Walking up the back stairs, I heard someone yelling and cursing loudly. I pressed the red button releasing the door lock and came onto the third-floor unit. The fire of her fury had burnt out rapidly, and a 32-year-old young woman—I’ll call her Gwen—now sat hunched and sobbing in the nook at the end of the hallway. I thought if I spoke or approached too closely she would dismiss me, so I sat quietly 10 feet away. Her breathing slowed, she sighed and looked questioningly at me. I introduced myself and my role as a therapist, and she began to tell me of her frustrations: with her medical problems, her mood shifts associated with bipolar disorder, and feeling trapped in a nursing home with people ordering her around.

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During her stay, Gwen had many similar fiery outbursts aimed at authority figures, and weekly conversations with me in which she spoke of being trapped and tormented as a child in foster care. She felt furious with her biological mother for abandonment, and with her abusers. As a child, her proficiency with math was a saving grace for Gwen, and her most keen desire was to teach young children about the delights of mathematical thinking. Gwen had been burned by betrayal as a child, and suffered inflammatory medical problems and destabilizing bursts of inflamed emotions that limited her progress in pursuit of her goals of a stable life and a teaching job. She loved being a teacher of young children and wanted to stabilize her physical and mental wellness so she might obtain an apartment and a return to work.

Yet Gwen could easily erupt in dragon’s breath fury when frustrated or challenged or limited by an authority figure. We talked of how her suffering as a child was unjust, and how her feelings of anger were understandable, yet how the heat, hammer, and anvil of her anger needed to be forged into steel-strength skills for successful adult functioning.

Watching the movie Frozen with our grandchildren, I was reminded of Gwen, and reflected further on the emotional themes she and the fictional character Elsa had played out in their lives. Each an orphan with a gift, overwhelmed by circumstances and emotional reactions to them and fleeing into unhelpful and alienating defenses—either with ice or fire—and as yet unable to assume full adult responsibility until brought home by love.


In the movie Frozen, the initially playful child, Elsa, has been endowed with special powers over the piercingly beautiful yet dangerous elements of winter.

In Norway, the setting for the movie, the freezing powers of winter exert tremendous influence over the lives of the Norwegians. It seems only natural to mythically imagine reversing the dynamic and exerting unique and personal control over cold, ice, and snow.

Elsa is not only endowed from birth with ice magic, but she is also likewise enlisted from birth to inherit grand royal authority as the Queen. Yet with a lack of parental or adult guidance or guardianship, she is left unprepared to understand or to cope with either form of power. With no guiding principles or instruction, she can only rely on her increasingly troubled and difficult-to- control emotions for direction.

In her journey from fear towards love, Elsa magically conjures two characters: Olaf and the Snow Monster, which represent differing elements of her character and of her reactions to the overwhelming circumstances enveloping her. Olaf represents the playful joy of Elsa’s childhood with her younger sister Anna, and the Snow Monster embodies the ferocious defensiveness Elsa has developed as a coping strategy.

Elsa learned only fear and cover-up as ways of managing her special gift. Added to that were the burdens of unresolved grieving over the deaths of her parents and her misguided estrangement from Anna. Under the additional burden of authority as a newly crowned queen, Elsa fails and flees; from the sister she ostensibly wants to protect—even when Elsa knows that Anna is actively endangered by a conniving scoundrel—and as well from her responsibility for the needs of the people she is destined to rule.

Elsa experiences an initial, albeit illusory, euphoric sense of release—which is anything but genuine freedom—as she isolates herself ever further inside a grand though chilling fantasy of solace through solitude.

Elsa, sadly, is not—at least not yet—a heroic figure. She never risks herself for the sake of another. Elsa is a tragically lonesome figure who withdraws from others into an ever-deepening coldness. Elsa even rejects her sister after Anna has come to call her back to family and community and responsibility.

The real heroine of the movie is Anna, who remains hopeful even while enduring a childhood of rejection and imposed isolation. Anna always believes the best about her older sister Elsa, and Anna departs immediately, and on her own, to find and rescue the sister who has run away.

Anna awakens love and heroism in the character Kristoff. It is their budding love for each other, along with the vestiges of Elsa’s hope and joy in the figure of Olaf, which prepares the way for Anna to give of herself to the end in a successful attempt to save Elsa through an act of true love.


Two years after my initial encounters with Gwen, I had the opportunity to work again with her in a different nursing facility after she experienced another medical flare-up. This time, her attitude and outlook were far more mature and optimistic than when we first met, yet she still struggled with unstable medical and emotional distress. She was considering the short-term goal of moving in with a family—a lady and her two young adult daughters—under a foster family care program. One morning she was crying heavily when I came to her room. Gwen said, “I know it’s different, it’s not the same as foster care when I was a kid, but it reminds me of that.”

The host family was patient and kind and invited her six times to their home, so she might gradually consider the option of living with them, without any rush to decide. Gwen reflected with me on each contact she’d had with the potential host family—what they said and did, and how kind they had been and how hard it was for her to trust that it might turn out well. However, she also felt reassured to learn that the host family would hold no authority over her, and that she would be free to move on from their home to her own when it became available. She could live in a house with a friendly family—with ordinary routines and with full opportunities and encouragement to pursue her dreams.

Here finally was a chance for the stability she yearned for without the need of flame-throwing defenses. For me, Frozen was the perfect illustration of the challenges of coping with losses and misfortunes and injustices, while learning to love and care for others and to responsibly develop one’s particular gifts. As a psychotherapist, I was able to draw from the riches of mythology, fairy tales, literature, and cinema to elicit analogies and insights to formulate broader understanding of the trials encountered by my client.

Two weeks after moving in with that family, Gwen returned in triumph to the nursing facility to share her relief and satisfaction. The gentle and loving support of the host family helped to melt her dreadful fear and allowed her to enjoy the ordinary, yet for her rare pleasures of family life.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections, COVID-19 Blogs