On a warm Monday last April, Marla Hanson made her way through a crowded Fort Worth reception with a glass of cola balanced on her palm. Five feet four inches tall and barely one hundred pounds, the former model did not walk so much as glide, first from room to room of socialite Martha Hyder’s mansion, then out onto the terrace. She was dressed in dark pants and a light silk blouse; her long brown hair was tied back with a scarf, revealing dark eyes, arched eyebrows, a short strong nose, and jutting expressive lips. In the haze of sundown, I could barely see the pale but pronounced scar that snaked from her right cheekbone to the corner of her mouth.
Marla had come back to Texas—where she spent her late teens and early twenties—to attend a fundraiser benefiting the National Victim Center, which lobbies on behalf of victim’s rights. For hours that first day, she was the focus of everyone’s attention, mingling with local celebrities like Van Cliburn; with Alexander von Auersperg and his sister, Ala, whose mother is comatose heiress Sunny von Bülow; and with novelist Dominick Dunne, whose daughter was murdered in 1982. But as the mansion filled up, Marla decided she needed some fresh air.
Still, she couldn’t escape the spotlight. As she stood apart from the crowd, admiring the lush Trinity River bottom, men stood apart admiring her. Finally, a bald, dashing plastic surgeon named Jim Denton strode across to meet her. After shaking her hand, Denton touched her scar. “Oh, it’s a shame they couldn’t have waited,” he said, and then started talking about sanding her face. Marla didn’t bat an eye.
The notion of a small-town girl descending on the big city only to have the city descend on her is a cliché, the stuff of TV movies. But the now-famous attack that disfigured Marla Hanson was the culmination of just such a scenario. In less than a decade, she went from Bible studies at a Waxahachie college to a modeling career in New York City; but in an instant, it came crashing down. There were many low points during that period—financial problems, loneliness, depression—and there have been some since. Last Christmas, novelist Jay McInerney ended their four-year relationship and married another woman. But the defining moment of her life continues to be one horrid night.
Shortly after midnight on June 5, 1986, Marla walked out of a Manhattan bar with her former landlord, an acquaintance whom she disliked but did not fear. Around the corner, two young black men overtook her and pushed her through a parking lot. While her acquaintance watched, the two men took Marla’s face apart with a razor blade. Nearly 150 stitches were required to close cuts that were up to an inch deep. “I felt like I was fixing a porcelain vase,” her plastic surgeon later said, “but I kept thinking that all I was doing was pushing the pieces together. I can’t make the vase perfect again.”
Marla’s acquaintance and her attackers were convicted of assault and sent to prison. Jurors found that the acquaintance had hired the others in retaliation for rejected sexual overtures and a fight over an $850 rent deposit. But in the trial of the two black men, Marla was attacked by a defense attorney for wearing a miniskirt, for having a love life, and “for being a girl out of Texas”—in other words, for being a racist. When she protested those characterizations, the judge publicly tongue-lashed her. She came away from the whole ordeal with a bitter estimate of the criminal justice system, a wariness of the press, and, psychologically, a long row to hoe.
Marla has spent the past six years recovering from her wounds and looking to the future. Today, at age 31, she’s studying film at New York University, and she recently wrote an article for McCall’s titled “When a Woman Is Attacked, Why Does She Get Blamed?” But however hard she tries, she cannot fully escape her past.
On her second day in Fort Worth, Marla and I stood on the balcony of a downtown hotel suite, while Dominick Dunne sat inside selling signed copies of his novels to raise money for the Victim Center. The sunshine was cool and pleasant, and Marla raised her face to it. After a few moments of small talk, I steered back to the attack.
“Do you dream about it?” I asked.
“Constantly at first,” she said, “then for years not at all. Then, last fall, I got upset watching the Clarence Thomas hearings. People I knew were making all these absolute judgments based on very little information: ‘Just wait, this is going to be the best thing that ever happened to Anita Hill.’ That’s what happened to me. I was infuriated, and it traumatized me. All at once, the dreams came back.”
Our conversation ended on that equivocal note. The suite was getting crowded, and it was almost time for lunch. Among the late arrivals was plastic surgeon Jim Denton, who had cornered Marla the night before. Denton walked straight to her, kissed her unscarred cheek, and handed her his card.
Marla Hanson has said she was a victim almost from the start. Her parents divorced soon after she was born in 1961 in Independence, Missouri, a Kansas City suburb. Along with two brothers and, in time, five half siblings, she spent her childhood in Independence with her mother, who worked in a bowling alley, and her stepfather, a municipal employee. Although she is reluctant to talk about it today, she told Glamour in 1986 that she was sexually abused as a child. Marla didn’t identify her assailant, but she said her mother “couldn’t deal with it” when she told her.
When Marla was twelve, her natural father, Bob Hanson took custody of his children. Soon after, Marla and her brothers went to live with their dad, his wife, Dorothy, and Dorothy’s two children in the small Missouri farm towns of Oak Grove and Odessa. The contrast was extreme.