When one of the most powerful explosions on record tore through our eighth-floor apartment in central Beirut last month, it felt like the end of the world.
In that millisecond, hundreds of thousands of people didn’t know if they would live or die. My mother and I were catapulted into the living room from our terrace, clinging to our small dogs, as the 440lb sliding metal doors flew through the air, missing my husband Brent’s head by inches.
So when his two sons — Henry, 25, and Matthew, 23 — sent frantic messages and called to check if we were all right, I cried with relief that they weren’t in Beirut with us.
They had twice come to stay last year and, had it not been for the coronavirus pandemic, might well have been in Lebanon for a summer break instead of in the U.S., where they have lived for most of their lives.
Just a week later, I was hit by an altogether different kind of blast. One from the past.
In a piece written in these pages, one of my husband’s ex-wives and the mother of his two sons, Tess Stimson, 54, had launched yet another attack on us, this time targeting me for the ‘crime’ of being a stepmum — a badge I wear with pride.
Pictured from left to right: Matthew, Henry, Jelena and Brent Sadler in Belgrade, Serbia in 2018 for Jelena’s birthday
Tess accused me of everything from giving Henry and Matthew terrible haircuts to outright negligence when caring for them. She said she feared I would try to steal them from her, that I somehow sought to replace her in their affections, and even said I’d rubbed my relationship with her sons in her face with incendiary text messages claiming they were ‘my boys’.
None of this, needless to say, is accurate.
What is true is, yes, I adore Henry and Matthew. And in my mind, they have become as much my boys as they are Brent’s — a very important part of my life ever since I first met them in 1999 when they were young children, aged five and two.
But what mother wouldn’t want her ex-husband’s new wife to care profoundly for her stepchildren? Surely the alternative is far worse?
Let me say here: I know only too well that being a step-parent is a tricky role. A child’s mother has a rightfully sacred position, after all. And stepmothers have long had a bad reputation.
I’ll be honest, when I first met the boys in Beirut, where they were then living with Tess, I hadn’t a clue about parenting.
Aged 26, I wasn’t long out of medical school in Belgrade, where I’d qualified as a doctor. I was already fluent in English and had studied French at the Sorbonne in Paris. After further training in New York, I was destined to follow in the footsteps of my medic parents and specialise in gynaecology.
A twist of fate set me on a new course when Brent interviewed my mother, Gordana Anicic, for CNN, where he worked as a top international correspondent. My mother was then vice-president of a political party opposed to Serbia’s hardline president, Slobodan Milosevic, and I went along to the interview to keep her company.
Later, as war with Nato looked more likely, I was hired as a freelance CNN news producer and was working alongside veteran journalist Christiane Amanpour when Belgrade was first bombed, while also acting as a producer for Brent.
I’ve had a loaded gun put to my head more than once, both in the Balkans and in the Middle East, while producing for my husband. I am not afraid of anything and speak my mind if I have to.
But for 20 years I’ve remained more or less silent, as I felt I was being typecast by Tess as a villain, the mere ‘Serbian translator’, a wicked witch who stole her husband from under her nose.
Jelena Sadler is pictured with husband Brent and stepsons Henry and Matthew in Nice, France in 2013
Meanwhile, Brent’s role in her never-ending saga is that of a serial philanderer who ran off with a Serbian bed-warmer.
Yet, sincerely, I didn’t know Brent had a wife and children when I first got to know him as a colleague. By the time we had ‘the talk’ and I learned he had already been married three times, maybe I should have run a mile.
But we had spent long periods working side by side under sometimes stressful conditions. I’d fallen deeply in love with him and he with me, although we hadn’t admitted it to each other.
It may be hard to believe, but we kept it platonic for a long time before falling head-over-heels.
I’ve kept quiet over the years, as Tess has written repeatedly about the end of her marriage and the heartache that caused.
In the beginning, I could absolutely comprehend her anger and jealousy. Emotions were, understandably, at fever pitch in the early days.
For example, when we were all living in Beirut at the same time and our apartment was flooded, Brent asked Tess if he could ‘borrow’ the housekeeper he paid for to clean her place over the road from ours, just to help us out in an emergency.
She suggested it would be better if I did the work myself because I’d be good at it — one of her earliest punches in my stomach.
Some two decades on, her scorn is still bubbling away. My punishment feels like a life sentence.
I have now been with Brent for longer than all his previous three marriages put together. I have done my very best to make this blended family a happy unit.
But this most recent piece was a breaking point because now, it seems, she despises the love I have for her children.
Again and again, I felt I was being painted as the wicked stepmother in their lives.
For example, that haircut she wrote about in her recent piece. Yes, I once took the boys to have their hair cut in Belgrade. But whereas she claimed furiously that they were ‘utterly butchered by a Serbian barber who had given them hideous mullets’, they had actually been taken to one of the best hair salons in the city, where regional television stars and politicians go.
It’s not a competition for who loves Henry and Matthew the most, nor for who they belong to. Tess is their mother and has been their prime carer throughout their lives. I know my place.
At first, the boys wouldn’t hold my hand when we crossed a road together. They kept me at arm’s length and would play up, especially around me. It was hard for me to take at times, but I knew it came with the territory.
They always locked onto Brent and even though it made me feel unwanted and upset, I realised early on that his relationship with them was more important than anything else. If one day they could perhaps like me, it would be wonderful.
Novelist Tess Stimson with ex-husband, CNN war correspondent, Brent Sadler. Pictured with their children (left to right) three-year-old Henry and 10-month-old Matthew
So I plodded along with the gameplan, was as nice as I could be with their mother, often walking on eggshells to make her feel happy and unchallenged when it came to her boys, even though she had remarried a couple of years after her divorce and had a third child called Lily.
I gave Henry and Matthew the best second homes they could have, wherever we lived or went on holiday, in America, the UK, France, Lebanon, Montenegro or Serbia. We once invited Tess and Lily to stay with us in a mountain lodge so we could all ski together in the U.S. I bent over backwards to keep the peace for everyone’s sake.
But each time I tried to settle things with Tess, she would always find a way to bury a hatchet in my back. It didn’t escape my notice that a piece slating me would also handily promote herself and her novels.
It might sound naive, but I never thought it would end this way.
When I first met Tess in late 1999, we quickly became at ease with each other. I could understand why Brent and Tess fell for each other and, while it was sad their marriage was over, she seemed to have made peace with the split.
We laughed at Brent’s expense, chatted about the boys, about everything. I was sure we would become friends for ever, which would hopefully make the separation and divorce less painful for the boys.
How wrong I was. Not long after she moved back to London, her poison pen got to work on me. Her caustic columns just kept coming.
That was why, seven years ago, I closed the door on her once and for all and have not spoken to her since, apart from a few civil words when Henry graduated in Florida three years ago. Matthew was supposed to graduate this year, but the pandemic put the kibosh on that, which spared another drama.
So what about those supposed inflammatory messages of mine, claiming her sons were ‘my boys’?
Here is how I saw it. Out of the blue in 2018, after not being in contact for about five years, I received an SMS picture from Tess on my phone. It was a black-and-white fairytale-type image of her and Brent on their wedding day, with a message: ‘It would have been our silver wedding anniversary today. Hard to imagine it’s that long ago. Regardless of everything that has happened since, there was love on that day, and no love is ever wasted or ever truly dies.’
I texted back to ask her why she had sent it to me. A mistake, apparently. It should have gone to Brent, she said, with ‘thanks for two lovely boys’.
I took her excuse at face value and sent back a screenshot of a photo from my Instagram account of the boys’ visit to Belgrade for my 46th birthday bash, which I had captioned ‘My Boys’. After all, the picture included Brent, too.
I told her: ‘You are right, thank you for those two amazing guys. They are the best gift to us all.’
She responded: ‘Thank you so much, I really appreciate that. You look lovely on that photo!’ Her message ended with a kiss.
Yet, for public consumption, her piece last month said my arms were wrapped ‘possessively’ around Henry and Matt’s shoulders and that I was being ‘provocative’ towards her. Seriously?
Mark Twain is supposed to have said ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’. Tess has it down to a capital T when it comes to me. Pointedly, she did not mention that Brent was also in the photo.
So why should I feel so upset now, after all that has happened between us?
From my point of view, it seems she no longer cares who gets hurt by her claims — even the boys she loves so much, something that is beyond any doubt.
I wanted children in our early days but after a miscarriage and IVF treatment, we stopped trying. I love Henry and Matthew with all my heart and soul. I am not ashamed of that. I am proud of it. Because after what we have all been through, I know they have come to love and respect me, too.
The boys, happily, also have a great relationship with their stepfather, Erik. Henry is a science teacher at a private naval academy in Florida, and Matthew is also entering academia through Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC.
I am thrilled every time we speak to them and, while we don’t talk about their mother, she is always the biggest part of their lives and so she should be.
But none of us know when she is going to strike next. For me, it’s like being mugged.
She promotes her new book by saying: ‘The rivalry between an ex-wife and her replacement can be deep and bitter, a dynamic I explore in my new novel.’
The plot revolves around a faithless husband who is murdered and the two women in his life blame each other. By now it should sound familiar? Brent is thankfully alive and kicking. I do hope his ex-wife will find another subject for her inspiration. In the meantime, perhaps we should start to claim for a share of her royalties.
n As requested by Jelena, in return for this article a donation has been given to Animals Lebanon, an NGO whose tireless work to help the welfare of animals has been severely put to the test since the Beirut explosion. See animalslebanon.org for more information.