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Peeling Away the Layers of Sophia's Life

April 21, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Sophia fills me with suspense.

She's so full of life and wonder, so angry and exploited.

Sophia is a former prostitute who was rescued from the streets by a Presbyterian minister. Her life is a confluence of the simple but profound elements journalists often look for as we try to reduce complicated, messy lives to the readable trinity of sin, redemption, reinvention. You know the headline: Exit for Women on a Dead-End Street.

I wrote about Sophia in 1994, a few months after she ran away from her Van Nuys pimp and found help. She spent two years with the Mary Magdalene Project, a highly regarded residential program for prostitutes founded by the West Hollywood Presbyterian Church. In those two years, Sophia earned a high school diploma, was transformed by a women's studies class at Cal State Northridge and decided she might be gay.

As often happens, I swooped into Sophia's life, talons out, held her captive to my tape recorder for a few hours until she gave me enough of herself for a column on the good works of the Mary Magdalene Project. Then I let her go.

But from time to time I wondered: What would become of her? She seemed so bright, so motivated, so endearing. In some ways, she was an anomaly on the streets: She wasn't an addict, and though she'd been sexually abused by a relative at age 11, her immediate family was not abusive. She couldn't have been in prostitution for the money, since her pimp didn't let her keep any.

So what was it?

"Do I have a theory?" Sophia asked the other day. "I think I was just confirming everything I thought about myself and that everyone else thought."

Which was?

"That I was a whore. I wore a lot of makeup and had really big [breasts]. People always thought I was a whore even before I began sleeping with guys."

In August, after two years in "recovery," Sophia moved home to Livermore. She lives with her mother and stepfather and earns minimum wage at a record store. She is beautiful, with long curly brown hair, big brown eyes, and is terribly sensitive about being overweight. A tattoo across her stomach says, "Pure Mexican." Her boss makes her cover the stud that pierces the skin just below her mouth with a Band-Aid. She doesn't care, though. She hates the job.

Sophia is a bundle of contradictions: a needy young woman who wants to be loved and cherished by her man, a fierce lesbian warrior who wants to major in women's studies and maybe become an "outspoken feminist" and a "woman's guru." ("I feel bad about being heterosexual, because men are not interesting to me at all. They're all dogs," she says, as she contemplates breaking up with her boyfriend, a 24-year-old aspiring cop who tells her when they fight: "Once a whore, always a whore." "Doesn't sound too healthy," I offer. "It's not," she replies.)

Sophia dreams of college and a career, but says in resignation that she probably will "settle for less," because, as she puts it, "I always do."

That would be a pity.

"Sophia is clearly very bright," says CSUN lecturer Ricky Manoff, who introduced Sophia to feminist theory in a women's studies class last summer. "Sophia was very sophisticated in her analysis of material. It was great for the other students. When we talked of images of women in the media and in art, she was really eloquent a number of times. She was ahead of the students most of the time, but she didn't realize it."

It's easy to get caught up in the salaciousness of Sophia's past, a problem former prostitutes often encounter when they are frank about their histories. Still, I wanted to see where she had worked as a hooker, maybe as a way of gauging how far she had come.

She takes me to a notorious stretch of San Pablo Avenue near downtown Oakland, the place she worked before her pimp brought her south to Sepulveda Boulevard.

"There," Sophia says. "That's the hotel that cost $10 for an hour. You'd check in, they'd give you a key and a paper towel for the condom.

"And over there." She points. "See that? That was my corner. See the grass?"

It's a pathetic strip of green weeds.

"I loved that corner because I could take off my high heels and rub my feet on the grass between dates."

We have lunch at a legendary Berkeley restaurant, crowded with academic types. Two men, who seem to be architects, sit next to us.

Sophia's conversation ranges widely. She confides she has failed the written test for the driver's license four times, theorizing that a license represents freedom and she has a block about that right now. She speaks of about hurting herself.

"I have an obsession with razor blades," she says. "It's not about wanting to die, it's about self-hatred."

The architects stop talking.

"I think sex with men is disgusting," she announces. "I prefer it with women because women give life. It only makes sense. I want to have my own island of lesbians."

The architects freeze, mid-nibble, their baby lettuce hanging from their forks.

Sophia smiles sweetly. I ask for the check.

Sophia says she would love to see the Berkeley campus, and I oblige. As we drive slowly past the old brick and new cement buildings, a brilliant sun bathes recumbent students on luxurious, sloping lawns. Sophia is agog.

"Oh god," she says, "this is so great! You know, when I don't have any good books, I just like to read the dictionary. I love learning new words."

Do you remember any? I ask.

" 'Eclectic,' " she says gravely. "And 'submissive.' And I always try to use the word 'phallus' now instead of [penis]."

Like other exemplars of transformation who appear in these pages, Sophia is a story still unfolding, still unfinished.

I'm not sure how this one will turn out, but I'm willing to predict a happy ending.

I think.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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