So…probably most of you in School, or Church, or some other Institution of Cultural Assimilation, read Claude Steiner’s “A Warm Fuzzy Tale” in grade school. And if you’re like me, you sort of shrugged and said “well that makes sense but whatever.”
So…most people get “A Warm Fuzzy Tale” without any explanation that it’s a core teaching element of Transactional Analysis, and explains the theory of strokes “the recognition, attention or responsiveness that one person gives another.”
It’s actually less simplistic than I remember it from childhood…but it still leaves a little bit out, so I’m going to offer up “A Warm Fuzzy Tale II – The Legacy”
For folks who are too lazy to click, I’ll provide a short summary of Steiner’s allegory.
A Warm Fuzzy Tale – Synopsis
There’s a town and everyone is happy. People are happy because everyone has a bag of warm fuzzies. You pull out warm fuzzies and put them on another person’s shoulder, and they dissolve and make them feel good. Going away when you use them, and not being granivores distinguishes “warm fuzzies” from “tribbles.” If you’re too young to get that joke, congratulations, you might be in my dating range. If you’re fucked up enough that I’m also in yours let’s have coffee.
Digressions aside, when you give somebody a warm fuzzy it makes them happy. And since you have a limitless supply of warm fuzzies, people give them out all the time, and everyone lives in a state of primal happiness like in that one colossally annoying R.E.M. song.
Then a bad witch gets annoyed, because it’s her business to make potions to make people feel better, and nobody is every sick or unhappy. We know she’s a bad witch because the author says so, and because her morals come straight out of “Mad Men,” but we don’t know what formative experiences she went through, so I’m for reserving value judgments, yo!
There’s a nuclear family who serve as the victims in all this…the kids are named Lucy and John (which leads us to suspect this story was first drafted while listening to Sgt. Pepper’s, stoned).
The witch goes around and puts it out to Dad that if you keep giving out fuzzies you’ll run out. It’s unclear why anybody believes this, but presumably they’re all so happy singing Kumbaya that they’ll believe anything …which may be a point in the Witch’s favor, but the author doesn’t go there.
So Dad notices the spousal unit giving out warm fuzzies to their daughter Lucy and son John, and gives her a talking to, because he’s afraid the wife will run out of warm fuzzies for him, and it’s pretty clear that bedtime nookie is not going to happen without warm fuzzies. So the spouse backs off on warm fuzzies to the kids, and John and Lucy start watching their parents real carefully and being reserved about their behavior too.
Pretty soon people observe them and word slips around and everybody gets suspicious about who is giving fuzzies to who, so fuzzies get in short supply.
Says Steiner: “After the coming of the witch, people began to pair off to reserve all their Warm Fuzzies for each other exclusively. People who forgot themselves and gave a Fuzzy to someone else would feel guilty because they knew that their partner would probably resent the loss. People who could not find a generous partner had to buy their Fuzzies and they worked long hours to earn the money.”
The potion and salve business began to boom, because people would try anything. But…did I mention, you need warm fuzzies to live. No idea why, my guess is that these people lived in the far north and warm fuzzies had a lot of Vitamin D3, but I think it’s really supposed to be an emotional thing. But if you can’t have a warm fuzzy a potion or a salve is worth experimenting with. The problem is that even the “bad” witch wasn’t an insane genocidal witch so having her customers die off seemed like a bad business plan.
So the witch comes out with a new line…bags of cold pricklies. They keep you alive but feel shitty. Instantly these are more popular than Marlboros and Absolut. People won’t give you a warm fuzzy, but they’ll happily give you a cold prickly.
That’s as much of the story as most people remember but there is one other bit that’s genuinely interesting.
“Another thing which happened was that some people would take Cold Pricklies…..which were limitless and freely available….. coat them white and fluffy, and pass them on as Warm Fuzzies.
These counterfeit Warm Fuzzies were really Plastic Fuzzies, and they caused additional difficulties. For instance, two people would get together and freely exchange Plastic Fuzzies, which presumably should have made them feel good, but they came away feeling bad instead. Since they thought they had been exchanging Warm Fuzzies, people grew very confused about this, never realizing that their cold, prickly feelings were really the result of the fact that they had been given a lot of Plastic Fuzzies.”
I’m not making that bit about the plastic fuzzies up. It’s worth noting that Steiner lived back in a time when we actually still owned objects that weren’t made of plastic, and used the word as a synonym for “fake.”
At the end a nice woman comes around handing out warm fuzzies and doesn’t seem to care about the witch. Presumably she came from Berkeley, or someplace they didn’t have parents. We don’t know.
Kids love her because she gives out warm fuzzies all the time. It’s important she’s a chick because if not the story would take a decidedly dark turn at this point but…she hangs out with the kids and it’s all good. They call her the “Hip Woman.” Remember what I said about when this story was written. So kids start wildly giving out warm fuzzies.
The adults get worried about the kids running out of warm fuzzies in their adulthood, so pass laws against this sort of reckless behavior. And this is a big struggle at the end of the story because many of the children don’t want to obey the laws and want to give out warm fuzzies.
And this little bit of revolutionism is designed to be read to kids to encourage them to blow off their parents and give out a lot of warm fuzzies, and honestly it’s probably a good cultural influence, even if the bit about the children rebelling…to borrow a phrase “…marks the first place…at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”
See…I’m making sure you get a good ration of cold pricklies in order to be able to digest this warm fuzzy story. Because honestly as adults we’re not equipped to digest this sort of thing without a healthy sidecar of “cold prickly.” But I got you through the story, and hopefully you’re smiling.
So…let’s revisit the magical village a half-century later and see what happened, why don’t we?
So…sadly…nobody is passing warm fuzzies or any other objects of measurable worth around for free. There are magazine articles that say you should, but when you do, everybody looks at you like you’re crazy, and you have a strange tendency to compose really irritating music, so…people take it easy on the whole warm fuzzy thing.
The problem with the story is that it’s a great myth for kids, but it doesn’t realistically discuss the realities of living in the world of the Witch. Steiner wrote the story in 1969, and…he was already trying to recapture something that wasn’t. Just as the “Summer of Love” of 1967 gave out into the riots, the assassination of RFK, and the defeat of George McGovern by Richard Nixon, we know that the children fail and the witch wins.
Steiner was trying to incorporate some of the idealism of his time into an inspirational story, the ending of which Hunter S. Thompson sums up in his “wave speech”
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave ….
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark —that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
I think we understand that living in the witch’s world is the status quo. It is where most people are. If you subscribe to Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright’s theory of tribes (summarized here by David Logan on TED) the society of the witch is a Stage III tribe, and the inability to exchange warm fuzzies freely means it cannot become a Stage IV Tribe where the people use language that describes their place in the world as meaningful because they are positively contributing to achieving outcomes valued by the tribe by cooperating with other members of the tribe.”
Within our M/s Households we strive to create Stage IV and even Stage V Tribes, where “Tribal members exist in a state of flow. They use language that describes their place in the world as intrinsically meaningful and focused on the good of the universe. In short, “Life is Great!””
And we run into the legacy of the Witch. So let’s explore some outcomes.
In the witch’s world, there aren’t a lot of cold pricklies. Because cold pricklies frankly suck, and everybody knows it. Instead there is a thriving mock economy in plastic fuzzies. Nobody gives a cold prickly away without dressing it up to look like something it’s not, unless they’re doing it to someone very much their social inferior…or offering it ineffectively to someone who is their social superior.
John left the rebellion against the witch early. He’d always been scared and jealous about fuzzies, and even when he was with the rebellion, he’d kept a lot of plastic fuzzies on hand, and kept the warm fuzzies to a minimum. He liked to get warm fuzzies, but he didn’t like to give them. Because he quit the Rebellion early, he got a head start on business, and was richer than most other children his age.
Over time, John got very good at getting warm fuzzies without giving them out. He worked a lot and was very successful, and came up with a plan. In order to get ahead in business, you needed to give John a warm fuzzy. But John only gave back warm fuzzies to the top business people.
John held big barbecues, where he served microbrew beer and gave out a few warm fuzzies and a lot of plastic fuzzies. In time he got to the point of giving even his top people plastic fuzzies. But because those people didn’t want to lose face they didn’t dare admit they’d been given a plastic fuzzy. They all assumed the other top people had gotten a warm fuzzy and they’d gotten a plastic fuzzy because they’d done badly or angered John. So they would smile as their plastic fuzzy melted and talk about how genuine it felt and how good it was and even say it was better than anyone else’s warm fuzzies. Then they did the same thing with their assistants. Most of them also hit on the trick of giving out all plastic fuzzies and hardly ever giving out warm fuzzies.
John worked a lot to have plastic fuzzies that were very realistic looking and they really did look better than most others. He even had luncheons with other powerful businessmen where they gave each other plastic fuzzies on purpose and judged each other on how realistic they looked.
John married and had son and daughter. He had a family ritual where he would call his children in and expect them to give him warm fuzzies. Then he would give them plastic fuzzies, or even occasional cold pricklies. But each child grew up believing that only they were getting the plastic fuzzies. They actually knew very little about warm fuzzies, having hardly ever gotten any, and didn’t have much idea of what a real one felt like, so half the time they thought maybe they actually had gotten a warm fuzzy and that there was something wrong with them because it didn’t feel the way stories said it should.
John’s wife was attracted to him because he had a limitless supply of warm fuzzies (since he clearly didn’t give many out) and was very successful. But he made it clear early on that she would only get warm fuzzies if she worked very hard. He gave her a few from time to time and made a big deal of them, but mostly he gave her plastic fuzzies too. Each time he gave her a plastic fuzzy he made her act as if she’d gotten a warm fuzzy.
This lasted for some years and she grew more and more cold and distant. But she had children, and didn’t want them to see that she wasn’t getting warm fuzzies, so she just covered it up and went along.
With each child when they first came along, John’s wife gave them a lot of warm fuzzies. She also saw small children as sources of unlimited fuzzies, because at first she could more or less just take fuzzies from their bag without asking. What she really wanted was a miniature human being to give her warm fuzzies all the time without question, to replace John. This made John hate his children and be jealous of them.
At first the children gave her warm fuzzies back, but John would ridicule the children when they gave out warm fuzzies, and their mother was constantly demanding fuzzies and not always giving them out. He taught the children to give out plastic fuzzies. His wife would lose interest in one child and dote on the next, but in each case, it didn’t last very long once the child got old enough to ask questions about fuzzies and make decisions about what kind to give. The children then felt rejected, and confused and conflicted about fuzzies…they vaguely remembered what they had felt like and assumed they’d done something wrong.
John often got given high quality plastic fuzzies even by his own children. Sometimes this made him angry, but as time went by he was actually alarmed to get warm fuzzies and also on some level felt guilty. He came to feel more comfortable getting high-quality plastic fuzzies and valued fuzzies by how they looked to others, not now they felt to him.
On his 50th birthday everyone in the Community held a huge party for John and not one single person gave him a real warm fuzzy, but he had a very good day and felt successful, because the party was big and well attended, and the plastic fuzzies were incredibly beautiful and elaborate. People did not want to give him real warm fuzzies, but the fact they put such time into making plastic ones to give him showed they feared him, and he took pride in every cold prickly he smiled through.
John was so wealthy that with a few warm fuzzies he could have had almost any woman in the town, but he only had a few tentative affairs. He felt bad about giving another woman warm fuzzies when he never gave any to his own family, so he started by giving women high quality plastic fuzzies. They were so good that they looked realistic, but shortly they’d figure out what he was giving them and move away from him. John found that he could get occasional sexual pleasure for money and some plastic fuzzies to go with it, and he felt a lot more comfortable with that. He kept that part of his life private and secret and told himself it didn’t matter to his family since he didn’t give away any real warm fuzzies. He was careful not to invest any warm fuzzies in his occasional sexual release, and out of his shame he communicated that value to his son through his words and actions.
When John’s son was a teenager the boy learned about warm fuzzies. He didn’t even realize that his father knew about them, but he came home and tried to give his father some. Every time he tried, his father grew uncomfortable, and gave him a plastic fuzzy back, or even a cold prickly, so he quickly learned not to do that.
When John grew old some of his younger family members came to see him. He found himself yearning for some warm fuzzies and asked them for some, and they gave him fuzzies but he realized that he honestly could not determine if they were warm fuzzies or plastic fuzzies, because he didn’t really remember the difference anymore. He gave them some plastic fuzzies and they left.
Grew up confused about fuzzies. He got some from his mother. In theory he wanted warm fuzzies, but he spent most of his time setting up elaborate games to get them, and it was unclear he really wanted to succeed. Like his dad he rewarded people more for giving him good looking plastic fuzzies than actual warm fuzzies.
John’s son lived to emulate his father.
He knew that when his father felt very powerful towards someone he made that person take a cold prickly not even a plastic fuzzy. John’s son wanted to be powerful like his dad…so he could get more warm fuzzies…so he began giving out a lot of cold pricklies because that’s what you do when you’re powerful.
He dated girls and liked giving them cold pricklies which they’d accept because he had a lot of money and social status. It turned him on when a girl gave him sex for a cold prickly, because that proved he was powerful. John gave a lot more cold pricklies than his dad because he saw that as making him powerful.
The few times he found girls who liked getting his cold pricklies and would actually ask him for more, he toyed with them then pushed them away, because he was afraid they weren’t normal, and it didn’t prove he was powerful to give them what they wanted.
Or he’d go looking for girls who said they wanted cold pricklies, and just pile them on in heaps and leave the girl to crawl away, wondering why he hadn’t given her even one warm fuzzy. Then he’d complain she wasn’t as advertised.
He might have been happier if he’d been able to maintain a relationship with a girl who liked cold pricklies, and might have even begun to sort out his own issues with fuzzies, but his father taught him that rich and powerful men stayed within the law and only did things that were conservative, and girls like that scared him.
He married girls who wanted protection more than anything else and would accept his cold pricklies for it, or who had been raised to feel that cold pricklies were the price of being successful in life. But he was so intense about giving them out that after a while they would leave him.
So he never had a satisfying relationship, and went through a series of divorces. He had children and was fortunately little enough influence in their life that a few of them actually broke away and found ways to be happy.
Grew up desperate for fuzzies, but her household was tightly controlled. When she went on dates, her father would check to see if the boy had given her any warm fuzzies and if John thought he had, he’d pour cold pricklies on the boy until he went away.
Eventually she went to college and got out on her own.
What she found was that early on in a relationship she got very excited when she was given a warm fuzzy. But very soon it became uncomfortable to her. She always expected the boy to begin giving her plastic fuzzies, and she hated plastic fuzzies, having gotten them most of her life.
But she found that after a short time, getting real warm fuzzies made her intensely anxious. She didn’t feel like she deserved warm fuzzies and they really didn’t even feel that good to her after the first few times. She tended to date men only for a short period.
Cold pricklies were interesting to her. They seemed to work as well as plastic fuzzies but they were more genuine. They were familiar to her (because she’d been getting them all her life as plastic fuzzies) but exciting because they’d been a big deal in her father’s house where plastic fuzzies were the rule. They made her feel ashamed, and diminished, but when she felt that way she didn’t feel guilty.
Men who handed out a lot of cold pricklies also reminded her of her Dad, and made her feel safe.
She went through a lot of men who just gave her cold pricklies, but she realized that many of them were like her brother and just weren’t good people.
Eventually she found the kink scene. In the kink scene she would agree to accept a lot of cold pricklies and then one warm fuzzy. It was hard and a lot of work but at the end she found that she wasn’t afraid of the warm fuzzy and felt she deserved it and could actually enjoy it.
She found a boy who liked to give out warm fuzzies but had learned at home that it was bad to give out too many, and that you should mostly give out cold pricklies. She let him give her cold pricklies to get a warm fuzzy. Their relationship was not ideal but it was the most stable she had to that point, and as she got better at taking warm fuzzies, he got a little better at giving them.
Participated for a while in the rebellion against the witch. She left her repressive parents and lived in a group house with a boy who gave her a lot of free warm fuzzies. He was involved with another girl but he gave them both warm fuzzies and they talked about how good it was. Then one morning Lucy realized that he was giving the other girl warm fuzzies and giving her plastic fuzzies. She left and tried to hang with the rebellion for a while, but in the end, she had a lot of plastic fuzzies, and began to seriously worry about her supply of warm fuzzies running out. She was pregnant by then and needed the warm fuzzies for her daughter, who wasn’t going to have a father.
She brought her daughter up and despite the intention of saving all the warm fuzzies for her, in fact gave her very few and made a big deal of them. She gave her daughter a lot of plastic fuzzies, because she needed to “learn to get used to them” and “they’re what she had to give.” It is possible that on some level she enjoyed denying her daughter warm fuzzies, like they’d been denied her, and that she felt satisfied giving her plastic fuzzies, because she’d been treated that way in the past and it felt good to pass it along.
She went through a pattern of finding a man, and giving him the warm fuzzies that she was supposed to be saving for her daughter, because it felt so good when he gave them back. Each time though it fell apart. It was kind of hard to tell why. She’d feel guilty about not giving her daughter enough, and either start not giving the man warm fuzzies, or demanding that he give her daughter warm fuzzies. The man would almost always give her daughter plastic fuzzies, and often start to give her plastic fuzzies as well. Or she’d start to give the man plastic fuzzies because she felt guilty about giving away the warm fuzzies that were for her daughter. But she never seemed to actually give her daughter any more warm fuzzies.
Eventually one of Lucy’s boyfriends started giving her daughter warm fuzzies. A lot of them. People had warned the daughter about strange men, but she’d never gotten a lot of warm fuzzies before so she was just overwhelmed. She gave the man a lot of warm fuzzies back. She would let him do anything he wanted with her because she was so grateful for his warm fuzzies. Eventually he wanted sex for warm fuzzies, and while she didn’t really know if she wanted that, she didn’t stop him either. She felt overwhelmed and out of control.
Lucy knew the things she was doing were against the law, because the man had to tell her that, so that he could make her promise to keep them a secret. This made her uncomfortable and anxious. So much so that she almost didn’t care about the warm fuzzies. But she couldn’t exactly stop. After a while though she began to develop a funny feeling. When he gave her a warm fuzzy, she became so anxious and upset that it felt like a cold prickly. It wasn’t…it was a genuine warm fuzzy. But getting it scared and upset her.
Eventually the man went away and Lucy was left with the fear and guilt. She felt guilty every time she took a warm fuzzy because she was reminded what she’d done to get them. And sometimes warm fuzzies made her so nervous they seemed like cold pricklies to her, so that she began to feel he’d ruined warm fuzzies for her.
She told a few other people about what he’d done with her, and they immediately told her that she was sick in the head if the warm fuzzies he gave her had ever felt good at all. And since some of them had, she agreed she must have been sick in the head, but she never admitted that, and instead swore they’d always felt like cold pricklies, from the first day.
It also bothered her that sometimes she thought about the warm fuzzies he’d given her, and didn’t feel angry but…now that the anxiety was mostly gone…actually kind of missed them. When that happened she felt she needed a lot of cold pricklies because that was what she deserved, and she’d even go find men who gave out cold pricklies…not just plastic fuzzies but actual honest to god cold pricklies…and take as many as they could give her. She would push them to give her more cold pricklies just to prove that they would.
In the end she would end up hating the men who gave her cold pricklies. She couldn’t get close to them, but she was always able to find a new one. When they tried to give her warm fuzzies she lost respect for them, and walked away because he had given her warm fuzzies, and she knew what that was about. She had a few friends she accepted warm fuzzies from, but refused to have any sort of intimate relationship with them because that would make their warm fuzzies feel like cold pricklies to her.
The Moral of Our Stories
I could have written…forty of these…but I picked a couple that outlined situations I know to be very typical, and could describe well. There are hundreds of variants on these themes, they’re just…suggestions. No two lives are the same.
The point illustrate how the theory of strokes applies to people’s adult behavior. If you haven’t already mapped this one out, a “stroke” in T/A terms is a human social interaction that has emotional value. A positive stroke is a “warm fuzzy” and a negative stroke is a “cold prickly.” The fact that we often give left handed or false social cues is the source of a “plastic fuzzy”…something that on the surface seems to be gratifying, but really isn’t.
People need strokes of some sort…that’s why people tend to go crazy in solitary confinement. We can get by on mostly negative social interaction, but we need and desire social interaction of some sort.
Through most of the 1990s, a very biochemical model of BDSM prevailed in the world. In the late 90s, I remember reading that BDSM was basically about endogenous opiods. We didn’t really experience pain at all…it was just stimulation, and the whole phenomenon was like a runner’s high. We were all just healthy athletes.
This explained surprisingly little of the scene to me. The more I began to understand strokes, and life scripts, the more I began to see how our experiences with strokes shaped the type of strokes we needed to receive as adults.
My purpose here was to show how our childhood experiences with receiving strokes inform our future choices, and to explore some of the ways that sadistic and masochistic personality types might form. A great deal more could be said, but this is…a brief and basic look.