How should you regard yourself as a childhood abuse victim? How should we as a society approach and deal with childhood abuse -- being as we seem to be doing a bad job in eliminating it? The Food Network's and New York's first lady Sandra Lee suggests a formula.


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, April 20, 2011. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

Overcoming Abuse: Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade Recipe

One popular theory -- for example by Canadian best-selling psychiatrist, Gabor Mate -- is that all cases of addiction are due to childhood abuse.

Although Mate is not a traditional disease theorist, in many ways his model of addiction rivals the determinism, pessimism and disempowerment of the original version -- once you are abused, you are stained for life, the scarlet letter "A" engraved deep within you.

Of course, the question is, are people inevitably and permanently scarred by childhood abuse? The answer: not often. Or, the issue of how permanently children are damaged has at least as much to do with their experiences concurrent to and following the abuse. (Please, I am not recommending that children be abused, but only stating that they survive more often than not, and often flourish despite it.)

Here's a case at hand -- as revealed in Vogue's article on Sandra Lee, the long-term girlfriend of newly elected New York governor Andrew Cuomo, and the domestic diva who has written nearly two-dozen books and who stars on the Food Network as a woman who brings haute cuisine within reach of ordinary women and men. Lee popularized the concept of "semi-homemade" - that is, use of prepackaged ingredients in higher-end recipes.

Here is Lee's background - she was abandoned by her teen-age addicted mother at a young age. But that's not the bad part. The bad part is when her mother reclaimed her from Lee's beloved grandmother, after which she was regularly abused by her mother and stepfather.

Because her new home was a disorganized, impoverished mess, Lee became responsible for the care and feeding of her four younger siblings+. Given this job, she strived to be creative and healthy on a very limited budget. Lee then attended a culinary institute, where she mastered fine cooking. But she coalesced this experience with her childhood one of making due with sparse and basic ingredients. Voila - semi-homemade!

At the same time, Lee describes how she has accommodated her career to be with her boyfriend and help him to raise his three daughters - with whom she reportedly has a good relationship. That is, she maintains her vast business empire while making time for family, including the role of first lady of New York.  In this role, she has taken as her special province fighting childhood hunger. (Get the connection?)

Lee has a formula in her business -- people like formulas. Her semi-homemade mantra is "70% ready-made and 30% fresh products." This seems to be something many people can accomplish, to judge from Lee's astronomical success, and thus they can feel more in control of their food intake and feeding their families.

But I wonder what Lee's formula for overcoming abuse would be? I haven't read her ideas on the subject, so here is my extrapolation based on her life.  Since she doesn't describe any particular therapy, or that she self-identifies as an abuse victim, I call this formula "semi-homemade."

  1. Seek to escape the abuse internally and, when you are able, externally. Or, if you are an outside observer, assist a child to do these things, perhaps making yourself a bridge out of abuse.
  2. Celebrate your resilience. You didn't seek to be placed under such duress -- but, by God, you've survived it! What a strong and admirable person you are!
  3. Always return to your self-reliance and self-efficacy. Knowing that you could survive the worst experiences a child can have means that the rest of your life will, in some sense, be easier - you know that you can handle whatever comes your way.
  4. Help other people to do the same, rather than to lament their destinies.
  5. Nobody's perfect. Okay -- following the admiring Vogue article, New York Magazine also published one portraying Lee as a driven control-freak* and a home wrecker (not Cuomo - a previous married boyfriend).

At the same time, the two articles make Lee seem remarkably unprententious and accessible -- at one point she laughingly lifts her sweater unselfconsciously to reveal a bit of a bump on her smooth waistline (Lee is in her forties).  Lee can be very emotional about her childhood, quickly dissolving into tears when discussing the topic, despite her steely business demeanor.

We all -- abused or not -- carry our burdens and peculiarities with us. The goal is to mold these into a life, a career, a family, a sense of self and of satisfaction.


+ Lee continues, by all accounts, to be a generous and supportive sister.

* In one such negative instance portrayed in the magazine, Lee strong-arms a Tyson Corp. representative into donating more food to food banks. My reactions were (a) I should feel sorry for Tyson? (b) better that she was a Republican who doesn't give a shit about hungry people?