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.

The Value of a Book

I met my closest friend when we were college freshmen. She was from the Boston area and had three sisters, a wise and wonderful mother, and a clergyman father who did wartime service as an Army chaplain. The parallels between her life and a certain classic American novel were uncanny. She even had a sister named Meg.

In those days, it wasn’t the fashion for the young women of Bryn Mawr to admire Little Women. It was treacly, moralistic and far too celebratory of domestic life. But my friend was never one to bow to peer pressure, and she unabashedly loved the novel. She saw her own family in the Marches, but time-traveled to an earlier century when life seemed more exciting and every woe and joy more poignant. And she easily could see herself in the lead character. Although she was the youngest of the sisters, she was no Amy. She was Jo — brilliant, stubborn, deeply curious and honest to a fault.

One day in December of our freshmen year, I happened upon a used book sale on campus. Boxes of dusty old books were regularly donated by alumnae cleaning out their attics, or more often, their heirs cleaning out their houses. While sifting through stacks of battered volumes, I came upon an ancient edition of Little Women. I flipped through the pages to check for mold or mites — it looked okay — then paused on the flyleaf. There was a handwritten inscription with a slight backward slant: L. M. Alcott.

I didn’t know if Louisa May ever went on tour or signed stock in bookstores or did any Costco-type events, but I felt certain that an autographed copy of her most famous work was a rare find. I bought it on the spot for a dollar.

Now I had a decision to make. What to do with my prize? It probably had some pecuniary value that I, a poor scholarship student, could have enjoyed. And even if I couldn’t resell it, ownership of it was worth bragging rights for an English major and future novelist like myself. My friend came from a wealthy family and majored in sociology; neither the money nor the cachet would mean as much to her. But I knew what the contents of that book meant to her, and how much it would mean for her to know that Alcott had put her name to that very copy. So I wrapped it up and gave it to my friend for Christmas.

In the years since, I’ve come to realize that I was the true beneficiary of that gifting experience. I learned a lesson — not that it’s better to give than to receive (I hope I already knew that one), but rather that there’s a difference between marketplace value and the real value of an object. In this season of Black Friday and Cyber Monday and, soon enough, post-holiday clearance sales, that’s a lesson I try to remember.

I especially try to remember it when it comes to books. The value of a book can’t be found in its sales figures, or the size of the author’s advance, or even the number of prestigious awards it snags. The value of a book lies in its ability to speak to a reader across miles and years and to win a special place in her heart. And you can’t put a price tag on that.

(But Deb, if you’re reading this, an autographed copy of Little Women recently sold at auction for $8,900. Just so you know.)

This essay originally appeared on, as one of their 2018 Holiday Blogs.

September 19th, 2017

When I was in law school, I interned at a legal aid clinic about forty miles from Philadelphia. One of our clients was a man named Zeke. He was a country boy of indeterminate age with long, ropy hair and a grizzled beard, and he lived in an abandoned school bus in the woods with his cow Bessie. He was part country hick, part hippie and part mountain man. He was Gomer Pyle crossed with the Unabomber.

I was helping him appeal from the denial of welfare benefits. One day I was reviewing with him  his income (none) and his assets (Bessie). He seemed a bit more unfocused than usual, and suddenly he blurted, “Are you married?”

“No-no,” I stammered.

“Would you like to be?”

“No!” I gasped.

But a couple years later I did get married –– to a city boy living in a one-bedroom apartment.

We’re celebrating our anniversary this week, and it occurred to me that I would have been happy living in that school bus in the woods so long as it was with the man I married. Especially if his cow was a Guernsey. I hear they give the creamiest milk.

Late to the Party, But We Still Had Fun

Here in the mountains of western North Carolina (we pseudo-locals call it WNC), the fall foliage season peaks in October. Tourists from far and wide are aware of this and book their travel plans months in advance. We live in the heart of WNC and somehow missed it. Well, I had my excuses: I’ve been mostly housebound for the past two months, recuperating from a broken back (more about that some other time) and working to finish a big project.

Yesterday, having finally emerged from a fog of pain and toil, I was ready to get out and admire the fall color. We planned a trip up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Blowing Rock with stops at Grandfather Mountain and Linville Falls on the way back. I was vaguely aware that the weather had taken a chilly turn, so I wore a hoodie over my turtleneck and tossed a windbreaker in the back seat. (This from a woman who once lived in Alaska and ought to know better how to dress for weather contingencies).

Our house is at Elevation 2500 and we still have some gold and crimson leaves on our leaves. But as we climbed upward, the leaves disappeared. Also, the temperature dropped a degree every hundred feet up. That’s fine, we cheered ourselves. With the leaves down, the views will be even more spectacular. On we went. We had the Parkway to ourselves and thought how pleasant it was and how very clever we were to have missed the tourist stampede.

But before we were halfway on our journey, we were unexpectedly and rather rudely forced off the Parkway by a barricade with a sign reading “Closed for Snow and Ice.” Ha! A few flurries and the Park Service starts to clutch its bureaucratic pearls.

So down we went to the highway, and wait—what ho!–what approaches? Cars with rooftop caps of snow perched jauntily over their windshields. And what’s that on the shoulders of the road? A dusting of snow like talcum powder in the creases of a woman’s arms. Did you know about this? the Sidekick asked, his tone a bit accusing. No, I cried. The weather channel said Sunny. I didn’t mention that there was an alert crawling across the scream that some people were reporting snowfall in the area, because those were obviously false reports. How could there be snow if the forecast was Sunny?

Soon the snow was no longer content to collect on the roadside but was making its presence known on the roadway as well. By now the dashboard thermometer showed that we’d dropped into the teens, and there were no views, leafless or otherwise, because the sky has gone to an opaque swirl. We were in a white-out.

This expedition had already lost all its appeal, but I don’t like to admit defeat. We were bound for Blowing Rock, and by God, that’s where we would go. And we did. We emerged from the ice fog and parked downtown. I grabbed my windbreaker, but the wind just laughed at my feeble efforts and blew right through me as we tried to negotiate Main Street. We made our way over icy sidewalks to the Village Café, only to learn that it closed for the season four days before. Wait—there’s a season?

This story doesn’t get any more dramatic than that, I’m afraid. We ate in a different restaurant and drove home with our electric seat warmers on and had drinks in front of the fire. But perhaps I’ve learned a lesson about tardiness. And also that Sunny does not mean without snowfall.

The Curious Case of the Constipated Carp

“Listen to this,” my husband yelled from the next room. “A man in England took his pet to the veterinarian and paid $485 to get it un-constipated. It was a goldfish.”

I was drinking a glass of water at the time, and I did a spit-take right out of The Three Stooges. Unfortunately I was at my computer, and I spewed a mouthful of water all over the keyboard. Instantly the screen went staticky like the HBO intro, then it went blank, then the whole computer lapsed into a coma.

It’s now being air-lifted to the nearest Apple Trauma Center. I await word of its prognosis and applicable insurance coverage.

Meanwhile, I’ve lost a day’s work because I don’t back up often enough.

Unlike the goldfish.

Luck of the Draw

This week I’m reading Some Luck, by Jane Smiley. This is the promised start of a trilogy about a Midwestern farming family.

This is ground she’s plowed before, of course (pun unapologetically intended) in A Thousand Acresamong other works. I can’t say I exactly enjoyed A Thousand Acres (so grim, and that was at the good moments), but some of its images resonated so deeply that I can still conjure them up in an instant all these many years later.

There is so much I admire about Smiley. I admire that she writes from something other than a modern urban sensibility. I admire her deep understanding of and empathy with ordinary people in the heartland. And I so admire her output! What a body of work she has. And somehow managed to have four husbands along the way! I don’t know how anyone could navigate the rapids of marriage, divorce, courtship and remarriage multiple times and still be able to steer her work to such fabulous completion. I wonder if maybe a new husband is just what one needs to keep that creative battery charged.

I jest. And speaking of Some Luck, I’m well aware that it’s only by luck that I’ve managed to stay happily married to one man all these years. It would be nice to think that the secret to our success is that we’re such wonderful people, but I won’t delude myself. My husband and I like to say that our marriage succeeds because one of us is a saint, but we’re never sure which one.

We were married in Anchorage, and for our anniversary this year we returned to the scene of the crime. We felt the giddiness of newlyweds as we went galloping around the city in search of the street corner where we met, the restaurant where we first dined together, the apartment building where we first lived together, the courthouse where we got married, and the hotel where we had our wedding luncheon. Well, the street corner was under repair, the restaurant was closed, and the courthouse had moved. But to paraphrase Elton John, we’re still standing, better than we ever did, looking like true survivors, feeling like little kids.

No More Resting at the Mediocre Inn

There’s a story, probably a fable, about a mountain lodge midway up one of the French Alps called the Mediocre Inn.  (Apparently “mediocre” is French for “halfway.”)  Travelers bound for the summit break their trip there and stop for a hot meal or a soft bed.  Some of them linger longer.  It’s a cozy spot, and while the view may not be as spectacular as it is at the peak, it’s still pretty nice.  Eventually most of them decide that there’s really no reason to push on to the top.  Why take the chance of blisters and frostbite?  They’ve already accomplished a lot just coming this far, and it’s so very pleasant at the Mediocre Inn.

There are a few different ways to spin that metaphor, and here’s mine.  After you achieve a certain level of success and comfort in your life, there’s a real reluctance to do anything to rock the boat.  The more you have, the more you have to lose.  The more risk-averse you become.

I’m guilty of lingering at the Mediocre Inn.  While I hope my work hasn’t been mediocre, I know my life has been.  It’s been comfortable.  Easy — not to say I haven’t worked hard, because, God!, how I’ve toiled — but easy in the sense of predictable.  I’ve been living in a controlled environment where everything I do has a moderate range of expected outcomes.  No sudden moves and no big surprises.

Until I finished law school, I’d spent the whole of my life in one little corner of Pennsylvania.  Then I astonished everyone by accepting a job in Alaska even though I didn’t know a soul there except the people who’d hired me.  But I was single, mostly broke, and I’d always dreamed about life on the last frontier.  Now or never, I thought, and off I went.  It was a Bold Move, but I had so little to lose back then.

Now I’m on the brink of another Bold Move, and I have a few things to lose this time.  A comfortable niche in the legal world, the warm regard of clients and colleagues, good friendships that will inevitably fade with distance and diminished opportunity.  But there are new adventures out there, and I’ll never experience them if I don’t put down my mug of hot chocolate and get up and out of the Mediocre Inn.  The summit is still up there, and I still haven’t scaled it.