English professor shares experiences as a stepmother through memoir

By Kevin Graham

Against the back wall of professor Kathleen Pfeiffer’s office is a shelf stacked to the top with books. The experience of loss that compelled her to turn to literature and writing as a child has again hit her 30 years later as a parent.

Pfeiffer, who serves as chair of the English department, will present “Snapshots,” a reading of selected passages from her memoir on her experiences as a stepmother, April 12 from 6:30-8 p.m. at the Detroit Institute of Arts as part of Art X Detroit. She will host a memoir writing workshop April 13 from 12-1:30 p.m. at the College for Creative Studies.

The event will feature interpretive dance performances from OU dance faculty Thayer Jonutz and Ali Woerner and imagery from “Marginalia” by Andrea Eis, associate professor of cinema studies.


Pfeiffer has known her stepdaughter, now 16, since she was two. For almost a decade, she played a vital role in the child’s life.

“When I first was introduced to my stepdaughter, she was two years old and at that time we had a 50-50 split of custody,” she said. “While she was at our house, I was a full-time, hands-on parent. I did full-time parenting, changing diapers, buying her clothes, meals, taking her to school, bringing her home, bath, medicine (and) bedtime. I did everything from age two until about age 11.”

Being a step-parent presents its own challenges in Pfeiffer’s mind.

“The challenge is that you have all of the responsibility of being a parent, but none of the authority of being a parent,” Pfeiffer said. “That particular challenge I think is compounded by the fact that there are no role models that aren’t hostile.”

She said she started seeing some of her frustrations played out in material she was teaching.

“In the opening section of ‘Invisible Man,’ he talks about how his struggle with invisibility is created because other people refuse to see him,” she said. “It’s the blindness of other people that creates his invisibility.”

Living within the margins

Pfeiffer was influenced by the ideas in Eis’s “Marginalia.” Eis describes this work as photographs of early 20th century Greek texts in which American Meta Glass has written her experience with the works in the margins. The notes serve as overlays against a backdrop of sculpture.

In her blog, Pfeiffer writes that many stepmothers can relate to this.

“Many stepmothers feel this way: squeezed into corners, vaguely unwelcome in their own homes, cramped, impaired,” she wrote.

Experiencing loss

Dealing with the detachment of her now adolescent stepdaughter, Pfeiffer is reminded of the loss of her brother, who passed when she was 13.

“My parents aren’t real talkative,” she said. “Once my brother died, we just never spoke about it.”

In the same way that she turned to literature and writing after her brother’s death, she returned again to try and make meaning out of the changes in her life.

“Flash forward 30 years later and I lost, in some ways, my stepdaughter left me at the same age as well,” Pfeiffer said. “It was the echo of that loss of a child at a particular stage in life, that’s what struck me. The work that I’m doing is a kind of interconnected meditation on how we respond to loss.”

Although the stories are different, Eis can see parallels in their two works.

“In my piece ‘Try to support me, as I you,’ the hesitant but hopeful gesture of one person physically reaching out to touch another is overlaid with the pleading words,” Eis said. “In one of Pfieffer’s memoir snapshots, she reaches out to her stepdaughter in ever increasing futility. Our disparate narratives connect, converse with and complement each other.”

For her part, Pfeiffer, who has a nine-year-old son of her own, is hoping the healing power of writing can help fill a void. She said the family sees her stepdaughter about every other weekend.

“A big part of my motivation behind the book is I want to write the book in order to heal the loss of her,” she said. “There’s a big hole in our family with her not there in the way that she used to be.”