September 13, 2007
And who shall die?
I know the answer to that question -- I've known it for a year now -- but I also don't know the answer, the one that helps us make sense not just of one woman's tragic arc, but of good and evil, of life and faith.
Marcy Asher was the first girl I French kissed (I'm not counting a girl named Allison D. -- she grabbed my face and tongue-kebabed my tonsils, which was about as romantic as really bad CPR). No, Marcy and I shared a true mutual kiss, and I walked around school the next day like I'd stolen home with two outs at the bottom of the ninth. Marcy Asher was beautiful, a slim girl with wavy brown hair and a thin, delicate face.
Smart? Marcy was by unanimous and uncontested assent the most brilliant girl at Portola Junior High and Birmingham High School. We met in Mr. Hanson's eighth-grade English class, shared two class trips and bonded over our simultaneous reign as teachers' pets. Our romance never went beyond that kiss -- well, maybe we rounded one more base -- then it came to a screeching halt when I fell for Dana O.
But we stayed friends through high school. We were just decent looking enough to get invited to the good parties, but too geeky to join in the heavy drinking and petting. So we ended up talking a lot, in the corner of some over-decorated Encino living room or another, about Greek mythology and Israel and square dancing.
After Birmingham High School -- Marcy was class valedictorian, of course -- we lost touch. I just assumed Marcy had become a doctor or professor somewhere, or was immersed in a new book project or too busy cracking the genome to even show up in a Google search.
Then, a year ago, a woman named Barbara Shulman called me from an assisted-living home.
"Do you remember Marcy Asher?" she said.
"Of course," I told Barbara, "she was the first girl I French-kissed."
"I'm Marcy Asher's mother," she said. "And I want you to write about her."
I spoke with Barbara for a while. Then I spoke with Mark Asher, Marcy's brother, who lives in Ashland, Ore., and with Nathan Wang, Marcy's first husband. The same question hung over each conversation: What happened to Marcy Asher?
"I had a chance to really know Marcy," said Wang, who spoke to me by phone from his home in Hacienda Heights. "She was the spunkiest, most vivacious person I'd ever met."
They found each other in college, at Pomona College in Claremont. She was a freshman; he was a senior. Wang, a music major, was taken with Marcy's talents.
"She was an exceptional singer, guitarist and pianist," he said. "She was extraordinarily bright."
Marcy started out as pre-med, then switched to languages. Eventually, she became fluent in Hebrew, Mandarin Chinese and French. She studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Claremont.
Marcy's graduation present from her mother and stepfather was a trip to China with Wang, for two weeks, in 1984.
"During that time," Wang said, "something kicked in. She couldn't sleep. She was always angry. I'd say, 'What's wrong, Marcy?' and she wouldn't tell me."
Back in the States, a psychiatrist diagnosed Marcy as paranoid schizophrenic. She was listening to the wind, talking to trees. Doctors put her on lithium. When the medication began working, Marcy would feel better and decide to go off the drug. Then the symptoms would kick in again. Despite her condition, the two decided to marry. Wang converted to Judaism. They were wed in 1989 at Temple Isaiah on Pico Boulevard.
"I thought we could lick it," he said. "But it started getting really bad. Her stepfather took me aside and said, 'There's no need for you to suffer. You have our blessing to step aside.'"
After less than a year, the marriage was over.
Looking back, Wang realized Marcy was weighted with crushing challenges from her past. Some might have been the result of bad genes, others were surely put upon her.
The girl we knew as brilliant and vivacious was the child of a tough divorce. According to Wang, she struggled to find comfort and support in her family.
"She was always on her own," Wang said. "She was hungry for connection."
After her parents' divorce, and her mother's remarriage, the family fortunes shifted drastically. Her mother became successful running Flower Pavilion, a chic floral design business in Encino. Her stepfather, Gerald L. Schulman, grew rich in tax shelter investments until he was the subject of a very public fraud investigation. In 1988, a federal judge sentenced him to five years probation and 1,000 hours of community service for cheating the government out of $28 million in taxes.
Millions came and went; Marcy went from living in a luxurious house on Tudor Avenue -- the one I remember -- to an apartment on Magnolia Boulevard. Family members drifted apart.
"She wanted to feel like family, a family that lights Shabbat candles," Wang said. "She wanted that structure. There was no real family for her. Marcy said she always felt like an orphan."
The rootlessness infected her professional choices.
"She considered going to graduate school in languages," Wang said. "But she never had a purpose or intention. She never felt she could say yes to anything."
There are other sides to this story, even darker aspects that for a year I've wrestled over how and whether to report. In the end, I stuck to facts relayed to me by Wang, her brother Mark and her mother: And those are plenty mysterious enough. What is clear is that so many of the figures Marcy clung to for security and stability either abandoned her, used her or let her down.
In the end, some who loved her think her faith did the same.