Tag Archives: psychology

Once Upon a Shrink: Regina Meet M. Scott Peck

This is a guest post by Charles Hackney as part of the ongoing conversation here at Political Jesus on Once Upon a Time and Grimm. Just for the record, Chuck agrees with me 100% that #OUAT is the better show (and no that is not just because he’s married to me).


This is the second of two investigations of the principal villains in Once Upon a Time. In response to Amanda Mac’s post on the theology of evil in OUaT, I previously discussed a possible Adlerian interpretation of Rumpelstiltskin.

Regina, like Rumpelstiltskin, begins in a position of powerlessness. Although the daughter of a wealthy family, she is bullied by her mother, a powerful sorceress who is not shy about forcefully using magic to get her way. Regina’s mother also uses her as a pawn in her bid for status, manipulating circumstances so that the king requests Regina’s hand in marriage. She later kills Regina’s true love, a common stableboy. Through an act of childish naivete, it was Snow White (the king’s daughter) who revealed Regina’s secret love. Regina not only becomes queen, but a powerful wielder of magic herself, and a common theme that runs through her plots is her desire to avenge herself on Snow in as painful a manner as possible. When her scheme with the poison apple fails, her final stroke is a curse that transports everyone to a terrible place with no happy endings (our world). Here, in the town of Storybrooke, the people’s memories are replaced, and their personalities stunted, and Regina reigns as Mayor, with only Mr. Gold (Rumpelstiltskin) rivalling her in wealth and influence.

Storybrooke presents the appearance of a pleasant small New England town, and Regina makes an attempt at establishing a happy family by adopting a son, Henry. It is, however, all illusion. The town is frozen in time, with none of the inhabitants growing or changing until the arrival of Emma, daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming, and mother of Henry. Henry’s interactions with Regina reveal her motherhood to be more about control than about love. Emma’s investigations reveal the degree to which the inhabitants of Storybrooke are under Regina’s thumb. Scratch the surface of Storybrooke, and one finds that it is indeed a terrible place with no happy endings.

Many questions could be asked about Regina. One that occurs to me is this: why did her curse take this form? Why create a superficially-happy small town as her great act of vengeance upon Snow and Charming? Why include herself in the curse, eliminating her magic and her royal status in exchange for domination of an obscure little town? Why did she only begin to torment Snow (named Mary Margaret Blanchard in our world) after Emma’s presence had begun to weaken the curse?

To help explain Regina’s character, I turn to a classic psychological examination of evil, M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie. In People of the Lie, Peck describes the essence of evil as a form of self-deceptive narcissism.

“Malignant narcissism,” says Peck, “is characterized by an unsubmitted will” (p.78). He argues that all mentally-healthy people submit to something other than themselves, be it God or love or truth or whatever else requires personal preferences to be subordinated to a greater good. The core of evil, however, is an unwillingness to submit to anything beyond the self. If anyone wonders why “healthy” is being contrasted with “evil,” instead of “good and evil” or “healthy and unhealthy,” Peck considers evil to be the ultimate form of human dysfunction, akin to a personality disorder. But Peck believes that evil is different from mere psychopathy. Psychopaths lack empathy, the emotional capacity to care about the rights and feelings of others, and so are, according to Peck, blissfully unconflicted about their antisocial actions. Evil people retain a sense that they have done wrong, but they suppress the truth in order to maintain their narcissistic self-concept and see themselves as faultless. But suppression is not elimination, and the unconscious conflict between their vision of their perfection and their deep intuitive sense of their imperfection requires them to engage in constant activity to maintain the illusion of perfection. “The evil are ‘the people of the lie,’” says Peck, “deceiving others as they also build layer upon layer of self-deception” (p.66). The following is Peck’s formal proposal for evil as a personality dysfunction:

“the time is right, I believe, for psychiatry to recognize a distinct new type of personality disorder to encompass those I have named evil. In addition to the abrogation of responsibility that characterizes all personality disorders, this one would specifically be distinguished by:
(a) consistent destructive, scapegoating behavior, which may often be quite subtle.
(b) excessive, albeit usually covert, intolerance to criticism and other forms of narcissistic injury.
(c) pronounced concern with a public image and self-image of respectability, contributing to a stability of life-style but also to pretentiousness and denial of hateful feelings or vengeful motives
(d) intellectual deviousness, with an increased likelihood of a mild schizophreniclike disturbance of thinking at times of stress.” (p.129)

We can see quite a lot of this in the behavior of Queen Regina. Peck spends a great deal of his book on the scapegoating behavior of the evil person. Because they see themselves as perfect, but with the insecurity that comes from knowing at a deep level that they are not, anything that threatens the illusion of perfection is intolerable. Regina frequently casts herself in the role of the victim in search of justified retribution. Snow White robbed her of her happily-ever-after, so she will do the same to Snow White. When Snow (as Mary in our world) is framed for murder, Regina says “We got her, Daniel. We got her.”, as if all this has been about righting a wrong committed by Snow. In the seventh episode (“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”), Regina says that others “don’t know the wretchedness inside [Snow] like I do.” It never seems to occur to her that Snow’s “betrayal” of her secret was the act of an innocent child being manipulated by an evil sorceress. The true villain here was Regina’s mother, but instead of blaming her mother, Regina blames Snow, and in essence becomes her mother. To admit that Snow was innocent would require Regina to admit that she had misplaced blame and had become the thing she had despised. Similarly, we see no indication that Regina has considered the possibility that her cold and controlling behavior toward Henry might be a large contributor to his belief that she is the Evil Queen from his fairy-tale book. Instead, she places the blame entirely on Emma.

A scene that shows Regina’s intolerance to criticism also comes from the seventh episode. Regina confronts Emma, claiming that everything bad that has happened (including Sheriff Graham’s romantic preference for Emma over Regina) is Emma’s fault. Emma replies, “You ever stop to think that maybe the problem isn’t with me but with you? Henry came and found me. Graham kissed me. Both were miserable. Maybe, Madam Mayor, you need to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask yourself why that is. Why is everyone running away from you?” In one of the few instances of Regina losing control, she punches Emma in the face.
The personal image of perfection can lead to a concern for a similarly-positive public image. Regina can be seen in Storybrooke engaged in many of the pro-community activities of a small-town mayor, including fundraisers and public projects. She presents the appearance of caring for the community, keeps a beautiful house, and her appearance is never less than perfect. This concern for an image of respectability may also be one of the best explanations of Regina’s desire to adopt a child. Another explanation might be the power of thralldom.

Peck devotes a section of his book to the idea of thralldom. He connects thralldom to “the use of power to destroy the spiritual growth of others for the purpose of defending and preserving the integrity of our own sick selves… For the evil to so misuse their power, they must have the power to use in the first place. They must have some kind of dominion over their victims” (p.119). When one enthralls another, the victim is rendered weak and passive, further enhancing the offender’s feelings of power and superiority. Thralldom runs through Regina’s actions in the show. She steals the huntsman’s heart, sapping his will and making him her slave, a relationship that continued in Storybrooke until Emma frees him. When the Genie falls in love with her, Regina manipulates him into killing by her command, and seems quite happy about the idea of him being trapped in her mirrors, making him an easily-accessible and easily-ignored resource. In Storybrooke, the Genie is transformed into a journalist, who remains her miserable but willing puppet. In fact, a major component of the curse involves the enthrallment of the people of Storybrooke. As can be seen in the character of Prince Charming, a strong and courageous hero is changed into a spineless coward. Jiminy Cricket, an unwavering voice of principle, becomes easily manipulable. The frightening Red Riding Hood loses her willingness to take risks. The defiant Grumpy becomes the pitiable town drunk. Only Rumpelstiltskin seems to have retained any of his former willpower.

Perhaps the attraction to evil of thralldrom best explains why Regina chose the kind of curse that she did. Not only did she rob the people of their happy endings, and thus exact revenge, but she caused a collection of powerful and brave characters to become submissive to her, feeding her narcissism. Adopting a child would have given Regina another life to dominate, had Henry not seen through her illusion.
Peck is pessimistic about the possibility that an evil person can change. Change requires admitting that one is wrong, and it is highly unlikely that Regina’s narcissism will permit this first step (this is a common problem among those with personality disorders). Regina will never see the truth. All we can hope for is her defeat.

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Once Upon a Shrink: The Psychology of Rumpelstiltskin

This is a guest post by Charles Hackney as part of the ongoing conversation here at Political Jesus on Once Upon a Time and Grimm. Just for the record, Chuck agrees with me 100% that #OUAT is the better show (and no that is not just because he’s married to me).


Amanda Mac’s post about Once Upon a Time and the theology of evil got me thinking. So I’ve put on my psychology cap (would that make me a mad hatter?) to take a look at the two primary villains of the series: Rumpelstiltskin and Queen Regina.

Part One: Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin serves as a Faustian devil in the show. A being of seemingly-unlimited power, people make deals with Rumpel, but the deals invariably end up disadvantaging the “customer.” In the second episode of the first season, “The Thing You Love Most,” Rumpel is revealed to be the one who provided the curse that Regina used to bring the characters into Storybrooke, but he requires her to sacrifice the only person she truly loves, and includes the provisos that he will be powerful in their new world, and that she will be bound to obey him (as long as he asks “please”). In the fourth episode, “The Price of Gold,” Rumpel kills Cinderella’s fairy godmother and makes a deal with Cinderella: her perfect evening at the ball in exchange for “something precious,” which turns out to be her firstborn. “All magic,” he says, “comes with a price.” In Storybrooke, Rumpel becomes the wealthy Mr. Gold, and continues to be the one who can make things happen… for a price.

In the episode “Desperate Souls,” Rumpelstiltskin’s backstory is revealed, and that backstory sheds considerable light on his actions throughout the show. Rumpel was originally powerless. He was weak, crippled, cowardly, and impoverished. He had been conscripted to fight in the Ogre Wars, but ran away. Other characters treat him with contempt. His wife couldn’t stand to live with a coward, and so left him. A soldier mocks his weakness and humiliates him when he tries to bargain for his son’s freedom (“What do I want? You have no money, no influence, no land, no title, no power. The truth is, all you really have is fealty… kiss my boot.”). Later in the episode, Rumpel gains immense magical power by killing The Dark One (becoming the new Dark One in the process), and exacts revenge on the soldier. He becomes a figure of terror, later killing a man for accidentally scratching his son.

Many of his further actions involve an insatiable drive to increase his power, and prevent its loss. He kills Cinderella’s fairy godmother in order to steal her wand. He manipulates the relationship between Snow White and Prince Charming in order to produce the ultimate in magic: true love in a bottle. When his son tells him that everyone is afraid of him, Rumpel insists that he needs “more power” to protect what is his, and when the Blue Fairy shows him a way to abandon his power and keep his son’s love, he is so afraid of losing it that he lets his son be dragged into an alternate world, apparently losing him forever. When Belle falls in love with him, and her kiss begins to make him human again, he believes it to be a plot by the queen to “make me weak,” and flies into a rage. In the final episode of the first season, Rumpel manages to open a magic portal, and it appears that he is trying to retrieve his son, but instead he releases magic into Storybrooke. Rumpel’s long-term strategy remains unclear, but it is certain that somehow it will involve bringing him even more power.

When discussing the psychology of power and weakness, nobody does it better than Alfred Adler. Adlerian psychology (also called Individual Psychology) holds that the underlying force that motivates our behavior is a striving to compensate for helplessness and inferiority. We are all born weak and powerless, surrounded by giants and subject to their whims. Over time, if we handle these childhood feelings of inferiority in a healthy manner, our personality develops so that we strive for superiority in a way that benefits everyone (for example, if I strive to be an outstanding psychology professor, not only do I gain a sense of “mastery,” thus overcoming inferiority feelings, but my students also benefit from superior teaching, the college benefits from superior service, the field of psychology benefits from superior research, and so on). If these feelings of inferiority are not handled well, however, our personality becomes pathological.

We do not have any indicators of Rumpelstiltskin’s childhood. All we have to go on is our one look at his adult life. However, many of his actions fit Adler’s description of an inferiority complex. The core of the inferiority complex is an unshakeable sense of “smallness,” manifesting itself in behavior patterns such as timidity, indecision, shyness, cowardliness, and submissive obedience. An unresolved inferiority complex can produce a neurotic personality, obsessed with safeguarding self-esteem and personal security. In Adler’s words, “All neurotic symptoms are safeguards of persons who do not feel adequately equipped or prepared for the problems of life” (“The Structure of Neurosis,” 1932).
There are a number of pathological personalities that can be produced, but the one that best fits Rumpel is a destructive “Ruling-Dominant Type” (“The Fundamental Views of Individual Psychology,” 1935), characterized by an active and aggressive attempt to master their lives and the people in them. This type of personality undermines our ability to form what Adler called “social interest,” the sense of connection to and sympathy for one’s fellow humans. Rumpelstiltskin’s life of powerlessness left him with deep-seated anxiety, and he is so afraid of returning to a position of weakness that he would rather lose everything than accept anything less than utter supremacy.

How will this pathology play out in the second season? Now that magic has been introduced to the “real world” of Storybrooke, how will Rumpelstiltskin use it? How does this play into his ongoing contest with Regina? What is his real goal, and why was he willing to accept temporary disempowerment to achieve it? Will Belle stay with him, knowing that she could never be as important to him as his own power?

Next Time: Queen Regina and the Psychology of Evil

Science Fiction and Racial Justice: Olaf Stapledon's Secular Christology

“By simply ignoring the failures of his prophetic imagination, Clarke reminds me irresistibly of those Christians who have been convinced that the apocalypse was just around the corner (just as the gospels claim that Jesus promised some two millennia ago), despite the fact that this prophecy has been failing over and over again for centuries. The fact that technology has failed time and again to live up to its promises, like so many religious prophecies, that it has failed to bring about greater social and economic equity, something we were promised would happen with the arrival of the printing press, the steam engine, the railroad, electricity, the telegraph, photography, the cinema radio, television, the personal computer, and, most recently, the Internet (or Web 2.0, which was to save us – again – from the inequities of the earlier technologies), is in itself interesting.

What is more interesting, at least in the context of religious prophecy, is how immune this belief in technological salvation is to historical realities and the complexity of human culture.”
from Alan Smithee: The Failure of Scientific Prophecy

Science Fiction And Racial Justice Series so far:

Science Fiction and Racial Justice: An Introduction

Racial Justice and Science Fiction: Joss Whedon As Prison Abolitionist

Racial Justice and Science Fiction: C.S. Lewis As AntiColonial Subversive

C.S. Lewis wrote his science fiction novels in response to Wellstianity, or the religious philosophy of H.G. Wells, which was the deification of humanity through scientific progress; specifically the achievement of space travel would mean that humanity had attained ascendency into the realm of transcendence (Lewis’s interpretation). The author whose works infuriated Lewis so much that he felt like he needed to do science fiction was writer and philosopher Olaf Stapledon and his text, Last and First Men. By trade Stapledon was an ethicist and philosopher, even publishing a textbook on the subject. He was a committed pacifist, and we all know that C.S. Lewis despised pacifism, and even made lengthy (and severely flawed) cases against it [linked here]. So, the Irishman Lewis was already biased against Britishman Stapledon to begin with. Stapledon did serve with Quakers during the first World War, manning military hospitals, but Olaf did not have any religious commitments, really. He considered himself spiritual, and an agnostic.

The text I will be looking at from Stapledon is his profoundly prophetic, Last And First Men, a discourse on race, empire, and technological progress disguised as a science fiction novel. Lewis considered LAFM to be the Devil’s handiwork. If that were only so true, I would be wasting my time here, but Stapledon has a rather interesting Christology, born out of the particularity of his white British experience (which he is very open about). The premise from the first pages is that all of the world’s nations fail when they start to sin against Socrates and Christ (page 17). Socrates is the embodiment of dispassionate intelligence/intellectual integrity while Jesus of Nazareth personfies the integrity of the will, will-power, i.e., self-control. The Jews’ gift of the Decalogue provides humanity with the model of Hebrew worship, one that is self-oblivious and passionate, enabling human beings to “delight in actual human persons,” and living in unselfish love.

Stapledon goes on to satirize the European situation before World War I; replacing the historical German with Italy, and the real Britain with France (the party of peacemakers). The Germans Italians found a new national pride, but things erupted worldwide when a “French African soldier” had sexual relations with an Englishwoman (20). France, out of fear, becomes more and more militarize, with their citizens being unable to love their country dispassionately (sinning against Socrates). Britain responds with its own gathering of weapons, but cannot control itself (sinning against Christ). Stapledon in a not so subtle way is arguing that the racist empire building that lead up to World War One  were violations of Socrates’ aim of unbiased thinking and honesty of mind and speech, as well as Jesus’ aim of self-control (a New Testament theological virtue).

America in LAFM is the cult of the powerful individual, “increasingly hostile to critical intelligence” and whose very identity is shaped by the Civil War (41). The American business titan was a member of the Elect, and the ‘Parable of the Talents’ was made the cornerstone of education.  The Daughter of Man, a New Eve for a mechanized New Creation, consummates her relationship with the American dream, as the cross is refashioned into an aeroplane, a symbol of the new faith. The new American empire’s favorite ritual involves a dance, with a Negro athlete trying to out run a lynch mob. If he wins, he gets to live (66-67). How different is that from black males’ options of choosing either professional sports or prison today?

What Olaf Stapledon recognized was that Europeans’ blind faith in technological and human progress meant them remaining blind to histories of racial and economic oppression, as Smithee put it, an immunity to historical realities and the complexity of human cultures.  Would a contemporary Christology advocate obsessing over everything that Apple Computers showcases? Perhaps an adaptation of Stapledon’s Secular Christology would mean a prophetic criticism of all computer companies that abuse the rights of child-labor in the 2/3rd’s World, or a proposal for a dispassionate appropriation of SmartPhones and E-Readers may seem subversive in confronting neo-colonial economic empire, no?

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