Michelle Tocher’s fascination with fairy tales—and the surprising ways in which they reflect our own shared experiences—is one that was born from her own experience with pain. After a debilitating health crisis in 1993, she was forced to quit her job in the communications industry. Out of work and suffering from fibromyalgia so severe that she sometimes couldn’t get out of bed, Tocher turned her mind inward to the mythic origins of storytelling that could perhaps help her explain and cope with her own demons.
“I feel very strongly that these fairy tales that we’ve exiled as ‘children’s stories’ are actually mirrors of the soul,” she explains. “I want to help people move back into these stories, really look at them again, and find out what symbols and images speak to them. What kinds of scenarios in these symbolic, communal stories speak to the dilemmas they’re having in their own lives?” Tocher’s desire to explore these questions and more led to her memoir, The Tower Princess, a fantastical story that deftly weaves her “outer life” exploits with her “inner life” escapades through various fairy-tale plots.
With two master’s degrees, in history and journalism, Tocher now lives in Toronto with her husband. She currently writes, produces short films (including the award-winning Soul Fish), hosts writing workshops in collaboration with Storytelling Toronto, and runs the WonderLit.com website, where participants embark on an immersive adventure through the fairy tale of their choice via guided creative-writing exercises. The author of six books, including How To Ride a Dragon: Women With Breast Cancer Tell Their Stories, Tocher is currently tackling the imaginative potential of the afterlife in her audio play, The Departure Train.
The Tower Princess is a culmination of Tocher’s entire life experience, which comes to fruition by accessing “imagination as a way of knowing.” Kirkus Reviews, which awardedthe memoir a Kirkus star, believes that “Tocher’s approach to storytelling effectively captures the playfulness of classic fairy tales but adds a contemporary zing.” It is this playful approach to a normally straightforward genre that elevates the book and makes it so compelling.
Struggling with the difficulty of conveying the experience of invisible pain—what it is and what it does—Tocher engages both the interior and exterior versions of her life to develop a fuller, richer picture of her individual circumstances. In doing so, however, she tangentially touches upon the lived experiences of us all. “I was shifting between these two dimensions of life,” she explains. “And the only way to express the inner-life experience is, to me, to engage with the myths and symbols and fairy tales that can give expression to what we’re actually going through and how we’re responding to the things happening in our lives.”
With a keen focus on “tower princesses” in general (and the story of Rapunzel in particular), Tocher alternates between reflecting on her journey through fibromyalgia pain and her habitation of various fairy tales—both beloved classics like the “The Briar Rose” by the Brothers Grimm and their more obscure tales, like “The Goose-Girl at the Well.” Readers will quickly find connections between the doctor who tells Tocher she should treat her pain with religion and Gothel, the classic villain who keeps Rapunzel locked in a tower for years. These types of connections occur not only between those around her, but also within herself. During one of her nightly dream meetings with her fairy godmothers, the author meets an intangible being whom she vaguely recognizes:
Willow has assumed her night form—a featureless ribbon of cloudy light—and she settles on my left, folding in on herself like the Christmas candies that my mother used to put in our stockings. Willow is starting to feel very familiar. When I’m with her, I have the sense that I’m with my younger self, a ghost from the past who existed before my identity solidified, before habits were formed, before I was schooled and spelled into a working, workable person. She reminds me of what it was like to be an unbounded spirit—happy, unknown to herself, and looking to the world to help her solidify. In a word, she is my innocence.
Tocher often draws a line (sometimes straight, sometimes a bit more circuitous) between her own inner turmoil and the embodiments of physical characters that she can “visit” at will. In doing so, she encourages readers to do the same. Her expansive knowledge of myths, fairy tales, and storytelling serves to draw audiences into not only her own modern-day drama, but also—and perhaps more importantly—into the legends and traditions that have served humanity since the early days of existence. Tocher points out that stories came about as a way for people to cope with everyday burdens and emotional turmoil long before the field of psychology was ever created.
The Tower Princess expertly dances between nonfiction prose and universal fantasy, with a sprinkling of the author’s own poetry, such as the quietly moving “The Poet and Lady Shame.” Imagination is given fertile ground upon which to roam, and readers may very well find themselves recalling childhood stories or bedtime tales that they haven’t thought about in years. Instead of writing them off as the stuff of children, Tocher breathes new life into these myths by forcing her audience to sit with them—the characters, the entrapments, the villains, the lessons that these types of tropes reveal.
“If you take the time to really inhabit a scene in a fairy tale, you’re not going to be there long before you realize you’re looking at some aspect of your own self,” she says. “These stories give you a path into your own self. And eventually you’ll find yourself writing and thinking about your own experience in a way that is understandable to yourself and others [and] that suggests an avenue forward or through.”
And that, ultimately, is what Tocher hopes her uncommon approach to memoir writing will encourage in others. “For me, writing a memoir about my journey through chronic pain was giving imagery to something that is invisible to others. And I’m interested in that kind of memoir writing. I feel it engages us in a deeper and more intimate conversation about how we meet the onslaughts of life.”
Andrea Moran is a professional copywriter and editor who loves all things books.