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JOSEPH N. BELL

Jane Roe Settles Into New Life of Her Own

June 28, 1990|Joseph N. Bell

Norma McCorvey--whom most of us know better as the Jane Roe of Roe vs. Wade--has been living quietly in Orange County for the last six months, which is just the way she wants it. She left Dallas last year in a volley of gunfire and hard feelings, and she has no desire to risk that again. For the first time since she became by pure accident two decades ago the central figure in one of the most controversial decisions ever handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court, she has found some inner peace.

During her six months in Orange County, Norma and I have renewed an old friendship. We met 17 years ago in Dallas, when I was sent by Good Housekeeping magazine to interview the two young women attorneys who argued Roe vs. Wade through the Supreme Court. After several days in Dallas, it was clear to me that the core of the story was in the identity of Jane Roe, and I pleaded with her attorneys to let me talk with her. They finally agreed to a brief meeting with her at my hotel if I would agree unequivocally to protect her identity.

I had no idea, then, how frightened Norma McCorvey was or how totally she operated on her instincts. But we connected that first night, and she invited me to the home she shared with a tough, protective woman named Connie Gonzales, who turned out to be a lot more difficult to win over. From that first meeting developed a friendship with Norma that has been sustained by letters and a strong sense of mutual trust. The article I wrote for Good Housekeeping told her story--highly embellished, as I was to learn many years later--without revealing her name. And it was the only interview she granted for more than seven years.

So even though I hadn't seen her since 1973, it was easy and natural for us to resume our friendship when she moved to Orange County. And there were also some questions that needed to be asked to renew the sense of mutual trust.

Before those questions were asked, Norma sat at the kitchen table of her Orange County condominium and told me, almost dreamily: "I'm much more comfortable with myself. I know where I'm going and who I'm going there with. I've never allowed that before, always felt that I had to appear very strong, never allowed any feelings or emotions. Now I know I can just be me, and I finally have a sense of peace."

"Just being me" meant to Norma McCorvey searching for and finding the Roe baby. It meant admitting that she is a lesbian and living openly and happily a lifestyle she has embraced for many years but never acaknowledged even to herself. It meant breaking away from the love-hate tentacles of Dallas and some of the people deeply embedded in her life there. It meant admitting the lies that almost drove her to suicide and purging them finally from her psyche. It meant dealing frontally with the fear of being a public figure that almost paralyzed her at its worst and left her acutely uncomfortable at its best.

She's still uncomfortable, still scared, still wary, still angry at those who would put her down, still lives by her instincts of who to trust, still reaches for bravado when she feels insecure. But there is a new and growing awareness of strength and an ability to cope. She has an oversized button over the dressing table in her bedroom that says: "Enjoy life; this is not a dress rehearsal." She's beginning to believe it. And to do it.

Norma McCorvey is the quintessential example of a totally ill-prepared person being accidentally thrust into the public limelight. We make demands on these people that they usually have no capacity to fulfill. More often than not, it destroys them. It almost--but not quite--destroyed Norma McCorvey.

Her story is well-known and need not be repeated here.

For seven years after I first interviewed her, Norma and Connie had run several service businesses--housecleaning, painting, small construction--in complete anonymity. Then in 1980, Norma--who had turned down dozens of requests for interviews made through her attorneys--impulsively granted one to a Dallas TV newscaster and blew her cover forever.

Since then, she has been the subject of innumerable articles and a two-hour TV movie. She has also suffered spells of such powerful self-hatred and depression that she tried several times to kill herself.

She showed me faint scars on her wrists where she had slashed them in her last attempt three years ago.

"I had always suffered from severe depression ever since my mother kept telling me how stupid I was when I was growing up. All that was made so much worse by the lies I told about the Roe baby. A Supreme Court case grew out of those lies, and even though I knew the way I got pregnant had nothing to do with the decision, I was scared."

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