Poisoned Fruit: The Antidote is Friends

Poison Fruit Part 2: The Antidote is Friends
By Virginia Carraway Stark

I had put up with no end of indignities and outright slavery in my life but I was getting fed up and I began to lash out.

The first victory that I had was the day that I refused to pour my Dad a cup of coffee.

I had been trained to jump up and get him coffee as soon as he needed it and to start a pot as soon as I saw him pull in the driveway. He would only accept coffee in pure white cups. He claimed that any other cup made the coffee taste ‘soapy’ and would throw a temper tantrum if his cup wasn’t clean and ready for him. It had been so my entire life.

One day, he raised his mug towards me, usually that was all that was required to make me jump up and get the pot of coffee. There were rules for getting the coffee pot too. I had to carry it in my left hand and balance the piping hot mouth of the pot on my right index finger. Always keeping my tread light of course and walking gracefully, I would pour the cup of coffee to the exact level he liked his cup poured to and then return the pot back to the coffee maker in the same way I had delivered it.

He waived his cup at me again and I refused to acknowledge it. Finally he used my name, a hint of irritation in his voice.

I lifted my chin and looked him straight in the eyes and said the hardest word I had ever said or would ever say in my entire life.

“No.”

His jaw dropped and he looked at me as a red flush crept up from his neck and onto his face, he rose to his feet, “What did you say to me?”

I was shaking all over but I kept my spine straight and my chin up and repeated in a clear voice that only trembled around the edges, “I said, ‘no’, Daddy.”

We stood there for a moment, our eyes gauging each other. I knew one thing and one thing only in that moment: I was NOT going to get him his coffee. He wasn’t a stupid man and he saw the resolve in my eyes. With a grunt he went to the kitchen and poured himself a coffee. My heart was pounding and I was shaking like a leaf. I forced myself to continue sitting with him and Judy for the rest of whatever television we had been watching before excusing myself and going to my room.

He didn’t say anything about that day to me for many years. We both knew that something had changed between us at that moment. He had pushed his abuse too far and I had stood up to him. Most amazingly of all, I had stood up to him and I wasn’t punished for it.

By the time I was fifteen and had been worked into exhaustion, starved and diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer I decided that I couldn’t take a lot more from him or Judy. I knew that something was building, it was an event that would push me too far but I didn’t know what it was. All I could do was sit and wait.

There had already been more incidents of a similar nature to the refusal to pour coffee episode. One of them was about my writing. I was writing essentially fan fiction about the X-Files, Law and Order and some original creative things that I lost when I ran away. Judy went through the pages of my writing and then showed them to my nearly illiterate father, ‘read’ them to him and convinced him that this proved that I was involved in a cult and also probably insane.

I refused to explain myself, I told them I wasn’t in a cult (who has time to be in a cult when you’re being worked to death by your parents?). There was nothing to explain, it was early creative works. If Ms. Watts had been there she would have understood.

Ms. Watts was not there. Judy and Dad were. They were screaming at me, shoving my the pages of my writing in my face and demanding answer. I grabbed the pages from them and threw them out the window and then tried to jump out after them. Judy yelled, “Grab her, quick!”

My Dad grabbed me but I wiggled free and bolted for the front door. My Dad roared with rage and ran after me, catching me in front porch. My Dad grabbed me by the hair and pulled me away from the front door. He grabbed me by my throat and bent me backwards over the deep freezer and lifted up his arm to punch me in the face. Judy grabbed him by the arm and whispered fiercely, “Don’t do it, she wants you to so she can tell on us.”

My Dad dropped his hold on my neck for a second and I wiggled away and ran out the front door.

I didn’t know where I was running to. I glanced behind me, the door had bounced open and I could see my Dad and Judy frantically arguing over what to do. I had precious moments granted to me by their indecision. Without a plan or thought I ran to a trailer directly across from our place and pounded on the door.

I was desperate, frantic and I cried and begged for someone to please please please open the door. I was sobbing and a beautiful old lady answered the door. She saw the state I was in and without a word took me into her house and locked the door behind us. Weeping, I told her about what had happened, she saw red welts on my neck and called the police. She put on a pot of tea and when my Dad came to the door and asked in a completely civil and normal tone to have me returned to him, she told him ‘no’ and closed the door on his face. She hid me in her spare room until the police arrived. When the police finally showed up it was several hours later and I was much calmer. The police called me a liar to my face and returned me to my father’s custody. My Dad walked me across the street with a firm hand on my shoulder and a grim but smug look on his face.

That was when I was still barely fifteen. It would be almost a year before the big incident and the last time I would talk to my Dad for years.

The clouds were building as were the cruelties.

It was another late night in the restaurant and my Dad was out of town until later that night. I didn’t live in the trailer anymore but I went over to ask Judy a question about where something or other was.

When I got to the trailer it was oddly quiet except for the sound of the bathtub running. The trailer had the strange smell to it that I had come to identify with Judy on a bender. I walked to the bathroom, the door was open. Water was starting to pour out into the hallway.

The bathroom was a big room with a large corner jet tub, it was from here that the water was overflowing. My half-sister Katy was floating face first in the overflowing tub. Her eyes, large and blue, were bobbing up and down in the water. Her mouth was submerged and she couldn’t cry for help but her eyes had all the appeal I needed to see. I grabbed her naked toddler body out of the water and wrapped her in a towel, clearing her lungs with the CPR training I learned back in Dawson Creek for babysitting.

A dam had burst inside me. I was finished. This was utter bullshit.

For once in her life, Katy wasn’t crying or screaming. I, however, was in an ice cold rage. It didn’t take me long to find Judy. She was passed out, half on and half off the couch. I stood over her with her dripping wet precious daughter in my arms, pure hatred oozing from my every pore. Groggily she opened her eyes and gave her stupid drunkard’s smile.

“You almost killed your daughter, you stupid waste of life,” I said coldly.

Her face turned angry, “You’re a liar! You lie! You’re a liar!” She screeched at me and staggered to my feet.

I pushed Katy into Judy’s arms, and Judy fell backward onto the couch. She let Katy roll out of her arms and got back to her feet. I was already walking towards the door, “Where are you going?” She demanded.

“Fuck this. Fuck you all. I’m done. I’m leaving and I’m never coming back,” I said the words calmly and with profound certainty. I was speaking the truth.

That was the first time I had ever sworn at an adult in my life. Judy bounded after me with the sudden speed drunks have. My hand was on the door knob. I could feel the cold metal slide away from my fingers as she grabbed me by the neck and pulled me away. She pushed me against the wall, her strength was such that she lifted my feet off the ground. No one was there to stop her fist from impacting my face.

After, she seemed stunned for a moment, she stood there with her hands limply at her side. I grabbed the doorknob and ran down the stairs. It was my final year of school and I wanted to run to the basement of the Sternwheeler to grab my homework. I went through the back door of the restaurant and my Dad was there. He was already in a rage. The rage was not about Judy, or Katy, but about what I had decided to do.

He knew. Somehow he knew I was leaving. We stared at each other for a moment, it was that same moment as when I had refused to pour the coffee. I was determined to leave. No violence, no threats, no promises could keep me. I was older now, nearly sixteen, I was more resolved than I had ever been in my entire life.

“I’m leaving. Don’t try to stop me.”

“But- but- I bought you a computer,” He said in possibly the lamest retort ever in the history of retorts.

“Your wife punched me. She’s drunk and she would have killed the baby if I hadn’t been here to rescue her. So fuck you. Fuck your computer. And don’t even think of touching me because if you lay a finger on me I swear to God that I will fucking kill you.”

His hands dropped and he took several steps away from be. I called to the cook who had been watching all this, “Bob, I’m going to get my homework from downstairs. If Dad follows me or anything else happens, please, call the police immediately.”

Bob nodded. He was my friend, another person who was sent by the universe to make me smile at my darkest moments and laugh when all was lost. He was my ally and if he hadn’t been there that night I’m not certain if my Dad would have backed off. I don’t know if I would still be alive. How much was my will and how much was my Dad’s fear of being caught out?

Friends. Thank all the gods that be for friends. I walked to my friend Amanda’s house. Her Dad was a big huge biker and he knew when my Dad showed up at his door what the score was. When the police came I had friends who filled in the blanks when I lost my ability to express the insanity I was living in. It was too bad. Too crazy. Who would ever believe it?

Well, Amanda and her Mom and Dad believed it. They protected me, they gave me sanctuary and they gave me their acceptance. They helped me work with social services and I sued for emancipation. I won it. Before I was sixteen I was my own guardian.

I thanked the family who had adopted me into their home and told them that it was time for me to find my own way. Amanda’s mom cried a little and told me I was always welcome to stay with them.

I had learned something though, I had learned that I was wild and free. I learned that I deserved more than to be a victim. The price for these truths was that I had to make my own way. I had learned that anything short of total freedom is slavery.

I got a job working at the local diner. The people who ran it were good to me, more friends that universe put in my path. They worked me hard and they paid me. They paid me real money for each and every hour I worked for them. It seemed like heaven in front of that greasy grill.

Bob, the cook, gave me the only bedroom in his tiny apartment. I paid my half of the rent when I started to get paid and Bob was not only a friend but a gentleman as well. He never laid a finger on me, never made a move on me, never. Nothing. He was a big brother to me and I was his baby sister. He just loved me and helped me when I need it most.

Bob used to live in the basement of the Sternwheeler with me. He had a room and I had a hastily erected wall without a door that was supposed to give me ‘privacy’. He had moved out only a few days after I had and found the place. It didn’t have anything in it. He gave me the mattress and he took a sleeping bag into the living room.

I was still going to school but I got to go home everyday at closing time. I could be doing my homework by ten or at worst eleven at night and most amazingly of all: I didn’t have to work every day. I went to the secondhand store and bought a wok and a spatula that I used as a combination frying pan and soup pot. I saved every penny I had. I kept going to school, I stayed on the honor role and graduated in the top of my class.

There was one piece of revenge I took on my father at this point.

All my life he had talked about how it was his dream to see his children’s graduation ceremonies. He said nothing meant more to him in life than that. I refused to go to my own graduation. Even after my Dad swore he wouldn’t show up for it when I told my teachers I wouldn’t be attending I refused to go. I knew he would find a way to sneak a glimpse and he didn’t deserve to feel proud. He had in no way contributed to me finishing school or to the grades I had got. The ceremony meant something to him but nothing to me.

The only thing it meant to me was that my time near him was at an end. I was not only emancipated, I was free from school, free to do whatever I wanted in this huge, amazing world. I took all my savings and moved to Ontario. I had been accepted to the University of Toronto with a scholarship and with my advanced placement courses I already had the start of a degree.

When I left Sicamous with yet another friend and we drove across the country together, I left all of this behind me.

My life changed once and for all. I had refused to be a victim and I had emancipated myself. That is when the adventures of my life would begin in earnest. All the rest was just a prelude. The symphony of my life would be something that I composed… with a lot of help from my friends.

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Poisoned Fruit: My Life with an Evil Stepmother

Poisoned Fruit: My Life with an Evil Stepmother
By Virginia Carraway Stark

Part 1

I have heard rumors and legends of people who have perfectly lovely step-parents but I have never had the pleasure of experiencing a pleasant step family.

I met my step-mother one summer afternoon in a Chinese food restaurant. I was determined not to be selfish when I met her. I was determined to put both of my parents happiness before my own sad hurt feelings after the divorce and the loneliness that comes from seeing what was once whole become broken. I knew that I was emotional and overwrought and I put all of those feelings aside in the hope that both of my parents could find the happiness that they were seeking.

I was always a romantic and I believed in love and trusted my parents fundamentally. I should have looked deeper into my romantic heart and to the stories of the wicked step-mother because it wasn’t love that drove their relationship and it was a child’s mistake to believe the best of the grown ups in the world.

I was at the restaurant before my Dad and my to-be stepmother. There was a little artificial stream that ran most of the length of the restaurant and I put my finger tips in the water and let the koi that lived in it nibble my fingers and admired their golden and opalescent scales. I don’t know what I was expecting to see when I met here, but the reality was nothing like what I thought.

They walked in, not touching each other, Judy following along behind. My first impulse was to feel badly for her. She was capering, insecure, nervous and unbelievably unattractive.

Her skin was like wrinkled leather from her compulsive sunbathing, her dull brown eyes were stained yellow from her alcoholism and her fingernails were clubbed from her self-abuse and general ill health even then. Her hair was thin and fluffy at the same time that it was curly and unruly. When she smiled it looked like it was plastered and forced on her face. She laughed nervously and loudly nearly constantly, spraying it across the nearly deserted restaurant like an incontinent house pet. She was abrupt and lacked any sort of social graces whatsoever. She was, in short, a used up party girl with an severe alcohol problem and absolutely nothing going for her except a history of working in restaurants.

She was dreadful. Instead of listening to my gut though, I pushed through with my resolve to support my Dad’s pursuit of love.

I wonder, in retrospect, what would have happened if I had told him what I thought of her then. If I could have found the words to express how distasteful and nasty she was. I think the truth of the matter is that I never would have told him that because I trusted him so deeply that I didn’t believe my own senses over what he told me to think and feel.

I was a really well behaved child. I hated getting into trouble and I loved to make people happy. My Dad told me, “I can’t express to you what a delight you were to raise. You never caused problems, you were always full of smiles and laughter. There wasn’t a moment raising you that wasn’t a pleasure.”

Perhaps his recollections of me are a little bit of high praise. When I was little I would throw temper tantrums from time to time and when I was a teenager I ran away from home to escape the abuse that would stem from this first meeting by a koi pond.

Judy was very nice to me on that first meeting. In fact, she was kind to me for the first few months I knew her. It gradually changed and I was so bewildered and so hopelessly naïve that I didn’t even understand that Judy was my worst enemy.

My Dad and Judy moved into a four-plex together. It was after they were already living together that my Dad confessed that Judy was a waitress he had met at a truck stop. He had said he was heading to Mexico and she asked if she could come. He said, “Sure, but I’m leaving right now”. She jumped into the truck with him and left whatever sort of life she had been living to hang out in my Dad’s big-rig with him and then to insert herself into my life.

At this point I was in junior high school and I was an honor student. I was a devout reader and I wrote poems and stories. I loved school and I was excellent at it even through the events that followed, the cruel punishments, the starvations, the humiliations that were about to occur. Even after I ran away from home, I kept up my grades and stayed on the honor roll until the day I graduated from high school.

My life wasn’t only this, I also spent time living with my Mom who was a pharmaceutical junky and she asked me on more than one occasion to, ‘take care of her now’ after my Dad left her. She was less there for me as she was another burden with bipolar episodes that included holding a knife to my baby brother’s throat before being taken away to the psychiatric hospital.

My older brother completely abandoned me. He went to live with some friends of his the day he found out about our parents separating and he never came home after that. I was suddenly the eldest child with my mother as one of my youngest and most troubled siblings. I did my best to take care of my little brother but I was just a kid myself and all the adults in my life had flipped the rules on me and descended into utter chaos. Making matters even more confounding was the variation between the two households.

When I was with my Mom there were no rules. I could come and go as I pleased, stay up as late as I pleased. There were no consequences but there was a big trade off. My Mom had never been a good housekeeper but now she didn’t clean at all. The house was disgusting. There were bowls and plates with food everywhere covered in mold or left in a grease laden sink half full of cold water. Her room was filthy and about once a month I would go through her room and clean it from top to bottom. She didn’t change her sheets and her bed stank. I would have to clean her nails and help her with her hair and other hygiene issues. She rarely if ever bought groceries and if we did get food it would be because she gave me a twenty and I would walk or ride my bike to the store and buy what I could.

She hoarded crap she found at garage sales and I would wait until she was out and get rid of as much of it as I humanly could, being only 12 and 13 years old. I cleaned that house with bleach and Lysol as often as I could but my mother’s slothful behavior and her bouts between mania and depression ensured that I always had a lot of work to do if I didn’t want to live in filth. I didn’t like either life with my mother or father and bounced between the two extremes of homes.

In Judy’s home, the rules of the house were new and rigidly strict. I wasn’t allowed to ever go into the fridge for any reason. I wasn’t even allowed to have a glass of milk unless Judy said I could. I wasn’t allowed to go into any of the other food cupboards. I wasn’t allowed anything except what Judy left on the counter for me for breakfast and she would leave a bag lunch for me to take to school. After school I wasn’t allowed anything to eat until dinner.

As soon as I came home I had to vacuum every room in the fourplex. I had to do the dishes and heaven forbid if I was to leave a water spot on the sink or taps. I had to polish the wood with pledge and after that, set the table for dinner. Judy always made dinner and afterward I would clean up and then do my homework.

Believe it or not, this was a light workload for what would be inflicted on me in the future.

The rules were insane and I struggled to stay a ‘good’ girl and keep up as Judy put me through my paces. If I forgot a light turned on I was made to run up and down the stairs fifty times, turning the light at the top on and off each time I did so. If Judy perceived that the floor wasn’t vacuumed well enough I had to do the whole thing all over again under her watchful eye. If I complained about any of this to my Dad he threw up his hands and told me I had better learn to be more obedient.

So, I would try to be more obedient. I would try to make my new stepmother love me, or at least see I was a good little girl and maybe like me, even just a little.

Judy wasn’t ever going to like me. Proving that I was good and obedient only made her hate me more. She soon upped her tortures of me.

It started with the bag lunches she left out for me. They weren’t very good at all, but I was starving and so I made the best of them. It would be all I would get until dinner and sometimes dinner wasn’t until eight at night depending on when my Dad would get home. Judy started to put ‘surprises’ in my lunches for me. It was usually something in my sandwiches, one rotten anchovy right in the middle of my sandwich, or a pocket of jalapenos, once it was four quarters. I stopped eating her lunches and would open up the sandwich enough to see what her ‘surprise’ was (also for the chance that she had maybe put more quarters in one) and then throw the whole bag in the garbage. My friends were what got me through that time. They fed me from their lunches or sometimes bought be lunch. They held me when I cried, completely confused by why and how anyone would be so cruel to me. I didn’t tell them all the indignities I suffered, when I was with them I wanted to escape from my failures in both homes and get back to the business of being a teenager.

It got worse and it wasn’t just Judy picking on me. Under her constant belittling of me, my Dad would join in on her tortures of me. They would both laugh at me when Judy would ask me what I thought of my lunch that day. They would both nitpick over whether I had vacuumed the stairs properly.

I got into trouble for everything I did. My Dad said I went up the stairs too loudly, that I shouldn’t sound like an elephant when I went up and down the stairs. He made me practice going up and down until I was nearly silent. He would do ‘snap inspections’ of the lintels of doorways and I would be punished if anything was ever found to be dusty. Corners were checked to make sure I had been careful enough to vacuum everywhere.

Then one day they called me into the kitchen. They wanted to talk to me about my weight. I was a scrawny little thing even though I had started to develop breasts and hips at an early age. They made be stand sideways in front of the mirror in the hutch in the kitchen and they pointed out every flaw in me. They told me that I was too fat. They made me stand facing the mirror and pointed to my thighs and told me that until they could see daylight between my legs that they would be keeping me on a strict diet.

What did I think of this? I cried in private. Tears were forbidden in front of my Dad. He said they were only used as a way to manipulate people and so crying was another thing that was punished. I cried but not because I thought it was unfair, I cried because I thought I was fat. I cried because I thought I was weak.

I told my friend Cindy that I just had to learn that my father’s love was more important that food. The worst thing was that I believed it when I said it. I believed that I had done wrong, terrible wrong in feeling hunger and in not meeting the new guidelines that had been laid out for me.

There were so many people in my life who didn’t understand the full extent of what was happening to me but nevertheless they did little things that I attribute my (relative) sanity and much of my survival at the time as well.

I had my friends, who, as I mentioned fed me and loved me. They seemed to understand me on a deep level that had no limits. We loved each other. They were mostly older than me and they also drove me places and let me stay at their houses on many occasions. Cindy’s mom in particular was amazing to me. She let me pretty much live with them and always made me feel like I was a welcome addition to their family. She was also the first person I ever watched Mr. Bean with and something that I never forgot.

I lost track of many of the people who I knew in that dark and confusing time but Cindy and I would always reconnect. She was as much of a bookworm as I was. Most of our time together was spent in her bedroom reading books together and occasionally stopping to run to the story for a candy or soda fix. We played role playing games when we got a bit older and fed each other on creativity and unconditional acceptance. She was a pillar of stability of my life but she wasn’t the only good influence on me at the time.

A huge influence on me at the time was a brand new teacher named Ms. Watts. Ms. Watts was a brand new teacher fresh out of college and she wore long skirts and witch boots and she was the first person I ever met who was a vegetarian. She had a pointy long nose and sparkling eyes and she believed in me. With my friends all older than me they were soon on to high school while I languished in grade 8. It was with these ideas in mind that I talked to Ms. Watts about skipping a grade of school. She was inspired by the idea and proceeded with a battery of tests to see if I was ready to be bumped into grade 10 the following year.

I aced all the tests (after polishing up my math skills, especially geometry) and was zoomed through into grade 10.

Meanwhile, back at my other home, Judy was only getting started with me.

At this point, I didn’t know that she was an alcoholic. I just knew that sometimes my Dad would get a phone call when Judy wasn’t there and he would curse and swear and order me to go to my room and not come out until the morning. One time when he did this I disobeyed him and I crept to the top of the stairs when they came through the front door. Judy was wearing a tight leather skirt, stiletto heels and a halter top. My Dad had thrown her over his shoulder and carried her into the house while she gibbered and laughed to herself.

I ran back to my room and sat on my mattress on the floor. I couldn’t figure out what I had just seen. Why was Judy acting like that? Was she insane? My parents had never drank my entire life. I had never knowingly seen anyone drunk before and the tableau that I saw at the bottom of the stair was a mystery to me.

It was shortly after that that it was announced that Judy was pregnant.

I was told that I was going to have a sister or a brother and that this was certainly cause for celebration. Judy barely showed during her pregnancy. She had always been emaciated, but now she had the slightest little bump of a belly. She didn’t buy maternity clothing, she just undid the top button of her skinny jeans and wore a baggy t-shirt.

I continued to do my best to be a good daughter not just to my Dad but to my stepmother as well. I made a stain glass piece of art of a stork with a baby hanging down in a fold of cloth to be delivered to its new family. Judy got rid of it, I never saw it again after I gave it to her.

Unsurprisingly with Judy’s lifestyle, the baby was born early- she was only four pounds. It was soon discovered that the baby also had cancer. Judy exploded with ‘grief’ and demanded that my Dad marry her so that her poor darling baby wouldn’t be a bastard. The fact that the baby was born already and it was too late to technically legitimize Katy was overlooked as Judy fussed over her houseboat wedding.

My Dad agreed to all this and Judy made sure that I was nowhere to be seen for the entire wedding ceremony. I was dressed in one of her cast-off dresses while she bought new dresses and shoes and even gifts of jewelry for everyone in her entourage, including the ‘flower baby’, my half-sister, Katy.

The baby was cured of her cancer and life went on. For Judy, life meant drinking.

Judy and my Dad moved to the Okanagan. They never said why, but later I learned that Judy’s drunken ways had embarrassed them both so much in Dawson Creek that they had tried to get a clean start somewhere completely different.

Judy started a restaurant at this point and my life of chores now extended to not only keeping the house clean and taking care of the baby, but also to working in the restaurant everyday after school until after close. I was no longer given anything for lunch and if I foolishly came back home for lunch I would be forced to do dishes over the lunch hour. They fired the dishwasher and left all the dishes for me to do after I was done school. I was exhausted and struggled to stay on the honor roll. Sometimes I wouldn’t get all the dishes done until 2 or 3 in the morning. If people came to the restaurant just before closing Judy and Dad would go to the house and leave me to serve drinks and waitress as well as finishing the dishes.

At fifteen I was told that I pulled the best beer they had ever had. Apparently I had a knack for it.

Pulling beer in the wee hours of the morning by edict of my Judy and my Dad took precedence over my homework. They never once gave me a break to study for a test or do a report. I soldiered through but I was reaching my breaking point.

I was falling asleep in class and my math scores were suffering. One day I looked at a math test and I didn’t write a thing on it except my name and the date and then I walked out of the class and to the counselor’s office. I told her how tired I was and about the work and about how I was sleeping in the unfinished basement of the restaurant and working morning to night. She took me to the nurse’s station and let me sleep on the cot in there. I dropped a peer tutoring advanced placement course and French and used the two periods to sleep. I kept my advanced placement English and Social Studies courses that counted as first year university level courses and I still got A’s.

I was never paid a penny for any of this work. The only thing I ever got for it was that unfinished room in the basement of the restaurant and a second hand computer.

Something was changing in me. I was growing rebellious and angry. I had begun to wake up to the realization that I deserved a lot more in life than what I was getting.

To Be Continued…

How I Became a Real Life Cinderella

Photo by Virginia Carraway Stark

Photo by Virginia Carraway Stark

By Virginia Carraway Stark

This is the short version of how I became a real life Cinderella. It started with infidelity, fights, accusations and divorce, but that part is the prologue in the story of Cinderella.

The true story of Cinderella starts with the introduction to the evil stepmother who pretends in front of the father to be kind and loving while poisoning his heart against his only daughter.

This story is a little different from the fairy tale because Judy, my stepmother, didn’t have children when she showed up. The only things she had to her name was the monkey on her back known as alcoholism and a grudge against her pretty, young stepdaughter who had no clue of the hell that was awaiting her.

The story got bad when Judy got pregnant.

My half-sister was a screaming, sick baby who recovered from having cancer at birth to become a hellish toddler.

Katy had been sick when she was a baby and this was the excuse that was always given for her bad behavior. My Dad and my step-mother refused to discipline her because ‘she had been through so much’, or, even more absurd, ‘she could get sick and die again at any time’.

She’s an adult now. She didn’t die and she’s still completely and totally insufferable.

I tried really hard to get to know her now that we are both adults but it went extremely badly. She’s competitive, stodgy and lacks any and all sense of humor.

I suspected our ‘getting to know each other’ experiment was about to go down the crapper when we went Christmas shopping together. She didn’t have a lot of money and I regretted going shopping with her immediately. It didn’t bother me that she was buying fewer and less expensive gifts from me but she made it abundantly clear that it was bothering her. I decided to cut the shopping trip short and finish on my own another day. It was supposed to be fun but it wasn’t fun.

We stopped for coffee at a used bookshop called, ‘Faking Sanity’. One of my best friends owns it and she and I started to visit and chat. Cindy and I have been the sort of friends who can lose track of each other for years and years and then pick up right where we left off. We’ve also never had a fight or even a major disagreement even though we’ve known each other since elementary school. Cindy and I were chatting about our years of friendship and I guess that made Katy more insecure because she started talking about how her mom was her best friend.

Now, her mom was my stepmother. My horribly abusive stepmother who, drunk or sober worked her skinny ass off to make my life as miserable as she could and to sabotage my relationship with the rest of my family as well. That isn’t speculation, that’s something she told me when she apologized once only to resume her old behavior within the month.

Judy was NOT my friend. In fact, it would be much more the truth to say that she was the enemy, someone who consciously and actively worked against me to sabotage me. Some examples: My Dad was incredibly proud of my long hair. At one point I cut it short and my Dad flipped out. He said that if I ever cut my hair again I would see consequence worse than any I had ever seen before. Bear in mind that some of the consequences my Dad doled out were pretty damn severe. Judy, the capering demon from hell that she was, heard his words and within the week left bits of hair in the sink and pointed them out to my Dad as proof that I had defied him.

1. Why would I cut my hair AGAIN by only about a half inch within the week of cutting it into a just-below-my-ears bob.
2. Why would I be so stupid as to cut my hair and then go to school and leave it there the whole day?
3. Why was it the same dark color as my stepmother’s hair which was also curly and almost impossible to mistake for anything like my hair?
Such was my Father’s deep and idiotic stupor that he believed my stepmother and raged at me until I finally calmed him down long enough to prove it wasn’t my hair.

Okay, what else? She chased me around the house with giant wolf spiders, read my diary and my writings and caused a huge amount of trouble by saying that writing stories made me crazy (yes, he did believe her and there was hell to pay over that as well), she covered my fair skin with baby oil and forced me to lie in the sun for hours until I was covered in blisters and burns to ‘improve my health’.

The list goes on and on. She was a quintessential evil stepmother. She was an ugly hag who made me clean the house from top to bottom every single day and take care of her spoiled and completely indulged daughter: Katy.

This is just a small portion of why, when my half-sister asserted that her mother was the bestest mother and friend anyone could ever have I had to disagree.

I very gently told Katy that I had had a different experience with Judy than she had. Guess what? She started to act exactly like an evil stepsister out of a story. It was her being a toddler all over again. She started to talk loudly enough about how wrong I was and how good Judy was that people stopped what they were doing and turned to stare. Isn’t it weird how Cinderella is never entitled to have her own views on life or people?

Embarrassed, I placated her as best as I could and got her out of the store, deeply regretting bringing her around anyone who knew me. Katy had calmed down but then she asked me the worst question she could have asked at that juncture: “What was I like when I was a baby?”

We were walking along the slushy street and I froze in place for a moment, frantically scanning my mind for one nice thing I could say about her as a child. What did I come up with? Ummmm, absolutely nothing. After a too long pause I laughed a little, “I’m sorry, but you weren’t a good baby at all… in fact you were nearly impossible… but you grew up, so that’s okay.”

I tried to distract, it didn’t work, she wanted more information, “Well, how wasn’t I good? Did I cry a lot?”

“Cry a lot? You screamed constantly,” I said. She did cry constantly. It was horrible. At first it was because she had been sick and then it was because she been spoiled.

“Why did I cry?” She asked, I could tell she was irritated with my answers. It was understandable, if I had behaved the way she had as a child I would be embarrassed too.

“At first because you were sick, I guess. But you never stopped. You screamed and screamed. Sometimes if I sang and walked you and walked you after an hour or so you would finally stop crying. Your mother would leave you with me for days while she was drunk and you wouldn’t stop screaming and you pulled my hair and threw your food at me and if complained everyone reminded me that you had been sick. You had had cancer, it could come back so we couldn’t discipline you. You got every toy you wanted, every bit of clothes Judy thought looked cute on you while I got nothing and you used every chance to rub that in from the first time you learned how to talk. You were the most dreadful baby and child that I have ever encountered in my entire life.”

It was horrible and it was all true. That was more or less the last time we really did anything together. I tried to mitigate my words a bit, but honestly, there was little I could say about her that was nice. When she learned to talk she would run up to complete strangers and tell them she had had cancer and demand candy from them. Her first words anytime she was introduced to someone when she got older was that she had cancer when she was a baby, you know.

Should I have lied to her? Should I have refused to answer? That’s not who I am. Ask me a question at your own peril, I will likely tell you the truth.

After Judy died Katy did get sick again. It wasn’t anything terminal, she had sprouted some tumors that had to be removed but there was nothing malignant about her physically and life went on.

Our friendship, however, did not go on.
To this day nobody except Katy is allowed to be traumatized by her mother’s alcoholism. I knew her mother since before Katy was born, she abused me for more years than she abused Katy for and yet my experience is completely invalidated by her. Why?

I think it’s a sort of evil stepsister thing. I know that sounds a little… out there, but I think it’s true. Katy always had the advantage because she was the only one with a mother and father in the same house. Judy saved the best of everything for Katy, gave the dregs to my brothers and gave me the role of Cinderella. I was starved, worked constantly, yelled at all the time and punished excessively for real or imagined infractions. By the time I ran away from home I barely weighed 90 lb and had been sleep deprived so that they could force me to work after school and into the wee hours of the night. Meanwhile, Katy was treated like a princess, the sort of way I had been treated before the divorce and before Judy.

What happens to the evil stepsisters in Cinderella’s story after Cinderella she runs away with her prince charming and starts a life of her own? What bitter resentments fester in the hearts of such people who enjoyed the benefits of oppressing someone who doesn’t have both parents in the house?

It’s hard to say, but I can tell you that this Cinderella refuses to recant and say that nothing bad happened.

Katy was technically a half-sister rather than a stepsister but due to Judy’s blatant favoritism of her and abuse of me we might as well have been living in the first half of a fairy tale, the really bad half.

Coming next time, Poisoned Fruit: Life with an Evil Stepmother

Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight

or

How a child understands abuse through symbols and stories.

My mother loved Turkish Delight.

I personally never liked the stuff. I couldn’t eat it without thoughts of The White Witch and Edmund’s temptation away from Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I couldn’t figure out what she loved about it. I know that she had the real stuff a couple of times in her life. I had had it with her. I ate a bit of it to please her but in my heart I couldn’t shake the idea that the stuff was toxic. It was the stuff of evil.

These weren’t thoughts based on anything except for the connections that I had with Turkish Delight and the struggle between good and evil that C.S. Lewis painted so classically. It bothered me how much she loved it. She could eat an entire box of it in a sitting and the greedy way she hoarded it reminded me only of Edmund Pevensie. It seemed to my childish mind that the mere act of indulging in Turkish Delight was a prelude to betrayal.

Are these the silly connections that a child makes? Children love games of adrenaline and daring. They love to pretend that something is forbidden: Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.

We’ve all played that the floor is hot lava and instant death if you are to accidentally touch it (well, all the fun people have in my experience). You jump from couch to couch or bed to chair, maybe allowing the use of pillows as islands if the leaps are too big. That inevitable moment when you realize that you’ve messed up this time and you’re going to fall in the lava. Your heart races… and then you laugh and get up out of the ‘lava’ and jump back on to the nearest ‘island’. I played those games and other superstitious games based around imaginary dangers.

The way I felt about Turkish Delight and my mother’s unwholesome relationship with it was a whole different thing. I really felt that the danger was real with Turkish Delight, that betrayal was just around the corner and was heralded by her indulgence. It was a sign to me that I couldn’t trust her and anytime she would eat it or I would find a wrapper of it in the glove compartment, it made my skin crawl.

This is the fear of childhood, the fear of betrayal in those who take care of us and are responsible for meeting our needs. I loved my mother very much, but I think it would be fair to say that I trusted her less than the Pevensie children trusted their selfish brother Edmund. The problem with my mother was not her love of Turkish Delight, but the fact that, like Edmund, she had no self control around it. If she had eaten a piece of it, it wouldn’t have been disturbing, it was her need for excess that made it disturbing to me.

It had a resonance for me. I had read Lewis and Tolkien since before I went to Kindergarten. If her obsession had been jewelry I have no doubt that I would have associated her with Lumbago because the symbolism that I was using to express my fear was rooted in a child witnessing an excess. It was an addiction for her, just like alcohol is an addiction for some people.

This is part of the nature of stories: they give us a language to express the things that we see around us. I knew my mother wasn’t Edmund. I knew the difference between fiction and reality. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that my mother was addicted to many things and Turkish Delight was the one that happened to twig at me and warn me, even when I was very small, that there was something deeply wrong with my mother.

My mother was bipolar. She abused prescription drugs and she abused sugary candy and she did it because she had been so injured as a child that she had never recovered. She would never recover, she died as she had lived, one excess too many destroyed her. I don’t want to give the impression that she was evil or bad, no more than Edmund Pevensie was evil or bad. She was a child in her mind. She never grew up past the age where her mind and soul first broke apart from the abuse she had suffered. She was, like Edmund (like all of us), prone to being selfish. She fought against that urge to be selfish, she tried to be a good mother but she wasn’t always a good mother to all of her children and she floundered with me especially. This was because of the way she had been broken and was never able to heal and is another and a much longer story.

The language of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was all the explanation I needed for her behavior when I was that small. It would be years before I would comprehend the depths to which she had been abused and how alone she was her entire life. It wouldn’t be until after her death that I would begin to understand why she had so often found her only daughter difficult to cuddle and love the way she loved her boy children.

The Pevensie children forgave Edmund his betrayal and, even though it took me awhile, I forgave my mother for all of her betrayals. I forgave her for the darkness that consumed her, for the despair that she lived in so much more often than she lived in the light. I forgave her for all those days that she couldn’t get out of bed, provide me with food and the other basics of life but after that I had to learn to forgive myself for not seeing her struggle more.

Turkish Delight was a big flashing warning sign to me that something was wrong with my mother. It was a symbol and that is the power of the story. We may not understand the parallels we draw when we make connections and to fictional places, times and characters or the telling of true stories but these symbols become indelibly inscribed in our minds. It is the language of learning, the language of the parable. This is why it is vital to read as much and as widely as possible. Even when I was small I had already read a great deal of high quality fiction and my mind gave me indicators and symbols that I could understand based off of what was closes to the situation I was in. Later, in junior high school after I had first been exposed to horror movies my mother would sometimes appear in my nightmares as the monster in the movie.

Was this fair? This intensification of symbolism? Well, I’m sure there would be a lot of debate about that from my siblings and her siblings as well. It is easy to remember only the best parts of those we lose and forget the excess that drove them to the grave. When I had nightmares about my mother I would go to her and I would hold her while she slept. Because that was the sort of mother she was to me. If I had a nightmare, I would hold her. If the nightmare was about her, I wouldn’t sleep but I would sit in her bedroom and stroke her hair and watch her sleeping features.

She told me she as cursed. She told me she was haunted by ghosts and demons. To me it always came back to those wrappers of Turkish Delight. The White Witch and Edmund. She wasn’t a monster, just a scared, cold, hunted child who had been tricked into doing ‘bad’ things.