After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye (2015)

Sensitive People

Three years earlier, at age fourteen, I had left the unlicensed foster home of Ruth Williams—my part-time mother. I saw Ruth as a small birdlike woman with a knit hat on her head, tiny spectacles framing her intense brown eyes, and a fierce hold on the emotional and physical lives of the children she was paid to protect. She was the woman who shopped at the fashionable Bullocks Wilshire department store for cute little blouses and skirts for me, her favored daughter. Sears was good enough for the other children in her home. But I deserved a higher grade of clothing. I was made to feel special because my skin was not dark and my hair not kinky. I was told that I had “good hair.”

Ruth was convinced that I had talent. That’s why she made sure I was given piano lessons, ballet lessons with a world-famous dancer, and ice-skating lessons with a champion instructor. I was told—and I believed—that I could become a professional entertainer. Unfortunately, before any of those talents had time to develop, I stopped going to the lessons.

Starting at age six I was subjected to Ruth’s “private examinations.” The examinations, blatantly inappropriate, went on for years. When I protested, Ruth smacked me. When I asked my mother to take me out of the home, she refused. Mom could continue to take me on weekends, but during the week she needed her privacy as a functioning drug addict.

I called my mother Barbie until I was eight or nine. I had an obsession with Barbie dolls. Through those dolls, and Barbie’s house and car, I could escape to a whole different world. My mom’s life sort of represented this to me as a young girl—an escape from foster kid life. Ruth was the only woman whom I called Mama. Ruth looked down on my mother. Ironically, Ruth felt as if she was protecting me from a mother whose lifestyle was unsavory.

Mom was part of an informal group of white women drawn to black men. I liked these women. Their names were Leona and Lola and Bonnie and Sheila. In fact, my best friend and roommate at Mama Ruth’s was Megan, Sheila’s daughter.

As Barbara’s daughter, I was confused by both the presence and the absence of a mother who lived a life apart from me. I was Mom’s only child and, for all her wildness, she never abandoned me. Mom remained the most consistent presence in my life. The paradox, though, was this: while she never left me, she was always leaving me. Week after week, year after year, I was left in the care of Ruth.

“Barbie is taking me to Disneyland today,” I told Ruth.

This happened when I was eight. I’d been waiting for this day all year.

“You’re not going anywhere today,” said Ruth.

“Why not?”

“I saw what you did at breakfast. You spilled your chocolate milk on the carpet. You tried to clean it up with your napkin, but the stain is still there.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’ll be a lot sorrier when I get through with you.”

When Ruth went to the backyard to rip a thorny switch from a rosebush, I began to cry. I knew what was coming. I had suffered these beatings before. To escape, I ran to another part of the yard where Ruth’s sister, Aunt Esther, lived in the back house. Esther had protected me in the past. But Esther wasn’t home; her door was locked and there was no escaping. Ruth grabbed me by my arm and dragged me back into the big house.

“Complaining to your mother,” said Ruth, “will only make it worse.”

The beating left bright red marks on my back and bottom.

“Go to your room,” Ruth demanded, “and stay there for the rest of the day.”

Megan, who had suffered similar beatings, was waiting for me. Without saying a word, she applied ointment to my skin. In the past when Megan had been whipped, I did the same for her.

It took a long while for my tears to subside. Lying in bed, my only thought was that when Mom comes I’ll get to go to Disneyland anyway. Mom had been promising me this trip for months. Mom could take me out whenever she wanted to. Ruth couldn’t tell Mom what to do. Barbie was my real mom. I belonged to Barbie, not Ruth.

By lunchtime I was dressed and ready to go. I was sitting by the front door in the living room. When I heard the click-click-click of high heels on the sidewalk, my heart leaped. That was the sound of Mom walking. I hurried to the window and saw my mother approaching. Smoking a Tareyton cigarette, dressed in a green pencil skirt and bright yellow blouse, she looked beautiful. Her ruby-red lipstick matched the hue of her red hair. Her hair was dyed—I’ll never forget the precise smell of that dye—and styled fashionably. There was an upbeat spirit to Mom’s look that made me feel that everything would be all right.

I watched as my mom took a long drag off her Tareyton before dropping it to the pavement and crushing it with the toe of her right foot.

My mom will crush Ruth. My mom is taking me to Disneyland, happiest place on earth.

“There will be no Disneyland for Janis today,” said Ruth, who had gotten to the door before I could even hug my mother.

“We’re going!” I screamed. “We have to go! You promised me!”

“What happened?” Mom asked Ruth.

“Janis has been a very bad girl. Last week I bought her a beautiful new outfit for school. You’d think she’d be grateful, but instead she’s been talking back to me . . .”

“No, I haven’t!” I cried.

“Let Ruth get through,” said Mom.

“Janis broke a cup and spilled her chocolate milk on my new carpet—and did so quite intentionally . . .”

“It was an accident,” I protested.

“You don’t want to reward such behavior, do you?” Ruth asked my mother.

“It’s just that I promised to take her to Disneyland . . . ,” Mom started to say.

Ruth stiffened up and looked Mom straight in the eye. “If you take her to Disneyland, you can also take her back to your apartment and keep her permanently. She needs discipline. Barbara, you know that I have my rules.” I stood between these two women. I looked at Mom, then back at Ruth.

Surely Barbie will take me to Disneyland.

Mom leaned down and said to me, “Look, baby, there’ll be lots of other times we can go. I promise I’ll take you next month.”

Heartbroken, I understood that the balance of power had tilted against me. Ruth had power over Mom. It came down to a single fact: Mom couldn’t take care of me. She needed Ruth to do that. She paid Ruth to do that.

Ruth won.

Some six years later, I was fourteen and Ruth had finally been defeated. I had learned to stand my ground. I was full breasted—a perfect 36C—and, at five feet eight, had begun, in spite of my posture problems, to walk with a determined gait. Ruth no longer frightened me. The rage that had built up inside me was about to erupt. Ruth knew to get out of the way.

Mom knew that she could no longer force me to remain at a residence I so deeply loathed. She could no longer ignore my protests. She knew that Mama Ruth’s house had caused grave emotional problems for me. She also knew that the Catholic school to which Mama Ruth had sent me employed a nun who had abused the students sexually. Craig McKay and I were among those students.

At fourteen, I’d had enough abuse to last a lifetime.

“I’m coming to live with you,” I told Mom, “and that’s it.”

This was also the moment when the names changed.

I had already changed my name to Janis Hunter. I wanted to have the name of Earl Hunter, the man my mom had married and the warm and loving soul whom I adored.

True, Earl was a big-time coke dealer; and true, he once went to jail for killing a man. In fact, throughout my childhood I watched Earl move in and out of prison for various offenses. But that didn’t keep me from loving the attention he lavished upon me. When Earl was around, which was often, he took me for long rides in his tricked-out Bonneville. Originally from Chillicothe, Texas, his speech was a seductive mix of southern drawl and the LA streets. Of all the men moving in and out of Mom’s world—among them several celebrated athletes—Earl was by far the coolest. He and Mom fought like cats and dogs, but he always protected me. For most of my life my nuclear family would be fractured, but during these times when Earl was home from prison and Mom was working secretarial or waitressing jobs, I was comforted by a mother-father unity that, no matter how tenuous, afforded me some degree of security.

Mommy and Daddy were, in fact, living together when, at fourteen, I was liberated from Ruth. But life in their duplex on Cochran Avenue in Mid-City Los Angeles would never be The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or Father Knows Best. From the get-go, my life at home was as emotionally confusing as it had been with Ruth.

It was 1971 and the sound of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On filled the Hunter household. Earl and Mom played the album continuously. It was music that felt sad and sweet, joyful and jazzy, a new kind of rhythm and blues reflecting the troubled state of the nation.

For Earl and Mom, caught up in a campaign to free Black Panther George Jackson, What’s Going On was the soundtrack for their growing political conscience. For me, it was simply more gorgeous music—more enchanting harmonies—from a singer whose soul seemed connected to mine. The album did not contain easy-to-digest hits like the songs from Marvin’s earlier days—tunes like “How Sweet It Is” or “Pride and Joy.” It did not feel forceful or angry or desperate like Marvin’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Some of the issues he sang about, like the deteriorating ecology in “Mercy Mercy Me” or the Christian ethos of “Wholy Holy,” were above my head, but I never lost track of Marvin’s plaintive voice. I was with him throughout the journey.

I studied the pictures on the 33⅓ LP—the photo of a forlorn Marvin singing in the rain; the montage of family members and musicians on the inside of the gatefold album. I realized that this was a very special project from a very special man. He had taken the time to include the lyrics on the sleeve. On a song he called “Right On,” he sang about “those of us who got drowned in the sea of happiness.” I wondered about that curious line.

How can you drown in happiness?

Is Marvin Gaye drowning?

Is Marvin Gaye happy?

“Marvin Gaye is a serious man,” said my daddy Earl as he and Mom leaned back on the living room couch, lit up a joint, and listened to Marvin’s “Flyin’ High (in the Friendly Sky).”

“Marvin Gaye is a genius,” Mom concurred.

Marijuana was a staple in the Hunter household. Mom indulged more frequently than Earl, who, as a highly successful dealer, exhibited more restraint. In their circle of friends, smoking dope and snorting blow were as common as drinking tea and coffee. I didn’t think twice about it. I myself had begun to take little hits off half-smoked joints. I liked the feeling.

Listening to Marvin’s album, Earl began to break down the meaning. He explained that What’s Going On was the story of a black man who had returned from Vietnam to an American ghetto decimated by poverty and moral decay. Earl’s words made sense, but I was mainly following Marvin’s feelings. Even at fourteen, I felt inclined to follow wherever he led. Even at fourteen, I dreamt of entering his world.

This was also the year I lost my virginity to Bryant, the teenage boy who lived in the apartment on the first floor. It was Bryant, by the way, who loved What’s Going On as much as Earl. Listening to it together, we wore out several copies. Bryant was a good guy, although the sexual experience that took place at a motel on La Cienega Boulevard was hardly earth-shattering. We both lacked experience.

This was also the year that Mom and Earl began their United Prisons Union, a storefront operation on Melrose Avenue designed to help men and women transitioning out of jail. My job was to paint the logo on the window. Feeling the political fervor, I was dying for an Afro, but with my curly hair that just wasn’t happening.

The cause attracted the attention of Shirley Sutherland, wife of actor Donald Sutherland. When Shirley and Mom struck up a friendship, Mom urged Shirley to recruit me to babysit her adorable four-year-old twins, Kiefer and Rachel, at their luxurious Beverly Hills home. Bryant came along to help. Diana Ross lived around the corner and her brother Chico became my friend. So did Burt Lancaster’s daughter Susan, who, in the midst of her rebellion against her bourgeois parents, actually came to live with Mom and me for a while. She took us to her father’s luxurious house in Malibu to go swimming. But Susan seemed happier in our hood. She loved our inner-city alternative culture.

This was all heady stuff: me discovering this new and different Marvin Gaye singing about the mercy of Jesus in his “God Is Love” while moving between the worlds of my mom and dad and the super-rich Hollywood movie stars.

Mom had moved up a bit herself. She found a job in the office of a successful attorney I’ll call Luke. As was often the case with Mom, boundaries were blurred between work and play. I never knew if Mom and Luke were lovers. But they were certainly friendly enough for Luke to invite Mom for an afternoon swim one Sunday. Mom was insistent that I come along.

“I want you to have a great time, sweetheart,” said Mom as we drove into the rarefied atmosphere of Mulholland Drive. “But be polite. And if you do speak, don’t be fresh.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll be cool. I just wanna go swimming.”

We pulled up to a grand estate at the top of a hill. In the driveway were statues of nymphs dancing around cascading fountains. A maid answered the door and led us through the house to the pool. There was a marble staircase, plush white carpeting, and enormous abstract paintings on the wall. Outside, the party was in full swing. Twenty or so guests were milling about. Mom went over to say hello to two white men in bathing suits who were seated in lounge chairs. They immediately got up to greet us.

Luke, the host, was in his forties. Slight of build, he wore a black toupee and spoke with a thick New York accent. He kissed Barbara on the cheek before looking me over. He liked what he saw. So did his friend whom he introduced as Big Jack—not his real name—a potbellied man with dark eyes and a hairy chest. He stood over six feet and wore a gold Star of David around his neck.

“We have food and drink,” said Luke, pointing to a serving table piled high with shrimp, lobster, and bottles of champagne. “We also have other refreshments.”

“I’ll take the other refreshments,” said Mom as Luke handed her a joint.

“If you’d like to change into your swimming suit,” Luke told me, “there’s a cabana on the other side of the pool.”

Walking to the cabana, I stopped to take in the view. A thick layer of brown smog covered the city below.

This is what it means to be rich, I thought. You leave the dirt behind. You rise above the smog.

I changed quickly. Putting on my two-piece cobalt-blue bikini, I was aware of the effect it was sure to have on Luke and Big Jack. I knew that my body would be carefully scrutinized. I knew that my physical attributes would be appreciated. I understood that, at least for a few minutes, I would be the focus of attention. I would be the star of this small party.

Walking back to where the adults had assembled, I saw that, after sharing a joint together, the trio had moved on to cocaine. A half dozen thick lines had been laid out on a glass table. As soon as I appeared, though, the snorting stopped. The men looked up at me and broke out into smiles. Mom smiled as well.

In a Lolita-like moment, I felt both shy and excited. I thought about taking off my top. Mom would have had no objections. She had always let me do whatever I wanted.

I recognized the power of my blooming sexuality. I wanted to feel that power even more fully. I wanted to thrill these men.

The longer the argument inside my head went on, the more the drama built, the more intensely the men scrutinized my body. I decided to seize the moment and give them what they wanted. I got in the pool and took off my top. Mom smiled with pride. The men were fixated.

The warm water felt good on my skin. I splashed around for several minutes, wondering if the men were going to join me. I worried that they would grope me. The thought disgusted me. Much to my relief, they were content to smoke, coke, and watch me swim around. At some point Mom and Big Jack got up and went into the house. When I decided to get out of the pool, Luke was there to hand me a large towel. I quickly wrapped it around my waist. Luke motioned for me to relax in a lounge chair next to him. Nervously I sat. A moment or two later Luke leaned in toward me. I noticed that his toupee was tilting to one side, making him look ludicrous. He reached out and took my hand. With his index finger, he gently but insistently rubbed my palm. This was the first time I had been given this signal. Any doubts I might have had about the meaning were dispelled as he moved toward me and pressed his lips against mine. The sensation of his tongue in my mouth was repulsive. I immediately withdrew and, still wrapped tight in the towel, got up from the chair and returned to the cabana, where I showered off the chlorine and changed into my clothes.

Mom was back poolside with Big Jack.

“Let’s go,” I whispered to my mother.

“What’s wrong?”

“I just wanna go,” I insisted.

“Luke’s about to put some steaks on the grill.”

“I don’t care. I wanna go.”

Seeing that I was dead serious, Mom told the guys that her daughter wasn’t feeling well. They tried their best to convince us to stay, but I was insistent. We left.

No words were spoken on the drive home. The radio news reported that President Nixon was pledging to end the war in Vietnam. Muhammad Ali was cleared of draft dodging. Mom switched stations. Marvin Gaye was singing “Inner City Blues.”

“Makes me wanna holler,” he sang, “throw up both my hands.”

The gentle groove helped me deal with the mess of emotions causing my head to throb.

Although the words he sang—“panic is spreading, God knows where we’re heading”—were alarming, I was comforted by his voice. His voice eased my pain.