Red-headed-step Child in a Strange Land

Vasilisa the Wise brings back fire to her cottage in a skull. image by Ivan Bilibi

Vasilisa the Wise brings back fire to her cottage in a skull. image by Ivan Bilibi

In her discussion of the tale of Vasalisa the Wise, Dr. Ested talks about the evil step-mother and sisters and how they represent the impact of culture and socialization on the wild soul.

I think each of us at some point has felt like we didn’t belong to our family of origin. I often hope the mother ship is going to come back to claim me one day…I feel like a stranger in a familiar land. My mom once pointed out to me that she was literally a red-headed step-child, and that gave me some insight into her life that never clicked before.

Cultural norms are those behaviors that are acceptable, but that may not be in our best interests. If we are well-behaved, we may never live our live. The culture of the step-mother and her daughters ( in this and other Cinderella type tales) is against the culture of the heroine, negating her and in this case, setting up her demise in the forest.

well-behaved-women rarely make history

Of course, this one might be planning any sort of mayhem, and is only behaving as a cover.

Vasalisa is young and not able to fight back against the abuse from her stepmother and sisters, even when they force her to go to the witch, Baba Yaga, to get fire. The only reason Vasalisa survives, and it’s clear that Baba Yaga would have no problem making a snack out of her, is that she has her real mother’s blessing, a doll that acts as her intuition. Following that intuition, listening to it and feeding it, is how Vasalisa accomplishes all the impossible initiation tasks and brings back the fire that destroys the stepfamily. Vasalisa not only has help from the doll, but also from the skull that carries the fire from Baba Yaga. Now Vasalisa has her own intution and the power to take care of herself, to overcome that which threatens her.

I’ve heard my African-American students complain about being told they “talk white” if they use the grammatical structures I’m teaching them to write. I’ve learned to speak of conversational tone, academic tone, of the different genres of writing that they read–blog posts, magazine features, email, text messages, and news articles–none of which are as formal as college essays.

There are no brownie points for “writing like you talk.” In fact, it takes a skillful writer to create natural sounding dialog that moves the story along and is not as banal and boring as real speech. But to tell students that their speech is “wrong” is not the answer. It’s that kind of answer that stills their soul expressions. I try to teach them (as well as my speakers of mill-hill, marketing, and just-the-facts-maam official reports) to broaden their audience appeal, to think of what the audience needs to know and how best to appeal to that audience. Still socialization, still a denial of self-expression for approval, but at least I’m not saying “You are wrong.”

Both women and men are constrained to approved behaviors–men are not allowed to express tender emotions (despite facebook kitten-huggers)–and women are not allowed to be logical and analytical. These cultural restraints are changing, which makes us all a bit uncomfortable and ambiguous, but at some point, we have to negotiate between allowable public behavior and keeping our souls alive through self-expression. It’s frightening to step much out of line, and in some cases, dangerous. But the risk of killing the soul is worth the risk of the body. Ask Malala Yousufzai, the 15-year-old girl who was shot at close range in the head by a Taliban gunman in Pakistan while she was on her way home from school if it was worth getting shot to tell her story, and to go to back to school.


Not a step-child, but Merida of Brave is definitely out of touch with her mother’s culture.

There is always tension between the culture of the family, the clan, the city, the state and the individual. I’m a liberal living in a red state, so I know how that is. But that makes it more important for me to express myself, to write and to listen to and feed my intution. I know from past experience that intuition stops talking if you stop listening. Our job in this life is to become aware and conscious, which requires listening to our deeper, higher selves.

Even if we feel like red-headed step-children.

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2 Responses to Red-headed-step Child in a Strange Land

  1. I agree that most of us have felt like a red-headed stepchild at some point. I have had the privilege of being both the non-conforming child and the step-mother with now adult step-children that thought that I was an evil witch when they lived with us. I think that all teenagers go through this phase of wanting to do the exact opposite of what their parents want and our culture today drives much of that desire to be non-conforming. Thank you for posting this thought-provoking post. And I love the use of the Russian fairytale!

  2. I agree that we all feel alienated, both from our parents and then from our kids. There must be some survival instinct to that, since we all have to do it. I love this tale too.