Throughout the main narrative and text of ASOIAF, we see Sansa Stark utilize defense mechanisms to survive being beat in front of the court (often enough that almost every member of the kingsguard had done it a few times), being touched by creepy old dudes often, and basically just suffering as a Prisoner of War. We’re not here to chat about Sansa’s misgivings and mistakes (a young girl, age 11 in the start of AGOT), because there’s nothing to chat about with that – what I am here to chat about is Sansa’s “superpower”, and how it is basically the reason she’s alive.
Sansa is often seen practicing Level III Neurotic Defense mechanisms, some such as displacement, denial, dissasociation, repression, rationalization and projection throughout the books, veiling her mind and intelligence with mostly the goal to survive.
We see her with the Tyrells beginning a secret betrothal to Willas, and in the beginning she is wary – as she should be, though this is just the beginning of her realizing that she is a pawn to move as pleased-
The words came tumbling out of her. “Yes. I will. I would like that more than anything. To wed Ser Loras, to love him …”
“Loras?” Lady Olenna sounded annoyed. “Don’t be foolish, child. Kingsguard never wed. Didn’t they teach you anything in Winterfell? We were speaking of my grandson Willas. He is a bit old for you, to be sure, but a dear boy for all that. Not the least bit oafish, and heir to Highgarden besides.”
Sansa felt dizzy; one instant her head was full of dreams of Loras, and the next they had all been snatched away. Willas? Willas? “I,” she said stupidly. Courtesy is a lady’s armor. You must not offend them, be careful what you say. “I do not know Ser Willas. I have never had the pleasure, my lady. Is he … is he as great a knight as his brothers?”
“Willas has a bad leg but a good heart,“ said Margaery. “He used to read to me when I was a little girl, and draw me pictures of the stars. You will love him as much as we do, Sansa.”
-ASOS, Sansa I
So we get, in typical Sansa fashion, her processing this new escape, this new loop-hole. Ser Dontos is taking too long to get her out of the capital, she wants nothing more than to fix/fill the hole of emotional and physical abuse suffered at the hands of her beautiful, golden King, and the Tyrells have offered her the perfect scapegoat. — also, don’t forget to look at that immediate reaction when she is offered Willas: I must not offend them. A reflection on the abuse suffered- she immediately fears what will happen if she offends them, and worries about watching her only escape fade away.
It only takes a meeting with Dontos in the godswood to cause her to second guess these emotions, to which we see her immediately transfer all of these feelings elsewhere.
But she had not forgotten his words, either. The heir to Winterfell, she would think as she lay abed at night. It’s your claim they mean to wed. Sansa had grown up with three brothers. She never thought to have a claim, but with Bran and Rickon dead … It doesn’t matter, there’s still Robb, he’s a man grown now, and soon he’ll wed and have a son. Anyway, Willas Tyrell will have Highgarden, what would he want with Winterfell?
Sometimes she would whisper his name into her pillow just to hear the sound of it. “Willas, Willas, Willas.” Willas was as good a name as Loras, she supposed. They even sounded the same, a little. What did it matter about his leg? Willas would be Lord of Highgarden and she would be his lady.
-ASOS, Sansa II
Willas is close enough to Loras. Margaery said he was kind. She could live with that. She convinces herself that a crippled leg won’t deter her from “having true happiness” or a ‘close enough’ to true happiness (which, funnily enough, isn’t the only crippled leg that she will have to think about, but we can come back to that as an after thought).
“You are very beautiful, my lady,” the seamstress said when she was dressed.
“I am, aren’t I?“ Sansa giggled, and spun, her skirts swirling around her. “Oh, I am.” She could not wait for Willas to see her like this. He will love me, he will, he must … he will forget Winterfell when he sees me, I’ll see that he does.
-ASOS, Sansa III
Sansa’s hopeless desperation at wanting to get out of the Lion’s Den manifests itself in several ways throughout the main narrative. We see her utilizing tools for survival, tools to protect herself from getting further hurt- we see her displace the negative emotions and events, we see her justify actions from others in her mind, anything to ease that good ol’ perfect-dream-life ideaology into place.
We see her hopes dashed in front of her eyes as Cersei tells her she is to marry Tyrion- not even an hour before the ceremony. Every single built up thought she spent normalizing Willas in her eyes, every defense and wall she built up to cause herself to accept that this was the only good card she had to play, destroyed in front of her. And Sansa’s 12-year-old mind knew something had to have been wrong. She comments on Cersei letting her have a beautiful new dress, she wonders, she pushes those thoughts away and smiles, she thinks it’s all for Willas. Her rose, her romanticized rose who will make all of the pain of King’s Landing disappear.
I don’t want any Lannister, she wanted to say. I want Willas, I want Highgarden and the puppies and the barge, and sons named Eddard and Bran and Rickon. But then she remembered what Dontos had told her in the godswood. Tyrell or Lannister, it makes no matter, it’s not me they want, only my claim. “You are kind, my lord,” she said, defeated. “I am a ward of the throne and my duty is to marry as the king commands.”
-ASOS, Sansa III
She’s young and naive, but she knows and is continually learning how the game is played. Sansa knows her head rolls when she doesn’t comply, she chooses self-preservation over fighting.
Even in her wedding bed, Sansa pushes out of her mind to find some way to rationalize being with Tyrion. She swallows her pride, as she has done for the whole fucking 3 books, but I digress, and tries to find some sort of love for him.
Look at him, Sansa told herself, look at your husband, at all of him, Septa Mordane said all men are beautiful, find his beauty, try. She stared at the stunted legs, the swollen brutish brow, the green eye and the black one, the raw stump of his nose and crooked pink scar, the coarse tangle of black and gold hair that passed for his beard. Even his manhood was ugly, thick and veined, with a bulbous purple head. This is not right, this is not fair, how have I sinned that the gods would do this to me, how?
-ASOS, Sansa III
Our next glimpse of Sansa in ASOS has us rejoining her after her whole family pretty much gets the crap murdered out of them, and we do not get to have her exact initial thoughts and reactions to the Red Wedding. We see her normalized, stuck into her marriage and life, going about her every day life as it has been now. And we begin to receive a much more honest, bitter and #WOKE Sansa after her third chapter. Sansa IV shows Sansa beginning to pull out of some of her most internal struggles and psychological defenses.
She threw back the coverlets. I must be brave. Her torments would soon be ended, one way or the other. If Lady was here, I would not be afraid. Lady was dead, though; Robb, Bran, Rickon, Arya, her father, her mother, even Septa Mordane. All of them are dead but me. She was alone in the world now.
Her lord husband was not beside her, but she was used to that. Tyrion was a bad sleeper and often rose before the dawn. Usually she found him in the solar, hunched beside a candle, lost in some old scroll or leatherbound book. Sometimes the smell of the morning bread from the ovens took him to the kitchens, and sometimes he would climb up to the roof garden or wander all alone down Traitor’s Walk.
But first came breakfast in the Queen’s Ballroom, for the Lannisters and the Tyrell men – the Tyrell women would be breaking their fast with Margaery – and a hundred odd knights and lordlings. They have made me a Lannister, Sansa thought bitterly.
Sansa was tempted to beg off. I could tell him that my tummy was upset, or that my moon’s blood had come. She wanted nothing more than to crawl back in bed and pull the drapes. I must be brave, like Robb, she told herself, as she took her lord husband stiffly by the arm.
-ASOS, Sansa IV
and here is where Sansa breaks.
You see, Sansa V is where her traumatized, 12-year old brain can no longer take anymore of her repressing, pretending, pushing thoughts and blames and abuse onto anything and anyone, like a sponge that’s been thoroughly soaked, Sansa is completely conflicted and distraught from Joffrey’s death.
Sansa felt as though she were in a dream. “Joffrey is dead,” she told the trees, to see if that would wake her.
He had not been dead when she left the throne room. He had been on his knees, though, clawing at his throat, tearing at his own skin as he fought to breathe. The sight of it had been too terrible to watch, and she had turned and fled, sobbing. Lady Tanda had been fleeing as well. “You have a good heart, my lady,” she said to Sansa. “Not every maid would weep so for a man who set her aside and wed her to a dwarf.”
A good heart. I have a good heart. Hysterical laughter rose up her gullet, but Sansa choked it back down. The bells were ringing, slow and mournful. Ringing, ringing, ringing. They had rung for King Robert the same way. Joffrey was dead, he was dead, he was dead, dead, dead. Why was she crying, when she wanted to dance? Were they tears of joy?
She found her clothes where she had hidden them, the night before last. With no maids to help her, it took her longer than it should have to undo the laces of her gown. Her hands were strangely clumsy, though she was not as frightened as she ought to have been. “The gods are cruel to take him so young and handsome, at his own wedding feast,” Lady Tanda had said to her.
The gods are just, thought Sansa. Robb had died at a wedding feast as well. It was Robb she wept for. Him and Margaery. Poor Margaery, twice wed and twice widowed. Sansa slid her arm from a sleeve, pushed down the gown, and wriggled out of it. She balled it up and shoved it into the bole of an oak, shook out the clothing she had hidden there. Dress warmly, Ser Dontos had told her, and dress dark. She had no blacks, so she chose a dress of thick brown wool. The bodice was decorated with freshwater pearls, though. The cloak will cover them. The cloak was a deep green, with a large hood. She slipped the dress over her head, and donned the cloak, though she left the hood down for the moment. There were shoes as well, simple and sturdy, with flat heels and square toes. The gods heard my prayer, she thought. She felt so numb and dreamy. My skin has turned to porcelain, to ivory, to steel. Her hands moved stiffly, awkwardly, as if they had never let down her hair before.
-ASOS, Sansa V
The progression of hysterics that Sansa finds herself in the midst of during her flight from King’s Landing shows us a lot at once- she is having a whole flashbang of emotions happen at once. One, her abuser is dead. The stem of a large amount of torment she had gone through is completely gone. Destroyed. She’s free. She’s finally free from the threats of rape and being beaten by the King. but her conditioning is still kicked in. She struggles through her own thoughts to find how she really feels- something she hasn’t been allowed to do over the last year.
I don’t plan on delving in to AFFC right now to continue how Sansa’s behaviors and mechanisms have progressed/regressed/changed, however we see as we peruseSansa V that her torment isn’t over yet. She’s fallen right back in hand with someone who isn’t as physically dangerous to her (at the moment) as Joffrey was, but someone who’s skilled in psychologically manipulating others, who can prove just as dangerous- especially with someone in such a weak and easily swayed psychological mindset who has endured so much continuous trauma– Littlefinger.
He brushed back a strand of her hair. “You are old enough to know that your mother and I were more than friends. There was a time when Cat was all I wanted in this world. I dared to dream of the life we might make and the children she would give me … but she was a daughter of Riverrun, and Hoster Tully. Family, Duty, Honor, Sansa. Family, Duty, Honor meant I could never have her hand. But she gave me something finer, a gift a woman can give but once. How could I turn my back upon her daughter? In a better world, you might have been mine, not Eddard Stark’s. My loyal loving daughter … Put Joffrey from your mind, sweetling. Dontos, Tyrion, all of them. They will never trouble you again. You are safe now, that’s all that matters. You are safe with me, and sailing home.”
-ASOS, Sansa V
Littlefinger takes Sansa at her most sensitive and whisks her away. Most people follow the Hades/Persephone parallels ( “Thank you, my lord.” Pomegranate seeds were so messy; Sansa chose a pear instead, and took a small delicate bite. It was very ripe. The juice ran down her chin.), but there is so much more to be gathered. Littlefinger took a bird with a broken wing, thinking that this would be easy and simple to manipulate and succeed with. But Littlefinger doesn’t understand that Sansa Stark has already started waking up. She’s already started to come out of her defense mechanisms. Slowly but surely she has been chipping away at dealing with the truth. She has begun to accept that she was a pawn, begun to accept that she was easily manipulated, and come to the truth that no one will want her except for her claim.
Which is the rebirth of Sansa Stark. Where will her plot lead? There’s still a long road ahead for Sansa’s arc and plot, and a lot of learning for her to do. No, she is not a master player of the game, and no, she is not a supreme manipulator (yet). It is going to take all of TWOW, further betrayal from Littlefinger, and Sansa using everything that she has observed from Littlefinger and her own wits to get her to the point of “And later I dreamt that maid again, slaying a savage giant in a castle built of snow. “
But she will get there. By the age of 13, Sansa has suffered sexual, emotional, verbal, physical and pretty much any line of abuse that you could muster into thought. She has survived it. She kept herself in her own head, created fake situations and thoughts to displace the pain of the memories (unkiss comes to mind), but Sansa Stark has woken up and the wolf bitch is comin’ home.
Sansa’s love life is one that’s up for debate consistently in the ASOIAF world, and while I don’t want any of her ‘love’ life to be the focus of this essay (I wouldn’t consider any of her political marriages to be love, despite her convincing herself to love Loras), I do love the chemistry, energy and connection between Sansa and Sandor, the only one of her male ‘suitors’ (wouldn’t really call him a suitor, but we’ll leave it for now) who gave her a choice and did not attempt to manipulate her for his political/regular gain.
And, just for some good ol’ crackpot fun, Sansa did convince herself that she could love a lame man in ASOS…..
On the upper slopes they saw three boys driving sheep, and higher still they passed a lichyard where a brother bigger than Brienne was struggling to dig a grave. From the way he moved, it was plain to see that he was lame. As he flung a spadeful of the stony soil over one shoulder, some chanced to spatter against their feet. “Be more watchful there,” chided Brother Narbert. “Septon Meribald might have gotten a mouthful of dirt.” The gravedigger lowered his head. When Dog went to sniff him he dropped his spade and scratched his ear.
TL;DR: Sansa Stark used defense mechanisms because she is a prisoner of war who has suffered mountains of abuse, and she protected the shit out of herself by doing so. The first 4 books for Sansa Stark were about survival: the next 3 are going to be about taking back her agency and her power of choice, and bringing parts of the realm back together.