The Myth of the Wicked Stepmother, or Where Was the Father?

In my new novel HOUSE ON FIRE, a happily blended family falls apart when the wife’s daughter dies after a road accident and the husband’s son is charged with vehicular homicide. Leigh, the wife, is devastated and grieving; Pete, the husband, is devastated and desperate to protect his son. Before long, the fault lines in their perfectly blended family open up, and Pete takes his son and moves out. Leigh can’t help but imagine the accusing whispers among their friends and neighbors: wicked stepmother.

The term is familiar to everyone from nursery to nursing home, but even as I wrote the words, I had to wonder where the notion came from. Of all the players on the family stage, why is the stepmother so often cast as the villain?

The question is more than academic. According to the Census Bureau, half of all women in the United States will play a stepmother role at some point in their lives. The wicked label seems particularly unfair considering that there’s no male counterpart. No one ever says wicked stepfather, even though statistically a child is more likely to be abused by a stepfather than a stepmother. So why the archetype of the wicked stepmother? What psychological underpinnings give it so much traction?

The answer would be easy if the term was of recent origin, when stepfamilies are usually hatched out of divorce: children naturally feel loyal to their still living mother. But the wicked stepmother trope isn’t at all recent; it dates back centuries, to the days when death was the only real route to remarriage. The notion took root in countless folklore tales, and after the Brothers Grimm collected and popularized those stories in the 1800s, the trope of the wicked stepmother became part of the preschool canon. Think Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel.

These classic fairy tales have enjoyed an enduring hold on the minds of small children. One explanation is that the Grimm (and grim!) fairy tales with all their dark themes and brutal violence help children face their worst fears––the metaphorical monster under the bed. Thus, the common origin theory of the wicked stepmother trope is that the stepmother poses a threat to the child’s inheritance and property rights.

This seems unlikely to me: how many small children have estate planning on their preschool minds? And a stepfather would pose the same threat to inheritance, yet, as noted, there’s no corresponding male archetype.

No, what seems more likely is that a small child fears the father’s shifting affection to his new wife. Or more to the point, his sexual thrall. The wicked stepmother has used her sexuality to enslave the father and drive away all concern for his children.

Consider the role of the father is the classic fairy tales. Cinderella’s father marries a woman who installs her own daughters as the favored children while banishing Cinderella to the kitchen to work as a household slave. Her father is apparently content with this new world order; at any rate, he says not a word. In Hansel and Gretel, the stepmother contrives to strand the children in the woods to fend for themselves, and their father meekly submits to his wife’s scheme. And in Snow White, the king takes a beautiful, narcissistic new wife who is so threatened by her stepdaughter that she orders the huntsman to take the girl into the woods and kill her. Meanwhile, the king lives on in the castle and never seems to wonder what became of his daughter and why she no longer graces at his banquet hall of an evening.

Where was the father? one might ask (a nice subversion of the more typical finger-pointing at the mother). Oh, he’s there, but he’s so weak or besotted or indifferent to his children’s fate that he does nothing to shield them from harm. So the children must either find surrogates (the Seven Dwarves or the fairy godmother, for example) or step up and save themselves (ala Hansel and Gretel).

Traditionally the one person charged with the duty to protect the family was the father. The child’s darkest fear is that he can’t or won’t. These fairy tales teach him how to face that fear.

The archetypal wicked stepmother is simply a stand-in, a convenient scapegoat for any danger that might threaten the family. For centuries, she’s been taking the rap for the real monster under the bed: the neglectful father.

How I Switched from Legal Writing to . . . Illegal?

I once represented a company whose staff attorney was being cross-examined by my opposing counsel. As he asked her a long series of questions about the company’s “legal department,” she grew more and more irritated. “Sir,” she finally snapped. “All of our departments are legal. I work for the law department.

(Incidentally, the reason we don’t call such lawyers “in-house counsel”? Because that makes the rest of us “outhouse counsel.”)

I’m reminded of this testimony every time people ask me about making the switch from legal writing to novels. All my writing is legal! But I see their point. Legal writing has a reputation for being dry and impenetrable, while fiction should be just the opposite.

But I was an English major before law school, and I brought all that baggage to my law career. First, I was a stickler for the rules of good writing. I became known around the office as Madame Grammarian, and I may have been the last lawyer on earth to insist upon using the subjunctive mood. Second, I approached every case that came my way as a new novel to read, with a cast of characters to get to know, a plot to watch unfold, and sometimes even a Big Reveal. But eventually it wasn’t enough to read those novels. They were never satisfying enough. I had to write my own.

Of course I’m hardly the first lawyer to make the transition to novelist. Law school is a well-traveled on-ramp to a writing career. But not many lawyer-authors spent as much time in the trenches as I did. Most of the big names found their true calling after putting in only a couple years at the bar. I wasn’t that smart. And to compound my sins, not only was I a long-time legal writing practitioner, I was a long-time legal writing instructor. Little wonder people might be wary.

Case in point. When I was seeking a literary agent for my first novel, I did as all the guidebooks recommended and included in my query a biographical sketch that highlighted my work as a lawyer. A prominent agent wrote back expressing an interest but only if I could assure her that I had moved beyond legal writing, because “You know what? There’s a huge stylistic difference between legal writing and fiction writing.”

But you know what? There isn’t. At least not with the kind of legal writing I did. I didn’t write contracts or wills. I didn’t dabble in parties of the first part and parties of the second part, or litter my prose with Whereas and Heretofore. I was a litigator, and my writing was aimed at an audience of one, sometimes three, and on special occasions nine. Its sole purpose was to persuade.

Richard Russo in his essay “The Gravestone and the Commode” (part of his terrific collection, The Destiny Thief), described the writer’s problem as getting other people to see things as you do. That was my challenge as a litigator: to get judges to see things my way. In order to persuade them, I needed to engage them. And yes, sometimes even entertain them. So I peppered my briefs with colorful language, pithy sentences, strong action verbs. I didn’t shy away from literary allusions or even pop-culture references.

So for me at least, the transition from legal writing to illegal was an easy one. The only real difference between how I wrote as a lawyer and how I write today? My legal writing was necessarily constrained by the actual facts of the case. As a novelist, I now have the supreme luxury of making them up.