When Michelle Stevens was 8 years old, she was introduced to Gary Lundquist, the man who would soon become her stepfather — and tormentor.
In the opening pages of her new book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving, out March 21 and excerpted exclusively in this week’s issue of PEOPLE, Stevens describes the night she was locked in a cage and “trained” to be a sex slave.
“I was badly tortured,” Stevens, now 48, tells PEOPLE in a interview from her home in Pasadena, California. “I still have flashbacks.”
In the book, Stevens recounts in explicit detail how her stepfather, a fifth-grade teacher, raped and tortured her throughout her childhood, ushering her through a world of sex rings and child pornography.
For most of her childhood, she lived a double life: She went to school determined to be a regular girl. But at home, she was Lundquist’s slave. (Though he was sentenced to three years’ probation in 1985 for engaging in sexual conduct with two girls at the school where he taught, Lundquist died in 1997 without ever answering for the years he assaulted Stevens.)
The trauma inflicted on her caused her personality to split as a way to cope. She was eventually diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, more commonly known as multiple personalities.
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“I was a victim, and I understand that now,” Stevens says. “But the stigma around mental illness is enormous. And the stigma around multiple personalities is off the chart.”
As a way to survive, Stevens buried her memories and developed amnesia, eventually escaping her stepfather’s abuse when she left for college at New York University. After graduation, she headed to Los Angeles to start a new life.
It was then that her memories came flooding back.
“You have one goal when you’re in captivity, and that’s to escape,” Stevens says. “Then you do escape and it’s not nearly as awesome as you thought it was going to be. Once you’re free, it’s really hard.”
For most of her adult life, Stevens has worked through her pain with the help of a compassionate therapist. She earned a PhD in psychology in 2012, and she used her own story for her dissertation — which formed the basis for her book.
There was a time that she couldn’t imagine her future. Now, with a wife and a young son, and her own private practice, she’s looking forward to inspiring other survivors.
“I am in a blessed position,” Stevens says, “to devote my life to helping others.”