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"Marion"–a book review by Travis Hardin
June 2008 NorbaMensa

Originally published in the newsletter of North Alabama Mensa

"Marion," by Laurel Coleman Steinhice. Nashville, Tennessee: 2008. Westview Publishing Company.

Well-known to many of you, the Steinhices – Chris, Charlie, Eileen, and Jessica Steinhice Matthews -- are Tennessee Mensans who have attended and led at all of our RGs. Most famously, Charlie Steinhice conducts "Mensa Bowl" and together they perform the side-splitting revue Steinhics-capades. Their mother Laurel (also a Mensan) has published a biography of HER mother, called simply "Marion." Louise talked with Laurel Steinhice and bought the book when the author appeared in May at The Coffee Tree in Huntsville.

Marion, who came of age during the great depression, was a pretty and adventurous woman – a feminist when the word was rare, and a traveled career reporter who divorced, became a single mother, and dated in an era when women were expected to marry and stay home.

The events of her life take place against the backdrop of WW II. The book is compelling reading. It ends in 1953 when Marion at age 39 had returned to Chattanooga and the Chatoonooga Times after a career in London and Berlin. The author, central to the story, writes about herself in the third person, and it reads well. Marion’s successes are well contrasted with the obstacles she encountered.

I saw three themes:

1. Marion’s success in the 1940s and 50s as a professional and as a single mother against dysfunctional family influences that included a disapproving mother, and a sister-in-law who campaigned to get Marion’s child Laurel for herself.

2. Being amidst history making events and cosmopolitan associates.

3. Childhood molestation and its consequences.

Quite by coincidence in the late 1930s Marion became a journalist for the Chattanooga Times. At her insistence she wrote as a news reporter, not a society page reporter. Divorced in 1939 (at age 25) with an infant daughter, Laurel, Marion became "the first hippie," unknowingly establishing a commune by sharing a house (which they called "Shangra-La") with a group of other reporters, mostly men, who all doted over the child. In 1941 she did stories on local military maneuvers that led to employment in 1942 as the first female wire service editor working for the Associated Press in Nashville.

In 1944 Marion went to work for the U. S. Office of War information (OWI), and after training in New York, worked in London captioning war photos and selecting those to be released to the Western press. During the latter days of the Blitz she edited news for release to the Western press.

After a short post-VE day stint with AP, Marion joined the Military Occupation Government (OMGUS) in Berlin as a high-ranking civilian "with the ‘simulated rank’ equal to Brigadier General."

Those successes were contrasted with Marion’s childhood in Tarpon Springs, Florida, where her mother Tulcie, a religious neurotic, pointed Marion’s life toward waiting on tables, waiting on her, and church. Going to college, even with a full scholarship, was an "abomination to God," and for dancing and other ambitions Marion was sure to go "straight to Hell."

Like Forrest Gump, Marion as an adult keeps showing up at history-making events:

She was pictured in newsreels throwing confetti and waving to the camera from the American embassy’s balcony in London on VE day.

Hers was among the last cars to drive into Berlin before the Russian blockade, and she and Laurel watched the first truckload of goods go into Berlin when it ended. The truck contained cabbage, the author says.

As if to compensate for a repressive childhood, Marion was adventurous. She liked new people; she liked the multinational parties in Berlin; she had many American and international friends including Russian women. While in Berlin she was engaged to an American Jew, a Syrian Arab, and a native German. She disapproved of racial discrimination. Her God was benevolent, unlike her mother’s.

The author freely reveals that Marion had many men in her life, and she writes much about sexuality. Marion was sexually molested at home by her step-father with Tulcie’s knowledge. Whether the author deliberately developed that thread or left the reader to pick it out is not clear. What is clear is that Marion knew with certainty what men wanted, and used that knowledge expertly, though perhaps out of conditioning or fear. The amateur psychologist would look for Marion to get herself into an abusive relationship, and she would find it. Though Marion usually found good men, including first Walter Coleman, her husband and father of her only child (and the reason she moved to Chattanooga), she found terror in her last relationship in Berlin. Ernst Mueller took over her life, one step at a time. He threatened her and beat her in front of Laurel, and once held a knife at her throat for an hour and a half. Yet she would not leave him until an ultimatum to choose came from Laurel.

A telling, if practical, comment came from Marion’s own lips in advising the teen-aged Laurel what to do if captured by Russians: "What you should do is go to the highest ranking officer you can find and see if you can get him to protect you ... try to make him like you..."

The author and her mother were nominal liberal Christians, but the author begins to insert mysticism of the "psychic powers" variety into her story. It is near the end and not too much of a distraction. The author began to believe in spiritualism in earnest during the crisis when Ernst Mueller was attacking her mother. She practices spiritual healing today.

If the last paragraph has evoked curiosity about conversions, a useful explanation can be found in John Lofland’s "Doomsday Cult" (1978 ed.), in which he relates how the Unification Church or Moonies converted many in the U.S. to that religion by sending a few full-time missionaries to streets and meeting places to locate people in crisis. Discontented and desperate people with religious backgrounds and without other support easily bought the offered mystical alternative. But in one case he tells about, a woman who had been in psychotherapy would not buy, because she thought in psychiatric terms. Psychiatry requiring rational thinking about oneself. Thus people usually convert within, not outside, their world views, which Lofland conveniently categorizes for us as the political, the religious, and the psychiatric, to which a subsequent sociologist, Laurence Veysey in "The Communal Experience" (1973) admitted several minority world views such as family-centered privatism, the scientific, and the atheistic.

In summary, the strong bond between mother and daughter and the large amount of detail the mother communicated to her daughter about events she couldn’t have witnessed resulted in a rich and vivid biography.

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