Malignant Memories

That initial session at STAR was awkward, tense and first names only. Vivian, Margie and Ezzie along with a couple of others, sat stiffly in a windowless room, wondering if they could really go through with this.

Then Flascher asked them to sign a contract promising they wouldn't commit suicide.

"Pretty melodramatic," Vivian thought.

But in truth, all three had entertained such thoughts, including Vivian, so depressed as the memories surfaced, she found herself wondering what a gun would feel like in her hands.

Signing that contract was the precursor to telling total strangers the darkest, most private details of their lives. Margie and Vivian were so uncomfortable talking about this, they didn't even tell their husbands they'd signed up for the group.

But the following week, all three of them were back. Remembering was excruciating. But keeping it buried was worse. They'd already spent 30-odd years doing that. The price had been self-loathing, depression, health problems and nightmares.

"Something just wasn't right," Ezzie said. "I felt dirty."

Except for the fact they were all flat-footed and had been raised Catholic, these three seemed to have little in common. Vivian, who acquires land easements for the city and is married with two daughters, was perpetually jovial. Ezzie, a computer programmer at the time and twice divorced, was morose. Margie, an independent travel agent, married with three grown children, was quiet, timid and reluctant. Vivian was licensed to set off fireworks displays and was a "retired Catholic." Ezzie wrote poetry and had recently coverted to Judaism. Margie ran a molded ceramics business and was a born-again Christian.

Midway through the 12-week session, other group members had dropped out. By the final session, these remaining three felt like they were just getting started.

"We weren't ready to say goodbye," Vivian said.

So they didn't. They started meeting each week for lunch, picking places that wouldn't be too crowded, where waitresses wouldn't bug them too much. They'd sit down, chat a bit, order lunch, then talk about what their fathers and uncle did to them as little girls and the impact it's had on their lives.

Making reservations under the name "the Marvellas ," those lunch tables became a sanctuary they looked forward to all week. They could talk about things they couldn't talk about with anyone else, like Ezzie remembering her father prying her legs apart and how Vivian can't stand the sight of men's undershirts after seeing her father ejaculate into one.

The Marvellas never have to worry about offending each other.

They've talked about how Ezzie can still smell her father's cigarette breath, and how, for Vivian, just seeing her father's car parked in her driveway once made her throw up. They've talked about Margie mindlessly doodling at a women's prayer breakfast, looking down and, to her horror, seeing a stick person bound spread-eagle.

Sometimes in the middle of talk like this, the waitress will come along and suggest dessert. Moments later, she'll cart out the goods: ice cream, Key lime pie, and more often than not, some decadent form of chocolate.

"We're into comfort food," Ezzie explains. "When we get talking about this stuff, we eat dessert."

It's not the most pleasant table conversation to sit in on. But as the Marvellas would say, try living it.

For Ezzie, living it has meant going through a phase of incredible rage, wishing her father weren't already dead so she could personally "blow the son-of-a-bitch off the map."

She found her biggest release in writing both prose and poetry. A major turning point came the day she sat at her computer for three hours pounding out a raging hate letter to her father in huge type that turned out 42 pages long:

"I can't think of words disgusting enough to describe you! . . . I hate you, I hate you, I hate you. . . "

"The night before, I was literally sitting in the bathroom ready to slit my wrists," Ezzie said. "Once all the rage came out, I started feeling like I wanted to live again."

This past year, working with their individual therapists, as well as each other, a lot of mysteries have started to make sense. Like for the longest time, Ezzie would wake up in a panic between 1 and 2 in the morning, and lie for hours unable to sleep. She now believes that's when her father would come into her room. And Margie's terrible fear of elevators; she never could figure that out until she remembered Uncle George locking her in the well house — dark, dank and full of spiders.

"He locked me in there because I wouldn't be good or something. I mean, good to him. I can remember being in there screaming 'Let me out! I'll be good. I promise I will!'"

"And your aunt never heard you?" Vivian asked.

"No, no she never heard me."

The Marvella meetings aren't just for exchanging war stories; they're a time for celebrating any and all victories. Ezzie finally being able to sleep without a light on. Or Margie finally getting angry, picking up a cup and throwing it against a door. It felt so good, she picked up another, and that felt even better. By the time she was through, she'd gone through a half-dozen cups.

Their initial awkwardness is hard to imagine now that these women's lives have become so intertwined.

"Remember those first sessions?" Vivian said. "Margie kept scooting her chair back into the wall. Ha! Remember that? We'd start talking about sex or something, and she'd just have that chair pushed all the way back into the corner."

Looking back, they see themselves as Vivian, the logical one; Ezzie, the angry one; and Margie, the kind one — all parts of a person, but all incomplete. Now, sometimes it's Margie's turn to be the logical one or Ezzie's to be kind. Now, they see themselves as whole.

"When you guys started finishing my sentences for me, that's when I knew you really understood," Vivian told her friends.

In honor of their friendship, the three women bought a Town Square brick together immortalizing "The Marvella Sisters." They've adopted as their official Marvella mascot a ceramic statue of three "cow-yotes," heads together, howling at the moon, lips and hooves painted bright red.

Their meetings have expanded to include birthdays and holidays and any other excuse to spend time together. They've been photographed sitting on Santa's knee. They've toasted in the New Year with sparkling cider. And at Passover, Ezzie invited the other two over for a feast, then surprised them with Easter baskets of goodies on her doorstep.

They've gotten seriously into slumber parties, including one at Margie's where they stayed up until 2 in the morning eating junk food and watching "The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes."

At times, it's like they're girls again, tapping into those childhoods that were cut short. And sometimes, Vivian said, they get the urge to do "something really stupid." Like sing the theme song to "Peter Pan" in public places. Or have a dinner party without utensils — a spaghetti dinner party.

They've learned to use black humor to keep from feeling crazy. Like the time they ceremoniously ripped up an old photograph of Uncle George with his horse, and Vivian rearranged the pieces so that the horse was eating Uncle George's head. They joke about publishing The Perpetrator Gazette, a supermarket tabloid with headlines like "Seven-Year-Old Rapes Defenseless Grown Man!" and reviews of such films as "Honey, I Screwed the Kids."

A year ago, there was no way they could have made light of any of this. Now, when things get too heavy, they find ways of making themselves laugh. They've been known to toss back their heads and howl, just like the "cow- yotes."

"I don't know if I'd have my sanity if we didn't meet every week," Vivian said.