Figures in a Mall

by Susan Orlean
The New Yorker
February 21, 1994

One of the last happy meetings of the Tonya Harding Fan Club took place at Nancy Welfelt's house, around her dining-room table. The meeting had actually begun at Clackamas Town Center -- the mall, in Clackamas County, Oregon, where Tonya skates -- on the morning of the day before Tonya's on-again, off-again ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, began his sixteen hours of interviews with the F.B.I. That was several days before Tonya announced that she knew about the plot to attack Nancy Kerrigan only after it had unfolded, and about a week before Jeff pleaded guilty, but several days after Shawn Eric Eckardt complained to the Portland Oregonian that Tonya had browbeaten him for not getting around to arranging the assault as quickly as she wanted. It was a golden moment. It was probably the last moment when the fan-club members could believe that Tonya had been completely uninvolved.

On the morning of the meeting, January 25th, as on most mornings since all the bad news, some of the club members went to the rink to watch Tonya practice. The ice was empty except for Tonya, who was bent over in the corner, fixing a skate. She was wearing a stretchy black sleeveless catsuit over a stretchy gray tank leotard. Every contour of her body was outlined in black -- her meaty back, her strong upper legs, with their blocky muscles. She stood up and started down the length of the rink, her skates cutting feathery grooves in the ice. Her lips were pressed tight, and her chin was thrust forward. Her expression was wan and stubborn. Her ponytail fluttered out behind her. No other part of her seemed to move, but she was crossing the ice with tremendous speed. A snatch of music came over the loudspeaker. At the end of the rink, where a hundred or so people were gathered, she turned sharply, bent her leg, and then spun until the ice beneath her skate began to make a sizzling sound. Suddenly she stopped, skated toward the other end of the rink, spun again, pulled at the waist of her catsuit, then circled the ice once more. For an hour, she practiced pieces of her program -- a spin, a leap, a movement of her leg or hand. The pieces were never fused together into something fluid or pretty. They were just explosions of motion between long silent moments, when Tonya would stand alone in the huge, blank rink, kicking at a frosty patch or tightening her skates. She didn't look happy, but she also didn't look rattled or embarrassed or shy. At the end of the hour, when she stepped off the ice, the club members told each other that she seemed composed and steady.

The club was meeting that day because the members had a lot of work to do. Since the attack, and since Tonya's victory at the nationals, the club, four hundred strong, had received hundreds of requests for membership information. Elaine Stamm, the club's founder and president, had printed up more copies of the flyer describing the memberships -- ten dollars for adults, one dollar to join Tots for Tonya -- and suggesting additional opportunities to support Tonya, by fund-raising, or by giving her cosmetics, hair care, and nail care, or by making calls about her to sports talk programs, or by mailing her encouraging cards. There were also scores of requests for Tonya buttons and bumper stickers, and for tapes of "It's Tonya's Turn," written and recorded by Linda and Greg Lewis, local songwriters who a few years ago composed a hit song about Desert Storm. Linda and Greg had stopped by that morning to make some last-minute arrangements with Elaine about the song. Linda was saying, "We're not skating fans so much, but we're Christians, and we thought this was the right thing to do."

The mall was a good place for the club to gather and get all this done. There really isn't a town of Clackamas. There are acres of Douglas-fir forest and grassy idle pastures, and balding hills now sprouting subdivisions, and ranchettes on lawns of chunky red mulch, and squat new apartment complexes with tan siding and shiny driveways, and featherweight trailers perched on rough concrete blocks, and there are tumbledown old farmhouses on weedy tracts waiting to be seized and subdivided, and there are little strip malls and fast-food restaurants and glassy health clubs and tanning salons standing alone in enormous parking lots, and there are bushy fields of huckleberry, blackberry, sumac, and salal, and there are pockets of businesses having to do with toys and muZers and furniture, but there really isn't any town to speak of, or even a village to drive through. Unlike an old-fashioned town, which spreads out organically, Clackamas County's settled areas look as if they had emerged abruptly, hacked out of the tangle of blackberry bushes and firs. Around the mall, new things are cropping up so fast that the place seems kinetic, as if everything had gone up, and could come down, in a day. Even where the county is overbuilt and busy, emptiness is the feeling it conveys.

Portland is half an hour's drive away from here. It is an old, compact city that was settled by Yankee merchants, who fashioned it after Boston. Portland is the largest city in Oregon, but it is of very little consequence to people like Tonya and Jeff and Shawn, who live in and rarely leave Clackamas and east Multnomah Counties. News reports that say Tonya is from Portland have missed the geographical and sociological point. The world that Clackamas County is part of starts somewhere in the Great Plains, skips over cities like Portland and Seattle, and then jumps up to Alaska -- a world where people are plunked down on harsh or austere or overgrown landscapes and might depart from them at any moment, leaving behind only a few houses and some gear. Alaska, desolate and rugged and intractable, feels like an annex of Clackamas County, and Portland seems a million miles away. Alaska, not Portland, is also where many people from Oregon have often gone to get more land, or to make quick money by working for a summer in a fish cannery or on a logging crew. There is a Yukon Tavern in Clackamas County and a Klondike Jewelers, and at the nearby thrift stores you can find old table linens with Alaskan motifs -- huskies, oil rigs, Eskimos -- and old postcards of Alaskan landscapes and photographs of Juneau cannery crews and of log camps, scribbled with messages to the family back in Clackamas.

The winter weather in this part of Oregon is gray and drizzly, and the light is flat and filtered through a low ceiling of clouds. Occasionally, the clouds bust up, and it will rain in spats -- you can be driving around and the rain will pour on your car but not on the car behind you. The most monumental thing in Clackamas County is Mt. Hood, a mostly dormant volcano, which is 11,235 feet high and is snow-covered year round. Mt. Hood has several active, constantly creeping glaciers. Otherwise, the only ice regularly found in the county is the skating rink at the mall.

Clackamas Town Center is a giant mall, the largest collection of retail stores in the state of Oregon; the space it encloses, more than a million square feet, is so much bigger than any other enclosed space nearby that when the mall opened, in 1981, it provoked a little local hysteria. Rumors went around the county that a band of hippies or Satanists was kidnapping children and taking them into the mall rest rooms and either castrating them or cutting off their hair, then painting their faces and letting them go. Psychologists later attributed the rumors to the unease of people who were accustomed to being isolated and outdoors, as they always had been in this part of Oregon, suddenly making regular visits to a place that was crowded and contained.

There is very little irony in the name Clackamas Town Center. Anything that goes on around here goes on at the mall. There are stores, of course, and also conference rooms where community groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and the Egg Artists of Oregon meet. And there is the skating rink, which the developers put in to satisfy local requirements for recreational facilities. In 1988, the developers proposed replacing the rink with a carrousel, but at the public hearing on the matter Tonya, who was only seventeen but already a nationally ranked skater, made a compelling plea to save it. The rink is Olympic-size, with big bleachers along one side. On the lower level of the mall, behind the bleachers, is a branch of the Clackamas County Library; a sign outside the door says, "Yes! This Really Is a Library!" On the upper level of the mall, ringing most of the rink, is the food court, which may make this the only place in America where an Olympic contender trains within sight of the Steak Escape, Let's Talk Turkey, Hot Dog on a Stick, and Chick-fil-A.

On the morning of the meeting, Elaine Stamm, the president of the club, watched Tonya practice for an hour or so. That morning, when Tonya first came out on the ice she was carrying a video camera to film the film crews who were in a press corral near the door to the skate shop. "Wasn't that cute?" Elaine said, on her way to the meeting room. "Wasn't that brave?" She was setting out boxes of flyers and tapes and Tonya buttons when someone quietly took her aside to say there was a problem: somebody else needed to use the room. This was not a development as bad as, say, Jeff's guilty plea would eventually be, but it eroded morale. The club liked the idea of doing its work in the very spot where Tonya had developed into an Olympic contender. Nancy Welfelt, one of the members, suggested reconvening at her house, so the members got their coats, and fanned out through the parking lot to their cars, and formed a small convoy to the Welfelts'.

They drove up Eighty-second Avenue, past the Lovelier You Beauty Salon and the Beavers Inn and the Moneyman and the Junk-a-Rama, and then turned east, past Lincoln Willamette Funeral Directors, which had a digital sign flashing the time, the temperature, and then the message "Compare! Complete Chapel Service With Casket $1,997." A few blocks west of Eighty-second Avenue, on the edge of Multnomah County, is the neighborhood known as Lents. This is one of the places Tonya lived when she was growing up, and it's also not far from where Gary Gilmore lived for a time. Lents was settled first by farmers and then, in the nineteen-thirties and forties, by shipyard and sheet-metal workers; today it consists of narrow, pitted roads that peter out into gravel alleys, with houses so tiny that some look as if they had been built for dolls or chickens, or were really meant to be one-car garages. In the neighborhood nearer the mall, where Tonya lives now, the houses are scant, speckling open acreage that used to be farms and woodlots. In Lents, everything is shoved together; nearly every house is on a parcel the size of a napkin, hemmed with a high chain-link fence, and in the yard there is usually a motor home and a dog kennel, and a toolshed, and maybe a car chassis that someone has lost interest in fixing. Every block or so, squeezed between the houses, there is a church: New Testament Church of God and Christ, "Preaching a Living Christ to a Lost and Dying World"; the Church of Christ; the Bethel German Assembly of God.

The Welfelts' house is east of Eighty-second Avenue, in the Mt. Scott neighborhood, which is on the steep side of Mt. Scott, a small extinct volcano. On this side of Eighty-second Avenue, the houses thin out and are newer and nicer, with bright aluminum siding, and carports, and picture windows, and decorative screen doors. The convoy stopped at Nancy's driveway, and the club members lugged in the boxes of flyers and buttons and bumper stickers, and then pulled chairs up to the dining table. Along with Elaine, a former charm-school teacher, who has frosted hair and narrow, square shoulders and a striking imperial posture, and Nancy Welfelt, who has a cheery face and fading blondish hair, there were four other middle-aged women, and the husband of one of them: a jittery guy with wire-rimmed glasses. He never sat down at the dining table and never even took off his coat, and then suddenly left during the meeting to go visit his parents' gravesat the cemetery across the street. Someone complimented Nancy on the view from her living-room window, and she said, "You want to see something? See out there? You can see Shawn's house. Shawn, the bodyguard. He lives behind me, with his parents." Everyone crowded to the window and looked in the direction Nancy was pointing, across the side of the hill and over the tops of some houses wrapped in fog.

One of the other women said, "Have you ever seen Tonya's mother's trailer? It's just up the road here, and it is meticulous. It is lovely. It is tidy. You would never even know it's a trailer."

"Trailer trash is what they call people out here," another woman said to me. She sat down and started tapping on the table with her fingernails. They were long and burgundy-colored, and each one had a different small image painted on it -- a shooting star, a sun, a lightning bolt. She said, "There are plenty of people who think we're scum because we live out here on the east side. Well, I live in a very non-scum neighborhood. It's actually a so-called good neighborhood, but it's always going to be thought of as trash, because it's east side." She tapped. Her fingernails clicked: lightning bolt, star, sun.

"I wouldn't say trash," Elaine said. "I would say . . . I would say . . ." She paused. "Well, my heart just went out to Tonya when I first saw her skate. I just see that little gal out there, the abused child spanked by her mother with a hairbrush, and when they would do the up-close-and-personals for the Olympic skaters, they showed Tonya in her jeans at her little house fixing her car, and I could just feel her sink. When I started the club, the people I heard from were women with abusive husbands, and Vietnam vets who had come home and felt displaced, and they'd see that little gal and feel really good about themselves. So it's funny that people would think of her as trash."

"Scum," the nail woman snapped. "That's what they call us. It's a class difference -- that's what all this mess is about Tonya. She's just a regular Clackamas County girl. In my opinion, she's a modern gal, what we would call a tomboy. She can hunt, she can fix a car. She calls herself the Charles Barkley of figure skating, and she's right. She's a stud."

Another one of the women said, "I'll tell you, you know who I cannot stand is that Kristi Yamaguchi." Everyone groaned. She rolled her eyes, and went on, "She is just so prissy. Tonya is so tough. She is a stud! She really is!"

The nail woman said, "You know, there are a lot of us who look at Tonya and think to ourselves, There's a gal who pulled herself up, who had some tough times with her folks, and whatever, and she still did great by her dreams. I know what it's like to have dreams and to perform. When I was a kid, I was a performer. I was on that radio show 'Stars of Tomorrow,' and I got tons of trophies for my singing."

Nancy said, "You were a singer? You sang?"

"All the time -- oh, yeah, all the time," she said. "I had just tons of trophies. I don't have them anymore. My dad threw them all out."

Elaine said, "Why did he do that?"

"Well," the woman said, shrugging and tapping, "we just don't get along."

Tanya Utberg, the Clackamas County Fair and Rodeo Queen, said to me recently, "I think Clackamas County is a very warmy place," which makes it sound soothing and regular, but often it seems to be a more haphazard and disjointed place than that. The day I talked to the Rodeo Queen, I drove out to the neighborhood where Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly used to live, and where Tonya still lives. Her house is in a part of Clackamas County called Beavercreek. Beavercreek isn't shown on any street map -- it's just an area, not far from a small city called Happy Valley, which is where Tonya's mother is currently living. Tonya's road in Beavercreek is a skinny rib that runs along a foothill, past a spread of newish one-story houses. Tonya's house, an A-frame chalet, is at the end of a long drive-way and is not visible from the road. At the end of her driveway were a white farm gate, a big homemade heart-shaped sign left by some fans, and several "No Trespassing" notices. A few miles farther along the road, not far from the Savage Mini-Mall, I stopped at a new housing development, and the real-estate broker gave me a tour of one of the houses. When it is finished, the development will be called Sun-set Springs Estates. The broker didn't know what had been on the property before it was subdivided, but a few scraggly fruit trees out back provided a hint. In bright weather, the Sunset Springs houses will have a distant view of the wolf-fang shape of Mt. Hoodand a close view of a new development called McBride Estates, and of a woeful old farm undoubtedly in line to have the earth turned up under it so someone can sow some more houses. The broker said, "Sunset Springs Estates are going to be real lovely places when they're done." Then he gazed out the window and said, "It is sort of funny around here. Everything is such a big mix-match. You have one kind of thing right next to another kind of thing, like lots of money beside poor. That's what I call a real mix-match. Things don't always fit together as well as they should."

Tuesday and Thursday are Cheapskate Nights at the skating rink -- for four dollars, you can rent skates and skate for two hours. A big banner advertising Cheapskate Nights hangs above the ice, next to one, paid for by the fan club, that says "Home of Tonya Harding -- U.S. Figure Skating Champion." Saturday evening isn't for cheapskates, but it's the busiest night. On the Saturday after the fan-club meeting, the ice was packed. You can watch the rink from the mall's upper level, standing between a kiosk with a public-service poster that says "Support the U.S. Olympic Team: Go Shopping" and a small business called All About Names, which is set up on a rolling cart. For a couple of dollars, you can get printed on a number of different items, such as beer steins and key chains, or on a piece of fancy paper, a little legend about almost any name. I asked the woman working at the cart to do the name "Tonya" on pink paper with a drawing of a fairy castle, and she said, "Tonya? Tonya? Tonya? I've never heard of that before. What a nice, interesting name." That morning's Oregonian had had a story about Nancy Kerrigan on the front page for the seventeenth day in a row. The woman at the cart punched some buttons on a computer, and after a moment the paper came out. It said that "Tonya" was Latin for "priceless," and that a Tonya was "a liberated spirit" who "has never settled down to any one thing . . . is attractive, lively, and tasteful . . . sets high expectations and fulfills them." Down below, kids were whizzing around showing off, or inching along the edge of the ice, clinging to each other in wobbly packs. A lot of the girls looked like Tonya, with long multilevel blond hair and a puff of bangs, eyes rimmed in black liner, and stocky bodies in inexpensive-looking clothes. In the center of the ice, a few skinny girls in Lycra skating dresses were practicing spins. Until recently, Tonya sometimes practiced during open-skate hour, picking her way through the crowd. Now she skates only very late at night, but for a long time she usually practiced in the mornings, when the ice was empty but the bleachers were filled with people eating tacos and gyros and Dilly Deli sandwiches and looking on.

Around here, kids go to the movies, or they drive up and down Eighty-second Avenue, or they hang out at the mall. If they work at it, they can get into trouble. A juvenile-court counsellor named Steve Houseworth told me that in the last two years kids in the county, like kids in counties all over the country, have become increasingly hedonistic, defiant, and angry, and that juvenile arrests have boomed. "Our big problem is with anti-social pre-planned deviant behavior," he said. "We've got an explosion of anger, intimidation, and aggression issues. I think we'll see more of it, too, because the county is grow-ing real hard and real fast." The county, he went on, is trying out a privately run anger-management program called Temper Talk, which offers counselling to juveniles charged with Assault 3 or Assault 4 -- causing harm to a person without intent or with intent, respectively.

The program director for Temper Talk, Derek Bliss, told me, "Kids here are looking for power and they want control. They're angry about dominance. They want to show the image and reputation of dominance." I asked him whether he recognized the likes of Shawn and Jeff and of Shane Stant, the twenty-two-year-old man who had been paid to attack Nancy Kerrigan. "Definitely," he said. "These are the kind of guys who lose their temper but don't know how to use their temper. Shane, the one who confessed to actually doing the assault -- he's a very big boy. He's not behind physically for his age group, but he's clearly behind empathetically. I'd bet there was a humongous amount of inconsiderate behavior in their lives before this assault."

On Saturday night, I talked with two young guys, D. J. Dollar Bill and D. J. Fast Eddie, who were standing on a platform beside the skate-rental booth, playing tapes over the loudspeakers and calling out for the kids to reverse directions, and then to speed up, and then to get ready to line up for games. Dollar Bill said he was a delivery driver for an auto-supply company. Fast Eddie said he worked in the produce section of a grocery store. Fast Eddie also said he could not comment on Tonya. "What I'm about is right here," he said, motioning to the ice, "and here is fun." He put on a Snoop Doggy Dogg song and then said, "We're going to play some great games later. We just finished a big one. It's the favorite around here. We break up into teams and compete in four events -- the ringtoss, ice basketball, ice golf, and a finale, which is a snowball race with a snowball on your head. We call it 'The Olympic Menage-e-Trois.'"

Celebration New Song Foursquare Church, a Pentecostal congregation, meets every Sunday in a room at the Holiday Inn in Gresham, a town just north of the Clackamas County line. The pastor of the church, Eugene Saunders, hadn't been seen in three weeks -- that is, since shortly after the night that he was doing home-work with Shawn Eckardt, the heavyset baby-faced bodyguard and self-described foreign-espionage operative, who was a classmate of Gene's in a legal-assistant training program at Pioneer Pacific College. That night, Shawn had bragged to Gene that he was involved in setting up an attack on a figure skater, and played a garbled tape of a planning session for him. It was that conversation -- which Gene repeated first to a Pioneer Pacific teacher, a private investigator (who repeated it to the Portland Oregonian), and then to the authorities -- that broke the case open. The publicity that followed was so overwhelming and relentless that Gene decided to go underground.

On Sunday, I went to church, and Reverend Saunders reappeared. In the newspaper box outside the Holiday Inn, the headlines were still all about Tonya. Inside, nineteen people were gathered in a meeting room, among them a weary-looking older couple with a strange, thin, shrill-voiced boy; a young woman with two restless red-haired children; a man with stringy blond hair that hung to his shoulder blades, sitting with a pretty woman who wore her hair in cornrows, and was the only black person I saw the whole time I was in Clackamas County; a ruddy-faced man with pinkish eyelids and full lips, wearing a worn-out chambray work shirt and holding in his lap a Bible and a Bible-study guide; a man, maybe around seventy, with greased-back black hair and thick glasses, wearing a plastic windbreaker and a short striped necktie. In the front of the small room, a big, bearded man holding a zebra-striped electric guitar began strumming and singing in a tender voice. Everyone rose, scraping back tan metal folding chairs. Someone turned on an overhead projector, and a handwritten lyric sheet flashed in a crooked rectangle across the wall and ceiling, and then the congregation sang. The room was new and drab; the floor felt hollow. Outside, it was pouring. The motel was so new that there was no lawn yet, or even mulch -- only mud and construction equipment, and fresh sidewalks, which looked silvery in the rain. After one of the songs, the man with the greased-back hair stepped forward and began a rhythmic declaration from the back of his throat. He was speaking in tongues, and he went on for several minutes, shouting and sweating and slapping his thighs. Finally, he paused, wiped his brow, and then translated what he had to say -- that Jesus was coming, that Jesus was watching, that anyone who followed Jesus and resisted Satan would never go astray.

When he finished, Gene Saunders came to the front of the room. He is a handsome, fleshy young man with small, crowded features; he was wearing a dress shirt and suspenders, and holding an open can of Mountain Dew. He said, "I know you've been wondering a lot of things -- some of you have known where I've been, but mostly you've known that I just needed to take a break from the publicity. We got calls from around the world. We got calls from Japan about this. I want to tell you folks a few things. First of all, you know that I am not Shawn's pastor. I think some of you read something saying that he was with us -- that I was his pastor -- and you were thinking, Hey, we don't know this guy. Well, we were classmates in school. I'm not his pastor." He chuckled. "I suppose he could use one now." People nodded, and bumped each other with their elbows. "Also, I want you to know I never changed my story. I always said I couldn't understand the tape. It was a garbled tape. It started getting into press reports that I could understand the tape, and then at the grand-jury hearing I testified that I couldn't, and everyone is asking me why I changed my story. I didn't. It was misrepresented that way."

Someone called out, "That was Satan working! That's how the enemy works -- confusing us with things we didn't say!" Gene nodded, and sipped from the can. He strolled around the front of the room. "It's been tough for me, because I've had to neglect you and the church business during all of this, and I've had to make choices. I shouldn't say this in front of our treasurer, but I was offered fifty thousand dollars to tell my story to a television show, and I turned it down." From the back of the room, someone said "Reverend, we could sure have used that money!" and everyone laughed. Gene said, "Well, I turned everything down. We'll just have to keep fund-raising for ourselves. But, you know, that was real temptation."

"Why did they do it, Reverend?"

He looked down, kicking lightly at the carpeting. "Bitterness, I think. Bitterness that things weren't going their way."

The ruddy-faced man flipped his study guide open to Luke 14. "All the answers are right here," he whispered to me. He ran a fingernail across the page, to where it said, "Wanting a new car or hoping to be successful in your career is not wrong in itself -- it is wrong only when you want these things just to impress others." He closed the book and then closed his eyes.

Gene finished speaking and shook everyone's hand, and said he would be back every Sunday unless things got too distracting again.

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