Longform

Femme Fatale

Page 3 of 9

As an adult, Brenda kept a huge framed print of Baby Jean on her wall and a dozen photos of her on her computer. There was something about Harlow that touched her. The world knew Harlow as a sex symbol, the promiscuous dumb blond trophy of Hell's Angels and The Public Enemy. But in truth, Harlean Carpenter of Kansas City was an intelligent introvert who just wanted a simple life. Her mother, Mama Jean, pushed her into a film career in order to live out her own dreams. Up until her tragic death at 26, Baby Jean had spent her whole life being controlled by her mother and manipulative men.

Though Brenda empathized with Harlow's plight, her life was the opposite in many ways. No one could tame her, let alone tell her what to do. Growing up in the Dallas suburb of Garland, a smart, spunky Brenda sang in the Garland Girls' Choir and chased boys with straight pins during recess. The oldest of three sisters, she was the leader who craved being the center of attention. Teachers praised and fawned over her, and she quickly discovered that education would be her ticket to success. Curious about the world, she was never bored.

When she was eleven, Brenda saw David Bowie for the first time and fell in love with punk. At fourteen, Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics stole her heart, causing Brenda to get her first Mohawk. She was so raw and sexual and scary, Brenda wrote. She represented everything I wanted to be. Seen as a freak for her punk-rock persona in a small town, Brenda became independent and aggressive: Occasionally, I had to fight, but boys didn't pick fights with me until later. At seventeen, she left home to do things her own way, often struggling to make ends meet on minimum-wage jobs and staying in a youth shelter for a time.

At 21, Brenda got married. She and her husband, Sterling Denton, had two daughters. Being a stay-at-home mom nearly drove me mad, I felt chained, resented picking up my husband's dirty socks. Eventually, I demanded we get counseling, but he was resistant, and I had to leave because I thought I was dying inside. By 25, Brenda had divorced and left that life behind, heading for Denver. The girls stayed in Texas with their father. "She was very hurt after her divorce," says her mother. "She needed to find out about herself and live without her husband. She chose to move to a whole different place and start over again."

There's an old punk saying that Brenda liked to quote: "It's not a dress code, it's a lifestyle." In Denver, she looked and lived it. She loathed the kids who dressed punk without knowing or caring why the movement came to be; for her, the look symbolized a disregard for the conventions of society. Punk was all about anarchy. Fighting came with the territory: The violence associated with punk is justified when one considers that anger is the second reaction to pain, and these kids hurt.

Jim Clark met Brenda in 1992 while hanging out at his buddy's apartment. She had a red, white and blue Mohawk, torn-up jeans, the black leather jacket and a cast on her leg -- the remnants of a bar fight. This was a girl who knew who she was and didn't take shit from anybody, and he liked that.

He barely remembers his days with Brenda because he was so inebriated most of the time, but he recalls that her fights were always alcohol-induced, and rarely with women. "She'd have pissing contests with guys," he says. "It was always her against men."

About a year into their relationship, Jim was kicked out of the Alcoholocaust and the apartment he shared with his bandmates. He moved in with Brenda, but they found that they were very different people. While all Jim ever wanted to do was play music and skateboard, Brenda would lock herself away for hours, reading or writing in her journal. She had goals. She wanted to go to college. She wanted to be a better mom.

"She was a very smart, very intelligent girl -- when she was sober," he says. "But she loved her pills, and she loved her booze." She'd come home drunk when he was sober and want to pick a fight, or vice-versa. In her writings, Brenda describes Jim as abusive, but he recalls her as the violent one. Once, he says, she came at him with a knife. The night they split for good, she started punching him. "And me, being an asshole, I told her she hits like a girl," Jim says. "She picked a lamp up and hit me in the head, and I punched her in the face. It was the first time I ever hit a girl."

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Jessica Centers