Poison Apples

by | Aug 8, 2023 | CNF, Issue Thirty-Four

Shortly before my father married my stepmother, he asked me to draw her, using the pastels he had given me for my birthday. I was fourteen, a fairly talented artist for a fourteen-year-old, but not exceptional. Kimberly R. had surpassed me, in eighth grade. But my father, at that time in our lives, overestimated my talents, as parents do. This irritated me then, though now I wish I’d appreciated it. For some reason, I chose to draw my stepmother reclining on a beige, raw silk loveseat.

No doubt because of fairytales, stepmothers get a worse rap than stepfathers. But there are plenty of terrible stepfathers in literature. Mr. Murdstone in David Copperfield is awful, less because of his physical violence towards David than because of the wedge he drives between his weak, pliant wife and her son, the degree to which he coerces her into withdrawing from David. That, of course, is the worst damage a stepparent can inflict. “Alienation of affection” is the legal terminology; historically, the phrase describes adultery.

Trending on Twitter, after the launch of Prince Harry’s ghostwritten memoir Spare, are competing narratives about his stepmother Camilla Windsor. To take Harry’s side is to vilify her, though Prince Harry is far more measured and circumspect than his Twitter fans. He doesn’t call Camilla “evil,” he calls her “dangerous.” In the service of rehabilitating her own damaged reputation, Harry says, Camilla sacrificed him and his wife, cultivating journalists, handing reporters stories about Harry and Meghan to lure them away from pursuing leads about her son’s problem with drugs. So is she selfish, or a protective mother?

Another notorious stepfather is King Claudius in Hamlet, though to be fair to Claudius, he originally tries to be kind to Prince Hamlet, and to make him his heir. Claudius only decides to harm Hamlet once Hamlet becomes too open in his hostilities, too public with his disdain and suspicion. Claudius’s enmity is reciprocal.

In 1991, in the Mombasa Crater in Kenya, for reasons nobody understands, the six alpha lions of the six prides all abandoned their original prides and moved counterclockwise to adopt the pride next door. Why this was regarded in media as a tragedy instead of a strange zoological mystery: once the lions took over their new prides, they all proceeded to kill the cubs. They murdered, that is, the stepchildren. This makes me wonder if wickedness is a biological necessity, baked into the role of stepparent like poison into a venomous snake.

I have two friends who are stepparents. C liked to say snide things about her stepdaughter, which made me so angry that our friendship suffered. When I complained, C said, regarding her stepdaughter, “She pushes my buttons.” I retorted, “Well, you push my buttons!” My other friend, M, adores her stepson. She takes him to parties, and now that he is an adult, she’s on the lookout for a nice girl for him. No one is good enough, in M’s opinion. I can’t decide if my friend M 1) disproves my wickedness-as-biological-necessity theory above, or 2) is the exception that proves the rule.

In his book analyzing fairytales, the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim proposed that the wicked stepmother trope serves a crucial function for little girls. She allows girls a safe means of venting their feelings of anger, hatred, and rivalry towards their mothers. The real parent is bifurcated between an idealized dead mother and a cruel, competitive stepmother. The child is allowed (invited) to detest the (step)mother, and to experience her detestation with enjoyment instead of guilt.

A colleague of mine describes a good friend who is estranged from her son because her son’s wife doesn’t like her. When I express surprise, my colleague explains that in his social circle, this predicament is common: several of his friends have lost contact with their children, after these children married spouses who object to them.

This sends me back to Twitter, where defenders of Camilla claim that Meghan Markle is the villain, the one who led hapless Prince Harry astray. In his memoir and in interviews, Prince Harry counters that his father was initially charmed by Meghan, until Camilla turned Charles against her.

I often write about stepparents. The contingency of the relationship fascinates me, the forced intimacy between strangers. In my stories, the stepmothers are frequently kind and affectionate; they love their stepchildren. I wonder if this is wish-fulfilment, or whether in fiction I am more empathetic, see more clearly. In my most autobiographical stories, the stepmothers dissatisfy me. They seem clichéd and cartoonish.

The weapon of choice for stepparents is poison: the tempting poison apple, the poisoned tip of the sword, the poison Claudius pours into his sleeping brother’s ear. Poison is the preferred weapon because it’s removed, like a hard-to-trace news leak; because it affects bodies, trusting and vulnerable; because it literalizes those more ordinary toxins, words poured into ears.

How strangely the victim-Camilla and villain-Camilla narratives mirror each other. Even the adjectives applied to Camilla and Meghan by their opposing detractors (lying, crazy, strategic, cunning, evil) are the same, with the one exception that Camilla-haters additionally (and gleefully) call her ugly.

Forty years ago, my father asked me to draw my stepmother with pastels. Perhaps he intended to show us off to each other: his beautiful wife to his talented daughter. My drawing was not a success. Lying on the beige silk loveseat, my stepmother wore an expression I had difficulty identifying and more difficulty drawing. Was it vulnerable? Resigned? Defiant? These different expressions seem, as I put them into words, far too distinct to present confusion, but a resting face can be opaque. What was she thinking? What was I thinking? In a phenomenon I know well as a writer, the perfect picture in my head muddied and slopped on the page. “Huh,” my stepmother said, when she looked at it. My father said, “You can try again later.”

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