The book Punished: A mother’s cruelty. A daughter’s survival. A secret that couldn’t be told. by Vanessa Steel is frightfully deceptive. While it markets itself like an abused child’s survivor story it manages to become a subtle book-length commercial for a self-proclaimed psychic medium. With some questionable writing and odd layout Punished is best left on the shelf.
Usually, survivor stories have a few basic elements. First off, an account of the abuse. Punished graciously exceeds this requirement with its full retelling of the cruelty the narrator endured as a child, going back to when she was only three years old. One has to wonder just how much dramatic license was taken in recounting these memories. The book states them as very vivid and far too detailed for a child that young to remember.
Secondly, a survivor story usually takes the reader through the narrator’s entire lifetime until the book was written. Punished spans Steel’s youngest memories until just after she turns 18. There is a brief epilogue explaining what happened after that, but it’s far too short and doesn’t contain any information regarding how Steel was able to move past the abuse she suffered or how she came to terms with her childhood. This presents another problem, as survivor stories are usually stories of hope and overcoming seemingly-insurmountable odds to become a productive and fulfilled member of society. Steel’s ending message is one of self-absorption and not one of hope.
Additionally, most survivors, in some way, confront their abusers or use their books to send a final message regarding what happened to them. Steel never confronts her mother, her greatest tormentor, about the abuse. Nor does she ever really send a message about the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her grandfather, who died when she was a teenager. Steel does ask her mother about her paternity in the end of the book, but doesn’t push the issue once her mother makes it clear she has no interest in telling Steel the truth.
The most bizarre part of the book is Steel’s alleged psychic ability. When she was a child, Steel claims she heard voices in her head. Of course, this would make the average reader think that she was suffering from some kind of identity disorder or possibly schizophrenia due to the abuse or a mental illness. However, Steel goes on to claim that these voices are spirits. She also claims to be able to communicate with the spirits of those who have passed on, both seeing and hearing them, and that she predicted the Kennedy assassination, among other things.
This, of course, leaves one to wonder that if Steel actually has the abilities she claims to have, why doesn’t she take James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge, win the money and start a charity to help abused children? Oh wait, because psychic ability has never been scientifically proven. Ever. To her credit, Steel does list on her website that any consultation with her should be considered entertainment or experiment.
Another strange element of the book is Steel’s religious convictions. Steel states that her mother used religion as part of the abuse. Her mother tells her that God hates her, that Jesus sees her doing naughty things that she didn’t even do and demands that she be punished. Even with all of this negative reinforcement, Steel emerges so religious that she views being a nun as her ultimate career goal. She never really explains how she went from believing Jesus finds her to be an ugly, horrible person to believing anything else. Although, Jesus doesn’t seem to guide all of her life choices.
At the age of 17, Steel goes on a first date with a young man, then decides to have unprotected sex with him in the backseat of his car. The spirits have previously told her that she was going to have a baby girl named Samantha, so Steel finds herself overjoyed to become pregnant a few weeks later. This bizarre turn of events isn’t looked back on with the wisdom and maturity of someone who realized years later that having a baby as a teenager with someone she barely knew probably wasn’t the best idea. Instead, the entire section is related matter-of-factly, as if there was no other option than for this to happen.
Overall, Steel’s book is readable but ultimately disappointing. It doesn’t fit the standard of the usual survivor story, nor does it offer any insight or depth into the physiological workings of an abused child. With no final message to wrap up what has just been written, there’s no real conclusion for the book. There are far better stories to read.