Dr. Michelle Stevens’ new book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving, powerfully weaves the story of a survivor of a child sex ring with the astounding facts about one of society’s most cloaked secrets.
“I had noticed that we, as a society, are fed a steady stream of news of stories about abductions, fallen clergy, and child pornography. But despite all the TV ratings and magazine sales these stories garner, we seem to know very little about sexual abuse and why it occurs,” writes Stevens.
Sex is a taboo subject. But sex with a child – unspeakable. And yet, for Stevens, it is a subject that not only needs to be spoken about, but better understood. Not only do we make wrong assumptions about why men choose to have sex with children, turn them into slaves or sell them, but we make many hurtful assumptions about the children – and later adults – who suffer the consequences.
Describing her early childhood, Stevens tells the story of her mother’s then boyfriend, Gary, explaining how Stalin asked his cabinet if they wanted to know how to control people. Stalin then brings in a chicken and one-by-one removes all of its feathers. When he was done, the chicken refused to leave his side.
While the outward appearance was tightly controlled, in the confines of Gary’s basement, Stevens slowly becomes that chicken.
“I am cold and cramped in this little cell. The dog collar is too tight. I have to pee. I’ve quickly come to appreciate being left alone in my cage, though. When they take me out, that’s when the bad things happen. So I kind of like it in here,” she writes.
When Stevens relays the abuse to her mother, she quickly dismisses it. Child molesters, after all, Stevens reminds us, are notorious for exploiting parents’ trust, in fact, it’s part of the game. Yet they are obsessed with children. So obsessed that they frequently appear in helping professions and are often seen as nice guys in the neighborhood.
That was Gary. A fifth grade teacher, who offered Stevens’ mother a nice house to live in, financial security, and built-in babysitting. But unknown to Stevens’ mother at the time, what Gary really wanted was a sex slave.
“Gary Lundquist yearned for a real slave, one he could completely control. That’s what sadism is: a need to dominate. At its most rudimentary, domination can be achieved by brute force – tying people up, torturing them, degrading their bodies in various ways. That’s all fun stuff for the basic sadist, but for a guy like Gary, who considered himself a man with superior IQ, physical coercion was getting boring,” writes Stevens.
As Stevens endured daily brainwashing, she learned to dissociate from her feelings. It was this ability that allowed Stevens to endure the unthinkable – penetration with foreign objects, hours spent in “slave positions,” bondage and later, being sold as a sex object to other men.
“Giving a slave to other men for sex is considered essential training in S/M [sadomasochism] culture. It humiliates the slave, puts her in her place and reminds her of her utter worthlessness,” she writes.
When Stevens enters adolescence, she begins to realize that not only is her personality changing, but she has more than one. Gary accuses her of being overly emotional, manipulative and attention seeking. Even when Stevens becomes pregnant and Gary performs a home abortion which goes horribly wrong and she is rushed to the hospital, Stevens is told that the bleeding was a result of her own masturbation.
In her junior year of high school, struggling with her own suicidal ideations yet longing for someone to notice, Stevens writes a powerful story of a fifteen year old rebel fighting against a sadistic tyrant who rapes, beats and kills a different woman every night, then takes the rebel for his own, beating her and then making love to her. Even though Gary had just been charged with three counts of child molestation, Stevens’ teacher tells her that her story, “reads like a classic defense of a wife abuser.”
When Stevens is finally able to leave her home and seeks therapy – still not fully remembering her past – her experience only mirrors the invalidation she experienced as a child.
“Looking back, I realize that I never fully trusted [my therapist] probably because I sensed that he didn’t trust me. In order to help people overcome trauma, it’s imperative to believe that they can do exactly that,” she writes.
In time, Stevens does find a therapist who has not only done the long, hard work of healing through therapy herself, but offers her something no other therapist has before: genuine empathy and love.
Through this experience, Stevens is able to finally release herself from self-blame for the years of sex slavery and prostitution and find a way to not just love herself but offer this love to others – as a therapist who helps people become free of their demons, just as she learned to become free of hers.
As Stevens takes her readers through her extraordinary life story we are reminded that even unfathomable life circumstances do not rob us of the ability to ultimately find love, laughter, joy and our true calling. Her book is truly a gift to us all.
Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving
Michelle Stevens, PhD
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (2017)