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A Conversation With Marcia Clark: Rape, Scientology Flirtation and When She Last Saw O.J.

For the first time, the prosecutor — who is back in the spotlight with the success of FX's 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' — opens up about being raped at age 17 in Israel and how it took her from wanting to be an actress to pursuing a law degree.

This story first appeared in the April 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

On the morning of Oct. 4, 1995, Marcia Clark awoke to find her life had changed.

She was in the Glendale home she shared with her two small sons, ages 3 and 5, still struggling to pay the mortgage. Twenty-one hours earlier, this single mother had lost the “trial of the century” when a jury of 10 women and two men rendered a not guilty verdict in the People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson, the case she had been prosecuting for 15 months. Clark no longer was the butt of jokes about her hair; she was, however, a loser in America’s eyes and perhaps her own.

“I didn’t go to work that day,” she says. “I didn’t have to. The case was over. I got the kids off to school. I drove up the coast to meet my friend for lunch. I was numb. I wanted relief.”

She knew her career as a prosecutor was over, and after a leave of absence, she resigned in 1997. “I couldn’t even think of going back there,” she says. “The misery was so profound. The only thing I wanted was, ‘Get me away from there’ — the ugliness I had been through. When my overtime and vacation time ran out, I had my office packed up. I never went back.”

Twenty years have passed since that low point, and Clark, now 62, has gone from being vilified (“bitch” was a frequent epithet) to being admired and even lionized, most recently thanks to Sarah Paulson’s portrayal of her in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

Even after years in the spotlight, she still has the ability to surprise. Following the trial, she reveals, she battled depression and even sought a therapist’s help, though it has been years since she last saw him, and she stayed close to several colleagues, including Christopher Darden. She also speaks without blame or regret about her past participation in the Church of Scientology.

Most shockingly, she says, her desire for justice was shaped by a brutal experience that occurred decades before she ever heard the name O.J. Simpson.

Clark was raped at age 17. “There was a group of us at this resort in Eilat,” she says, describing a trip she made to Israel, which she mentioned in her 1997 memoir, Without a Doubt, but has rarely discussed since.

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From left: Clark, Johnnie Cochran, F. Lee Bailey, Carl Douglas and Simpson. Recalls Clark of Cochran: “We didn’t run in the same circles. But we got along. I was very surprised when he died young.”

“It was all girls, and there were two male waiters that were trolling us, serving our group but trolling us, and one asked me out and one asked my roommate out. I said no. I didn’t like the cut of his jib, you know? Always trust your gut, kids. I was tired, and they were going to this cafe. So I went back to the hut where I was staying, to lie down, and woke up to find him sitting on my bed.”

The man was older than she, around 27, and seemed quite relaxed despite breaking in. “How he got in, I didn’t know. He had a master key. And he goes, ‘I just like to watch you sleep.’ It was 7 in the evening, it was early. I was really scared, but then he’s talking — ‘No, no, no, I just wanted to make sure you were OK.’ “

She agreed to accompany him to the cafe, where he was funny and charming, and everyone appeared to be having a good time.

“He seemed totally harmless,” she says. “I let my gut be overridden, and afterward he says, ‘I’ll walk you back.’ I didn’t want him to walk me back, so we’re sitting outside and talking, and the wind — it was what they call hamsin, a very hot and dry wind — was blowing, like the Santa Ana winds but 10 times worse. And so the wind is screaming past our ears, and we were screaming, and we couldn’t hear each other. At some point, he said: ‘Why don’t you come to my room? I’ll play you some music. I feel like a big brother to you. I’ll teach you all the fun things to do around here.’ And, idiot that I was, I went.”

In his room, they listened to his music, and when it was still relatively early, Clark (or Marcia Kleks, as she then was) got up to leave.

“I said, ‘Well, I think I’ve got to go,’ ” she continues, “and I start to head for the door, and then he grabbed me and said, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ He sucker punched me, threw me on the bed. And I screamed and screamed, and he laughed and laughed and said, ‘No one can hear you.’ And they couldn’t.”

The rape was violent; her clothes were torn; she was bruised and hurt, though not so visibly that people noticed. More than anything, she felt ashamed and for years did not tell anyone. Throughout the Simpson trial, the assault remained her secret.

After the rape, “He wanted to walk me back to my room, and I just pushed him aside,” she says. “By then, other people were walking to the huts, and they could see him. He melted away. And I just walked to a far end of the beach and thought, ‘This is it. I can’t live with this.’ And I walked into the ocean. It’s really calm, that ocean, it’s very warm, it’s almost like a lake. I got all the way up to about here [below her nose] because I was going to kill myself. I felt so worthless. And then I got mad. All I could feel was anger, which probably saved me.”

She never told anyone, including her first husband. “I blocked it for years,” she says. “I had nightmares about it, but that’s all.”

The incident came flooding back when she was working as a prosecutor and met a young woman who also had been raped.

“Chris was immovable,” says Clark of Darden’s decision to have Simpson try on the glove. “He was my co-counsel. I couldn’t say, ‘I’m your boss.’ Or I could say it, and he could tell me to go f— myself.”

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“She told me her story, and literally within 10 minutes of her leaving, I got violently ill,” says Clark. “Violently. It was really weird. Scientology, they’re right about that: They say that negative emotion and rekindling old negative memories can make you feel ill, physically ill, and it did. They say, ‘Release the charge, confront it and deal with it.’ And I had to go home within an hour. I had a fever of 102. It was around 1981, and my then-husband said, ‘OK, so what just happened?’ And I wound up telling him.”

The rape propelled her away from her dream of becoming an actress and into the law. After attending UCLA, where she majored in political science and international relations, she studied at Southwestern School of Law and then worked as a public defender for the city of Los Angeles before becoming a prosecutor.

“Once I started representing violent criminals, it became a different story for me, very real,” she notes. “And then I thought, ‘I really want to take care of the victims.’ “

Of the people she defended, how many did she believe were innocent, I wonder?

“None of them.”

Sitting with her on the balcony of an airy Calabasas restaurant on a late March afternoon, I’m surprised by her warmth. She grabs a fork so that I can dig into her salad, laughs easily and spontaneously and emanates well-being despite recuperating from the flu. “Don’t worry,” she says, eyes twinkling, “I’m not contagious.”

She gave up chain-smoking years ago, goes to the gym daily and is financially at ease thanks to a deal with Amazon to write two crime novels a year. (Her latest, Blood Defense, is out in May.) She was paid a reported $4.2 million for her memoir, vastly more than the high-five-figure salary she earned as a prosecutor.

Much as she likes the TV series, which she watches at home with friends, she says she was never approached by its writers and producers, including executive producer Ryan Murphy, and still has not seen the final episodes. She has had no contact with anyone involved, save Paulson.

“You don’t know Ryan?” I ask.

“I ran into him once,” she says.

“What about the writers?”

“I couldn’t pick them out of a lineup of one.”

“You weren’t invited to a screening?”

“No,” she says. “I wouldn’t have gone. To watch that in front of other people? Oh my God! Who’s going to hold me down when I run for the balcony and throw myself off?”

The day Clark embarked on her post-trial life, her brain was foggy. “There was some form of depression going on,” she says. “But I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I was very torn up. Everything I believed in was shredded.”

She saw a therapist in fits and starts — she had been seeing him occasionally since 1993 — but never took medication.

Those first few years, after working on thousands of cases, many settled out of court, “It was like I had cut off my arm,” she says. “That’s who I was, a prosecutor. I really loved it. But I couldn’t do it — I was afraid to do it, even, because I was afraid I’d go into court and juries would either hate me or be unfairly sympathetic.”

In 1997, she relocated to Calabasas in search of good schools for her sons, both in their 20s now and living in the Bay Area. She’s close to them; one works for a legal support firm, the other at a start-up. Twice divorced, she has no contact with her former husbands — the first, a professional backgammon player; the second, a computer programmer and systems administrator whom she met when he worked for the Church of Scientology.

She says she’s content being single: “I just think I’m at a place in my life where I’m pretty occupied with what I’m doing, and I’m really into it, and that’s good for me.”

Only gradually did she rediscover some sort of joie de vivre, which came through writing, “finding a new direction and also finding a way to tell the truth — there’s nothing like writing fiction to tell the truth.” In addition to her memoir, she has worked on scripts (FX bought a pilot, Borderland, “a very dark version of the DA’s office,” which it never made) and her crime novels.

Clark in 1997 during a book signing of her autobiography Without a Doubt.

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A self-described workaholic, she also handles court appeals for the indigent and says she has not taken a vacation in years.

The FX series gets some things wrong, she notes, like the moment when Simpson attorney Robert Shapiro tries on the infamous glove in the courtroom, unseen by the judge. “Never happened,” she says. “Could never happen. They would never leave evidence out like that, and no one can touch [it] unless the bailiff is there, the judge, everybody.”

She hasn’t seen Darden for seven or eight years and declines to say whether their relationship ever was sexual, an issue the TV series skirts without reaching a conclusion. “We hung out for a few years after the trial,” she says. “We’d see each other occasionally, do stuff. But then I moved up here, and it got harder and harder to get together.” Darden, who has his own law practice, did not return calls.

Nor has Clark returned to the downtown Los Angeles courtroom where the trial took place — except once. In the early 2000s, “I went back to do a TNT pilot based on a novel I had written, Guilt by Association,” she says. “I couldn’t have done it before then. It was so painful, every memory of that courtroom was so horrifying.”

She’s surprised when I tell her that a court representative recently said the courtroom had not been used in two years; and she’s disturbed to learn that the jury members’ names were leaked to the media a day before the verdict, according to a recent THR report.

“No!” she says. “Oh my God!”

All this far is behind her now and has almost nothing to do with her day-to-day life, except during weeks like these when journalists come calling, clamoring for interviews.

Each day, she rises around 7, sits in her kitchen and types at her computer for several hours, then heads out to exercise. She works five days a week, but not sequentially, writing for two or three days, then taking a day off.

She has many close friends, including former Assistant DA Lynn Reed, an ex-colleague, and several in the entertainment business whom she won’t name. “They’re my Anonymous Industry Friends,” she quips.

She left Scientology in 1980 without repercussions. “I never got past the very low levels,” she says. She praises its early classes, though not its more abstruse theology. “It’s actually really instructive at the beginning because it’s the greatest hits of the best of meditation and all the best of psychology. It melds it all together, and it’s very helpful. Once you get past that and you start talking about the mythology …” She shrugs. As to founder L. Ron Hubbard’s writing: “Bad, isn’t it?” she says. “It’s so amateur hour.”

Born in Berkeley, Calif., she was raised Jewish, constantly moving around the country thanks to her father’s work in the Food and Drug Administration. She had a conservative Jewish wedding to her first husband, having married him in secret some time beforehand, but professes not to have any religious beliefs today. “I’m just not a religious person, not at all,” she says. “I consider myself a spiritual person. I was always very drawn to Buddhism, Hinduism. I still meditate.”

The former prosecutor has a deal with Amazon to write two crime novels a year.

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She’s a fan of the best television and loves shows from House of Cards to Orange Is the New Black. “I like cable stuff, I really do,” she says. “American Horror Story, American Crime Story.” She laughs. “I had to say that.” Criminal Minds, NCIS? “Not so much. But How to Get Away With Murder, occasionally. I love Viola Davis.”

Clark says that her work with poor defendants, along with motherhood and getting older, has made her more empathetic.

“Being back on the defense side reminds me: Most of the guys in prison are schlemiels, you know what I mean?” she says. “Or schlimazels. They can be the flotsam and jetsam of life because they didn’t have opportunities.”

She spends time with them in prison. “When you’re saddled with the kind of life they’ve had, it’s awfully hard,” she says. “So they wind up stealing or whatever they’re doing. They don’t want to hurt people — they just need to get what they need. I don’t mean the violent ones or the ones who kill.”

She questions the incarceration system that has left millions of men, especially young African-Americans, locked up. “Many of the prisoners just don’t belong there,” she says. She also admits to having “mixed feelings” about the death penalty. “I certainly was not in favor of it” for Simpson, she notes, adding that she never asked for it in that case.

She remains fascinated by crime, which drew her interest even as a child, during the years when she was uprooted and moved repeatedly from one city to another. She was appalled when George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the case of Trayvon Martin, the young black man who was shot and killed while walking alone in a Florida housing development.

“Trayvon Martin broke my heart,” she says.

But to this day, she never has doubted Simpson’s guilt. Asked whether his behavior might have been influenced by CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the brain disease that recently has been exposed as a major problem for football players, she says: “I have thought about it. [But] from what I understand, it causes explosive behavior, unpredictable behavior. I have never heard that it promotes this kind of planned behavior.”

Given how greatly her public identity has been defined by the Simpson case, she is unexpectedly thrown when asked whether she would have used “the race card” had she been working for the defense.

“I’ve thought about it but not come to a decision,” she reflects. “It’s too hard to answer. I don’t know.” Then she rethinks and dismisses any such idea. “I could simply have [disqualified] all the evidence for being improperly collected, contaminated, messed up, mishandled. And that would have been enough.”

Since the verdict, she has not laid eyes on most of the people involved — except Simpson, whose armed robbery trial she covered for Entertainment Tonight. She spotted him in the courthouse cafe. “He was walking toward his area of the cafeteria, which was kind of cordoned off for him,” she recalls. “And as he passed by, he looked at me and said, ‘Ms. Clark.’ And I said, ‘Mr. Simpson.’ That’s it.”

Did she feel anything?

“No,” she says, and smiles.