8.0 Blackout~The Fairy Tale Abruptly Ends

by Elizabeth Stephens

Enter the Stepmother

“Life is an ungentle stepmother; she drinks tears and feeds on human grief”

A Russian Saying

Again, our world had changed. When David began working for a construction company, he ended up meeting the owner’s sister, Selma who ran the business office.  She was to become my new stepmother and within a year after Helen’s death David married her. Selma was a Russian Jew and  a divorced woman, quite unusual at that time. She had also graduated Summa Cume Laude from Florida State University with a degree in Psychology. David and Selma’s blended family reminds one of a “Yours, Mine and Ours” an old movie, minus the traditional family values. She  had three children from her first marriage. Adrian and I attended the wedding in Las Vegas with some of the relatives, but I have no recollection of the event.

After they married we moved into a small apartment on Barrington Avenue in West Los Angeles, California. There were seven of us. Adrian and I were barely three and four at the time and Selma’s children were older. From the outset, Selma resented the fact that one of her offspring had to live elsewhere, in the home of her rich brother because the apartment was too small. She never let David or anyone else for that matter forget it.  I have no childhood pictures of my own of David and Selma together or of Adrian and I with any family members.  Although we all lived in the same location, that was all we shared. We were raised separately, as it were in a different dimension from the rest of the family.  It was established from early on that Adrian and I were not to be part of Selma’s new blended family.

Selma was a very troubled woman. To the outside world she looked normal and came off as very gracious, much like the stepmother in Cinderella. But behind closed doors, Adrian and I grew up in a very dark prison like setting. The emotional scars are still in place in much the same way as someone who had been on drugs or suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and experiences flashbacks. Time is a funny thing.  Though it has been many years, some current event can trigger a memory that is so very clear. Immediately I am transported back to that house in West Los Angeles with no way out.

Whatever Adrian and I did or did not do, Selma always found fault with and used it to dominate us. But nothing could be compared to what she did to us mentally on an ongoing and premeditated basis. Looking back on my experience I truly felt Selma wanted to kill us and not be held responsible. Remember though, we were small children at the time and had no idea what was taking place or that our treatment was out of the ordinary. We had nothing to compare our relationship to since we were systematically isolated from the family and outsiders.

We were instructed down to the smallest detail of our day. Selma planned out everything, nothing was left to chance. From our hair to the clothes we wore, to the food we ate, to the words we spoke, our thoughts, to all of our comings and goings, we were told what to do and when to do it. We were under constant scrutiny during every waking moment. Even when we slept, I’m sure Selma told us what we should dream. I later studied some psychology, but  never found any parental examples as controlling as Selma, not even when I read Mommy Dearest, a daughter’s biographical account of the terrible abuse she endured from her mother, the well-known celebrity movie star Joan Crawford, another troubled soul.

As it turned out, Selma’s brother was very wealthy, and Selma desired a life of ease demanding that she be well provided for, including all the trimmings she had become used to. David never seemed to be at home as she kept him working, sometimes as many as three jobs at once to provide for his new blended family. Selma had her own favorite phrase, it was, ‘I don’t know how we are going to live,’ and ‘there is not enough money.’ Selma  kept David on a tight leash. Independently, he would save his small weekly allowance and every once and a while he would defy Selma, drive to Las Vegas and gamble away his few dollars. Then he would come home with his tail between his legs.

9.0 Invisible Children

by Elizabeth Stephens

Family in the Shadows

When we were younger, we would go to see our Aunts, but these visits were soon phased out. Many years later we heard that Selma wanted this to stop as she wanted complete control over us. She would tell the Aunts they could pick us up at a time and then gave them the runaround, looking for excuses to cut off the relationship. The Aunts told us that once we came over and we asked them to wash our hair. When we got back home, Selma threw a fit.  She complained to David, “They don’t think I’m a fit mother,” because they had washed our hair. I don’t even know if that really happened or if Selma manufactured the whole thing. Eventually, Selma found a way to cut us off from our family members.

Selma even staged a scene in the backyard. She stood outside the louvered windows and called our names attempting to sound like the Aunts, “Adri…. Lizzy.” Then she came back inside and made us go outside and search for a glove that she planted. Naturally we found the old glove. This again was Selma’s background in psychology being played out. She wanted to make us afraid that the aunts would somehow hurt us, yet she said she would be the one to protect us.

One day out of the blue, Sharon, my mother’s sister and her three children came over. We did not remember her at all. She ventured in the front door to see us and she was promptly thrown out by Selma. Supposedly Sharon brought us dolls that we never got. Sharon never came back. Oh if the walls could talk, what would they say and why didn’t she ever try again to see us?


The Shadow Spinmistress and Granny Goose

Selma would slap us across the face with her hand from time to time but other times, she’d get David all riled up and he’d spank us. However, the main mental abuses occurred daily. When I think back about this time the most distressing thing was that no one intervened or came to our rescue.  Many knew what was happening but they looked the other way. It started with David and the apathy then spread to the rest of the family. According to Selma this type of treatment was for “our benefit” and she was always doing us a favor. There were others usually around but they wouldn’t pay much attention to us.

I overheard Selma’s mother speaking to David one day. She said she didn’t know why Selma treated us the way she did. David had nothing to say, as he had seemingly checked out a long time before. Adrian and I really liked Selma’s mother. She was always kind to us whenever she would visit. David liked her too and called her “Granny Goose” as a term of endearment after the potato chips that were very popular at the time.

Leonard, our step brother once showed some concern. He had a discussion with Selma about Adrian going to college and how it should be her own decision. But little came of it. Selma gradually had more and more free rein as time passed.

Even though David was kept busy working they still found time to have two other children, enter, Marilyn and Marcy. This was the 1950’s; ‘yours, mine and ours’ family before the movie came out. However, being David’s own children, Adrian and I, were the outcasts; whereas Marilyn and Marcy grew up normally and were very spoiled.

Then there were nine mouths to feed in the family. This added more to the stress to the financial situation. Selma continually told David about her brother and all his money and all the places he and his family went. Selma’s wealthy brother and had planes and houses and David didn’t. Selma tried to shame him into a different lifestyle to make her happy, but then Selma was never happy anyway. She always wanted more, more, and more.

Marilyn and Marcy were their little “darling children.”  They could do no wrong. And yet when they were scolded for not bringing their school work home,  Adrian and I were ordered not to bring home any of our schoolwork. Selma would tell us, “It’s alright for you to be an average student.”

Even when the other members of the family were around, nothing Selma did seemed out of the ordinary to the rest of the family because she had a way of explaining things away. If she’d been caught  robbing a bank, and she could have successfully put her own spin on it. She was the mistress of spin.

I would often hope against hope that my Father, David would come home unexpectedly and see her in the middle of one of her despicable acts and recognize what was going on. But somehow even when he did, she would explain it all away. I recall one particular event with great clarity.  Rarely Adrian and I would be told to go outside and sit on the grass in the back yard. Mainly we were confined to our room. When we did go outside we would have to sit with our legs out stretched on the scratchy grass, not a blanket just on the grass. Selma would then turn on the sprinklers and we would get soaked, but she said she was doing us another favor, because we might be over heated.

One Day David did come home unexpectedly and saw us in the  back yard. Selma shaking her head in disbelief said to David; “They don’t even move when the sprinklers are on, they just sit there like bumps on logs.” When I heard that I became very angry as I felt I could not do anything about this. It was unjust and yet I was only a child. How could I stand up to a veteran abuser when even my Dad would look the other way?

From time to time, when David actually talked to us, he would ask us, “Why don’t you do other things?” And if we said we liked to do other things, Selma would be right there. We didn’t say too much because we had little protection against Selma. Even when we did tell him things, he would go talk to Selma and she’d make him believe whatever she wanted him to believe and we would get the backlash. At the time I wondered if he really knew what she was doing to us or he just did not want to rock the boat. I can only say that about three times Selma said David beat her up with a frying pan, so she said.

After those occasions she was very nice to us for about two days. I did feel sorry for her, because for as long as I could remember she was supposed to be my mother and sometimes she said she loved me even though she did strange things. I asked myself, “Does she in some strange way love me? There were a few good times. There must have been. There were a few moments when I felt close to her. But I can’t recall any specific instance.

This is not the Disney version of the story of Cinderella. The following account I did not want to include in this story as it was not pretty and I felt very transparent and lay bare. When I was very young possibly 6 or 7 my step brother would rape me. I was so young I did not know what he was doing and he told me I had to obey him. It was never about sex it was about the physical act. This happened over a time period and occurred several times. I did say something to Selma about this and it stopped but this was something never spoken of again. When I was much older I told Adrian and she did not believe me.  Why did I expect her to believe her sister since things like this do not really happen in real life?