I Know My First Name is Steven (1989)

As we’ve seen, true crime stories tend to get awfully sensationalized by the American Miniseries, but “I Know My First Name is Steven” is an example of when it’s done right.  The true true story of Steven Stayner, a California boy kidnapped at age seven and kept for over seven years, the story certainly does work the tear ducts, especially the half that tells the story from the point of view of Steven’s parents.  However, the other half of the story is told from the point of view of Steven and that part is honest and beautifully written.  It portrays so wonderfully how easily manipulated Steven was by a truly evil man, and how he came to believe the lies until finally committing a brave act on Steven’s part brought the whole episode to a happy conclusion, happier certainly than the previous seven years.

“Christmas isn’t for us anyway.  Christmas is for the kids,” says Kenneth Parnell (Arliss Howard) to his cohort Murphy (Pruitt Taylor Vince) as they pass out leaflets trying to remind Christmas shoppers what the holiday is really about.  Parnell then tells Murphy that he always wanted a son, someone to “pull my boots off at night” and other assorted things that are not high on everyone’s list of child-rearing.  The thought of it spurs him on to buy a load of goods for kids in 1972 and tell Murphy, “I’m gonna get me a kid for Christmas.”

That child will be Steven Stayner (Luke Edwards), one of five Stayner kids of the just-getting-by Stayners (John Ashton and Cindy Pickett).  When Mom gets home from work and one of the little kids is making dinner, no one can find Steven.  Luckily, he does make it home that night, and one of his sisters asks, “is Daddy gonna give him a whipping?” to which Mom cheerfully says yes to make sure Dad does it.  “You gotta learn to respect and obey when grown-ups say something,” Dad says, threatening the frightened child even more.  “Don’t ever make me sorry I didn’t whip you here tonight,” he tells Steven on his way out of his room. 

Mom asks Steven what makes him so miserable and it’s where they live.  He likes the “house by the orchard by the ocean,” but Mom reminds him they can’t afford it. 

“One day he’s gonna thank me for making him my son,” Parnell tells Murphy, as they have short scenes with a clearly unraveling Parnell talks about snatching a kid and the less mentally capable Murphy doesn’t quite understand.

The Stayner household is not the happiest, but they do care.  Despite the grandfather’s claim that “at least when we had a litter of puppies we drowned the runts,” referring to the fact that he feels his daugther has too many kids, Mom is worried about Steven at school without his muffler.

As soon as Parnell sees Steven, he nods to Murphy, who is standing on the street handling out more religious pamphlets.  He takes Steven to “Reverend” Parnell and they get him in the car by offering to take him to his parents to learn about religion.  Steven realizes they are passing his street and Parnell tells him, “don’t worry about it…you afraid you’re gonna get in trouble?  Your father’s never gonna hit you again.  I promise you that.”  That’s chilling, the way Parnell is immediately able to manipulate him already.

Back at home, Mom and Dad think it’s just another day of Steven missing, and this time Dad swears he’s going to belt him good.  They can’t believe how he would disobey orders the very next day!  They search around and no one has seen him.  Parnell tells Steven he has spoken to his mother and she has approved his spending the night.  He then takes him 20 miles away to his trailer.  If you think it’s a dumb Hollywood twist that Grandpa (Ray Walston) lives only a few hundred feet away and actually sees Parnell and Murphy drive past him, it’s not.  In real life, he lives only that far away from his kidnapped grandson!

The Stayners alert the police to Steven’s disappearance and though re-assured that “we will have the whole force looking out for him,” neither parent is convinced.  So, they go out on their own looking for him in just about any place a child can hide.  As for Steven, he doesn’t want to stay at Parnell’s, but Parnell twists him.  “You’re Daddy’s not to happy with you now, know why?” getting Steven to admit all of his supposed crimes, for which he’s now being punished.  When Steven refuses to eat green beans, Parnell explodes, and Steven is certainly aware of what anger means. 

As Parnell is feeding Steven hot chocolate, Dad is only a bit away at Grandpa’s looking for him.  “Look at it this way, it’s one less mouth to feed,” the mean old man says.  When he returns, the police are there asking the parents if they have beaten or killed Steven, since one of Steven’s friends mentioned Steven was afraid of getting a beating.  Dad offers to take a lie detector test to prove he didn’t do it, but he also suggests the police request the same of his father-in-law, the one living near kidnapped Steven. 

Steven begs Parnell to let him go, but he refuses, with Murphy powerless to do anything.  Parnell does his best to act the doting parent, giving him all sorts of food and even a bit happy when Steven says he likes soda.  Between sentences rhapsodizing the area and all the fun they can have, Parnell keeps reminding Steven that “your parents are having problems” and that’s why he can’t go home.  “When the time comes to go, I’ll take you home myself,” Parnell chirps to Steven on his way out, leaving Murphy to watch the boy. 

The police suggest a psychic, and though Dad says “we are churchgoing people,” Mom insists.  Anything to try and find her boy.  The psychic leads them right to the area where Steven is actually captive, but since it also happens to be near his grandfather, it’s discounted, though the psychic assures Mom that “he’s very much alive and very afraid.”

Steven is smart enough to try to get Murphy to make a call for him, even though the closest phone is at the store.  Murphy is too afraid of Parnell (“he’s crazy, scares the hell out of me”) to actually do anything, and Parnell arrives mid-conversation with some hair dye for Steven and news that he plans to bilk money out of his mother and will not be back for a few hours.  He returns with a dog named Queenie and this brightens Steven a bit, until he asks, “can I take her home with me?”  Nope.  Parnell tells him that a judge has awarded him custody and “you can start calling me Dad.  I also got your name changed.  Your new name is Dennis.  Dennis Gregory Parnell.”  He lays on the “your parents don’t want you anymore” routine thick, especially about money, which is information he learns from Steven.  “Your parents can’t afford so many kids,” he says sympathetically, saying that he wanted to talk to Steven’s parents himself, but they were so poor they had to move and he can’t reach them.  To a kid of seven, this is all confusing, but makes enough sense that he starts to believe it.  Parnell keeps Murphy in line by threatening prison time for him too. 

A week after the kidnapping, both Stayner parents and the grandfather are cleared by lie detector and Mom gives her father a picture of Steven to show around his neighborhood.  Parnell sees it in the grocery store and walks by it quickly.  He realizes they have to move Steven and violently keeps Murphy in line.  As Parnell spirits Steven away, Steven’s parents go through all the levels of grief: blaming themselves, crying and yelling. 

In a motel, Parnell reminds Steven that “if you like the dog so much, you could say thanks” and then forces him to hug him for the present, which he feels pales in comparison to the attention Steven pays Queenie.  Cutting and coloring Steven’s hair, Parnell tells Steven he must “never ever tell” his story, his old name or their relationship.  “What if I forget?” Steven asks.  “Well, that’d be terrible.  You’d be in big trouble.  You’d get a bad whipping.  You’d be locked up in a kid’s shelter…they are just like prisons,” Parnell responds, scaring the kid into submission.  So confident is Parnell of Steven’s frightened devotion that he lets his loose in town for 30 minutes with $2.  Steven doesn’t know how to use the pay phone or even his phone number.  The operator gives him director assistance who tells him to call another director assistance, but by then he’s spotted Parnell and instead takes the money to but Queenie a bone and Parnell a pack of cigarettes to keep him happy.

By this point, it’s Christmas.  “Life has got to go on,” Mom tells Dad, “we have other kids and they need this one,” saying that when Steven returns, they will have a second Christmas.  Dad is too overwhelmed to celebrate joyously, but Mom tries to show some normalcy for her other four kids, assuring them that when Steven comes home, “we are really gonna celebrate.”  Meanwhile, Parnell is thrilled with the pack of cigarettes, especially when he hears that Steven convinced the saleswoman to let him buy them for “my dad.” 

Parnell enrolls Steven in a series of schools, and a few months shy of a year from the kidnapping, a guidance counselor calls Steven in because he seems “distracted.”  Steven tries to tell her the story, but the counselor believes the story Parnell has told them and almost guilts Steven into behaving better, “about the best thing you can do is forget your old life!”  Another avenue blocked.  He tries escaping with the dog at night, but a bunch of street kids scare him into returning because his father will beat him if he doesn’t. 

Steven wants to write a letter to his family, but Parnell tells him coldly that his real father had a heart attack and died.  “He’s up in heaven,” he says, further adding that his mother moved East and the kids are “all over the place,” just like you, while reading the newspaper at a restaurant.  “You want another beer?” he asks the despondent kid. 

Two years later, Steven is smoking when Parnell brings home Barbara (Brenda Hillhouse), a plump sexual plaything who beckons Steven “to bed with me and your Dad.”  Steven ignores it, bit Parnell jokes, “you heard your mother,” and Steven stubs out his cigarette to join them.

Five years later, Mom is packing up Steven’s belongings, much to Dad’s dismay.  Mom knows he’s not dead, quieting her husband from worrying that he was never baptized and thus safe.  She looks at every boy on the street, hoping she would recognize her son.

Steven (now Corky Nemec) is a confident teen on the football team who brings friends home to drink beer.  “He lets you drink?” his friends ask.  “Why not?” Steve replies, thinking it totally normal as he lights up a cigarette.  Parnell is thrilled when he walks in, joining the boys in a beer and charming them, offering to take them on his motorcycle “one by one.”  Though the episode with Barbara calling Steven into bed is the only time the movie has hinted at the horrid molestation, Steven’s friend tells him that his father “hit on me.”  Steven tells him, “he tries to do that with my friends sometimes…as long as he’s doing it to them and not me…” Steven says wistfully, but Steven forces his friend to stay silent.  Steven’s friend asks why he doesn’t turn Parnell in, and Parnell has Steven so brainwashed, that he says he’ll end up in a shelter if Parnell goes to prison.  True enough, for the very next conversation has Parnell telling Steven if he doesn’t help him on Friday (when Steven wants to go to baseball try-outs), Parnell lays it all on over again, adding, “you can be replaced.” The something is a threatened second kidnapping and Parnell laughs, “if I end up liking him more than you…,” another creepy manipulation technique that seems to keep Steven in line. 

Steven’s friend actually tells his parents about the molestation, so the police show up.  Parnell is not a master of trickery for nothing, so he spins a wild tale about how he, the Reverend, is keeping his son out of trouble since his mother was institutionalized for drink and drugs.  So, he tries to keep the boys his son brings home on a religious path, which is misunderstood.  The policeman buys the story and goes away.  It’s time to move.

By 1980, Parnell has decided on a new boy.  With the help of a teenage Deke (Jason Presson), he decides to snatch Timmy (Jacob Gelman), a little kid with a lot more fight in him than Steven had when kidnapped.  “Happy Valentine’s Day.  This is your new little brother,” Parnell cheerfully tells Steven upon the latter’s return. 

Luckily, the police chief just happens to get a bulletin about Timmy when Steven’s parents are visiting his office for a periodic check-in.  Parnell tells Timmy the same stories he told Steven, but the difference is that Steven is older and wiser, having been through it all.  He tells Timmy what has happened to him and that Parnell is lying.  Parnell goes off to a new job offering the boys advice to always gain people’s trust and always be on time.  To keep them from running, he says, “I might have forgot something, so I might be back.”  But, Steven immediately puts a coat on Timmy, grabs a knife and goes to leave, promising to return for the dog. 

As they try to flag down a car, Parnell passes them on the road, and Steven knows they have to get to safety quickly because Parnell will chase them when he finds them gone.  That ends the first part of the harrowing tale. 

Finally, a man comes along to offer them a ride and though Timmy is afraid of taking a ride from a stranger, Steven says, “it’s okay, you’re with me.”  Steven takes Timmy to his hometown, but Timmy can’t remember exactly where he lived, and as they are looking, they see Parnell on duty at his job.  Steve sends Timmy into the police station, but won’t go with him because he actually believes that Parnell has legally adopted him and thus he’ll be sent back to him.  Timmy gets scared, but the police have seen him and are told to pick up the boys.  The police recognize Timmy as the boy kidnapped just weeks previously.  They frisk Steven and find his knife.  “You might have a problem, son,” Officer Warner (Barry Corbin) tells him.

Under interrogation, Steven is accused of kidnapping Timmy, but says he didn’t.  Who did?  “My dad,” he whispers.  “He’s not my father,” he says, “and he did the same thing to me when I was a kid.”  From there, the whole story comes tumbling out.  “I know my first name is Steven.  I think my last name is Stayner,” is all he can remember, but Officer Warner has enough to go on and finds the file on missing Steven.  Steven is shocked to hear his real father is still alive, but he will not give up Parnell, not until he realizes the extent of his lies. 

The police call the Stayner family and say Steven is on the way home, must to the excitement of the whole family.  That’s not entirely true.  Timmy’s parents come for him, but the police keep Steven until they arrest Parnell so he can identify him.  Now it’s time for Steven to be taken home, and Nemec’s performance turns spectacular.  He’s a confused teenager whose reality has been completely undermined.  He still can’t even stop calling Parnell “my dad” when the media descends on him.  Before going back to his real family, Steven returns to Parnell’s house to pick up Queenie. 

The media is waiting for Steven when he finally returns home, so thick that one police officer quips it’s “like a Martian invasion.”  Adapting to life back at home is not so easy.  Steven does not actually know one sister from the other, though the family gives him the Christmas present they have put “under the tree every year since you left,” as per his uncomfortable father and some bad word choices.  It’s the very doll Steven had written to Santa asking before being kidnapped. 

In jail, the police find that Parnell has a record of kidnapping and molesting stretching back 30 years. 

Over his first dinner at home, Steven is peppered with questions by his family, but his parents want some alone time with him.  “This guy, he treat you okay?” his father asks, until his older brother Cary (Todd Eric Andrews) bursts in, having been camping in Yosemite (where he would later kill four women and earn the nickname “The Yosemite Killer”).  Steven volunteers to sleep in the couch, saying, “I’ve slept in a lot of worse places.” 

Mom tries to ask Steven questions, and he replies to them with obvious discomfort, but the conversation ends when he refuses to sleep without Queenie, saying he’ll share the garage with her.  He then gets a chance to go through the house while everyone is asleep, trying to remember the past.  For breakfast, he wants bacon and eggs, strange for his family, but they will do anything to make him happy.

Remember Murphy?  When he sees the news of Steven’s return, he knows to expect a knock from the police and one comes.

Cary tells Steven that life changed once he was kidnapped.  As for Dad, “he started crying when you left and he never stopped,” becoming a softy.  The parents never come into Cary’s room, and don’t even know how talented an artist he is. 

The police have gone over Parnell’s home a few times, but it takes a DA to find naked pictures of Steven, proof of the molestation that he has always denied.  The police come to talk to Steven about it, warning his father to leave the room, but he stays.  Apparently Parnell’s bail is less than Murphy’s, and only because they didn’t know about the molestation.  Papa Stayner refuses to believe the allegations, but the police have proof from other boys, as well as the pictures.  “When did it start?” the policeman asks.  “The first night he took me,” he whispers, which causes his father to explode, “you let that guy…” “Let him?  I was seven years old!” Steven yells.  Steven and his father both want to keep it a secret, but the police have to use the evidence and “it will probably get into the papers” because they need to stop it from happening again.  This causes great awkwardness in the home because it was still 1980 when attitudes toward molestation were very different than they would be over the next few decades. 

“He thinks it’s my fault,” Steven says to his mother.  She denies it, to which Steven replies, “then how come he can’t even look at me?”  The kids at school are ruthless.  “Hey Stevie, you forget your purse,” one teases.  The world associates molestation with homosexuality, but Steven is too traumatized and confused to either fight back or accept the sympathy of those who want to be nice to him.  And Dad simply doesn’t understand, refusing to even look at his son.  Mom forces an encounter, which takes place at the garage door where Steven had written his name and gotten in such trouble for doing so.  Dad has kept it there ever since.  Dad tentatively admits that “I understand…and I don’t blame you,” but Steven snaps, “yeah, that’s why you can’t even look me in the eye.”

The showers at school are a breeding ground for jokes.  One nasty kid is so awful that Steven punches him until the teacher pulls them apart.  Cary half helps, but Steven is too angry to accept any assistance or, again, sympathy.

When it comes time to prosecuting Parnell, Steven has to testify to the abuse in order to get a conviction, or else Parnell will only serve time for second degree kidnapping of Timmy.  What about the other boys?  “The other boys are scared.  We’ve lost them,” the lawyer tells Steven.  He reluctantly agrees. 

Adjustment does not come easily.  Cary’s solution is that Steven needs a “W-O-M-A-N” and gives Steven the number of a girl.  After all, he’s famous and he’ll be rich.  He screws a girl three times in a car, but she wants to know about the abuse.  “You still think there’s something wrong with me after three times?” he asks, drinking heavily and passing out on the girl.  Mom wants him disciplined for his behavior, but Dad won’t.  “I don’t want to take the chance of losing him again,” Dad says, but Mom reminds him he was kidnapped and goes for the tough love approach.  “We can’t keep treating him like he’s not one of our kids,” she yells. 

Steven asks a girl out on a date, spending money he’s won in court on a suit, a taxi and a fancy restaurant.  “He just needs to celebrate, have a little fun,” Dad says, but Cary snaps, “I was never in a taxi in my whole life.”  The fancy approach doesn’t work, but Steven is able to open up to his date, confessing, “I try to do the right things, but I don’t even know what the right things are…before it never mattered, I could never hurt anyone, never disappoint anyone.”  He says his parents are upset to have “lost their sweet little boy and got THIS instead.  Who wouldn’t be disappointed?” he says.  “I wouldn’t,” she sweetly coos. 

Trial time.  Timmy testifies that he fought when abducted.  Steven testifies about Timmy’s abduction, but Parnell’s lawyer has it spun so that Deke and his father did it.  Parnell gets seven years in prison, much to the dismay of the Stayners.

As Steven turns 16, he wants a car, but his mother is worried that he drinks too much to drive safely.  “I can take care of myself.  I did it for seven years!” he roars at her.  The school sees him as a problem child, getting in to fights and enduring slipping grades.  He has also been absent too many days and will not graduate without an additional year of high school.  “No offense sir, but I’d have to be crazy to repeat this year again,” he tells the principal.  Though he wants a fancy car, girlfriend Jodie (Amy O’Neill) convinces him to buy a safer Nova.  However, she’s soon in trouble with him because she wants to go to the trial and he won’t allow it.  “I don’t want anyone I know to hear about those things he says. 

The school bully, Birch (Harold Pruett), who has been hassling Steven, continues to do so, but Steven would rather exploit his celebrity and buy beer by telling the clerk who he is and draw on his sympathy.  “I hope they nail the dirt bag,” the clerk says as he lets Steven buy the beer.  The truth behind it all is that he cannot cope with life the way everyone wants to live it.  He even contemplates suicide. 

Parnell’s trial regarding Steven starts in December of 1981.  He is forced to admit to the molestation, testifying it started on the first night of his capture.  He describes how there was only one bed, it starting with some touching and then he tells of the rest in halting whispers.  Steven is angry that Jodi came, though she says, “I tried not to” in the movie’s absolute worst line.  He takes her to the lake where he gets drunk and she confesses her love for him.  He responds in kind, swearing he means it.  “Sometimes I feel like you’re all I have” he tells her before reaching over to kiss her.  She wants to go home, but she ends up staying. 

Things at home get worse, so bad that Mom is forced to admit “he never really came home,” but it gets worse when Parnell is sentenced to only 20 months under California law.  “That makes our laws crazier than that sick bastard,” Dad tells the press.  Parnell gives Steven a monstrous look when sentenced, so Steven takes Jodie on a fast and dangerous drive over a cliff, though both are fine.  “You could have killed it,” Jodie says, revealing she’s pregnant. 

As he threatened, Steven moves out, because he can’t live under his parents’ rules.  He has blown through the money, and his mother reminds him he can always come home.  With Queenie, he is gone again from the family home.  “He’ll be back,” Dad says.  “I don’t think so,” more rational Mom says.  Dad still can’t face the truth or paint over Steven’s name on the garage.  Steven moves into a trailer and tells his mother he wants to marry Jodie.  “That’s the right thing to do,” she says and agrees to sign the papers since they are both minors.  They have a heart-to-heart where he says he understands why his parents act the way they do, but that he’s not a typical 16-year old.  Steven won’t allow anyone to love him.  “Why do you hate yourself so much?” Mom asks.  “I let him do it to me,” Steven says.  He still feels responsible, saying “there are times I could have killed him.”  It’s the first time he’s really opened up about it, even admitting that he told his friends to deny it, for which he feels terrible guilt.  He also tells her that he expected them to “come and get me,” and asks why they didn’t.  “We couldn’t find you.  We tried everything.  We never stopped trying,” she replies as he falls into her arms in the perfect TV ending.  “You’re home now.  Things will be better now.” 

The very year “I Know My First Name is Steven” was released, Steven Stayner was killed in a motorcycle accident, survived by Jody (in the movie, it’s spelled Jodie) and two children. 

Corky Nemec, and to a large degree Luke Edwards, are what make this movie so gripping.  Their confused complex performances are made to be the focus rather than the details, though none of them are left out.  The movie is incredibly faithful to the true story, but yet it does not feel sensationalized to the point of triviality.  While watching this story, all other stories of abduction are melted into it and the pain of the kids, as opposed to the parents, who are usually at the center of these stories, is felt so strongly.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

3 Comments to “I Know My First Name is Steven (1989)”

  1. Patty D 20 March 2016 at 4:36 pm #

    Isn’t it true that Steven Stayner’s brother murdered someone

    • Bj Kirschner 21 March 2016 at 10:30 pm #

      That’s a vey good question, one to which I do not have the answer, but I will look it up and see what I can find!

      • Patty D 22 March 2016 at 2:44 am #

        I just looked him up on the Internet. His name is Cary Stayner and it said that he is a serial killer


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