By Cara Jepsen
Jane Hertenstein first laid eyes on Marie James in 1982 at the Jesus People USA building in Uptown. They sat on a bench having "quaint little conversations" while they watched children--Cambodian refugees and the offspring of the Jesus People--play in the front yard. James, who had found God after a nervous breakdown in 1966, was a smelly, cart-toting, dirty-clothes-wearing bag lady who kept cats in a filthy one-room apartment. She'd been a Jesus People regular since the religious community opened its doors in the 1970s.
"[Marie] went to feeding programs, but the Jesus People were her kind of people," says Hertenstein. "They were hippies, they had long hair, and their big thing was hanging out and talking to people. She quickly identified herself with them."
The cart James pushed was filled with milk jugs, plastic bags, and rotting food. "She would pick up cigarette butts off the street," recalls Hertenstein. "She would open them up, take out the tobacco, put it in her new papers, and smoke them."
Hertenstein was a recent graduate of Ohio University who had learned about the Jesus People from their national magazine, Cornerstone. "I thought, that's what I've always wanted to do--change the world," she says. She had joined them and was working at their free store sorting clothes and stocking shelves when she met James.
Hertenstein had heard from other Jesus People that James had a "fantastic story," but she didn't know just how interesting it was until the summer of 1995, when she began interviewing James about her life. The interviews conducted over the next several months became the narrative of Orphan Girl: The Memoir of a Chicago Bag Lady, an as-told-to litany of horrors that begins prior to James's birth in 1926, when her mother tried to abort her. "I know as sure as I'm sitting on this chair that God had His hand on me before I was even born," the book finds James telling Hertenstein. "This is how my sister Faith told me the story. My father was gone, but that was nothing; he was gone most of the time. My oldest sister, Chloe, who was about nineteen then, was making cornmeal mush in a big pan, stirring it with a wooden spoon. Mother said, 'Chloe, I'm pregnant. I'm not going to have this baby. You know what I'm going to do? The woman down the road had a miscarriage; she fell down. I'm going to go upstairs and jump out of the window.' My sister dropped the spoon into the pan, 'Mother, you're going to kill yourself.'
"'Well, so be it.'
"She went upstairs, sat on the windowsill, and let herself fall to the ground. She got the wind knocked out of her. She came in the house laughing. 'I guess when I'm pregnant I'm pregnant clear up to my neck. I'm as pregnant now as when I jumped out the window. I don't know how we're going to feed this baby, but we're going to have to find a way."
The simply told story follows James from her entry into the world as the ninth of 11 children born to a Nebraska farmwife--not all of whom had the same father--to 1966, when James found God. Along the way there were beatings, failed relationships with men, children born and taken away, suicide attempts, more beatings, interstate chases, and stints in jail and at mental hospitals.
Her troubles began early in life. "My mother left my father because he was going to kill her and all us kids," she told Hertenstein. The family broke up shortly after her father stalked the family with a shotgun while they hid in a wheat field. James, who was four, was taken in by a young couple but was soon removed from their home--at the age of 40, during her nervous breakdown, she would recall that she'd been molested regularly by her foster father. She lived two years in an orphanage, and then a new family took her in. Her first morning there her new stepmother, as she called her, beat her up, chipping her tooth and breaking her nose. Her new father came home from work that night and cried, "My God, my God, she's killed the orphan girl!"
"I had the tape recorder on about ten minutes when I knew I had a story," says Hertenstein. "On the third [taping] session she told me about being beaten by her stepmother, and I knew I had a title."
Hertenstein had begun to gain James's trust--and James to earn Hertenstein's respect--many years earlier, at Hertenstein's Bible class for women in the Jesus People's food program. "I just wanted to make it an uplifting time," says Hertenstein. "But she met that goal and took it beyond, and I'd leave Bible studies thinking I'd taken in more than I'd given."
Their relationship deepened when Hertenstein and her husband became temporarily homeless after giving up their place in an SRO "to someone who needed it. We thought it was only going to be for a few weeks, and it turned out to be nine months. We came to live at our office. It was just killing me. I was so sorry I'd been nice and said yes. I was grouchy about committing to such a dumb thing. I felt taken, and dumb for being so gullible. Marie understood every emotion I was going through, but she never gave me platitudes. I'd try to explain my situation to other people and they'd say, 'Oh, sister, just keep on praying.' She didn't, and that cemented our relationship."
James stayed with the family with the abusive mother until she graduated from high school. "The verbal abuse at home was ten times worse than the beatings," she told Hertenstein. "Everything I did was wrong. I never did anything that was right. This sort of treatment convinced me that I was different....I had no self-confidence. If I saw someone coming down the street, I would cut across to the other side. I used to sweat under my arms until it spread down to my waist. And I stuttered so bad at school, it was pathetic."
"When people get old they think about their childhood and my childhood really haunts me," she added later. "I resent my childhood. I don't resent God, but still I wonder if it couldn't have been some other way."
Shortly after graduating from high school, James married "a bad man" who beat her. She found out long after the event that he'd beaten one of their children to death. Her other children were eventually taken away, and James was never able to get them back. She speculated that it was because their father was half black. James went on to have more children with other men, but they too were taken away. "I never had anything to love, nobody had ever loved me," she told Hertenstein. "The only thing I had was my kids...and now they were gone."
The book is full of interventions and signs from God. At one point he sends James a man. Another time he gets her a job. "I am a born-again Christian," says Hertenstein, who currently works as a publicist and editor at Cornerstone Press. She also ghostwrote the picture book Home Is Where We Live: Life at a Shelter Through a Young Girl's Eyes. "That's why I came to Chicago. I work full-time at a Christian ministry. Those are the eyes that I look at the world with. I don't know how we can escape it. But is the book didactic? Does it preach to you? I don't think so. If you read Marie's book the message is there. You don't need it preached to you."
The story ends with James's breakdown, which came on the heels of a botched attempt at a reunion with a daughter who lived on the south side. The last time James had seen her was 20 years earlier, when she was five. "I walked over to her and she stood to her feet," she told Hertenstein. "We looked at each other. I asked, 'Can I hug you?' I hugged her, crying. She just stood there with her arms down at her sides, scared to death.
"We sat down together on the sofa. 'I gotta make sure you're my daughter. Take off your shoes, I want to see your feet.'
"She said, 'I don't want to because there is a terrible scar on my left foot.'
"'Ellen, you're my girl!' I knew where she got that scar. Many years ago my husband chased me and the girls with a piece of steel pipe. Ellen got a piece of glass in her foot, but still she ran. She was such a good little girl to run like that, she probably saved her life."
A few days later, Ellen called and told her she could not see her again. "She was crying awfully hard, and she said, 'Mother, I love you, but I can't ever see you again. I can't ever hear your voice again. I just came back from the psychiatrist's office and he told me I have to stay away from you because of the memories. Mother, I'll always love you.' And the telephone went click."
That's when James went into shock.
Hertenstein says that in the beginning she questioned some of James's recollections. "I didn't want to be gullible to what she was saying." But she was able to fact-check some of James's stories, and they turned out to be accurate.
At their second-to-last taping session, in the spring of 1996, James told Hertenstein that she was going to die. "At that time I was totally eating out of her hand," says Hertenstein. "I said, When? She said, Soon. We met one more time. It was a quick interview. She didn't come back and I had the guys go over and check on her."
James was dead in her apartment. Hertenstein hit the streets, plastering James's stomping grounds with flyers that announced a memorial service. Fifty neighborhood and social service people attended, and many stood up and told stories. Some of their testimonials are included between the book's chapters. "We put them in because it seemed awkward to end the book in 1966 without connecting it to the present," says Hertenstein. "Those stories were little bridges."
"She wanted to encourage me as a younger woman to make the good decisions that she had not made," said Star Kolesar. "Marie took me and my family under her wing. In some ways I think we replaced the family she had lost.
"One day she gave me an envelope. She said I was to save it as a gift for my youngest son. Inside was a government bond in his name. She believed he would grow up to be a doctor and she wanted to help him be able to go to school."
"Two things that she loved the most were Jesus Christ and her smoking," said Scott Knies, who often carried James's cart for her up two flights of stairs.
Despite her own goal of "changing the world, one person at a time," Hertenstein hesitates to take any credit for helping James. "If there's a scale, she helped me and I helped her and it might just be equal," she says. "I think I helped her with her story and to fulfill the dream of having it published. It was give-and-take." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jan Hertenstein photo by Nathan Mandell; Marie James photo by Michael Tabor.