A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

The Giving Tree: A Picture Of Abuse

I was just reminded of the book “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. It’s a book from my childhood often lifted up as a book about true giving, teaching children to be selfless. If you are unfamiliar with the plot, this is what the Wikipedia entry has to say:

The book follows the lives of a female apple tree and a male human who are able to communicate with each other; the tree addresses the human as “Boy” his entire life. In his childhood, the boy enjoys playing with the tree, climbing her trunk, swinging from her branches, and eating her apples. However, as time passes he starts to make requests of the tree.

After entering adolescence, the boy wants money; the tree suggests that he pick and sell her apples, which he does. After reaching adulthood, the boy wants a house; the tree suggests he cut her branches to build a house, which he does. After reaching middle age, the boy wants a boat; the tree suggests he cut her trunk to make a boat, which he does, leaving only a stump.

In the final pages, the boy (now a shriveled old man) wants only “a quiet place to sit and rest,” which the stump provides. The story ends with the sentence “And the tree was happy.”

Or if you want to watch the animated version read by Silverstein himself, head to YouTube:

The Actual ’73 Giving Tree Movie Spoken By Shel Silverstein

I’ve heard this book be lifted up in sermons about how this is a picture of Jesus and true sacrificial giving, but if you are like me this story ties your stomach in knots. It is a clear picture of abuse, and not only is the abuse overlooked, but the sacrifice of the tree is held up as an example to be emulated.

The moral of the story is that the tree is fulfilled by sacrificing herself for the “boy”, no matter what the cost to herself. In fact, the boy never seems happy or to really benefit from any of these sacrifices, but the tree is happy to do herself in and lop of another piece of herself just to try.

It is interesting to me that the boy never attacks the tree, yet she is destroyed. All the suggestions for how to tear herself apart come from the tree. So how can he be an abuser? Is he really threatening her? Is it really his fault?

Absolutely it is. The boy never sees the tree. His only concern is what he wants or needs, and he is so “needy” that he can’t even come up with a way to get it himself. He depends on the tree for everything. He depends on her to die for him. The sense of entitlement is strong with him, and that is what makes him an abuser.  And the tree is a victim. A victim of the boy, but also a victim of the expectation and myth that it is good to sacrifice in order to feed another’s narcissistic supply. Is the boy improved? Does he ever find happiness? To what end does the tree sacrifice?

I have no problem becoming a stump for someone I love, tearing apart every part of me to give for another’s need. But the problem is that the boy does not need these gifts. He is not improved for all of the sacrifice the tree makes. In the end, he is broken, tired, and unhappy. This way of giving is not the way of scripture. Jesus sacrificed everything for us, it is true, but he did not do so in vain. He did it to give us LIFE and to change us into new creations. This book CANNOT be a picture of Christ — there is never any repentance from the boy, nor any change.

That The Giving Tree has been a popular book for children should alarm us. Is it any wonder that the church aspires to love this way? That abused spouses stick around giving and giving until they are destroyed? We are told right from the beginning of our lives that real giving is sacrificial and makes us happy whether it is abuse or not.

This is not a tale of joy and peace, but sadness and destruction. It is the setup for the pattern of abuse, and we need to watch for these things before we feed them to our children. We do not want our sons and daughters turning into “Giving Trees” when someone like that boy comes along.

*******

The group, Plain White T’s, has a song called The Giving Tree.  We have printed the lyrics below and here is a link to a performance of the song on youtube.

All the leaves on the Giving Tree have fallen
No shade to crawl in underneath
I’ve got scars from a pocket knife
Where you carved your heart into me

If all you wanted was love
Why would you use me up
Cut me down, build a boat, and sail away
When all I wanted to be was your giving tree
Settle down, build a home, and make you happy?

I lie in the dead of night and I wonder
Whose covers you’re between
And it’s sad laying in his bed
You feel hollow, so you crawl home back to me

If all you wanted was love
Why would you use me up
Cut me down, build a boat, and sail away
When all I wanted to be was your giving tree
Settle down, build a home, and make you happy?

Well, I see a trail that starts
A line of broken hearts behind you
That lead you back to me
The once sad and lonely fool
With nothing left but roots to show, oh

If all you wanted was love
Why would you use me up
Cut me down, build a boat, and sail away
When all I wanted to be was your giving tree
Settle down, build a home, and make you happy?
Settle down, build a home, and make you happy?

37 Comments

  1. Still Scared( but getting angry)

    I NEVER liked that book but could never explain why. Thank you!! This is so true. We are called to give and sometimes to give it all but that is not the norm. I cannot nurse my children well if I am not eating nor drinking myself.

  2. Reblogged this on Speakingtruthinlove's Blog.

  3. Wow, Jeff, that was do well written and incredibly insightful. I have been that tree, falsely believing that my life didn’t really matter. I believed I was created to pour my life out and everyone around was more than happy to let me do that, and indeed, at the near brink of my own emotional and mental destruction.

    I believe God directed me to a godly counselor who saw the abuse although I could hardly accept and believe it in the beginning of the exposure of truth. i was like a Stockholm syndrome client, choosing at first the bondage over freedom because freedom was too frightening to me. Then I found Jeff Crippen’s sermons that bathed my mind in the transforming truths of God’s word. I listened to all 21 sermons on Domestic violence and abuse. I also got connected to you all through this blog site.

    I thank each of you for all your postings and comments. It is a lifeline of support to me.

    I soon to cross over My “Red Sea”. I know Pharaoh(s) will be breathing venom and threats, but I am keeping my eyes fixed on Him who came to set the captives free. I also know the painful, but real truth that with this step I am about to take, in many ways, the spiritual battle has just begun.

    • Pharaoh(s) will be breathing venom and threats, but God will be blowing a mighty wind to open the walls of the Red Sea.

  4. Wow, I have never heard this story before but what really struck me is how the female is being personified and OBJECTIFIED as a tree, seemingly for the sole purpose of bringing pleasure to the boy (representing the male gender). Song of Songs also uses “tree language” to reference sexual intimacy in marriage (ie. 2:3 and 7:8) but the illustration of receiving “pleasure and fruit from the tree” is applied to both genders and is always in the context of mutual giving and receiving. I’m not sure what Silverstein was thinking as he put his children’s story together but I would agree that his illustrations do more damage than good. Thanks for pointing this out, Jeff.

    • It’s worth noting that before he did children’s books, Silverstein was a cartoonist for Playboy (doing cartoons about travel, apparently, not pornography). Perhaps not the ideal choice for an individual to write for children . . .

      All I know is, his books were insanely popular with the schools when I was in elementary school. The Giving Tree is his most famous story, though I remember the others well.

      I’m not sure how popular his work is now, but his name is definitely still synonymous with children’s literature.

  5. Annie O'Sullivan

    Reblogged this on Broken Until Spoken.

  6. JeffS – I remember doing artwork in kindergarten to go with the poem “polar bear in the frigidaire” by Silverstein — yes he was all over the place in school when I was growing up. We are probably the same age! ha some of his poems I find funny… but my daughter read the Giving Tree a year ago and she really liked it. And the feeling I had reading that story again after all these years was that it was a tragedy, not a happy story. it felt like watching someone commit suicide and I felt pity for the tree. I mentioned to my daughter that I didn’t really like that boy – he seemed selfish.

    • I do seem to recall that Silverstein said that his interpretation of the story was not the typical interpretation. The implication is that he did not think the ending was a “happy” one. I have read that he was not a fan of always giving happy endings.

      That being said, if the intention of the story is to show how people destroy themselves with sacrificial giving, then it succeeds, but that doesn’t make it appropriate for children, especially since even adults seem to miss how tragic it is. For a child to understand the tree is not in a good place at the end is a high expectation.

      Honestly, my stomach was in knots as I watched the YouTube telling of this.

  7. Amen. Thank you. I’ve felt sickened by this story ever since I read it.

  8. Heather 2

    I had been given a copy of that book for my children when they were small. He was quite popular. I pointed out how selfish the boy was. The man was selfish too, as he was nothing but a grown version of the selfish boy.

    As I read this article today, Jeff, I saw myself…..I gave sacrificially of myself to my husband and children and in the end had no respect from the ex who never taught his children to respect his wife…..Ah, some things never change, do they? I am grateful that I was able to show my children how much I loved them. Two of them understand and see the way their father is. The other is daddy’s girl. Maybe in time…

    The church is guilty on all counts….. I don’t think I will ever be able to return to a corporate church again. They encourage victims to sacrifice themselves over and over again. It just plain stinks!! They try to persuade you and tell you that God will heal your marriage and then you will be a real testimony for Him, and others will be converted to Christianity…..It’s garbage, all of it. We victims want nothing more than to be a testimony for the Lord, hence, we become the tree….. and very rarely see a miracle. But we hang in there, holding on, until we can hold on no longer and the pieces of our lives fall apart, leaving us stunned. When once we leave and our eyes open, the church is aghast and we are treated like the worse pariahs. I have read church stances on various issues and they often will not allow you to be a part of their assembly if you have remarried. My question is who in the world gave them such authority? Would we really wish to gather with such Pharisees?

    None of it makes sense. I praise God that He is a God who is loving and compassionate. He cares for his children. He never desires us to go against what His Spirit is telling us. We need to trust that….

    Now I suppose I should tell my daughter to get rid of that book lest my grand daughter gets the wrong idea!

  9. joepote01

    Hmmm… a story that starts with the premise of a tree with the ability to speak and express deep emotions…yet is still to be treated, not as an intelligent being created in the image of God, but as simply a tree…

    It sounds so far removed from facts or truth as to not even be worth considering as an illustration for anything…and a lousy story, to boot!

    It reminds me of the Disney movie, “Bambi.” I never liked “Bambi”…never really liked my kids watching or reading it. I don’t mind stories with talking animals…those are fun make-believe. But stories with talking animals should not also have those animals being hunted and used for meat. To do so presents a horrific distorted false reality where it is okay for intelligent beings with the ability to speak, articulate complex concepts, and express deep emotions to be used for food. C.S. Lewis did a good job of illustrating the difference in his book, “The Silver Chair,” where Eustace, Jill and Puddleglum discover to their great alarm and disgust that the venison being prepared for dinner by the giants is, in fact, the meat of a talking stag, not a plain, normal, “dumb” stag.

    Based on the Wikipedia description, “The Giving Tree” takes that awful horrific distortion to an even lower level by describing a world where a tree has intellgence, speech, and the ability to express deep emotions…yet is still treated and used as any ordinary tree is to be used. That is AWFUL…and absolutely not appropriate as a children’s story.

    • Barnabasintraining

      You make a really good point here, Joe. In fact, now that you mention this, it would seem this is the exact thing that allows some men to make slaves of other men, because some men are more equal than others.

      I never liked Bambi, or Dumbo either. I was traumatized by watching Dumbo when I was very little.

  10. Anne

    I’ve always hated that story! I just couldn’t really express why. I knew the boy was unkind and unappreciative. I couldn’t express what upset me about the tree’s sacrifice though. It made perfect sense though in your explanation.

  11. Just Me

    Well, either I have a terrible memory (which is entirely possible) or I never read that story in elementary school. I do remember having the book “Where the Sidewalk Ends” as a textbook.

    I can’t believe that anyone can read that book and not see a selfish boy and an enabling tree. That tree was giving, and giving, and giving just so the boy could be selfish without consequences! And pastors compare that to Jesus?!

    I used to go to the marriage counselor by myself sometimes. This was before I figured out there was abuse going on (no thanks to the counselor–he never saw it even though all the signs were there). When I would sit there and cry over not being able to feel affection for my husband or not trusting him or feeling like I had a wall up (which I now know is a good thing), the counselor would tell me to take the wall down. When I asked “why?” he said “because it hurts your husband.” He would tell me that Jesus knew that Judas would betray him and he still washed his feet. He would say that God has given me so much love that I should still be able to show love to my husband even if he was being awful. I now know that absorbing all the consequences for my husband and giving and giving and giving just so he could be more selfish was not showing him love.

    • Jesus knew that Judas would betray him and he still washed his feet

      That’s a spiritually abusive line I’ve never heard before! UUGH. What a misapplication.

      • Just Me

        Those days were the hardest of my life. There were times where I would just lay in bed and let out these huge gut wrenching sobs because I just couldn’t do what was expected of me. And the counselor’s advice was just confusing me so much more. I sent him a 4 page email detailing abusive incident after abusive incident and he still never mentioned abuse. I didn’t know it was abuse at the time, but I’m not the licensed professional! I still have that email but I’m not strong enough to go back and reread it yet through my new, opened eyes. I think the anger is still too fresh at how this man didn’t help me. And to be fair, he did help me in some ways which makes it all the more confusing for me. I have conflicting feelings about the counselor.

        Anyway, I was a website (maybe WebMD??) one day taking all their psychiatric quizzes trying to figure out what was so wrong with me that I couldn’t “get over it.” I took the bipolar quiz–nope, not it. The schizophrenic quiz–nope, not it. The depression quiz–bingo! Then underneath it, there was a blurb about depression being a sign of emotional abuse. I had never even heard of emotional abuse before! So I clicked the link and came across a page that gave clear examples of emotional abuse and symptoms of someone who had been a victim of emotional abuse. I printed out the page and excitedly brought it to the counselor and showed it to him (still thinking he could help me). He read it, I explained things my husband had done that fit those examples, and he said “yes, I would say you WERE in an abusive relationship.” WERE being the key word. I know I’ve mentioned Leslie Vernick before. I found her book a few months later and she talked about what it looks like to love a destructive spouse. Covering things up for him and hiding my emotional wounds was not loving him well. Loving him was allowing him to feel the consequences for the damage he had done to our family. It was such a freeing concept! That was the beginning of my healing.

      • Anne

        How is it a misapplication? This is something I’ve heard all my life.

      • Jeff Crippen

        Anne – Just saw your question about misapplication of the fact that Jesus knew Judas would betray Him, and yet Jesus washed Judas’ feet. It is a misapplication because it puts all of us and our suffering on the same level as Jesus’ redemptive suffering. The Son of God was sent into this world to perfectly obey God’s Law, and to give Himself on the cross for the redemption of our sin. Now, while the Lord permits suffering to come into our lives at times, and uses it for our good and for His glory, WE are not saviors of the Judas’ of this world. Our suffering is not redemptive. So to take this statement about Jesus knowing and yet washing and make it a point by point model of how we are to relate to the wicked is a misapplication. You see the redemption of Christ symbolized in the washing of the disciples feet. And yet Judas is not redeemed. What does this tell us? It tells us the same thing that Hebrews 6:4-6 does. Namely, that there are people who have actually tasted of Christ’s grace and yet who reject it. In that sense, Jesus’ washing of Judas is condemning of Judas.

    • Anon

      Pastor Crippen,
      Thank you for this comment. Your explanation that our suffering is not equal with God’s redemptive suffering is very helpful and has me wondering – So often the abuser and/or ignorant Christian will remind a victim that she needs to suffer like God suffers, love like God loves, or forgive like God forgives. And while that has a sprinkling of truth, it is only partially true. Why? Because we can’t consider God’s suffering (or forgiveness or love) as having only one dimension. While Jesus did suffer on this earth and we are called to a certain level of suffering, God’s redemptive suffering, which is only one facet of His suffering, is an aspect that, as you said, we are not called to imitate. We cannot suffer in all ways like Jesus did.

      Likewise, victims are often counseled to “forgive as Christ forgives you” – but again we cannot look at God’s forgiveness one-dimensionally and tell others to do likewise. God’s forgiveness is multi-faceted and there are aspects of God’s forgiveness that we are not called to extend. I believe it is Stephen Tracy that explains in his book, Mending the Soul, that we are not called to extend God’s judicial forgiveness to others. Only God can do that.

      So what it seems like we have here is the flip side of “sin leveling”. Sin leveling occurs when the victim’s sin is elevated to the same level as the abuser’s sin thus minimizing the sin of the abuser while wrongly elevating the victim’s. (I think it was Joe Pote who commented recently that we can’t compare the abuser’s sin with the victim’s sin because the abuser’s sin is intentional and repetitive while the victim’s sin is unintentional and minor.) But yet we have counselors/pastors/Christians trying to elevate the victim’s acts of suffering, forgiveness, and love to the same level as God’s. It’s another form of leveling, and it seems just as destructive as sin leveling. I don’t know what to call this type of leveling, but it’s certainly not good…

  12. otter

    As a school librarian, I believe that it is always good to discuss books with kids. This book would provide a fantastic discussion about giving, selfishness, sacrificing, and taking advantage of people. Kids need to analyze what they see/read/hear, and they also need practice at understanding meaning. They also need to know they don’t have to agree with that meaning! Such a great opportunity to address abusive personality types.

    • Otter, I think that is a fair point. I agree that this book would be useful for educating children about abuse. So I can qualify my original post in that regard. My fear is that most parents do not use the book that way.

  13. THis is kind of off-topic, at least about abuse, maybe. But this whole conversation makes me think of that book, Rainbow Fish. I read it to my kids for a long time before I realized how it was all about socialism and how everyone should have the same things in order for life to be fair. After that, I would read it to my kids,but add funny lines to illustrate the actual theme. We would all end up laughing.

    • lol yeah I figured out Rainbow Fish pretty fast – so the whole point is that great beauty needs to be watered down so others feel good about themselves? Or… maybe the other fish should celebrate their own uniqueness instead of demanding another fish’s scales? lol what a trip that book was.
      Children’s literature is a landmine of crazy sauce — i have three kids who are reading now and the amount of crap I’ve got to wade through! Domestic abuse themes are almost the least of my worries :/

      • I prefer “The Incredibles” to “Rainbow Fish” 🙂

      • I remember how the book The Giver was required reading in my kid’s schools. I finally read it myself, and I couldn’t believe it! And I was even more flabbergasted when I heard from my kids that their teachers were not condemning the themes in the book, but almost presenting them as if one person’s actions are just as morally valid as another’s. This book should never be read by children!

  14. I loved this book as a child, but I read a grateful heart into the story. Reading it again as an adult and a survivor I see that that truly was my interpretation and not really in the story. As you said I would be more then happy to become a stump for someone I love as long as it is received with love and gratitude in return not demanded with entitlement.

    • What is interesting to me, Bethany (and I hope you don’t mind me revealing this as we talked about it offline), is that i think you projecting onto the boy that he was grateful is significant. I think this makes the point of how we can make the mistake of assuming abusers are processing things the same way as normal folks would. It’s so hard to understand that they are operating from a different mindset. So we assign them good motives and attitudes that really aren’t there. Because a normal person would have gratitude for the sacrifice.

      I must admit, the more I think about it the more I feel like Silverstein must have intended this to be a sad depiction of a selfless giver being used and abused, writing it for children this way so that they could see the world as it is, not as a fairy tale with all happy endings. I can actually buy that, but hearing him read it on YouTube just sends a chill trough my spine at the end when he says “and she was happy”.

      • Don’t mind at all Jeff 🙂 I think you are right we spend so much time defending them and making excuses for them that we can’t see that they really are that selfish! It is just so beyond our way of thinking that we can’t wrap our minds around it when we are in the thick of the fog.

      • Heather 2

        Bethany was so right about our willingness to pour ourselves out for a person who is grateful. But those with entitlement attitudes do not think as normal people, as Jeff has said. My current husband has been telling me that for years, but I could not wrap my head around it! Only now am I beginning to see it but I have a long way to go.

        My husband said the story should be named The Taking Boy. His other observation was that the tree was happy in the end…. Because the abuse was finally over. I had never seen that before because I concentrated on the selfish boy. He’s right though. I am totally looking at the story differently now.

  15. It’s interesting to be reminded that that is the obvious message of the story, because I saw the story as a child as being about being careful not to exploit those who love us, not to demand more than they could give us, and to set some boundaries for ourselves. After all, the tree with all of its beautiful branches would have provided much better shade. That story made me think I should not be that ungrateful boy who took and took and took until there was nothing more to take.

    • It’s really great that you saw the story that way. Do you mind if I ask how old you were with that interpretation?

      • I don’t remember the specific moment. Probably preschool. It never occurred to me until I read your post that that wasn’t how everyone else in the world saw it–it never thought about it when I was mature enough to see that the whole world didn’t think like I did.

  16. Heather,
    I am so glad that this post helped your daughter. I can certainly relate myself.

  17. debby

    I was abused as a child and always trying to please everyone because if people weren’t happy “bad things would happen.” so when I read the book sometime in elementary, I remember really relating to the tree but feeling “validated”(prideful?) that I was “doing the right thing in giving endlessly” never realizing that I was simply brainwashed into a false understanding of what it really means to “give” and what God’s expectations of us are. This post and comments has also helped me to further understand that Jesus wasn’t just a “giving tree” but he also threw over the moneychanger’s table, called the pharisees a brood of vipers and told Peter (his #1 guy no less) to “Get behind me, Satan.” I picture HIm probably saying “Young man, get off your rear and go help your mother if you want to eat tonight!”

  18. Finding Answers

    Maybe it is my age, or maybe it just wasn’t the kind of book used in the schools I attended. My first encounter with The Giving Tree was a workplace manipulating folks into giving / donating at Christmas. I did not read the book itself. (I did not feel drawn to read Shel Silverstein’s books.)

    Listening to the video is the only time I have actually heard / read the story. I am far enough out of the fog to see the potential for many misapplications. Would I have understood this as a child? Would I have understood this before I came out of the fog? I don’t know.

    I’m guessing I would have completely missed the boat. On the plus side, I don’t think I would have liked the story, nor wanted to keep the book in my possession. Maybe because the characters in books were my paper friends, and none of my paper friends were non-people.

    Hearing it once was educational. A second time would be abuse.

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  1. The Giving Tree: A Picture Of Abuse | PATSY GIDDINGS

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