The addict's fractured mirror

Just now I am deep in research for my next book, which involves reading a lot of fairy tales.  One is “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Anderson.  It is, in parts, rather treacly, but the central metaphor is a powerful metaphor for addiction.  In this tale a demon creates a mirror that distorts the world — turning every beautiful thing ugly, magnifying every flaw to horrific proportion.

The distorted lens

The distorted lens -- illustration from THE SNOW QUEEN by Edmund Dulac

The most lovely landscapes looked like boiled spinach, and the best of people looked hideous; their faces were so distorted that no one would know them, and if anyone had one mole it was sure to spread over all his nose and mouth.

The mirror subsequently shatters, and pieces fly all over the world, some no bigger than a grain of sand, some large enough to be made into looking-glasses, or window panes, or even diabolical spectacles.  Many shards strike people in the eye, “and those people saw everything distorted, or had eyes only for the wrong side of a thing.” We are also told that a few people got a tiny splinter of the mirror into their hearts, which was terrible indeed, for such a heart would become a block of ice.  One such boy is Kay, beloved playmate of little Gerda.  When the splinter reaches Kay’s heart, Gerda cries out in pity, but the once joyful, kind little boy says,

“Why are you crying? he asked. “You look ugly like that.  There’s nothing the matter with me.  Oh, Fie!” he cried quite suddenly; “that rose is worm-eaten, and look — this one is quite crooked!  They’re ugly roses, after all — like the box they stand in.”

After that, when the grandmother told stories,

he would always sure to put in a BUT; and when he could manage it he would be behind her, put on a pair of spectacles, and talk just as she did; he could do it perfectly, and people laughed at him.  Soon he could mimic the voice and walk of everybody in the street.  Everything that was peculiar or ugly about them Kay would imitate.  And people said, “He must certainly have a remarkable head, that boy!” But it was the glass that had got into his eyes, the glass that had stuck in his heart, that caused all this, and even made him tease little Gerda, who loved him with all her heart.

As an alcoholic, sober since 1995, this sounds very familiar to me.  Alcoholism is, among other things, a disease of perception.  Alcoholics in the midst of their addiction are unlovely creatures — we do not see things as they are, we twist the world to our own selfish purposes, we cannot see the beauty in the simple things of life, we care little for other people’s feelings, and we certainly cannot see the truth about ourselves.

Both my brothers killed themselves as a result of this disease, as have far too many other people I’ve known.  They, like me, were afflicted with one of those metaphorical shards of demon-glass.  They simply weren’t seeing things clearly. But how to you get this concept through to someone who sees the world as hopeless and vile, and sees himself as either a much-maligned victim, or a creature too hideous to be saved, or both?

Well, of course you can’t help in any way while the person is still drinking.  He or she has to recognize they’re afflicted with the disease of perception, and they have to be willing to dig pretty deep to get the splinter out.  Few people, alas, are really willing to do this, and the outcome is often unspeakably sad.

At the end of THE SNOW QUEEN, Kay has chosen to go off and live with The Snow Queen herself in her glittering ice palace.  Like our ‘drugs of choice’, although the palace is alluring, it is frozen and soulless, with walls of drifting snow and windows of cutting winds.  It is a vast, empty place, cold as the grave, with no joy or comfort.  Little Kay is blue with cold, “indeed, nearly black; but he did not feel it, for she had kissed away his icy shiverings, and his heart was like a lump of ice.”

This, too, is like an alcoholic in the midst of his disease — freezing to death and not noticing, in real harm, and not noticing.  Soul-dead and focused so intently on his desire that nothing else, not even his own life, not even the lives of his loved ones, matters.

And then little Gerda, who has traveled a very great distance in search of her friend, and endured a number of dangers on his behalf arrives and, seeing him in this state, she prays and weeps and her tears penetrate his heart, thawing it just enough so that, in what we drunks call “a moment of clarity” he is touched by her love and bursts into tears.  He cries so hard he washes the splinter from his eye.

And so, it seems, the moral of the story is that love can heal even this terrible affliction.  Well, perhaps it can, although I’ve seen oceans of love fail to dislodge an addict’s attachment to his or her addiction.   I believe little Gerda represents more than human love; I suspect she symbolizes Grace — when something greater than ourselves reaches out and, no matter how we try and squirm away, does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  Some might call it God, others human compassion, others might call it our own deep will to live.  It doesn’t matter.  The metaphor still holds.  When someone is caught in the icy grip of addiction, no amount of reason, of logic, will reach them — this I know from a lifetime of dealing with addicts.  Some bottom must be reached and, for some, much pain must apparently be endured until we break open, we shatter and see the world — if only for a second — as it is, free of our malady.

Why some people have that moment of clarity, and are able to recognize it, able to let …well, yes…love creep in, and others aren’t is a complete mystery to me.  I don’t know why I managed to wash the splinter from my eye and why my brothers’ didn’t.  That’s the mystery, that’s Grace, and I can’t forget it for a moment, lest the nasty imp who flings those shards of warped mirror see an opportunity to afflict me with another.  The splinter might be out, but the little bastard knows where I live, now.

They don’t call it ‘spirits’ for nothing.

They know where I live.

They know where I live.


  1. Lanham True on November 13, 2010 at 10:45 am

    Addiction as a disease of distorted perception…what a beautiful,
    & definitely not treacly, way to perceive it. I also love how you
    pay respect to the mystery of one touched heart vs. another black
    one. To me this is so humbling, in an infuriating but also
    wondrous way.

  2. Patt Blue on November 15, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    What an amazing parable for “Why me?” the question
    I have asked often over the years looking at my brothers,
    two of them, who suffer mightily with unspecified disorders,
    distorting “the way.” I identify with this tale, wishing I had
    been read to as a child fairy tales that could have helped me
    make sense, however magical, of the chaos I saw in the adult world.

  3. Lise Mayne on November 30, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    Hi Lauren. I wrote to you in September and you kindly responded. I
    have just caught up on your blogs – all wonderful. You are so
    inspiring and reassuring. I too love fairy tales, and am glad that
    you are researching them for your next book. I wanted to say that I
    think The Stubborn Season should have been on the Canada Reads list
    as one of the essential Canadian books. I did post my review on
    Goodreads. You should let Amazon know that when you search under
    The Great Depression, your book does not come up on the list. I was
    appalled by the posting on the pedophile book – absolutely horrible.
    Also, re: getting a dog as you mentioned in your Writer’s post – go
    for a schnoodle – they are hypoallergenic and extremely loving.
    Mine is sitting right next to me now, and never leaves my side.
    All the best, and thank you for your excellent writing. I love it!

    • Lauren B. Davis on November 30, 2010 at 3:39 pm

      Hi Lise — I remember you, of course! Thanks for the kind words about THE STUBBORN SEASON. I do so appreciate it. I’m not sure what to say about Amazon – they are a bit of an administrative mystery, I’m afraid. And we now have a dog — Bailey, part Bichon Frise, part Cocker Spaniel, maybe a little Wheaten terrier? Well, whatever, he’s a doll and we’re all in love here! Thanks so much for popping in. Hope to hear from you again.

Leave a Comment