By Virginia Carraway Stark
I have memory. I have memory. I have memory.
I say these words to myself when people try to deny what happened to
me, when people try to deny the truth. My parents abused me. That’s
the truth. My Dad abused me, my stepmother abused me, my older
brother abused me, even my mother abused me. I don’t say this to
illicit pity but rather as a statement of reality that my family would
prefer to have swept under the carpet. Cover it up and lie about it,
say all these abusers are saints after they are dead. Deny the truth,
deny what happened and scapegoat me for being so different from them
all that I remember and hold them accountable. They abused me for
being other than them even when I kept silent. I have memory, and I
speak my memory- now at least I have my own voice once more.
Writing this makes me feel sick to my stomach, not for the words that
I am saying but for daring to say anything at all. That is the
strength of my family’s wrath.
My stepmother was never a beauty, she was never confident, she was
never even vaguely attractive. She was loud, insecure, toadying and
became a binge alcoholic at an early age.
Her own stepmother abused her. When she didn’t finish her mashed
potatoes one time, so she told me, her stepmother pushed her face into
them. That is the only thing her stepmother ever did and yet she used
that one story to justify everything she did to me and everyone else
around her. She was abused, she wasn’t responsible. She was drunk,
she wasn’t responsible. She was angry, she wasn’t responsible.
She was a conniving and manipulative person, capable of making up
stories and spreading lies as fast as she could move her mouth, which
was awfully fast. Her lies had a way of influencing the weak and
fearful that only spring from a seat of psychotically manic vengeance.
My dad fell for those lies hook, line and sinker. She was his wild
woman, totally different from my cautious and submissive mother. My
father always was so strict with me, and my stepmother used that
against me. I cut my hair once as an act of rebellion and because I
wanted shorter hair, not the long hair and bangs of a little girl. My
dad was furious and told methat he’d throttle me if I ever so much as
trimmed it ever again. My stepmother had her clubbed fingers curled
around the doorjamb as she eavesdropped.
I came home from school a few days later to find him once more in an
angry froth with me. His wrath was formidable, it made even grown men
shake. He dragged me into the bathroom, yelling and incoherent about
my disobedience. I loooked down in the sink to see about a half inch
of Judy’s hair in it. My hair: red and straight. Judy’s hair: dark
He didn’t believe me that it wasn’t my hair. This was the power she
had over him.
How is this even possible? Why did he so eagerly believe her over me?
How could his canny mind be confounded into thinking her hair was
mine? To this day I too am confounded by it. I had always been such a
good girl. I had always told Daddy everything. I didn’t lie to him,
at that point I didn’t even know how to lie to him. Even telling him
that it wasn’t my hair made me tremble with the fear that his training
and violence had put into me. Disobeying him, even to tell the truth,
wracked my stomach and made me shake. He didn’t listen to me and I
My stepmother Judy delighted in torturing me.
I wasn’t allowed to go into the fridge for fear that at barely ninety
pounds I would overindulge in food. I was emaciated but I wasn’t
allowed to eat more than they gave me and Judy packed my lunches for
school. When she bothered to remember that is.
A lot of days I was grateful that she forgot to pack them. This was
another way she tortured me, on top of generously allowing me a piece
of toast with a measured teaspoon of jam on it for breakfast if I was
lucky. She would put surprises in my lunch for me. If I didn’t know
what she had put in my lunch to taunt me- if I couldn’t recount what
‘surprise’ she had left for me when I got home that night, she would
run to my Dad and I would be further punished for not eating my lunch
and wasting her food. He never asked how Judy knew I had thrown it
away rather than open and eat it.
The surprises were usually in the sandwiches. She liked especially to
put rotten fish right in the center of the sandwich, other times it
was something sharp, metal bits. Her egg salad sandwich would
occasionally have coffee grounds in the middle. Once it was quarters.
I cleaned them off and bought myself a chocolate bar. Sometimes she
would find sly ways to put something into what looked like a sealed
package of chips or cookies.
I told my Dad about it. He and Judy laughed heartily. They both
thought it was the most hilarious joke in the world.
I was emaciated and my stepmother and my Dad called me fat. They
would tell me how much I was like my mother and how disgusting I was.
My cheekbones stood out like razorblades under my skin. My waist was
17 inches and Judy still said was fat. She pointed at my thighs and
said that they were heavy, she pinched my skin to prove it. I was
told by my Dad of all people that unless he could see daylight between
my thighs, I was a fat slob like my mother.
Their manipulations worked. I stopped eating anything and started
punishing myself anytime I slipped. I stopped caring, my stomach was
queasy all the time and when I would rarely get my period I had
headaches and threw up. This was punished as well. They made me work
in the yard, wash dishes, clean where I had just cleaned when I got
headachey and even more queasy. Everything was punished. That was
living with my stepmother. If I put my feet on the couch, I was
punished for that. If I was caught reading, I was punished for that.
Reading was the worst.
They kept me working, cleaning and recleaning and cleaning again until
I fell exhausted into my bed. They made me raise my bratty half-sister
whose survival from childhood cancer made it so that no one ever
disciplined her in case it suddenly made her cancer come back. I
wasn’t allowed to do anything to protect myself and she would hit me
and hit me and scream in my face and pull my hair. I wasn’t allowed
to eat until she had taken her choice of all the food and I was
allowed her left overs.
When they opened a restaurant they kept me working from when I woke
up, to when I went to school and then from the minute I got home from
school until every last dish was cleaned and the place was spotless at
the end of the night. The restaurant was open late. I slept in the
basement of the restaurant with the mice and the rats, grateful that
they had put an old bed down there for me, grateful that they hadn’t
made me sleep on the floor where the bugs and rats could crawl on me.
Grateful to be away from them, even if it was just at night.
I would try to do my homework then, usually well after midnight by the
time all my chores had been done. I was still an honour student
despite all this and I graduated with honours.
I was the only one of my two brothers and half-sister to graduate with honors.
I ran away from home when I was fifteen with the help of my friends- I
finished school and worked part time every day after school to pay for
my own way. I was so happy, so happy to work and get paid for it. An
hourly wage was a miracle to me. Being treated like an employee was a
miracle for me. Not being yelled at and mocked and threatened and
abused while I toiled in a hot kitchen was a miracle for me.
So, am I justified in calling her a wicked stepmother? This isn’t even
a portion of what she did to me. I haven’t even gotten into the
physical violence. I haven’t even gotten into the physical violence
she committed against her own daughter. I asked her what I had ever
done to her and she said, ‘nothing’. I forgave her again and again
only to have her revisit it in abuse. This year, while working in her
downtown store, she asked me how I could keep on forgiving her. I
told her that I believed in love, I told her that I believed it was
more powerful than hate. She hissed at me, “What sort of game are you
trying to pull.”
I smiled at her. I told her it wasn’t a game. I forgave her. She
became furious. I wasn’t frightened of her even as she balled up her
fist to punch me in full view of passerby. I knew I was right. My
husband came into the shop just in time to yell at her to stop. She
still pulled her arm back to deliver the blow and my husband had to
stand between her and I so that I could get out of her secondhand
store without being physically hurt.
So, you tell me, do I have a right to be relieved that now she is dead
she can never hurt me again? Even earlier this year, when I was an
adult living with my new husband, she would stalk me, park outside my
house in her truck, smoking and idling until the police would make her
My family became violently angry with with for a facebook post where I
called her my evil stepmother and talked about ‘forgetting’ to go to
her funeral. That’s all I’ve ever publicly said about her abuse- that
she was my evil stepmother and I ‘forgot’ the day of her funeral. I’m
now shunned and publicly derided by the rest of the family. They use
horrible epithets, they shout I should be ‘exiled’ from the family…
as though it would be yet another punishment for me.
There is so much more to the story, so much more pain, so many more
horrible humilations. Judy Robinson did everything in life to make me
miserable and my refusal to whitewash her to make her a saint after
she was found dead in a snowbank from multiple organ collapse due to
alcoholism has further set me against my other abusers. I don’t want
to be with them, I don’t want their approval but their attacks on my
character and their other petty (yet frighteningly violent) ways of
menacing me are beyond the pale. Mutual protection of all their
crimes is their only reason for their belated sainthood, and it will
I have memory.