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Monday, August 07, 2006

I knew Persephone

I wrote this post many years ago and am sad to say that a recent update on Marlene's life indicates that she is still having a difficult time. Please keep her in your good thoughts and prayers.

Since this is by and large my most popular post on the blog, I would like to express the opinion--mine alone--that it is a tragedy that the Playboy empire has never seemed to establish any funds to help women like Marlene if they experience drastic life challenges down the road. It's not like the Playboy empire has no money to help them. The answer to this has so many attendancies that I don't want to delve into them by myself.

Just something to think about as you read this.

October 2015

 Occasionally as I continue my turtle-pace plod through The Strega's Story (okay, the ten pages I wrote last week is not a plod, but it felt like it), I remember folks out of my past, unrelated to the story, but somehow connected on the periphery. Often this happens when I think of my mother's former store, The Ultimate Collection in Encino, California, in the Plaza del Oro shopping center on Ventura Boulevard.

My mother ran a high-fashion clothing store a few years after she divorced my dad. The store was a marketing mistake in the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s; she would have done better with jeans and t-shirts, mid-market things for women and girls. Still, for a long time, until her addictions and alcoholism went out of control, she managed to keep her store going, attracting an odd band of folks around it, like satellites of some strange planet, inhospitable to anyone who did not fit her image of glamour and class.

There was one woman in particular, Marlene Morrow, whom my mother met while still working at Bullock's department store in the Northridge Mall. Marlene was very young, in her twenties, when my mother met her; incredibly, Marlene had been a Playboy centerfold at age 19 and was now trying to figure out what to do with her life, which resembled a minor train wreck of dysfunctional relationships and losses happening far too early in a young life--and maybe a moment of celebrity that came to her too early for her to handle. Probably my mother met her when Mom worked in the fur department at Bullock's. My mother--who had serious mental problems above and beyond her addiction--was uncomfortably and inappropriately salacious about Marlene's Playboy career. She kept Marlene's centerfold--inscribed to my older brother--in a kitchen cabinet above the oven, which often held other forbidden things, including a book on psychology my mother pored over in an effort to figure out one of my more difficult siblings. Marlene herself never talked about Playboy around me and didn't show me her photos--she was very much like a big sister or cousin in the role she adopted with me. She had no close women friends I ever met other than my mother
and a few of the women she worked with in the store.

I actually liked Marlene in many ways; despite the weird glamour of having posed for Playboy, she was a fairly nice person, and always extremely kind to me. I was beginning to be an older adolescent, so I felt some empathy for her: she was isolated without family in the area, had a lot of painful conflict with her own mother, and spent time with our family partially because I think she was lonely. I remember she was having a difficult relationship she wanted to get out of--the man supported her financially, but she wanted some sort of career. Her wishes and desires for her life were very simple: she told me once that she wanted to get married, that she wanted kids and a nice house to raise them in. One afternoon when she was visiting my mother, she strolled into my room and saw my bookshelf. She asked me if I had read all those books, and looked through them (I think I gave her one). Marlene then confessed to me that she had never been able to get through a book in her entire life. It wasn't due to lack of intelligence; she wasn't unintelligent, just unable to muster the attention it took to read. Plus, she had learned to live and move in a world that prized her only for her looks and her body--perhaps a world she conflated with her own insecurities and low self-opinion, but that world did not help her beyond what she could give to it, whatever money could be made off her image. It was a world my mother wanted to be in, the glamorous world of apparently unbridled freedoms her father had moved in as well.

Eventually, when Marlene realized she wasn't going anywhere and that the Playboy centerfold thing wasn't going to pan out with movies and television jobs, she began selling clothes to cranky, demanding women in my mother's store. I remember that she got tired a lot, and sat in the back with me when I came to my mom's store after school. She was trying to figure out a career for herself where she could become independent and maybe get a little bit ahead, and was taking classes at night to become a real estate agent. My very last memory of her was talking to her as she put on blush and powder, getting ready for her class that night. She had on a long-sleeved lilac print dress and pretty suede boots, and looked very tired. She told me she wished she had a few minutes to run over to her apartment and put on some jeans, but she wanted to get to class on time. She had some kind of workbook or textbook with her, and a pencil.

I lost contact with Marlene after that; she had, I believe, a falling-out with my mother and I never knew what became of her. But last night, working on the prologue to my book again, I thought of her and decided to do a google search. Through the wonderful photography and words of Paul Zollo on Flickr, I found her. Heartbreakingly, Marlene lives on the streets of Los Angeles, now a homeless woman who calls herself Persephone. She is only 52 years old, only five years older than me. Paul described her behavior, and I thought immediately of addiction, but also something on the level of bipolar disorder. She's apparently disappeared from the street where Paul first spotted her; he's gone back there, but the band of homeless people she was in has vanished.

Seeing her picture brings up memories like slides on a screen: wanting so much for my mother to pay some attention to me, to acknowledge my excellent grades, the trouble I was never in during high school. I would sometimes leave my journal around, half-knowing, half-wanting her to read it. Yet a life of academic achievement didn't strike my mother as being something worthy of attention (as I've said, she had serious, untreated emotional and mental problems, so this wasn't as personal as it felt then). I was thin, awkward, foreign-looking, broken-out, not blonde, not beautiful like Marlene. Marlene was both the daughter my mother wanted, and the woman she wanted to be, and none of her daughters could measure up. Other women filled this role after Marlene left our lives, mostly young women who worked in my mother's store, but none filled my mother's obsessions like Marlene.

I've been thinking about Marlene/Persephone all day; during yoga class, in meditation, I sent love and kindness to her. She was someone who wanted what many people want: a loving relationship, a home and kids, basic things that seemed beyond her grasp somehow. I look around at my own life, my beautiful house, my garden full of flowers I planted with my own hands, a man who loves me beyond measure, my children, my poems and stories, my publications, dance, all the things I do, all the people in my life, even my cats and my dog, and I measure the fullness of these things against the life of someone who certainly deserves just as much good, her own version of what is good in life, but hasn't yet attained it--or perhaps, who knows, she attained and lost it. I hope and pray that someone will see her again and offer her help--she spoke of a grandson, so perhaps a child of hers is around who might one day help her. Perhaps she doesn't want help. But I hate to think of her as abducted by the shadows which surrounded her when I knew her--she would get depressed a lot, even despairing, wanting some prince to come into her life and save her from having to take care of herself on her own. If someone had taken a magic mirror in 1977 when I knew her and showed her the life she lives now, I know she would have been terrified to see it. I look at her photo and know that, with a not-too-slight change of determination and circumstances, had I succumbed to the iron thread of addiction in my own family, I could very well have ended up like her, abducted by my own shadows, showing people my poetry on crumpled, dirty pages someplace on the street in Los Angeles.

So what to do when I know it's unlikely I will see this person again, except by chance? Perhaps someone else will recognize Marlene behind the mask of Persephone and help her; I think of the homeless women I've met in the course of my life, remember their stories of abuse on the streets, the fear and hopelessness, the feeling of being dehumanized, and I pray that a spirit of kindness and protection surrounds this friend from my distant past. And I hope for her, because as long as she is alive, there is hope that somewhere, somehow, she will find the means and the desire to lead her own way out.