Fairy tales are a great way to share cautionary tales, like don’t go into candy houses and don’t give too much information to strangers. In Maria Adelmann’s How to Be Eaten, the fairy tales are given a modern facelift. The cautionary tales, on the other hand, hardly need updating to be perhaps more relevant than ever.
Five women have been invited to a support group for trauma victims. But the trauma these women have experienced is no run-of-the-mill support group material—their bizarre stories have given them more headlines than anyone can count. There’s Bernice, whose blue-bearded tech billionaire boyfriend was hiding an extremely dark secret behind a locked door. Then there’s Ruby, whose encounter with a wolf in the woods has given her a wolf-skin cloak and a real self-destructive attitude. Ashlee, whose left hand is weighted down by the giant rock her Prince Charming place there on the dating-show finale, realized only after the episodes aired that her fairy godmother-like producer might not have had her best interests at heart. Decades after being found, Gretel still can’t rectify her crystal-clear memories of a witch living in a house made of candy with her brother’s recollection of a nice old lady trying to help out two lost and starving kids. And Raina, who is floundering without purpose now that her daughter has gone off to college, has a strange story of her own from when she was an intern being asked to spin straw into gold. As they continue to meet week after week, the question lingers: who gathered them here to this support group, and why?
The stories are recognizable, some more than others—what other story would Gretel be part of, or Ruby with her wolf-skin cloak? Still, the way the stories have been transformed for our modern day is fascinating. The wolf flirted with then-12-year-old Ruby, bringing a flood of victim-blaming after the interviews she had to do to pay her medical bills. Bluebeard is a fit and filthy-rich tech bro still stuck in his old incel-teenager mindset. Reality television and the gawking eyes of tabloid readers and talk-show watchers weigh heavily on the stories each woman tells, changing perhaps not the incidents themselves but the way the victim is affected as she tries to reclaim her life. Public perception and truth are not always the same thing, and it’s hard to tell which way the winds of sympathy will blow.
Agency and the distinct lack thereof are also strong themes that run throughout these refreshed fairy tales. Most of the women carry around the guilt for the choices that got them into their respective pickles, either the guilt that they chose to carry or the guilt that was foisted upon them after the fact. Why did Ashlee stab her rival in the hand with a wine-glass stem? Why did Ruby go with the wolf? Why did Raina marry who she did when presented with two suitors wanting her to be theirs? “It was kind of a stacked deck, choice-wise,” Ruby says during one of the women’s stories, but it could apply to any of them. Their choices had consequences, but to what degree is someone responsible for a choice they made under duress?
People have always been attracted to the sensational and the macabre, and we love a good story with a moral, which may be why fairy tales have had such staying power in our culture. But today’s stories that we pass around, that we whisper about amongst ourselves, that we play armchair quarterback (or judge and jury) with, involve real people. True crime, reality TV, main characters of the week on a given social media platform—we consume these stories and render our own judgement to them. Although most of the stories don’t involve talking furniture or little, burger-scented men falling from air vents, seeing stories about strangers warping and reshaping around us in ways that may or may not be true is a fact of daily life.
Bernice herself binges true-crime shows, prompting the others ask her if she’s not being just as exploitative as those who have made her life and the rest of their lives miserable since their respective fifteen minutes of fame. “I’m bearing witness,” Bernice tells them, insisting it’s different, but not being wholly sure where that line is. Other members of the group on different sides of the reality-television divide have their own thoughts about how true the first half of that label is. These are fairy tales, but given how closely Adelmann positions them to our pop-culture lives, they’re questions worth some thought.