, Hans keeps his own gloves on for the entire film. They become the symbol of his inauthenticity.
The key points Herman raises are as follows:
- Society encourages us to deny traumatic events.
- We tend to believe a friendly perpetrator over an angry victim.
- Victims, who need support to heal, become isolated.
This has been my experience as well.
Duane has been on a campaign to protect his image ever since he left the house we shared. He has become excessively social, reconnecting with every person we once knew and sometimes emailing me to let me know about it. He is just enough of a celebrity that what I don’t hear from him, I hear about from other people. And, of course, I hear from Laurel. She can talk about Duane for hours.
He mirrors everyone so convincingly that my only choice, not just in my dealings with him, but in my interaction with the community as a whole, is to become inauthentic or isolate myself.
I can either keep on the gloves or retreat to an icy fortress.
Duane is a narcissist or a sociopath. My daughter’s therapist, who let the terms slip out in a moment of weakness, didn’t specify. My own former therapist, who was in frequent contact with Laurel’s therapist during that crisis time, advised me to hire the best divorce lawyer I could find and have the Hare psychopathology tests performed on Duane for the custody hearing.
This is been on my mind because of something else that happened last week. Laurel called me on her way to the emergency room. She hit her head on the side of her dad’s pool when she was playing unsupervised outside with a friend, and the clinic thought she had a skull fracture.
The narcissist’s mind is deliberate in some ways and careless in others. Duane doesn’t mean to neglect Laurel or place her in harm’s way. It’s more that he thinks of himself as untouchable. He doesn’t lock his doors because theft is something that happens to other people. Brain damage happens to other people’s children. Laurel slips and falls and emerges unscathed because she belongs to Duane.
If he were a normal dad, wouldn’t he feel some remorse, some guilt, some anxiety while the doctors performed their neurological exams? Instead, he cut down the nurses when they were out of the room and surfed the Web on his phone. Our couples therapist decided after two sessions that this was his way of showing anxiety.
I don’t think she’s right.
I am scared for my daughter, but it’s complicated. When the doctor looked at me and asked how the injury happened, I felt ashamed, stripped of my natural right to want my daughter to be safe. I have learned the hard way, through situations much worse than this, to remain silent.
She could have fallen anywhere, even at my house.
This is also true.
Nevertheless, I’ve been so angry ever since this incident. I want someone to know what I’ve been through. I want someone who knows Duane to look at him and see the void behind his eyes. Instead, I feel imprisoned by the things I know. I can’t reach out without expecting people to take a step background, sucking in their breath.
The song “Let it Go” is not, ultimately, about letting go at all. It is about choosing to accept defeat. Elsa slams the door in society’s face. We can go fuck ourselves for all she cares. It’s appealing, but it’s not a choice a mother can live with forever. I have to find a way to get back to the world.
The problem is, I don’t know how.