Real survivors get fairy-tale endings

Story highlights

  • After her mom's suicide, Angie Kupper wanted to show happier endings were possible
  • In a photo project, Kupper used fairy tales to depict struggles people overcame in real life

Milwaukee (CNN)He seemed like such a nice man, the clean-cut 25-year old who visited a rural Wisconsin church one autumn morning in 1996, looking for a wife.

By the end of the service, he'd set his sights on Misti Hawn, a pretty, auburn-haired 18-year-old who attended the fundamentalist Christian church with her parents and 11 younger brothers and sisters.
    That very day, he asked Hawn's father for permission to begin a formal courtship, and he said yes. Two months later, while sitting around the dining room table, the visitor surprised everyone, including Hawn, by asking for her hand in marriage.
      "My dad said OK, and they shook hands on it, and it was a done deal," Hawn remembered.
      Disagreeing was not an option.
      Hawn's new husband was not as kind as he had seemed during the courtship. It started out as emotional abuse, and then, four years into the marriage, he started drinking and began to beat and rape her. Taught that a woman must obey her husband, Hawn blamed herself for her mistreatment and stayed in the marriage for 10 more years.
      Then, all alone, Hawn had to find a way to financially support herself and her six children, then 3 to 13. She had to psychologically heal herself and the kids, especially her oldest daughter, who, unbeknownst to Hawn, had been sexually abused by her father.
      Here's what didn't help her: therapy.
      Here's what did help: dressing up like Little Red Riding Hood.

      'Happily ever after is still possible'

      "Finding your Fairytale" is the brainchild of Hawn's friend Angie Kupper, a therapist who works with children and teens with anxiety disorders and depression.
      Last year, she gathered Hawn and 11 others to pose for a calendar, each of them dressed as a character from fairy tales and other stories, to signify a struggle they'd endured.
      Real survivors get fairy-tale
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      Julie Mundt has obsessive-compulsive disorder, which forces her to clean uncontrollably. She dressed as Cinderella, scrubbing floors.
      Erica Retzlaff, who fell down the rabbit hole of heroin addiction and found herself trapped in a dark and dangerous place, portrayed Alice in Wonderland.
      Hawn, in a red cape and boots, is deceived by the Big Bad Wolf.
      All of them -- with hair, makeup and costumes that would make Walt Disney proud -- posed twice, once for a "struggle" photo and then for a "victory" photo.
      In the victory photos, Cinderella stands triumphantly, no longer a slave to her disorder. Alice escapes the rabbit hole. Little Red Riding Hood escapes from the Big Bad Wolf.
      Kupper made the calendar, and is making a related documentary, because she wants people who have faced tremendous challenges to realize that they don't have to live in pain forever.
      "We all have our struggles, but happily ever after is still possible," she said.
      Kupper wishes her own mother could have seen her future differently. She committed suicide when Kupper was 17.
      "If we lose hope for happily ever after, I'm really scared for the decisions that we might make, like my mom did," she said. "She no longer saw that magic or that hope for herself, and she ended her story.
      Happily ever after is a state of mind, she says. "It's accepting your story and every chapter in it, and recognizing that happiness is still possible and it's worth fighting for."

      Why dressing as a fairy-tale character can be therapeutic

      "This is so clever!" said Dr. Charles Raison, a psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin, when he saw the "Finding Your Fairytale" Kickstarter page. "I might rip this off!"
      Raison said striking parallels between fairy-tale and real-life struggles could help his patients find healing. For example, he might ask a patient with obsessive-compulsive disorder to imagine herself as Cinderella.
      "Cinderella is cleaning all the time because she's forced to by her stepmother," he said. "When someone has OCD, their brains are forcing them to clean all the time even though don't actually want to."
      Then he would ask the patient to imagine herself with Cinderella's fairy-tale ending.
      "OCD is hard to handle by yourself. You've got to have a fairy godmother to give you tools," he said. "But then, when you're locked up in the basement when the prince arrives, you've got to fight for yourself. Cinderella doesn't just roll over and think the fairy godmother is going to show up twice."
      History has showed that imagery can be a powerful force for change. Raison points to ancient peoples, such as yogis in Tibet, who visualized themselves as deities to improve their self-image and achieve enlightenment.
      "We're such word-dominated animals that we think everything can be put into words, but as you visualize yourself in some sort of fairy tale, you're engaging other senses around you," he said.
      And pretending to be someone else who has faced your struggle gets you out of your own head.
      "If I've got this horrible OCD, it's all me, me, me, Chuck Raison," he said. "But now if I'm Cinderella -- I guess I'd have to be Cinderella in drag -- it's not just me. I've connected it to an archetypal struggle."

      Little Red Riding Hood's silent scream

      In her car on the way to the calendar shoot, Hawn almost turned around.
      "In order for me to fully personify Little Red Riding Hood being terrified by the wolf, I knew I'd have to put myself back in the situation that I'd left," she said.
      She regained her strength and kept driving.
      As Hawn posed for the "struggle" photo, she was so scared, she was shaking. She let out screams.
      Then she decided to give a silent scream, just as she had for 10 years as a victim: pretending everything was all right and silently screaming for help from friends and family that never came. That was the winner.
      Hawn took a few minutes to compose herself and then posed for the "victory" shot, a Red Riding Hood who has escaped the Big Bad Wolf.
      She said she hopes that photo will help change the narrative of domestic abuse.
      "All we see on the news is pictures of women all beat up, and there's no hope in those pictures, just sadness and pain," she said. "We never hear about the afterwards, about women who managed to make lives for themselves."
      Hawn made a life for herself and her six children by working hard over the past five years, cleaning houses, clerking in a grocery story and assisting a car mechanic.
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      She's now an insurance agent and a bartender, and her children, ages 8 to 18, are doing well.
      Her ex-husband served time in prison for sexually assaulting their daughter and was required to join the Wisconsin Sex Offender Registry.
      Drugs to treat depression, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder allowed her to function for several years after she left him. But posing as Red Riding Hood did something different: It allowed her to actually see herself differently.
      "Everyone keeps telling me I'm such a strong woman, and they're so proud of me, but inside, I felt like a weak woman who stayed longer than she should have," Hawn said. "Finally I can now see the strong, confident woman that others see."
      "I wouldn't wish what happened to me to happen to anyone else, but it made me who I am today, and I like who I am today," she said. "You can come out the other side and have your own happily ever after."