Reconnecting With An Abusive Stepmother

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Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today the hosts consider how to move forward in a relationship with a stepmother who was abusive. Should you forgive her? How responsible was the father for not stopping the abuse? To help answer, they're joined by Jane Alison, author of the memoir The Sisters Antipodes, a book about divorce and an extraordinary reorganization of a family.


Dear Sugars,

At the conclusion of your first episode with the "Wicked Stepmother," I was in tears. My mother died of cancer when my sister and I were young, and my father remarried shortly afterward. Because my mother died when I was so young, I viewed my stepmother as my mother growing up. Looking back, it is very clear that she did not view me as her child.

My stepmother was strict, demanding and difficult. At a young age, my sister and I were required to clean the house to perfection. If something was sticking out of a drawer, she would dump the contents on the ground for us to clean up. When we had to do "family tree" projects in school, she made my sister and I write down her family history as our mother's side. She told me that she gave birth to me and was in labor for 13 hours, even though as a child I knew this was a lie.

As my teenage years approached, we fought more. I talked back to her and acted like a typical teenager. She told me I was stupid and that there was no point in me going to college, even though I had a full-ride scholarship. She would scratch me, push me down the stairs and pinch me. Two weeks before my high school graduation, she sent me to live in the detached garage of our very expensive house in our affluent neighborhood. She would not let me inside the house, not even to use the restroom. I had to go outside in the grass.

For eight years, I had absolutely no contact with my stepmother. She would not allow her children to talk with me, and I was not allowed at family functions. Last year, my father put his foot down and decided I would be welcomed back into our immediate family. It's not been easy for me.

I do not like being around my stepmother. It stirs up bad memories. Her subtle abuse continues, with her sending me emails saying things like, "Just try to be happy, I know it's hard for you."

When we've been together as a family, it has been hard for me to see how differently my stepmother treats her own children. I love my half siblings, but my sister and I are very different from them and we were raised in very different circumstances.

Do you have any suggestions or tips for navigating this situation? I've always had a good relationship with my father and my sister and would like to spend time with them and my half siblings together. We have so many memories to be made — graduations, weddings, families of our own. I don't want to be excluded from my own family anymore. How do I let go of the anger I have toward my stepmom? How do I learn to be around her, and laugh off her behavior rather than be silently outraged by it?

Signed,

Tired of Being Cinderella

Jane Alison: I sometimes think we expect too much resolution in this world. Sometimes there isn't a way to hug and make everything better. I think sometimes to still be angry is appropriate, but you want to be able to live with it. I know that I was able to find my way out of most of my feelings by writing.

One thing Cinderella could do is try and convert the anger into something else. Maybe write an ongoing, imaginary letter to her father or to her stepmother. Also, she's a grown-up now. Why can't she create more rules and boundaries of her own? This woman was so powerful to her when she was young, but now things are more equal. Can she determine when she will be at events and when she wishes to see only her father or only her half siblings? Can she accept that her anger is valid and it's not going to go away; it just has to be managed?

Steve Almond: Reading the letter, I was so struck by the absence of the father. Where's dad when Cinderella is peeing in the grass or she's pushed down the stairs, or when her stepmother is appropriating a birth story that she didn't experience and trying to erase the biological mom from the family tree?

Jane Alison: I don't understand how the father could have been so passive, and I do think that's the main issue Cinderella might want to try and uncover.

Cheryl Strayed: Cinderella, your anger is valid. Your stepmother was abusive to you. The hard part about stepfamilies is when your abuser is still a member of the family, you need to make the decision: Am I going to set a boundary and say, "I don't want contact with that abuser, and therefore I will not have contact with other family members who I do love and value"? It sounds like you don't want to make that decision.

I think that the next thing you need to do is say, "Who was the person who was supposed to protect you?" Your father did not protect you, and even though you say you've had a good relationship with him, you need to open it up and say, "OK, Dad, I'm so glad you've now, after eight years, invited me back into the family after years of witnessing this woman be cruel to me and my sibling. But in order to welcome me back, I need for you to take responsibility for not protecting me and loving me as you should have, and for not standing up to your spouse when she treated me badly." You can begin by saying, "Listen, I have compassion for you. It must have been so hard to lose my mom. I understand why you found somebody else to love." Maybe if you show some compassion for him and his perspective, he'll show some compassion for yours.

Steve: And part of what I think is so instructive about Jane's having written this beautiful memoir about her complicated family is that she's saying, "Actually, I need to tell my story and not have it written out of the family account." Your dad and stepmother might not consent to that, but there's no way you're going to be able to be happy and functioning if you feel like you haven't been allowed to express the truth of your life to the person who matters most to you.

Jane: I wouldn't underestimate the power of writing a letter. When I finally was ready to publish The Sisters Antipodes, I had to tell my family about it. There was a lot of push-back. My father said, "You don't have the right to publish this book, and if you do, we won't read it." It was a terrible moment, but after several months, he came around and asked me to send him the book. He read it, and then his wife read it, and even though she and I are no longer in touch, we do wish each other well. He ended up telling me it was a beautiful book and that he didn't agree with everything, but why would he? You can sometimes find something good on the other side of doing something very, very painful.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear more about relationships with stepmothers and stepfathers.

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