Fatal Misstep: the Murder of Kenzie Houk
The February 20th murder of Kenzie Houk has been described as a horrifying, incomprehensible, and shocking tragedy. Understandably so. Houk was 26 years old, eight months pregnant, and lying asleep in bed at the time she was shot in the back of the head. How can it be, many wonder, that the accused killer is Jordan Brown—her fiance’s eleven-year-old son?
But for stepfamily experts, the appalling story is not exactly incomprehensible, or even so shocking. In the words of Patricia Papernow, a Hudson, New York psychologist who works with stepfamilies, “It looks awful from the outside and sort of unspeakable, but these are the kinds of feelings that are pretty normal in a new stepfamily. You just hope there’s not a loaded gun around.” The feelings she refers to are presumably a stepchild’s primal rage and terror at the possibility of being excluded or eclipsed when a stepmother becomes pregnant—or simply arrives on the scene.
Sources say that Kenzie—who along with her two daughters from a previous relationship set up house with Jim Brown and his son in Wampum, Pennsylvania four months ago, after dating the boy’s father for ten months or so—had been trying hard to build a relationship with Jordan. Like every woman who partners with a man with children, she had her work cut out for her. Houk’s relatives and others suggest that Jordan was jealous about the upcoming marriage and imminent birth. He likely feared that this baby, a boy, would replace him, and he would be cast aside. Having been abandoned by his own mother years ago, he may also have worried he was being “left” once again, this time by his father. Like many stepchildren, he apparently resented his stepmother tremendously. Indeed, Jordan reportedly told one of Kenzie’s young nephews that he wanted to kill the woman who would soon become his stepmom.
Jordan Brown’s case is extreme, of course, distorted by the fact that he grew up in a culture of guns and hunting and lived in a household where he was allowed access to his very own child’s model loaded rifle, a Christmas gift from his father. It is further warped by the possibility that Jordan may well be sociopathic or attachment disordered according to doctors lately sounding off, plausibly, about just how this could have happened.
Yet Kenzie Houk’s story actually falls somewhere on the outer edge of normal. In my experience researching stepfamilies over the last three years, I met many more-or-less happy stepfamilies who managed to make it work and learned to appreciate and even love one another over time. I also met dozens of otherwise well-adjusted, high-functioning adults who had a stepmother they told me they “couldn’t stand” or “hated.” Years after the marriage, many of these normal-seeming adults remained unresigned to it, speaking of their stepmothers as wicked witches and their fathers as good guys who allowed themselves to be duped. Stepfamily expert Francesca Adler-Baeder, Ph.D. explains the enduring nature of stepchild antipathy: “Young children have a very deep need to be connected to their parents. In many studies, children were experiencing and describing stepparents as threats to their basic human need. Even as adults, we might revert back to the time when we most felt that vulnerability and need for emotional attachment.” And continue feeling a primitive, unshakable resentment and anger.
All of which means it’s not just difficult to be a stepmother. It can also be dangerous. Indeed, several women with stepchildren I interviewed told me they felt unsafe around their stepchildren. One had been physically threatened by her much-larger teen stepson. Another had a stepdaughter who shoved her, while others described being pushed and swung at by angry stepkinder. Stepmother and author Cherie Burns writes about a woman who was actually beaten up by her two visiting adult stepdaughters one night in her own kitchen. All these women were well-educated and well-off, with access to therapy and supportive friends and family. But none of that could insulate them from one of the truths of stepfamily life: it is characterized by intense emotions, and can sometimes be explosive. However, women don’t often speak about this aspect of being a stepmother, probably out of fear of being blamed. If a stepmother is fed up by the bad treatment she receives, we believe, she has no one but herself to take to task. If they don’t like her, the thinking goes, it must be because she is handling things wrong. If they hate her, this line of reasoning further suggests, it must be because she is hateful.
Kenzie’s murder helps to recast our deeply-ingrained and deeply misguided notions about stepmothers and stepchildren. We’re used to thinking of the former as heartless villains and the latter as excluded and disadvantaged victims. Even today, when one in three families is formed through a remarriage or re-partnering with children, the image of Disney’s Wicked Queen sheathed in black rubber, a red gash for a mouth (Is that Snow White’s blood?!) persists, sometimes retooled as a woman who is simply cold, jealous, or indifferent to her husband’s children. This in spite of ample research showing that stepmothers are likely excluded outsiders in the stepfamily system, and are the family members most vulnerable to stress, burnout, exhaustion, and depression.
Jordan Brown’s future is unclear. He is currently being detained in a juvenile correctional facility; his lawyer maintains he did not shoot his stepmom and that any assertions about stepfamily tensions and jealousy are “bullshit.” What will become of Kenzie Houk now that she and her fetus are dead? There is a distinct possibility, if internet buzz is any indication, that her fitness as a stepmother will be questioned. What did she do, some are already asking, to make him kill her? After all, if he hated her, she must have been hateful.
The truth is perhaps more difficult to accept, as it flies in the face of every fairy tale we were brought up on: stepmothers are more often victims than villains.