In Michelle Stevens' powerful, just-published memoir, Scared Selfless (opens in new tab), she shares how she overcame horrendous child sexual abuse and mental illness to lead a satisfying and happy life as a successful psychologist, wife and mother. Here, an excerpt from the book:
Since birth, I had been Michelle Brechbill. Daughter of Judy. Granddaughter of Evelyn and Glenn. Now, with the flick of a pen, I was Mooch (a nickname) Lundquist, daughter of Gary, new student at his out-of-state school. In 1976, no one seemed to question any of this. No one seemed to care my school records displayed a different name or that Gary was not my legal guardian. We weren't even related. He was just my mother's boyfriend. But social norms dictate that we do not insert ourselves into other people's personal lives. Being polite means keeping one's mouth shut.
And so I, the newly minted Mooch Lundquist, became a third grader at Delaware Township School. My classroom was on the first floor of the elementary building—just a staircase away from Gary. Every day at 3 p.m., as soon as the bell rang, I was expected to climb those stairs and report to Gary's desk. Inevitably, a few of his favored 10-year-old students would still be hanging around, joking with him or sitting on his lap.
Some days Gary would oversee an after-school activity. The gifted and talented club was invitation only—Gary's invitation, that is. Trouble was, Gary had no real training or authority to be administering IQ tests. Instead, he gave kids a short multiple-choice test, the Mickey Mouse kind sold in bookstores. Then, based on his findings, he labeled certain kids—the kids he liked and wanted to spend more time with—as "gifted."
I was gifted, according to Gary. This was a real convenience, as he demanded I join his, and only his, after-school clubs. He signed me up for his drama club too and encouraged me to sing in the school talent contest. On the night of the show, various kids performed their acts, and the winner was chosen based on audience response. Gary was among the judges who awarded me first prize. After that, I was given the lead in all the school plays he directed.
To the other parents, I suppose it seemed that Gary was harmlessly lauding his new daughter. In a certain way, he was. Not because he actually thought I was gifted or talented. Gary was a narcissist, and narcissists view their families as extensions of themselves, as trophies. Gary believed he was superior, so it was imperative the world see his daughter as superior too.
Behind closed doors, it was a different story. Gary treated me with a dizzying blend of over-involvement, neglect, overindulgence, and cruelty. With Svengali-like skill, he quickly took over every aspect of my life, dictating what I wore, to whom I talked, even what toys I played with.
He also strove to monopolize my time—an easy accomplishment since my mother left for work before I awoke and didn't return until evening. During the school year, this meant Gary had me all to himself for an hour each morning and at least three hours every afternoon. Once summer came, he had me all day, every day, all to himself.
Summer was the time when Gary could really play out his S/M (sadomasochism) fantasies and treat me like a full-time sex slave. This meant being subjected to daily "training sessions"—intense periods during which I was explicitly instructed on how to behave and think like a slave. Much like a dog must be trained to sit, to stay, to heel, practitioners of sadomasochism believe a sex slave must be trained in how to speak, sit, serve. In short, like a dog, she must be taught total obedience.
Gary's dungeon was in the basement. Because he had to avoid my mother's prying eyes, though, he could not leave it permanently set up like other S/M enthusiasts. Instead, he left a series of nails and hooks attached to the ceiling beams, which could quickly and easily hold a harness, a rope or some other type of bondage device. While much of Gary's paraphernalia had to be kept hidden, I could tell he also had some fun in displaying a few tools of his trade. The dog cage, for instance, was left in plain sight—folded up in a cluttered corner where it appeared to be waiting for the next garage sale. He also kept a wooden paddle hanging on the wall of his home office, which he jokingly told guests was for "errant children." Little did they realize it was no joke. Nor did most people realize that he kept a set of metal handcuffs in his desk drawer, right next to a stun gun and his handgun.
I can't remember being threatened with the gun, although it may have happened. (Due to amnesia, as well as the normal forgetfulness of memory, there are many details about my abuse I can't recall. I know this because, over the years, eyewitnesses have told stories about my abuse that I cannot personally remember.) I do, however, remember Gary threatening me with the stun gun repeatedly. He even used it on me once. Once was all it took. For after experiencing the excruciating, utterly indescribable pain it inflicted, I never, ever wanted to experience it again.
When he wasn't hurting me, he lavished me with parental attention. On the long drives to and from school, he would initiate conversations about history, politics, and art. We ate nearly every meal together while he instructed me on things like table manners and ethnic cuisine. He gave me my first typewriter and influenced my decisions to become both a writer and psychologist. He took the time to open up the world for me. He was my first and most significant mentor.
Under my mother's care, I'd been neglected and deprived. She was constantly at work, leaving me alone and lonely. Gary preyed on that loneliness. Like any skilled pedophile, he identified what I needed, and he gave it to me. He made me feel special, talented, smart.
Even sexually, staying on Gary's good side had its advantages. For once he felt I had become sufficiently trained and submissive, most of the torture tapered off. Afternoons in the basement were replaced by the bedroom. And his fervor to cause me pain was replaced with a passion to bring me pleasure. I suspect it made him feel powerful—like more of a man.
Nearly every day at 4 p.m., for years, he would summon me to bed for what can only be described as a lovers' tryst. The weird part, of course, was that his "lover" was just under four feet tall and weighed less than 60 pounds.
There was also the inconvenient fact that his official lover, my mother, refused to vanish. Unable to ditch her physically, he did it emotionally instead. Every evening, he locked himself in his home office. Every weekend, he went to his store. As I was expected to work for him, I followed wherever he went. Very early on, my mother began to notice this pattern, and she didn't like it. Not one bit. Being immature, she didn't handle the situation with grace. She felt excluded, which she was. So she began to yell a lot, mostly at me.
One particular Saturday morning (we had probably been living with Gary for about six weeks), I was in the bathroom getting dressed for the flea market, just as I did every weekend. But my mother wasn't happy, so she stood in the doorway, whining. "What're you gettin' dressed to go there for? Huh? You oughta be staying home with me."
Just then, Gary came into the hall. My mother cornered him. "I want Shell to stay home with me," she demanded. "She's down at that flea market with you way too much!"
Gary, as always, remained calm during my mother's onslaught. Nonchalantly, he remarked, "Why don't you let Mooch decide what she wants to do today? She's perfectly capable of choosing."
With one quick remark, he had abdicated all responsibility for the situation. Instead, all blame was now placed squarely on me. At 8 years old, I was being asked to choose between my mother and Gary. It was not a real decision, of course. Gary knew this. If I chose Gary, he would immediately whisk me away from my mother's ranting—and probably offer some kind of reward. But if I chose my mother, there would be no one to protect me from Gary. Crossing him would mean paying for my sins.
So, I chose Gary, and my mother flew into a jealous rage. "The flea market!" she screamed. "You can't go to the flea market! I'm your mother! You're staying with me!"
But Gary was already whisking me out the door. "You asked her to choose, and she chose, Judy," he said. "Live with it."
It was with this kind of scene that Gary was able to drive a wedge between my mother and me. I am certain that if Gary could've gotten rid of my mother entirely, he would have. He lobbied hard to adopt me, but my mother resisted. Despite being naïve in many ways, she knew that if Gary became my legal parent, he would dump her and seek full custody.
Thankfully, she never fell for the trap. Still, I'm astonished she chose to stay with a man whose deepest desire was to kick her to the curb and steal her young daughter.
Personally, I know for a fact that Gary considered me his true lover. I know because he told me so. Constantly. "You are my real wife," he would say to me each morning as we drove together in the car. "You are my real wife," he would say to me each day as we worked side by side at the flea market. "You are my real wife," he would say to me each afternoon as we lay naked in the king-size bed he would share with my mother later that night.
When he said it, I didn't quite know what to think. I knew he meant it as a compliment because he said it so often and with such pointed intensity. But my 8-year-old brain simply could not grasp that this 33-year-old man saw me as his mate. I was just a little girl. He was with my mother. That made us a family. He was my father, and I was his child. Right?
That's how I saw it. That's how I wanted to see it. I just wanted to be normal like other kids. I just wanted to have a normal life.
So when Gary said, "I'm only with her for you. You're the one I really want," it confused me. I felt uneasy. Guilty, I guess. On some level, I knew it was very wrong. The guy was telling me to replace my own mother. This made me feel terrible. Despite her shortcomings, I loved my mother and felt a deep and innate loyalty to her. Gary, on the other hand, scared and repulsed me. The last thing I wanted to do was compete with anyone—let alone my own mother—for his affection.
This excerpt was adapted from Scared Selfless, My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving (opens in new tab) with permission from Putnam.
Buy the book here (opens in new tab).
Michelle Stevens, Ph.D., is a psychologist and founder and director of Post-Traumatic Success (opens in new tab), a nonprofit dedicated to educating and inspiring those affected by psychological trauma.
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