Reflections on The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams: Radical self acceptance, White Fragility and becoming Real.
By DrLibbyNugent, Feb 7 2020 12:26PM
I’d like to acknowledge Dulcie Cormack and her contribution to this blog when sharing her thoughts, ideas and personal experiences with me in the February Wrexham Anti Racist Book Club meeting. I have her permission to share them here.
I recently asked psychologists, on various social media groups I belong to, to share with me their favourite childhood stories, as I’m interested if there are any commonalities. This mini survey is an ongoing interest, so please feel free to share your favourites with me. Someone mentioned The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams and I took the opportunity to revisit it. In the story a toy rabbit wishes to become a Real rabbit - to become Real the rabbit must allow itself to be at the mercy of its fate provided for by his little boy owner: he becomes damaged, worn down, with busted seams, tattered fur and threadbare paws. The faerie tale, to me, holds a metaphor of how vulnerability can create change; that radical self acceptance breaks open our understanding of humanity, so that we can truly live life rather than remain a toy or object.
The story begins this way:
‘There was once a velveteen rabbit, and in the beginning he was really splendid. He was fat and bunchy, as a rabbit should be; his coat was spotted brown and white, he had real thread whiskers, and his ears were lined with pink sateen. On Christmas morning, when he sat wedged in the top of the Boy's stocking, with a sprig of holly between his paws, the effect was charming.…
For at least two hours the Boy loved him, and then Aunts and Uncles came to dinner, and there was a great rustling of tissue paper and unwrapping of parcels, and in the excitement of looking at all the new presents the Velveteen Rabbit was forgotten.
For a long time he lived in the toy cupboard or on the nursery floor, and no one thought very much about him. He was naturally shy, and being only made of velveteen, some of the more expensive toys quite snubbed him. The mechanical toys were very superior, and looked down upon everyone else; they were full of modern ideas, and pretended they were real. …
Between them all the poor little Rabbit was made to feel himself very insignificant and commonplace, and the only person who was kind to him at all was the Skin Horse. ...
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nanna came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” ’
The Velveteen Rabbit OR How Toys Become Real by Margery Williams
Now on first reading this could be a metaphor for embracing masochism, to charge towards painful experiences and humiliating relationships. However that’s not quite how I perceive it. I see it more as a call to radical self acceptance. To be open to honest communication and risk taking in our intimacies. To let people in. The rabbit must let go of it’s vanity, it’s belief about what must be avoided to keep him desired for and therefore loveable. He must trust in the process of love, but this is a love of life as it is, not the romantic hopeful version. When the final task of initiation is complete the rabbit painfully grieves; his hope to be eternally loved by the boy is held together with his acceptance of the real life limits of the boy’s ability to provide this. It is only when this acceptance occurs that the velveteen rabbit is turned into a plain everyday rabbit, his specialness is truly lost and he hops away into the woods unrecognisable to the little boy who previously owned him. At last he becomes Real.
When I think about this for myself - what are the parts of me that I might need to stop avoiding - is it my greed, my entitlement, my whiteness, my neediness? If I accept these parts, will I not be outed as broken, damaged and bad - who would love me then? What does radical self-acceptance look like? I also wonder about the idea of a little boy being in charge of my life.
Psychoanalyst Fairbairn, described a pattern of relating called the “Exciting Object”. Besides my liking the name I find it a really helpful way to think about some relationship and cultural problems. In his description of the pattern of the “exciting Object” Fairbairn states that this pattern of relating develops in childhood, typically when a child’s emotional needs are taken care of by an intermittently neglectful/absent parent. So sometimes the parent is present and caring and sometimes they are not. To make sense of these changeable ways the child develops two very different stories about the relationship. One is that of idolisation - my parents are wonderful and meet my needs, the future looks full of hope. The second is that of despair and hopelessness - my parents are useless and nothing will ever change. When these interact, rather than being held together to get a good enough view, they flip flop and cancel each other out to create an Exciting object narrative. In this Exciting object narrative the child is always hopeful and longing for a great future, they can see the potential of what could be if only they could work out how to keep the good times going but at the same time the child knows things will fail. So like buying a lottery ticket and hoping you will win, whilst at the same time knowing the chances are extremely low. The excitement of wondering if you can beat the odds, the comfort in being right in knowing you can not.
What this looks like in adulthood is the experience of continuing to emotionally invest in a partner, work environment or social structure when you know it is toxic; however the hope that it might transform into something new is compelling. Whenever the bad behaviour becomes apparent, we recover fast hoping for a bright future full of change, sweeping the negative experience under the carpet, quickly forgetting pain in the name of hope; at the same time striking another internal scorecard against the abuser with a sense of satisfaction that I knew they would do this to me. It’s like our internal world is at the mercy of a child’s changeability. The way to develop a new narrative is to try and hold on consciously and compassionately to both parts rather than flip flop between the two. If we can persist eventually we are able to become a bit more clear eyed. We can feel the yearning for more, the grief, anger and hurt at real life limits - we can become a bit more grown up or Real with our understanding. We might then make different choices. Maybe.
The story shows how as the rabbit starts to understand what it is to be human - and to let in intimacy, we also begin to recognize that all thoughts and ideas the rabbit had about the other toys were projections - he was seeing the other toys the way he viewed the world himself. In real life as we mature we also start to recognise that aspects of others we encounter in life, that create an emotional response, are often a mirror. The superior and inferior toys all reflected the rabbit’s own world view. In psychoanalysis it is thought that nobody truly knows anyone else until they recognize that everyone is them.
You may have seen the actor British Laurence Fox and his recent appearance on question time; his response to an audience member Rachel Boyle, was an example of white privilege in action. Boyle, a researcher on race and ethnicity at Edge Hill University, had raised the issue of the racist treatment of the Duchess of Sussex. Fox responded by describing Britain as the “most tolerant, lovely country in Europe”, adding his opinion that “it’s so easy to throw the card of racism at everybody and it’s really starting to get boring now”.
My initial reaction was one of repulsion and horror as Fox’s nonchalant aggression was casually hurled out: his lack of humility in his attitude and his sense of entitlement to equal footing on the subject racism with a woman, who is both a scholar of racism and a person with lived experience of racism in the uk, was clear; his assumption that his boredom mattered and that this was therefore relevant to the conversation was cringeworthy. Whilst I had previously quite liked him in ‘Lewis', I could feel myself distancing from this mental connection quickly and rescripting my appraisal of him: yes we are both white, but he is clearly being so male, so upper class, so southern. His ill informed, lazy, entitled and boorish manner has nothing to do with me. Lewis is rubbish anyway: My taste in programs can often be terrible. He is so rude; I am nice. He is such a typical man; I am a woman. I am middle class, but not that posh. I am not him. I am a proper progressive; I am thoughtful. I run an anti racist book club - I bet he doesn’t read those books. He is not part of my identity. He is other.
Laurence Fox came up in our discussion at the Wrexham Anti Racist Bookclub. As usual it was a small gathering, only this time it was just two of us: Dulcie and I. We have just read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and it was fascinating to use it as an example of a step by step guide to reactions that occur when white people become defensive talking about race. We then tried to apply this to ourselves and our own paths into trying to be more conscious of these narratives. Dulcie noted how surprisingly new and uncomfortable it has felt being on the back foot with this subject of examining whiteness. Her experience growing up was one of always being a fast learner, the one who gets it, she would lead on the ‘challenging the status quo’ conversations and launch herself into difficult conversations about feminism, classism etc. This resonated deeply with me. It has felt extremely humbling to experience myself in this way - of honouring the position of not knowing, and maybe being the person who needs to catch up, rather than being the one leading the way or, at very least, in the middle of the pack. Dulcie shared with me the idea of a window of tolerance: That somehow thinking about whiteness required finding that spot where the discomfort can be felt and stayed with rather swept away into despair and immobility or flip flopped over into idealisation of white culture and denial.
As a self identified liberal white woman, I often know something has been racist and unfair but all too easily I can quickly sweep it under the carpet going back to my lovely, playroom life. Like the rabbit maybe I can become Real through experiencing the full range of myself reflected in others, and recognising that it is a reflection of my own state? With practice I’m learning to accept what I see whilst holding on to compassion for myself, inviting in an adult accountability. If psychoanalysis is right, only then can I truly be relating to ‘the other’. All the wear and tear is sometimes uncomfortable but equally isn’t this just the human condition and always will be. In adult reality there are no easy answers or pain free options but I imagine how much more alive and potent I and our profession might feel if we could let our threads show knowing it is what makes each of us Real.
Fairbairn and the Origins of Object Relations, ed. James Grotstein and Donald Rinsley (Free Association, 1994).
Pines, Malcolm. “ON MIRRORING IN GROUP PSYCHOTHERAPY.” Group, vol. 7, no. 2, 1983, pp. 3–17. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41718185. Accessed 7 Feb. 2020.