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A happy ending to life’s dark chapter

Times Staff Writer

She lost her boyfriend, her best friend and both her grandparents in the same year, any one of which would have been traumatic. But Jolene Siana was only 16. She was already struggling with difficult life issues.

She didn’t know her father, because he was never told she’d been born. And she says her mother was emotionally and physically abusive. So Siana dealt with her problems the best she could: She cut herself with razor blades, made art and wrote letters to the lead singer of her favorite industrial rock band, Skinny Puppy.

The hundreds of letters and pieces of art she mailed to Nivek Ogre in the late ‘80s are compiled in “Go Ask Ogre: Letters From a Deathrock Cutter,” and they tell an oddly inspiring tale. Siana was a young woman who found salvation in the unlikeliest places, finding redemption in so-called devil music and a contorted attempt at self-preservation through self-injury.

It is, to be sure, dark stuff, but that’s what makes it powerful. The thoughts and emotions are real and in the moment, not hindsight recollections or clinical self-help manuals. It also strives be more authentic for a new generation of young women than, say, the 1971 cautionary tale about drugs “Go Ask Alice.”

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Today, Siana is 36 and living in Los Angeles. She works as a waitress at a Burbank restaurant. And she still writes, in the notebook she carries with her at all times and on the blog she’s been keeping the past few years.

She stopped cutting herself years ago, but she still has scars on her wrists and legs. She doesn’t like to show them.

“It’s a very personal thing, and those moments were very private,” said Siana, a soft-spoken redhead who’s come to terms with her past by years of therapy. “I just hope that I can bring awareness to it. Anything to do with mental illness or mental health, it freaks people out. People are really uncomfortable talking about it. I’m not, and maybe that can open [things up].”

When Siana first began writing to Ogre, she was 17. She didn’t understand what cutting meant; bringing awareness to the issue was about the furthest thing from her mind. At the time, writing Ogre was her way of reaching out to someone she thought might understand.

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When she was introduced to Skinny Puppy through a music video on MTV’s “120 Minutes,” something connected. “It didn’t sound like anything else I’d ever heard, and I found him attractive.... His lyrics, a lot of them were about pain, and I could identify.”

Siana already had a lot of pen pals, and one day, while listening to the band in her bedroom by herself, she read a quote on the back of one of its albums: “For those who make up their own minds.”

“There was an address and his name, and I thought, ‘I’m going to write him a letter,’ ” Siana said. “And then I just continued.”

Written on Valentine’s Day, 1987, that first letter wasn’t the usual sort of fawning fan mail. There was one reference to liking the way Ogre looked; the rest was about herself. Penned, in part, during a ceramics class, the letter introduced Siana as a “senior at an extremely boring high school.” She told him she was so bored she wanted to scream. She said she hated school and that her mother hated her. She told him that her grandparents died and that her stomach hurt. She said she wanted to be a journalist and travel to England, that she liked art and looking “really gothic and artsy.” It was, in a word, rambling, but the letter was also pure, lucid and engaging.

Without receiving any response, Siana wrote Ogre again 12 days later, and again the day after that, and two days after that, and so on. He wrote her back only once -- two months to the day after she wrote her first letter.

What he wrote isn’t included in the book, per Ogre’s request, but a journal entry indicates he wanted to meet her. A month later, they met backstage at a Skinny Puppy show, where Ogre told Siana her letters were “fascinating and very creative” and encouraged her to “keep ‘em coming.”

And so she continued writing letters that were increasingly personal, suicidal and oftentimes decorated with drawings made from her blood, using a calligraphy pen she dipped in her wounds.

Some of the art in the book “is pretty shocking,” Siana said, but it wasn’t included for the shock value. It was included -- along with photos, newspaper clippings, sticky notes and ticket stubs -- to form a more complete picture of how Siana was experiencing life at that time.

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“I guess I’m obsessed with documentation,” Siana said. “I save everything.”

Between 1987 and 1989, Siana wrote Ogre hundreds of pages of letters, but she never expected them back. When she saw Ogre at subsequent Skinny Puppy shows over the years, “He always told me that he still had my letters, but I didn’t think that he would hold on to them,” Siana said.

He had. Three years ago, he sent them back to her in a single box. Looking through them, she said, “was sort of a sense of closing a chapter on my life and dealing with it and being OK with the dark things that happened.”

Even so, she had no intention of sharing the letters with the public until a friend suggested they might help people.

“Go Ask Ogre” is the first original title published by Process Media, co-created by Adam Parfrey, founder of the countercultural publishing venture Feral House, and Jodi Wille, founder of the art and photography publisher Dilettante Press.

“What I loved about these letters when I saw them as a whole was [they showed] a girl who is faced with a lot of challenges which a lot of young people are facing today: self-injury, dysfunctional family life,” Wille said. “This book shows how you can take difficult situations and learn to make healthy choices, which was expressing herself creatively and reaching out to other people and connecting to others. They turned out to be the choices that saved her life.”

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‘Go Ask Ogre’ launch party

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Where: Ghettogloss gallery, 2380 Glendale Blvd., L.A.

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Price: Admission to book reading is free; book is $18.95

Contact: (323) 912-0008


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