I don’t recall the way in which the story was told, only the basic facts that were communicated, not by Mom, but by Dad: back when Mom and I lived in Venice Beach, before our life in the mountains of California, there had been a home invasion by a gang of armed black drug dealers. It was considered retaliation, as Sunshine was dealing drugs in their claimed territory, attempting to make a name for himself. The rival drug dealers were there to get Sunshine, his drugs, and/or drug money. They were there to send a message. These men had then gang-raped Mom. I was present for some of the events, Dad said, though I had no memory of any of this. I’d never even heard about it. And my memories of Venice where minimal: the hot sandy beaches and strange ocean waves, where I was once pulled into the undertow and couldn’t tell which way was up, desperately swimming into the sandy ocean floor; coming down the cliff-side off-ramp in Santa Monica onto the Pacific Coast Highway, the palm trees slouching lazily in the haze and smog; walking along steaming, undulating concrete toward a beloved fast food joint; impatiently waiting in a long line at the bank; a fondness for corduroy. Nope, nothing involving a home invasion. It was bewildering information. How could I not know? Sure, I was only three years old when it happened, but you’d think there would’ve been some sense, some residue. I felt flush and dazed, a profound sense of confusion. Suddenly those Ice-T and N.W.A. tapes I liked to blare on Mom’s stereo didn’t seem so appealing. Oh, but we’re not done yet: there’s more, always more. Dad then stated that he and some biker friends had, in revenge, shot and killed the home intruders.
The context for the story, which was told when I was seventeen, made it even more of a mind-fuck, as Dad might’ve put it. After about a year down in the dumps, Dad had pulled himself out of it: he’d cleaned up, gotten a solid job driving a tow truck, and then even moved in with the owner of the tow truck operation, Arlene Krodell, a former cop. Their house was right in town, so when they invited me to move in, I jumped at the chance. This greatly hurt Mom—hurt her in ways I couldn’t imagine and was insensitive to at the time—and she couldn’t fathom the notion that, after all the problems and strains in my relationship with Dad, that I’d then want to live with him. But my arguments with Mom had gotten much worse, culminating with me punching down my bedroom door and her wielding a cast-iron frying pan, convinced I was crazed and ready to strike her. Still, the move was mostly selfish: I would have my own room, be closer to town, and have more freedom. The Snow Summit ski slopes were just up the street and there were hot flatlander chicks everywhere. Dad and Arlene’s invitation to move in, however, had motives beyond me. Soon after I came to live with them, they were lobbying to get my sister to move in as well. After all, I would be leaving the mountain soon—I didn’t care where, exactly, somewhere in “L.A.”, which for me at the time meant everything east of San Bernardino—and Trina was Dad’s true offspring. He wanted her with him. Arlene, for her part, was estranged from her own daughter and with Trina had an opportunity to do better and be a positive influence. At the time, I was amenable to the idea: Mom and my sister’s arguments were even worse than ours in that they were a constant needling and nagging, rather than the epic blowouts that characterized our confrontations. And of course my sister was still just a kid. In addition, I looked up to Arlene, who was a strong, successful businesswoman.
And so I was told of Mom’s gang rape. They wanted me on their side as they pushed for my sister to move in, something Mom vehemently opposed. First, the event suggested that Mom was emotionally troubled, with good reason. All the problems that were evident—the incessant arguments, especially—could be ascribed to a deeper instability, an anger that she had not come to terms with and which was manifesting itself in chronic dissatisfaction and arguments. The second aspect was to put a wedge in my inherent trust of Mom: while I differed and argued with her, blaming her for my own overblown materialistic miseries, this is no way represented distrust (unlike Dad, whom I’d definitely come to distrust). The point was that who knew what kind of damage this violent night had done to me, and Mom had never told me, never put me into counseling or something to that effect. The strategy worked, though it had a price: after a merciless fight, my sister moved in with Dad and Arlene, and my sensitivity to, and spite for, emotional manipulation, especially from Dad, became acute. I mean, I was glad he’d told me about Venice, that I knew, but under those circumstances there was a warped, ruthlessly self-serving logic to it. In fact, Arlene, who was a persuasive force in the strategy, used her own gang rape to demonstrate you can handle such an experience differently than by burying it in the past: she said she’d been gang-raped by LAPD cops while working the overflowing women’s prison during the Watts Riots—she had worked for one of the Inland Empire police departments, and cops from all over the region were enlisted to help during the uprising. This was all too much for me to easily assimilate. It was grotesque.
Years later, Mom told me the full story of that night in Venice Beach, not too far from the trendy Boardwalk. (After all, Dad was not there, aside from his claim to have been involved in the retribution.) Mom’s new L.A. boyfriend had been selling drugs out of the apartment: small-time stuff, as far as Mom knew, pot and acid. In response—only Sunshine knows what else actually transpired, and he’s been gone for decades—there was a knock on the door one night. We were all there, along with a couple of friends who were visiting. Sunshine and the friends were hanging out in the living room. Mom and I were in the bedroom. After the door was answered, four men, all African-American, stormed the apartment, handguns drawn, all threats and hate. They wore no masks, made no attempt to disguise their identity. They tied up Sunshine and the friends in the living room. Then, still in the bedroom, they tied Mom up to the bed and made me sit on a chair nearby. They ransacked the bedroom looking for the money and drugs, but they came up empty-handed. So they looked to Mom, threatening her and me. They said they were going to rape her. This was interrupted when another person came to the front door. He was pulled in and tied up with the others. They then left the apartment—it was getting too crowded—dragging Mom away with them. They brought her to a back alley a few blocks away and took turns raping her, all the while threatening to shoot her. One had a knife. After they were done, the men argued among themselves as to whether or not they should kill Mom. The man with the knife then cut off a chunk of Mom’s long hair, also badly cutting her ear and neck. They told her to climb a fence and run for her life, which she did. She knocked on the first door she saw and some strangers took her in and called the police. The cops were already out looking for her, so they arrived fairly quickly. LAPD had Mom look at some mug books, but she couldn’t identify her attackers. Besides, the cutting of her hair—a racially charged statement, linked to black women straightening their hair to look more like white women—was a known signature related to gangs, territory, and drug-related crime in Los Angeles.
In Big Bear in the late eighties, with both of her children, as she saw it, essentially stolen from her in malicious scheming and personal betrayal, Mom went into a severe depression, the scope of which I was oblivious to at the time. For years I didn’t know that the hand-brace she later wore was not a repetitive stress injury from her busy waitressing job at the Teddy Bear. Instead, she needed the brace due to an injury suffered during the period when her home was empty. For Mom, her family and her children were her life. She loaded a little .21 purse pistol that Dad had once bought her for self-defense. She put the handgun to her temple and pulled the trigger. The gun, poorly maintained and already cheap to begin with, exploded in her hand. The bullet never exited the chamber.