Love the Outfit, Mrs. Harleman, but Your Kids Want to Just Die

updated 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Halfheartedly going about her cooking and cleaning year after year, Patricia McGarry Harleman, a middle-aged housewife and Junior Leaguer from Mill Valley, Calif., couldn't help fantasizing about a little excitement. She imagined herself making it big as a singer and actress, with maybe a modeling assignment or two for good measure. Her husband, Peter, a public relations executive, and their three children decided to humor her, but, well, frankly they didn't take her too seriously. Then a year ago, not long after reaching the big four-oh, Mom began landing gigs at local nightclubs as a super glitzoid punker named Bebe Gunn.

Danielle Harleman, 19, a UCLA sophomore, saw her mother in performance for the first time just last month at Uncle Charlie's, a Marin County club made marginally famous as the setting for a Huey Lewis video. Shamed into attending—"It's very hard to watch your mother gyrate onstage"—Danielle squirmed as Bebe Gunn sauntered onstage in a red spandex bodysuit and black vinyl jacket. While her backup laid down a primal beat, Bebe erotically sucked on a blue fluorescent tube and squealed, "I'm a funky girl from outer space...."

"I prefer music with more melody," said Rad Hall, 19, a friend Danielle had brought along for support.

"I would never let my mother go onstage," said pal Mike Cutler, 19.

"What can I say?" said Danielle. "I'm mortified."

The worst was yet to come. Looking like a crazed junkie in heat, Mom/Bebe writhed on the floor during an atonal version of Lou Reed's Heroin, then put on and peeled off a nun's habit. Next, slipping into something a little uncomfortable—to wit, a beak—she went into a salacious shuffle with two female dancers and began to shriek, "I am the crow!"

By the end of the one-hour show Danielle was experiencing new depths of humiliation. "My friends all say, 'What's Danielle's mom up to this week?' " she says. "They all think it's neat. I always tell them they wouldn't think it was so neat if they had a mom who embarrassed them."

Harleman, frankly, doesn't care what her daughter thinks, or her son Michael, 13, who didn't attend. Of all the children, Michael seems the most deeply distressed by his mother's antics and refuses to talk about them. "Just say I wish her the best of luck," he says, dripping sarcasm. But Patricia has personal fulfillment in her sights, and it seems she has had it up to here with the mother number. "It's the story of my life," she says. "I am never what people think I am."

Her family has seen her through many incarnations over the years. Earlier, she asserted her independence as a department store clerk and a car salesperson, and dabbled in dancing, painting and writing. Now she sees herself as an actress. "Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn—I can do what they do," she says earnestly. "I can be very, very serious."

Danielle is not so sure. "She hasn't really done that much work, even though she goes to auditions all the time," Danielle says. "She's big on being a student. She went to psychic classes like Read Your Aura. Then she did acupuncture for a while. Then she did this like Get Into the Consciousness of Your Soul Through Dancing."

Patricia got the idea for Bebe Gunn while choreographing one of her poems, "I Give My Body to the Drum." She turned it into a home video that begins at the San Francisco mansion of attorney Melvin Belli, the use of which she obtained by ringing the doorbell. The video featured Harleman and a cast of two men and two women, all naked from the waist up and wearing jungle paint, dancing to primitive percussion while chanting, "Give your body. Know your body. Love your body. Own your body." Her consciousness suitably raised, Harleman organized a band.

"She's always been atypical," says Danielle with a shrug. "Sometimes she'd try to fit in and be the perfect little mother, but she was never into it."

Family legend has it that Harleman, whose father was a university professor, was considered a top modeling prospect as a teenager in New York but attended St. Louis University instead. There she became a campus sensation when she posed for a poster supporting a friend for Campus King. Peter Harleman, a graduate teaching assistant in poetry, looked and flipped. "I chased her assiduously," Peter says. They were married a year later.

Migrating to New York in the late '60s, the Harlemans together recorded 10 private albums of ad-libbed poetry. "Grace Jones and Laurie Anderson, they're sort of doing now what I was doing then," Patricia says. Later the Harlemans abandoned poetry and settled in suburban New Jersey while Peter pursued a career in public relations with AT&T. "We made a decision," he says, "not to sacrifice our children and our home life just to be creative."

But she was never really comfortable with the decision. Throughout their marriage she has constantly expressed herself on canvas, painting bold impressionistic images, and at the typewriter, producing six books—"Not one of them under 800 pages," says Danielle—that have all been rejected by publishers. One is called Stir Fry Your Family and Set Yourself Free.

They moved to California in 1982, and Peter took a job as executive vice-president of a public relations firm. Since then Patricia has gone after glory even more zealously. "I think Mom just wants to be famous," says Danielle, sounding older than, well, some people. "So she does one thing for a year, and if it doesn't work then she'll do the next thing. I think you should do something and do it well. If fame happens to come along, well, good. If it doesn't, that's just the way the cards fall." Danielle finds it ironic that her-mother should be singing with a rock band, because tone deafness runs in the family. "At birthdays it's like, 'No, no one sing,' " she says, but that's the least of it. "It started to bother me because my mom wanted to act like she's really young. She'd borrow my clothes to go to the clubs and she'd get mad if Dad would say her age. She didn't want to be a mother. Meanwhile I wanted her to be home and make lunch. But even not getting along, we're a lot closer than most people."

Danielle's brother John, 20, is off in West Germany with the Army now and away from all this. The only one in the family who seems completely behind Patricia is Peter. "My pulse still quickens when she enters the room," he says. "It's crazy." The band is just now breaking even, so Patricia foots the bills—to the tune of $4,000 so far. She has made it clear that when the big break comes, the family years will be over for her, and she's ready to cut out for L.A. in a moment. "There's never been any doubt in my mind I would do that," she says. "That," of course, would entail ditching motherhood after ' all these years, but she never did get that part straight. "I have never been sure what a mother was," she says. "And I still don't know now."

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