It was my stepmother who initially introduced me to—and enforced the idea of—being a “good girl.” I remember sitting at the kitchen table when I was around nine with a long strip of white paper laid out in front of me and my stepmother handing me a clear, ribbed, red inked pen with a cone-shaped lid. She instructed me to write in all caps at the top of the paper the words THINGS A GOOD GIRL SHOULDN’T DO and then list numbers one through 10 down the left side. She sat across from me at the table and ripped through half a pack of cigarettes while I filled up the long strip of paper.
I started out my list with the basics, so numbers one through five included such things as Lie, Cheat, Steal, Get bad grades and Talk back. For the remaining items, I drew on what I learned about bad behavior as a result of living in utter dysfunction with a crew of addicts. For number six, I wrote down Get pregnant because my mom had gotten pregnant with her first child, my oldest brother, at the age of 16 and that hadn’t been good. For numbers seven and eight, I filled in Get arrested and Go to jail because my brothers did both of those things on a regular basis and, according to my stepmother, this made them very bad people. Finally, for numbers nine and 10, at my stepmother’s urging, I wrote down Drink and Do drugs because, she had told me, only the most horrible and worthless sorts of people did those kind of things.
The last thing I had to do, before she put the list on display in the center of the refrigerator for everyone to see, was write at the bottom in all caps I PROMISE NOT TO DO THESE THINGS and sign my name, followed by my age and the date.
Every mistake or bad choice I made from that point forward was measured against the dreaded list. Wearing makeup at 14 was something that I was not permitted to do because my stepmother reasoned that if I wore makeup, I would end up looking like a “trampy clown.” The thing is I didn’t want to look like a trampy clown, either; I just wanted to look pretty and collect Cover Girl eye shadows. One Friday night, a couple of my friends and I met up at the mall to stalk cute boys and gorge ourselves on McDonald’s French fries. As soon as we arrived, I snuck off to the bathroom with a friend’s make up bag and dotted on lip gloss, blush and mascara. I felt amazing. When I got home that night, I completely forgot that I had makeup on and of course the mascara was the first thing my stepmother noticed. Her reaction was so volcanic you might have thought that I’d come home with a mustache of coke on my upper lip and an open condom rapper stuck to my forehead. I had violated number one on the list—I’d lied and broken my promise, which meant that I was bad. Before I went to bed that night, I stood in front of the refrigerator and stared at the list until I could see it on the backs of my eyelids when I closed my eyes. I was so desperate that I made a new promise to myself and to God to never, ever be bad. My mission was to only be good.
By the time I reached high school, the chaos that seemed to always be in vogue with my family—failed rehab attempts, jail sentences and drunken fistfights—had exploded. And so, it seemed, the pressure for me to be good had grown more complicated and dire. My stepmother, in an insane effort to scare me away from falling down a path of destruction, held a “meeting” at our kitchen table one random afternoon to warn me that if I ever got pregnant, ended up in jail or got mixed up in drugs and alcohol, both she and my father would disown me. I remember how slowly the word “disown” tumbled and faded around in my head like a PC screen saver picture as I sat there, dumbfounded, trying to figure out if I’d heard her correctly. I don’t remember responding but I do recall feeling bad—inherently bad, as if without even trying, I was one unforgivable eye blink away from turning into one of the worthless addicts that my stepmother so vehemently despised. If my stepmother’s ultimate goal, with her “Good Girl” list and denigrating threats of disownment, was to erode my self-confidence and turn me into a paranoid mess, then she succeeded. But if her ultimate intention was to potentially scare me away from a life of addiction, crime and illegitimate children—well then she failed miserably.
It wasn’t until thousands of dollars of therapy later, after I’d finally relieved myself of my stepmother’s crazy world, that I realized how twisted her anti-drug campaign really was. I’ve come to understand that addiction isn’t something that can be shamed into submission and it most definitely isn’t something that you can steer someone away from with draconian rules and measures. And since when has someone’s potential for addiction rested on how “good” or “bad” they are?
A few years ago, I had an unfortunate and unexpected run in with my stepmother at a field hockey game I’d organized in my hometown. At that point in my life, I was living in New York City where I had launched a non-profit organization for teenage girls. I had appeared on TV, hadn’t yet seen the inside of a jail cell, and was both addiction and child-free. You might say that according to my stepmother’s standards, I was doing really, really well. Yet I will never forget the smug and satisfied look on her face when she walked over to me and said, “I will be taking credit for everything good that you do in your life.” Even as an adult, I had no idea how to respond to this bizarre and brazen comment and so I just stood there, dumbfounded, holding a cardboard box full of scuffed hockey balls and sweaty shin guards in my hands. She then casually suggested we go out and chat over a glass of wine as if we were BFF’s in major need of some long overdue girl time. I gently declined her offer, threw my box in the back of my car and braced myself behind the steering wheel as I watched her walk away.