The Giving Tree and Healing After Abuse

If you’ve gotten this far in life without reading The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, here’s a quick summer: Boy loves a tree. Tree loves a boy. Tree gives the boy everything she has to try to make him happy. In the end, all that’s left of Tree is a stump. Still, the text tells us “the Tree was happy.”

Much has been written about the message of this children’s book, originally published in 1964. I’m not interested in the question of the Silverstein’s intention behind the book (by all accounts, neither was he) and even less interested in the question of whether or not its messaging is “good” or “bad”. 

The Giving Tree is a story and stories are what we make of them. 

Like most American kids, I encountered this book more than a few times in elementary school. It didn’t leave much of an impression on me, other than that I liked how the red apple contrasted with the vibrant green background of the cover.

I much preferred Silverstein’s off-beat poetry, staying up late at night memorizing huge swaths of Where the Sidewalk Ends and Falling Up, annoying family members every holiday with unsolicited poetry recitals.

I hadn’t given more than a passing thought to The Giving Tree until I was cast in a ballet adaption of the book by Mossa Dance this fall. I played “Girl” (later “Wife”), the young woman who wins Boy’s affections and becomes an accomplice in his selfish, relentless use of the tree. 

Photo of Mossa Dance by Sandy Arena

Turning a 621 word children’s book into a full length ballet requires some artistic license, of course. In the ballet adaption, the subtext (or the choreographer’s interpretation of the subtext) became text, explicit and spelled out through dance and multimedia projection.

Each section of the ballet spilled over with emotive demonstrations of the bond between Boy and Tree.  While moved by the choreography, I also found myself becoming wary.

This is abuse, I realized, watching a scene where Boy cuts down Tree’s trunk to build a boat. This ballet is about abuse. 

Now, it was personal.

I lived in a codependent and abusive relationship for most of my adult life, believing for many years, that my worth depended on what I could give my partner. Even after leaving the relationship, It took many months of therapy to begin using the label “abuse” to describe what happened to me.

“I let it happen,” I told myself and friends who showed concern. “It’s not abuse because I didn’t try to stop it.” 

 Unlike the tree, giving my partner what I had didn’t make me happy (or him either). Instead of either continuing to “joyfully” let myself be used or saying “no.”  I became bitter and resentful. I produced poisonous apples. 

I held myself responsible for not leaving sooner; for not putting up the boundaries that might have saved the relationship; for not standing up for myself. 

During the initial rehearsals for The Giving Tree, I decided that the message of this story had to do with the destruction of abuse; the way it destroys both victim and abuser. At the end of the story, Boy is sad, old and alone. 

But there was something more to this retelling. In the final scene, choreographer Alexis Gaatano, depicts the Boy in each stage of his life (childhood, adolescence, adulthood) returning to Tree to thank her. While Boy used up various parts of Tree, first her apples, then branches, then trunk, the spirit of the Tree remains. 

I wasn’t sure how to feel about this celebration of selfless giving. Sure, Boy got what was coming to him but what about Tree? Was I supposed to believe that Tree was genuinely happy  to be used, abused and taken for granted?

Were books like The Giving Tree responsible for teaching me that I was made to be used? 

Tree needed therapy, I decided. Tree needed a workbook on boundary setting and self-care. Then, Tree would be not only happy but self-fulfilled. Justice for Tree!

It’s what I’d been trying to do, after all. It’s what I wanted to master more than anything. Since leaving my marriage, I thought healing would mean figuring out how to be happy alone. I focused on learning to do all the things I’d neglected to do the first decade of adulthood: namely, take care of myself. 

Yet, despite of all the workbooks, therapy and self-affirmations, I still felt like I was failing. 

  I was even envious of a woman in my online support group who said she was having a hard time opening herself up to love after her abuse. Instead of becoming distrusting or putting up walls after being hurt, I responded to my trauma by becoming even more vulnerable. I wanted to callus over my injured center, not feel soft, exposed and opened.

The wounds remained raw.

Not only did I want to feel loved, I desperately needed to give love. I was still looking for validation through what I could do or give to other people–and I was mad at myself for it. 

Why couldn’t I just stop caring so much? Why did I keep putting my unprotected bleeding heart on the emotional equivalent of a four lane highway? Worst of all, why did I feel so surprised every time it got run over? 

Photo by Sandy Arena

Watching those final scenes of The Giving Tree ballet from the wings on opening night, I realized that maybe healing comes in many forms. I can–and have–get better at boundary setting and honoring; but maybe it’s also okay to love to show love. Maybe it’s okay to stay a little bit vulnerable, to risk feeling foolish. 

Maybe the key to healing isn’t changing a fundamental part of myself. Maybe it’s giving that soft center the care it needs to be healthy. I’ve tried fighting it, smothering it, and loathing it–so maybe it’s time to try taking care of it.

I will always love to give. I always want to give. Only, now I want to give from a sense of abundance, not one of lack.

I want to give from love, not for love.

After a weekend of immersion in the world of The Giving Tree, I’ve decided this isn’t a story with one neat and tidy message. Rather, I think it’s meant to be mediated on; to be chewed over, considered from all angles. 

I’m a human being in the real world, not an anthropomorphic tree from a picture book. There are times when the best thing I can do (for myself and others) is to pull back my branches and say, “no.” 

There will also be times to give and give and give. Not because I need to feel worthwhile or lovable or valuable or moral; but because I need to feel like myself. And when I give, I will give without fear.

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