Magical thinking and Panto

Columbine and Harlequin

As a seven year old I danced the part of Columbine in a school panto, I have memories both of finding the masked Harlequin boy rather scary and choosing the material for the costume, white taffeta, with violet flower trimmings.

The fairly recent field of study into childhood memory has reported the improbability of adults being able to access memories of events prior to them being ‘age three, or few between three and six’

Some early childhood memories appear to me, partly tales we tell ourselves and part family rhetoric, often when I’ve read memoirs which include early childhood experience I’m struck by the amazing clarity of the author’s recall of events which they present as facts, mine are generally rather hazy, although I do have a fleeting image  of watching the Queens coronation, 1953, on a neighbours TV, I would have been three, another ‘event’ when aged 4/5, where I snapped the lovely pearl beaded  trim from a favourite dress, my recall of the material’s  colour, pattern and feel, seem clear, neither event huge traumatic incidents, why remember them, why now?

It is commonly thought that as you get older you recovery earlier memories in ‘detail’ whereas you can’t always remember what happened earlier in the day! Stress and depression also appear to negatively affect memory regardless of age.

Sadly some children experience trauma and abuse of an extreme nature during their tender years and the imprint on their mind, can not be denied, neither can its impact on their later emotional and mental outlook or recall, my brother traumatised in a number of ways from a very young age claimed to have pre and perinatal memory,  research indicates it may be possible,

My childhood, was far from helpful in aiding me flourish in several aspects of my development and well being,  one quirky thing about it was Mum discouraged me  reading many fairy stories, I had the impression she thought they were nonsense, her quest for ‘truth’ led her to over expose me to stories from scripture, portraying them as factual, some might argue these were equally as make believe as the former.  l went on to learn the traditional children’s stories at nursery and junior  school.

The  doctrinal beliefs  of mum’s religion used the Christmas celebration, with it’s ‘pagan’ trappings surrounding the  ‘real’ meaning. Jesus symbolic birth date, as a chance to distance themselves from mainstream religion.The magical gift giving personage of Santa Claus, was similarly considered nonsensical and fanciful.

People often feel sorry for kids raised in this way as though they ‘miss out’, however since they socialise with others who uphold the same beliefs they have a chance to feel ‘normal’, a lot depends also on how their parents promote the child’s self confidence and personal conviction, it aided me to have the courage not to be afraid  to be different, stand up for what I thought was right, I think that helped me to speak openly about my mental ‘breakdowns’ when they happened as an adult.

The mental and emotional sifting of ‘breakdown’ also enabled me to embrace some aspects of other belief systems and magical thinking. I had already, when I became a mum, re- discovered the the value of children’s stories and rhymes, things I had long forgotten, these returned sufficiently to sing or tell them to my daughter, bringing her up in a culture where little western literature was available,most of my story telling came from memory, she  loved the story of Cinderella. Although not considering myself part of any wave of Feminism, that story went against every grain of my  thought and experience as a woman. therefore I found it hard to relate it every night, on return to this country, pantomime proved an enjoyable and new adventure for us both. where else can you relieve pent up emotion in such a fun way? a good boo, hiss and stamping of feet I find very therapeutic.

Now of grandma age but not yet with the pleasure of grandchildren, I find myself drawn toward children’s stories and rhyme. Occasionally I child sit, it’s delightful seeing the youngster’s pleasure at reading books, watching fantasy film or playing  ’round and round the garden’ or similar games.

My patchy knowledge of fairy tales became apparent whilst writing a small ‘creative’ piece in which I described myself as an ice maiden, an after thought, perhaps I meant snow queen.

Snow Queen

I had the vague idea they both stood outside the stereotypical image of female characterisation, and that’s what I had intended, a brief look at Wikipedia clarified the difference of their characters……Ice Maiden – a comic book super heroine ‘her greatest ability is to become very cold and create ice armor in times of great stress. Her powers are closely linked to her mental state’, the Snow Queen is less altruistic and complex in her behaviour.

A few days later while visiting someone with an eight year old girl, the 2001 version of ‘Snow White: The Fairest of them all’,came on tv, the mum and grandma present were equally as enthralled as the kid, I was for a while. It didn’t seem to be true to the version I knew, it had a much darker interpretation  and seemed in dispersed with themes of the splintered mirror from the Snow Queen story, while it led me to read a little of the theme of Snow White and the seven dwarfs, I came across another completely different story about two girls, Red Rose, Snow White and one dwarf!

Rose Red and Snow White

These stories are frequently about the struggle between good and evil, within and without ourselves and happy endings abound, after all they are primarily for children, for whom magical thinking gives  a way of living in the land of  real giants, their parents. who at times are kind and gentle, at others harsh and shrill. Although professionals recognise such thinking as normal in childhood, if it continues in to adulthood it may receive diagnosis  and treatment and is even recorded in the DSM as a symptom of mental illness, where is the borderline between ‘abnormal’ magical thinking and fantasy? I think my fantastical ‘journeys’ keep me sane!

One pantomime without a happy end  in sight, is called the ‘Five Giants of Widsi’ who afflict the poor with all kind of want and illness, curtailed for a while by the good fairy, Well Fair, let loose again by the Mistress of the Thatched Palace on Thames, the Third Way Downing Labourers and the Three Boyes Poshe of Minstyre D’ytat, who use the elves, Pip and Esa of Credite de Universiale, to further tighten the belts of humble folks throughout their Kingdom,…. Boo, Hiss and Stamp!

A previous discussion in the comments area of this  blog touched on the theme of ‘the personal as political’, hopefully,  2013 will give scope for contributors to comment on the ways they combat  injustices which have affected their mental health and how they mange to generally keep well. I recommend a trip to the Panto, going as a large group often attracts good discounts.


4 thoughts on “Magical thinking and Panto

  1. Hi Su,

    That is a really interesting blog piece and the pictures you have chosen are beautiful.
    You talked about childhood memory and you have made me feel much better as I always thought my memory was exceptionally terrible compared to others. I do retain some but not many memories from my childhood. I can understand why I remember certain events, due to the significant emotional impact they had. Although as you suggested not all memories have such an emotional component. Sometimes I have what I would describe as ‘feeling memories’ – that is I think I experience a feeling which is similar to a feeling I experienced in my childhood. I don’t know if anyone else experiences this? But I find it fascinating.
    Smells also cue memories and I think this can also happen the other way around or at least this Christmas I think it happened to me. I swear I imagined a smell from my childhood! – a distinct smell of glass baubles we used to have in a Christmas bag, either that or it was the sherry I was drinking!

    I enjoyed decoding your modern fairy tale, very clever.
    Thanks for sharing this lovely piece



    • I am pleased you enjoyed the post, I’m not sure what sent me on this trip down memory lane. Expressing feelings, meanings and thoughts well enough to be understood is often hard, words can be so misleading. I can relate to the ‘smell’ memories, one of my aunts had a victorian pot pourri , china jar with a lattice work lid, the smell never seemed to change over all the years i visited her, I am still seeking a perfume that matches it! When I had my breakdowns I had olefactory ‘hallucinations’, carbolic soap was one of them, I don’t see that as pathological but possibly symbolising the emotional cleansing under way. Christmas is a time for memories of the past, those baubles may well hold some symbolism for you.


  2. I really enjoyed reading this, and it took me off on many tracks. Particularly I remembered not long after I started working as an advocate when I couldn’t in my spare time bear to read anything ‘heavy’, and for about 6 months the only stories I read were Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales – they seemed very poetical and were really satisfying and meaningful somehow. Sometimes challenging a professional is a bit like telling the emperor his clothes are missing! And the description of the little boy in the Snow Queen, who has a splinter of the broken goblin mirror in his heart that makes him see everything as ugly, seemed like a great image for my experience of depression. Fairy tales and myths give us form for our experiences I think. We shouldn’t underestimate their potential for healing.


  3. Why, thank you kindly sir, pray tell which paths you trod!..couldn’t resist, it’s intriguing you found solace in the fairy tales, there is something about the pattern of the language, the familiarity and the expectation of the happy ending which is ‘charming’, but the dark themes reveal something of the authors emotional state. Perhaps reading them helped you resolve working in a setting which proved far from ideal. The mirror splinter in the boys heart and eye, not only made him experience things he formerly liked as ugly but it made the Snow Queen appear beautiful. After reading a little about Anderson’s biography it’s fairly obvious that they were a therapeutic way for him to work through his own emotions and struggles.
    Thanks for the commenting and sharing your experience.


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