The Uses of Enchantment, Heidi Julavits’s third novel, borrows its title and some of its content from psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s 1976 treatise, subtitled The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Though many of Bettelheim’s theories have not endured, his notion that fairy tales help children make sense of their world still compels. Bettelheim argues that a story such as “Cinderella” helps a child understand sibling rivalry, “Snow White” explains the Oedipal conflicts of mother and daughter, and “Sleeping Beauty” explores adolescent sexuality.
Julavits’s novel examines all of these concerns, but it models itself on two other, conflicting tales: “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Girl Who Cried Wolf.” In November of 1985, sixteen-year-old Mary Veal vanishes from her Massachusetts prep school. She reappears seven weeks later, claiming amnesia. Was she a victim of wolfish torment, or did she fake her own abduction in a bid for attention? Julavits rotates among chapters set in 1999, when an adult Mary returns home for her mother’s funeral; case notes from Mary’s 1986 sessions with a fatuous therapist; and sections perhaps describing those missing weeks in 1985, coyly titled “What Might Have Happened.”
All of Julavits’s books involve young women discovering the power of storytelling and the shiftiness of truth. Unlike Bettelheim, who assigned fixed, stable meanings to the stories he cited, Julavits suggests that facts can offer multiple, often contradictory conclusions. In her first book, The Mineral Palace, young wife Bena uses numerology to make sense of the world, forcing the numbers she encounters to add up fortuitously. In The Effect of Living Backwards, Alice must re-examine every aspect of her past, allowing that “instead of a graduate student in social work, I had been an unsuspecting test patient in a mixed-gender group behavioral study; that my mother, the population-control activist, actually conducted covert genetic work for a descendent of Dr. Mengele”; that the hijacking she and her sister suffered was an elaborate ruse.
Though a decade younger than Bena or Alice, Mary precisely articulates the troublesomeness of truth. She explains to her therapist that in high school English she realized she “could take any book and pair it with a thesis—let’s say I wanted to show that Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter advocated genital mutilation—and I could write a paper proving that thesis. Then I could write an equally convincing paper proving that The Scarlet Letter was a scree [sic] against genital mutilation…. In which case, truth seems a waste of time. Right?” According to Mary, reality is fatally susceptible to interpretation—and the reality of adolescent female sexuality, with its accompanying anxieties and distress, appears especially vulnerable.
In The Uses of Enchantment, Julavits seems to valorize deceitfulness as a creative act, and often a kind one, while honesty comes off as shallow and hurtful. When characters claim they’re telling the truth, they’re attempting to wound one another. Though Julavits does sometimes suggest that lies can threaten relationships and impede personal progress, she doesn’t endorse confession. If she mocks the analyst who alters Mary’s story to shape his own theories, she also scorns a rival psychologist who founds a support group for women trying to “reclaim [their] stories and sign [their] names to it.”
Julavits declared in New York magazine that this novel is more straightforward than her earlier books—”a combination of not wanting to be seen as a confusing writer and also having limited time and brain space.” But neither its form nor its conclusions are uncomplicated. Fiercely intertextual, it owes a great (and acknowledged) debt to Freud’s Dora as well as to the anti-witchcraft treatise Malleus Maleficarum. As Enchantment resembles a mystery novel, Julavits’s decision to name a headmistress Miss Pym (after Josephine Tey’s schoolmarm detective) or a police interviewer Morse (after Colin Dexter’s famed inspector) suggests she hasn’t abandoned narrative game-playing. Why she should want to is the biggest mystery of all.
And yet, the adult Mary’s aims seem remarkably clear. Only after her mother’s death does Mary realize how much she still needs her approval. An exceptionally puritanical woman, Mary’s mother had preferred her daughter as a liar, “better the disturbed perpetrator of a grand-scale hoax than an innocent victim of sexual assault.” (87) The adult Mary tries to gain her mother’s forgiveness posthumously, and, a kindness on Julavits’s part, she somewhat succeeds. If her goals are obvious, Mary herself remains something of a cipher, her character altering from one section to the next. It might be authorial oversight or, more likely, the portrait of a perpetual adolescent still trying on different personalities, a girl who never quite claims her place in the world. Early in the book, her analyst describes her as “the sort of girl who had…disappeared many times without her needing to go anywhere.” Perhaps Mary should have taken Bettelheim’s advice. She might have become a more assured adult had she read more fairy tales—rather than inventing her own.