The Stepsisters Grimm

by Jane Devin on 05/22/2011

Across the outdoor table of a Starbucks coffee shop, Violet and Cole smile at each other in the neutral way of acquaintances of friendly terms, and it’s unlikely that anyone viewing this scene would find anything unusual about the two middle-aged women. Violet is petite with broad features and delicate hands, while Cole is somewhat plump and sallow. Both women are just a decade or so past their prime. Together, they are not the sort of pair that would cause strangers to pause and consider. Instead, they fade into the background of green umbrellas and parking lot noise. A teenager on a skateboard flies past them, sucking down a pink Frappuccino, causing a man with a toddler on his shoulders to step out of the way.  It’s a Saturday, and the coffee shop is busy—very different from the banquet the women each attended separately over a year ago.

At that banquet, there were tables full of choices and no one else to suggest or dissuade from a certain course. Each woman stood alone before a bounty of options with clean, empty plates in their hands but both, being set in their ways, passed over the unfamiliar dishes—even the healthy and delicious looking ones—for the ones they felt best suited their appetites.

Violet chose a main course of Passive Aggressiveness with a side of Simmering Resentment and a desert of Patience.

Cole chose the entrée of Avoidance, with a side of Purposeful Blindness, and the desert of Faith.

Having made their choices, the women returned to their lives, neither one knowing what dishes the other chose. It wasn’t long though before the rumbling began.

Violet’s course of Passive Aggressiveness stayed with her, like a pot that could never be full enough. She found herself scavenging for ingredients to add to the stew of her anger, and soon there was nothing too petty or too small to include. The sight of Cole’s graying head—the sound of her name—the way she looked on a Sunday morning, having rolled out of bed plain-faced and in baggy sweats—all of these things and more began to feel like a personal assault and a justifiable reason for resentment. Cole talked too much, but in Violet’s mind one word from her antagonist was too much. Cole was seen too often, but to Violet’s way of thinking even invisibility would not have been enough. Cole’s perceived flaws, even those shared by others in Violet’s life, became exaggerated to such an extent that the pot was left to overflow. Cole was a horrible person, disgusting, worthless, and altogether unredeemable.

Violet had also chosen Patience, however, and held her tongue. She grew her resentments in silence, letting them slip out only sideways on occasion, by way of acidic gossip, a particularly mean glare, and an occasional sharp word that had nothing to do with the genuine matter at hand.

Of course, Cole suspected there was something terribly wrong, but when she asked Violet, she was told no—the tension and bitterness Cole sensed wasn’t real, or was due to something or somebody else. Having chosen Avoidance and Purposeful Blindness, Cole was more than relieved not to burden herself with obvious signs of turmoil. She went about her business in solitary fashion, leaving the task of confrontation to others.

Instead of braving anything that approached the truth, Cole used Avoidance and Purposeful Blindness to bypass intuition and common sense, and shrunk herself into a dark, cozy shell where she was the only occupant. Selfishly, she ignored the cues of Violet’s increasing resentments, preferring the comfort of her imagination, in which everything was (or would eventually be) alright. Of course, Violet liked herof course, they were friendly—hadn’t there been moments of kindness mixed in with the silent reproaches? Wasn’t it more beneficial to believe that those moments, however rare, were more truthful than the stiff-shouldered greetings and disapproving glances?

Cole’s desert of Faith left her clinging to the scantest of hopes—all self-induced and selfishly in her favor—and contributed to her Purposeful Blindness. Still, even the most faithful have their doubts and there were times, although very fleeting, that Cole’s blinders slipped. In temporary bouts of clarity that were more like a glare than a welcomed light, she saw Violet as a woman with a superiority complex—one that wasn’t based on any significant accomplishments of her own, but that left her to act condescending and judgmental toward others all the same. Violet was harsh, mean-spirited, evasive, and there could be no pleasing her.

At the coffee shop, on a breezy Saturday afternoon, Violet and Cole’s smiles were thin and their talk was light. Neither woman acknowledged their choices or the personal truths that bubbled underneath the tension. Violet simmered in unspoken resentments while Cole remained purposely blind to anything outside of herself.

It’s not surprising that a short time later, Violet’s pot boiled over and Cole’s shell cracked. It’s also not surprising that the bitter air between the two women thickened with half-truths and wild exaggerations—that pettiness had turned into cause and suspicion into reason.

What is surprising is how passionately the women defended their choices.

At the same time she convicted Cole for not picking up on her hostilities, Violet lauded her own passive-aggressive behavior. After all, if she wasn’t expressing her resentment aloud, she was “sparing” the feelings of the person she resented. She was, to her way of thinking, showing great restraint. She was being kind, tolerant, and compassionate.

Cole railed against Violet for being dishonest while adamantly defending her choice of avoidance. After all, if she refused to see a problem, even when it was obvious, the problem couldn’t really exist. She was, to her way of thinking, showing a desire for peace. She was being nice, flexible, and unintrusive.

With their bellies full of their chosen courses, neither woman had an appetite for more neutral truths. Cole’s feelings weren’t spared at all by Violet’s barely hidden resentments, which continued to grow, even to distorted proportions, the more Cole purposely ignored them. When the pot finally boiled over, Cole felt lied to, hated, and despised.

In her desire to avoid conflict, Cole put the onus of genuine communication solely on Violet, which only added to Violet’s frustration of not being properly seen or regarded. When the shell cracked, Violet was left feeling embittered, disrespected, and angry.

The Stepsisters Grimm will no longer meet for coffee or any other occasion. They will instead go on with their lives, each with a version of events that is kinder to and more forgiving of themselves than the other. That, too, is a choice in the banquet.

It seems part of human nature that we all want to be the heroes in our own stories, even when we are selfish, wrong, blind, cowardly, or hurtful. We seek understanding and forgiveness of our own failings, but are stingy when it comes to offering the same to others. It is often myopic self-interest and not objectivity that tends to guide our beliefs—we tend to ask ‘What’s in it for me?’ instead of ‘What’s the real truth of the matter?’

The truth is almost always this: We are all highly imperfect. Whether we treat each other with compassion or anger, with good intentions or punitive ones, is a choice based on our needs, thoughts, and beliefs—and is more a reflection of our own characters than those of other people.


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