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Return to Reality : Laguna Beach's Spider Lady Emerges From 21-Year Schizophrenic Odyssey

October 18, 1994|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA BEACH — She was a spindly apparition draped in black, a mask painted around her eyes. Some people called her the Spider Lady, others the Raccoon Lady. Frightened children shied away.

For 15 years, the bizarre, toothless character was a familiar figure roaming the streets of Laguna Beach, sleeping in church breezeways or in somebody's yard. Even in a town known for its eccentrics, she drew wide-eyed stares.

Police Chief Neil J. Purcell Jr. remembers her sitting on a downtown bench for hours, with her matted hair and "Lone Ranger" mascara mask--scratching herself, mumbling and drinking coffee. It seemed, he said, "a hopeless situation."

But something amazing has happened to the mystery woman--actually a literate former model from an upper-middle class background whose flair for creativity was pushed off the scales by schizophrenia.

Through the caring and devotion of an Episcopal priest, an Orange County mental health care worker and Friendship Shelter, Vanessa Ettinger has come back to reality.

"Her circumstance is pretty incredible," said Sandy Todd, the mental health care worker who helped Ettinger's transformation. "I don't think I've ever seen such a drastic change . . . with any other client."

On an overcast morning recently, Ettinger, 48, reflected on her past while she knitted and smoked cigarettes in the comfortable, cluttered Dana Point apartment she moved into when she left the shelter 18 months ago. She looks robust compared to the gaunt, outlandish waif who once wandered the streets.

She speaks of her life with a certain dispassion and seems to accept the peculiar version of herself that evolved with her illness--the self who wore fake braids dragging to the ground or a hair net dripping with earrings. She does not see herself as others saw her, frightening and strange, barely clinging to the fringes of society.

Always, she said, she cared about her appearance, and even carried a travel iron in her shopping cart. She said she reveled in being creative, both with her makeup and with the clothes she wore. Although favoring basic black, she noted that on a good day she sometimes appeared on the streets all in purple.

"It may not appear (so) to people, but (street people) worry about their appearance a lot," she said. "I always tried to keep up a 'model living at a resort' sort of appearance. That was my thing."

The painted face made her feel more attractive, she said. And more secure.

"It was," she said, dismissing the subject, "just a phase I went through."

Ettinger has been through many phases, driven by the paranoid schizophrenia diagnosed when she was a young adult.

She says she was married once and has two children living in Vancouver. Her professional name is Vanessa but she now goes by her actual first name, Abbey.

Born in Missouri and raised in Toronto, Ettinger is the eldest of six siblings, including two half sisters and a half brother. Her father, Donald (Red Dog) Ettinger, a former football player for the New York Giants in the late 1940s, is dead; her mother is in a Toronto convalescent home.

Her brother, Jim Ettinger, who lives in Arizona, remembers her as "the most beautiful, athletic, creative, intelligent young lady. And very loving to me, being my big sister."

But when she came to his college campus to visit in the late 1960s, he noticed a change. She seemed "confused, searching."

Not long afterward, in 1970, feeling depressed and restless, Ettinger hit the streets, leaving behind a 13-room house in Kansas City and a job with an advertising agency.

"She was absolutely gorgeous, I mean knockout gorgeous," recalled Bernie Papin, president of the advertising agency where Ettinger once worked as a model and receptionist. "Her hair was always perfect, her makeup. She always looked like she stepped out of a Vogue magazine."

She hitchhiked across America on a trek that would eventually lead to Orange County.

Jim Ettinger said his family did not hear from her for 21 years and it seemed as though she dropped off the planet. He consoled himself by imagining her living a happy life somewhere.

"All those years I just tried to picture her sitting . . . in a little place with a teacup full of tea and someone that would care about her and someone she could care about," he said.

But the reality of his sister's circumstances contrasted sharply with that gentle fantasy.

"I got raped and robbed a lot," she said. "But a lot of people were very nice to me, too."

Then around 1976, Ettinger came to Laguna Beach, a quaint resort town that so resembled her hometown near Toronto that she felt like she belonged. As Ettinger remembers the following years, she kept mostly to herself and relied on the kindness of strangers, many of whom gave her the cash that helped her survive.

"I'd get up and sing for a while so I could get money," she said. "It's not a very honest way to live your life, but once you're on the streets . . . it's hard to get off. There aren't many opportunities."

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