We looked more like the other non-Panther families in our neighborhood: female-headed with lots of kids. I liked the closeness, especially the chance to spend more time with my mother: We often went to the drive-in theater, stopped at all-you-can-eat restaurants, and then snuggled up in her king-size bed to watch The Twilight Zone or The Benny Hill Show.
Circumstances shifted again after my mother injured her knee at work and lost her job. Devastated by the loss of her hard-won independence, she went on welfare, and morphed into someone I did not recognize. Once funny, loving, and vibrant, she became a zombie. She sat alone on the couch in our living room for hours crying, drinking, and listening to blues albums by B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland. Slip-ups that might have merited light chastising, like spilling a drink or forgetting to do a chore, became offenses worthy of a beating.
Often she left us unsupervised, and we got into mischief. My sister and I broke into neighbors' homes, stealing cookies and junk food from cupboards and refrigerators. We stole food from the local supermarket, too, usually candy. Once the store owner caught us and held us in a back room until our mother came. The whole neighborhood heard all the yelling we did as she chased us around the house brandishing an extension cord like a bullwhip.
My mother grew increasingly indifferent, neglecting to visit our schools or ask about our homework. If we were ill, she wouldn't take us to the doctor. When I got sick with the flu, my older sisters put cold compresses to my forehead and comforted me.
So when the opportunity came for me to get away from home one summer, I grabbed it.
At age 11, I boarded a Greyhound bus bound for Santa Barbara to attend Jane Fonda's summer camp. She and her (then) husband, Tom Hayden, supported the Black Panthers, and had met my uncle through Party channels.
Until I attended Laurel Springs Children's Camp, nestled 2,800 feet above sea level, with spectacular views of Los Padres National Forest and the Pacific Ocean, I had not known I was poor. I brought a light jacket, one pair of pants, two shirts, and a pair of shorts that doubled as a swimsuit when worn with a T-shirt. Toiletries? A bar of Irish Spring soap, a worn-out toothbrush, and an Afro pick.
I couldn't believe the stuff coming out of my bunkmates' suitcases! One girl brought four swimsuits and a fresh pair of undies for every day of the week. (I knew this because the days of the week were printed on the back of each pair.) The other children received care packages from home crammed with food, magazines, and books. When we talked at night around the campfire, I found out many of them had their own rooms and bathrooms at home-and they thought about the future, speculating about careers. Would they understand anything about my life? I doubted it. So I put on a happy-go-lucky front, said little about my background, and threw myself into theater arts, writing, and performing skits with the other kids.
I returned to Laurel Springs for several summers, and I got to know Jane. Smiley and chatty, she often wore snug sweatpants and a T-shirt baring her toned midriff, her hair bouncing and behaving. She invited me to her cottage for lunch and coached me on monologues. She focused on me, taking in everything I said as if it were the most fascinating thing she had ever heard. She hugged me whenever we met, held my hand when we walked together, scratched my back when we sat next to one another. This touch, this healthy loving touch, was a revelation.
I was skeptical at first-what was wrong with this lady? But I felt safe with her, began to see myself differently, and started sharing what my home life was like. I started thinking about the future, too. Most of my female siblings and many older girls I knew were raising children while still in their teens. One minute they were vibrant, sassy, and thriving. The next they were high school dropouts, hiding their swelling bellies under baggy clothes. I saw them at the grocery checkout counter barely clinging to their pride while paying for baby formula with food stamps.
Uhn-uhn. Not me. I guarded my innocence like a much-contested border; I would hold off any invasion as long as I could. Yet like a farmer tending her fields, I accepted the fact that I would lose bits and pieces to pests and vermin: the schoolteacher who pressed my hand to his crotch, and the father of a friend who groped me through my training bra.
Our family had shriveled like rancid fruit in summer heat. One of my older sisters developed an addiction to crack and turned to prostitution; another just drove off with her young daughter and a boyfriend. My mother was occupied with her own demons.
When Jane Fonda offered to let me live with her in 1982, I left East Oakland for good. Although she was not technically my legal guardian, we ran into zero trouble; when you're with Jane Fonda, red tape tends to fall away.