Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan
“Somebody has seen her. Someone always sees a girl with 40,000 dollars.”
That’s the private investigator in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
, played by Martin Balsam, describing Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh. This could also be said of my character, Marion Palm, an embezzler on the lam.
This isn’t a coincidence. When I started this book about a woman on the run with a bunch of stolen cash, Marion Crane came to mind pretty quickly — so much so that my Marion is named after Psycho
Marion Palm and Marion Crane are in similar circumstances. Both women are isolated by their crimes; they’ve embezzled in order to achieve or protect a certain middle class existence; they easily commit the crime but are stymied by the fallout; they are both aware that they draw attention to themselves in their flight.
For women characters for whom the idea of breaking out of their private trap is almost debilitating, but also deliciously transgressive, I read Shirley Jackson.
The crimes themselves are quite different, even if they both involve stealing a lot of cash. Marion Palm has, over the course of a decade, embezzled a small fortune from her daughters’ private school in Brooklyn. Marion Crane, who works at a real estate office, commits a crime of opportunity and impulse after 40,000 dollars is fanned in her face by a drunk rich guy who’s buying his soon-to-be-married daughter a house. Once Marion has the cash in hand, she tells her boss she has a headache and asks for the afternoon off after she deposits the cash at the bank. In the next scene, Marion Crane is home, packing, and the money is in an envelope on the bed. Before she leaves, she stuffs the cash into a black purse that’s too small.
With the money, Marion can pay off her boyfriend’s debts and they can get married. She’ll drive the money to him in California. However, this crime, this fantasy of a crime, is almost immediately disrupted when Marion Crane’s boss spots her in her car when he’s crossing the street. She keeps going.
Marion does not necessarily feel guilt for committing her crime, but she becomes more and more certain that she will be caught. She knows she’s acting strangely. Everyone will remember her. As she drives her car through the black and white night, she’s haunted by her early mistakes. She imagines (accurately, we assume) how she will be caught. Part of it is that she is a new and unskilled criminal, not accustomed to lying and pretty bad at it, but she is also a woman driving alone and in a hurry. She’s vulnerable. She’s not particularly polite.
When she stops at the Bates Motel, it becomes clear that she’s returning the money in the morning. Norman convinces her that she should try to extract herself from her “private trap” — a darker version of Marion’s “private island.”
Where are you going? I don't mean to
I'm looking for a private island.
What are you running away from?
Why do you ask that?
No. People never run away from
The rain didn't last very long.
You know what I think? I think we're
all in our private traps, clamped in
them, and none of us can ever climb
out. We scratch and claw...but only
at the air, only at each other, and
for all of it, we never budge an
Sometimes we deliberately step into
There’s a look of relief on her face as she climbs into the shower. She’s about to be a good citizen again. A good woman. And this might be the screenwriter heightening the injustice of her murder, but I also think it doesn’t really matter. The murder belongs to the next story, and Marion might be punished for her transgression, but she’s also a cruel, weird victim of circumstance. Norman tosses the $40,000 — the MacGuffin
— into the trunk with Marion’s body before he sinks it into the bog.
So Marion Crane’s story arc was helpful for Marion Palm’s. I could see how difficult it would be for a minor white collar criminal to disappear. Part of what makes an embezzler successful is his or her ability to adhere to social norms. When the embezzler has to act superficially like the criminal she is, she might not be very good at it, and such inexperience shows on Marion Palm’s face, just as it shows on Marion Crane’s. The money is the means to one’s private island, but it also becomes a hindrance. The money has weight. The money is an object. Marion Crane’s loot won’t fit in her purse, so I put Marion Palm’s cash into a kid’s backpack.
There was something missing from Marion Crane’s escape that I wanted in my own story, however, and that was pleasure. There are moments when Marion Crane seems genuinely afraid for her own safety. She regrets her actions almost immediately. There is only one moment when it seems like Marion Crane might be pleased with herself. She imagines the indignation of the guy who dropped the money in her lap.
Her eyes get bigger, and there is a hint of a satisfied smile on her lips. Perhaps I’m reading too much into Janet Leigh’s performance here, but I wonder if Marion Crane is glad she took the money from this man because he deserved it. Marion Crane is a little proud of herself.
When I searched for more stoic or romantic escapes, I often found privileged women who had suffered some kind of trauma. These characters had the financial means to take off for long stretches of time. But for women characters for whom the idea of breaking out of their private trap is almost debilitating, but also deliciously transgressive, I read Shirley Jackson.
In Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House
, Eleanor Vance is so miserable in her home life that she accepts the invitation from a possible quack to stay at a haunted house. Her awful sister muses that the only reason Eleanor has been invited is because the doctor wants to conduct experiments on her. It doesn’t matter. As Jackson writes, “Eleanor…would have gone anywhere."
What makes Eleanor into a criminal on the run, like the Marions, is that in order to get to Hill House, she must take the car she owns with her sister. However, in a wonderfully maddening scene, it becomes clear that the sister will not give Eleanor permission, even though Eleanor insists it’s “half” her car and requires no permission. Her sister decides that she and her husband might need the car, and that it is out of the question.
There was something missing from Marion Crane’s escape that I wanted in my own story, however, and that was pleasure.
Eleanor takes the car anyway; she, in effect, steals her own car. In this weirdly rebellious act, Eleanor becomes a thief on the run, and the reader enters her consciousness. In fact, Eleanor is only accessible after she’s made this benignly criminal choice, and there is a feeling that no one ever knew Eleanor before she made this choice. The choice to steal her own car frees her from her private trap, and the car itself becomes the private island. Jackson describes the car as, “A little contained world of her own; I am really going, she thought." The journey is something to be savored because Eleanor Vance is finally, truly, herself.
If we are to compare these two characters, Marion Crane is the purpose-driven criminal. She’s committed a crime so she can have a better life. She’s headed somewhere. Eleanor Vance is more interested in the escape, in being somewhere else, and the car is an ends to the means. Marion Crane is anxious, panicked even, and only calms down when she decides to give herself up and hope for the best. Eleanor Vance is joyful, euphoric; she’s defied everyone’s expectations.
Before Eleanor reaches Hill House, she has a coffee at a dreary diner. The waitress is as unhappy and hopeless as Eleanor. Eleanor asks the depressed waitress, “Why don’t you
run away?” The waitress replies, “Would I be any better off?" This weighing of situations seems to be at the forefront of each woman’s mind. For Marion Crane, she’d be better off at home. For Eleanor Vance, there is no comparison.
Marion Palm, my woman on the run, sits somewhere on the spectrum between these two characters. She’s committed a crime like Marion Crane, but the motive for that crime, to financially support her family, dissipates as soon as she leaves them. Her joy is in her discovery of freedom.
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is a PhD candidate at the University of Denver for fiction and earned her MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She was born and raised in Brooklyn. The Misfortune of Marion Palm
is her first novel.