Bruno Bettelheim in “Uses of Enchantment”:

“In “Little Red Riding Hood” the kindly grandmother undergoes a sudden replacement by the rapacious wolf which threatens to destroy the child. How silly a transformation when viewed objectively, and how frightening—we might think the transformation unnecessarily scary, contrary to all possible reality. But when viewed in terms of a child’s ways of experiencing, is it really any more scary than the sudden transformation of his own kindly grandma into a figure who threatens his very sense of self when she humiliates him for a pants-wetting accident? To the child, Grandma is no longer the same person she was just a moment before; she has become an ogre. How can someone who was so very kind, who brought presents and was more understanding and tolerant and uncritical than even his own mommy, suddenly act in such a radically different fashion?

Unable to see any congruence between the different manifestations, the child truly experiences Grandma as two separate entities—the loving and the threatening. She is indeed Grandma and the wolf. By dividing her up, so to speak, the child can preserve his image of the good grandmother. If she changes into a wolf—well, that’s certainly scary, but he need not compromise his vision of Grandma’s benevolence. And in any case, as the story tells him, the wolf is a passing manifestation—Grandma will return triumphant.

Similarly, although Mother is most often the all-giving protector, she can change into the cruel stepmother if she is so evil as to deny the youngster something he wants.”

Wolfe often suggests there’s almost something universal about women where they can switch from being loving and harmless, young and desirable, and being terribly destructive/old hags. In each of the following one could image these as being build out of universal Bettleheimian early experiences of childhood:

“You will be again what you were, unless I am very much mistaken,” I told her. “I cannot be certain, but that is certainly my opinion. Hide, you must remember that there were an old woman and a young one living in the farmhouse in which we stayed.”

He nodded.

“The old one was presumed to be the farmer’s mother, and to own the farm. You brought in a chair for her, saying that she should not have to stand in her own home.”


“I may have told you that both were called Jahlee. I know I told Mora that.” (In Green’s Jungles)

“R. T: “I cursed her a moment ago, Doctor, you comprehend, because she left me, though I drove her away. But what my son says is true, she was a fine actress. We used to go about performing, she and I. You would not believe the things she could do! She could talk to a man, and he would believe her a girl, a virgin, hardly out of school. But then if she did not like him she would become an old woman—a matter of the voice, you understand, and the muscles of the face, the way she walked and held her hands—” (Fifth Head)

“There was a terrible strega living among us then. She was old and ugly, but she knew so much magic that everyone was afraid of her. When I was about old enough to walk, she fell in love. The unlucky young man’s name was Dentro, and he was a quiet, handsome fellow you’d think would be frightened to death if you so much as told him that a strega wanted to speak to him. But the strega could change her appearance whenever she wished, and whenever Dentro was around her, which was more and more often as the weeks passed, she became a beautiful young woman with a ravishing smile and a voluptuous figure.” (In Green’s Jungles)

“That was when I saw the Great Mother, an old woman half again as tall as I, leaning over her priestess and dabbling her fingers in the blood. A goddess indeed, but aged and crazed, her gown torn and gray with dirt. For all I owed Cerdon, I would not have touched her if I could. I turned to flee instead; something struck my head, and I lay stretched upon the ground.” “I have millions more in other lands,” Mother Ge told her. “And some for whom I am not yet bent and old.” (Soldier in the Mist)

“I looked through the fire and saw her seated upon a dais at the end of the low room. Young she was, and lovely, wreathed in leaves and flowers; and flowers and leaves had been woven to make a chiton and a himation for her. And yet for all her youth and beauty, and the colors and perfumes of so many blossoms, there was something terrifying about her.” “She turned as if to go, and I saw that her back was a mass of putrefaction where worms and maggots writhed. I caught my breath” (Soldier in the Mist)

“To me, the sea is always beautiful. When it is calm, it’s like looking at a beautiful woman, a giantess so big that you cannot see all of her at once even though you know she goes on and on, more and more lovely smooth skin with thrilling curves longer than a man’s eyes can ever take in. Only when it’s as rough as it was then, looking out to sea is like looking at the biggest tiger the world has ever seen, and that tiger is raging, clawing at you, huge white-tipped claws by the thousands and hundreds of thousands crashing against the hull, eager to grab anybody it can reach, pull them overboard, and drown them in a heartbeat. And yet it’s still beautiful and I loved it even when it seemed to be trying to sink us. Beauty will do that to you.” (Interlibrary Loan)

But in the book where the last excerpt is taken from, “Interlibrary Loan,” we have Wolfe offering us another reason why we might imagine women as sometimes charming and sometimes terrifying. Not from a universal experience of them when we were children as key, that is, but rather experiences only out of certain sorts of families; only out of disturbed families. “Interlibrary” features a child growing up under a mother, Adah, who ranges in temperament, transforms from a more benign person into an absolutely terrifying one, not because she’s a woman, and all women can range that way (as Severian might say), but because she’s disturbed/insane:

“Perhaps not. My guess is it will depend on her cycle. Her emotions rise and fall. You must know about that.”

Rose nodded. “So do yours and mine. It’s true of everyone.”

“Then let’s say it’s more marked—much more marked—in her than in most of us.”

“I suppose.” Thoughtfully, Rose paused. “I can only hope she’ll be pleased.” (“Interlibrary”)

When disturbed, she’s a terrifying monster; she transmogrifies: “Adah stood up. From somewhere she had gotten a weird hatchet with a straight handle and a spike on the back like a fire axe. “You’re correct, Smithe. I left you thinking that the less-than-human I had chosen to solve a point that puzzled me was at least capable of following my husband, my daughter, and me. You failed that simple test. Your library will be better off without you.” She raised the hatchet as she finished that […]”

Here she recalls the Sicilian mafia mother as the psychoanalyst Silvia di Lorenzo describes her in her book, “La Grande Madre Mafia”:

“If a boy of theirs commits a slight fault, they do not resort to simple blows, but they pursue him on a public street and bite him on the face, the ears, and the arms until they draw blood. In those moments even a beautiful woman is transformed in physiognomy, she becomes purplish-red, with blood-shot eyes, with gnashing teeth, and trembling convulsions, and only the hastening of others, who with difficulty tear away the victim, put an end to such savage scenes.”

Wolfe’s Adah draws us away from experiences we all universally experience, towards the mother Wolfe features at times that is simply not well. It draws us, for example, to how the boy would have experienced his medicated mother… whom he is desperate to find a way to please, in “Island of Dr. Death and other stories,” and how the boy, Severian, experienced his mother, Casdoe, suddenly turning and slapping her when he misspoke.

“She is awake, her eyes open looking at the ceiling, but you know she isn’t ready to get up yet. Very politely, because that minimizes the chances of being shouted at, you say, “How are you feeling this morning, Mama?”

She rolls her head to look. “Strung out. What time is it, Tackie?” (“Island of Dr. Death”)

“The woman nodded, and quite unexpectedly the little boy piped,”Have you seen Severa?” His mother turned on him so quickly that I was reminded of Master Gurloes demonstrating the grips used to control prisoners. I heard the blow, though I hardly saw it, and the little boy shrieked. His mother moved to block the door, and he hid himself behind a chest in the corner farthest from her.” (“Sword and Citadel”)

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