“When you start spiraling out from a mental breakdown, you don’t actually realize how far you’re going.”
“I was always the one starving for my dad’s affection,” says Robin Marlowe, as she sits in the living room of a small house in Fresno, California.
Robin, originally born in Los Angeles County’s San Fernando Valley, moved to Tulare County at the age of 14, just after her father’s death. He died at 45, after a portion of a hanger at the recently constructed Burbank Airport collapsed on an 18-wheeler while he was driving.
The incident left Robin and the rest of the family in a tailspin. Robin, the oldest child, was soon caring for her siblings as well as her mother, who was battling Lupus and alcoholism.
Robin says this trauma was another layer on top of an overall tough childhood. Although she was athletic—she excelled at gymnastics and swimming—she was also big for her age, and got picked on for it. But that wasn’t the worst of it. “At 11, I got raped… by my friend’s father,” says Robin. “And then at 14 my mother actually walked up, and caught me being raped.”
At age 17, Robin got pregnant with her first daughter. When she told her mother, she was kicked out of the house, only to return under her mother’s strict stipulation that Robin and the child’s father get married. The union was rough and lasted four years. The relationship brought about Robin’s second daughter, who was born with Down syndrome. And then they had a son, who died at five months after being prescribed the wrong medicine by doctors.
The end of the relationship led to a messy custody battle which Robin lost. “When you start spiraling out from a mental breakdown,” says Robin, “you don’t actually realize how far you’re going, because you really think you got your stuff together. And I did not.”
Her lawyer advised her to get a job, an apartment and stability if she wanted to have her children. She found a gig as a housekeeper-slash-chauffeur for an elderly woman, which wasn’t paid but came with room and board.
Then her lawyer doubled back and warned that Robin still might not get her kids back. That’s when she cracked. Robin was looking to take her own life when she grabbed a knife from the kitchen, stuck it in her underwear, and said goodnight to the elderly woman she was caring for.
The judge refused to give Robin a sanity hearing, and she was sentenced to 25 years to life without the possibility of parole. She was 21 years old.
When she arrived at the California Institution for Women in May of 1982 she says, she was heavily medicated, which made her aggressive. People began calling her “Rocky” after she hit one woman so hard the woman’s lip split all the way down to her gum line. “That’s not the person I ever wanted to be,” says Robin. But that’s the nature of the institution, “It’s either fight or get punked.”
She found support groups as a way to not only exorcise her pain, but to give guidance to other women. And then she found Nancy Anson, another person serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. “Nancy has been my shining star for years,” says Robin. “She’s not just my best friend, but my family. She calls me her sister.”
Robin’s actual family, her daughter, was incarcerated at Valley State Prison in 2003. Robin created a plan to get caught with a knife so that she would be transferred to the facility where her daughter was locked up. Unfortunately, by the time Robin’s transfer was completed, her daughter had been released.
“The guards said ‘Bye! Good luck!’ and just drove off,” Robin says, recalling her release from prison. She was in shock as she turned to the woman who paroled with her, asking, “They’re just going to drive off and leave us here like that?” To which the woman responded: “We’re not in their custody anymore.”
She got a ride from her parole agent to WestCare, the transitional housing facility she’d call home for the next six months.
Robin had the $200 people receive from the state when they leave prison, plus another $40 that Nancy had sent her. She stopped in a 7-11 and bought a bag of chips. “I remember when I handed the cashier my credit card, and she told me how much it was,” says Robin, explaining that her jaw dropped in shock at the price tag. As Robin struggled with the transaction, the cashier asked, “Well, how does it feel being out of prison?” Robin says, “I was so embarrassed that he could tell. I just wanted to crawl underneath a rock somewhere.”
According to Robin, “every day since then has been better and better.” She would soon move out of the transitional facility and into a two-bedroom house with Nancy and their dogs. She now has a license and a car, has been baptized, and has reconnected with her family.
“In 2005, I got diagnosed with congenital heart failure,” says Robin, beginning to list off her medical conditions. “I have full blown Barrett’s, which is one stage from cancer to my esophagus.”
She’s had three major surgeries, during which they’ve removed a portion of her stomach. Her battle with Barrett’s is ongoing, as is her issue with asthma.
In 2019, things really got bad: she had a heart attack. Robin was in a coma for 11 days, much of that time on life support. When she came to, doctors told her that she had pneumonia, as well as a rhinovirus. Still, she eventually made it back on her feet and back home from the hospital.
Robin says that she’s doing much better physically, but emotionally she’s had to deal with some more hard times.