Big Bad Marsha

I would ask a perfectly harmless question, ‘What’s martial law?’ and my parents would look alarmed, say ‘Sssh,’ change the topic

The author with 'Twisted' 25th anniversary book
First published September 22, 1994
Excerpt from the author’s ‘Twisted’ 25th anniversary book

Twenty-two years ago yesterday, there were no classes. There was nothing on TV either, and for some reason my mother was glued to the radio, constantly turning the knob and listening for announcements. I had no idea what was going on, but I wasn’t complaining—I was happy to not be in school. I was terrified of school, and had in fact dropped out of nursery school for a month. It was not so much the teachers who scared me, although Sister Leticia in Prep had the basilisk’s talent for turning children to stone with a single look, or the lessons, which I being a nerd actually enjoyed, but the games. I was spectacularly awful at games: always first to be hit in “touching ball,” always first to fall in Chinese garter. But the game that really caused my teeth to chatter was a seemingly innocuous one called “Open the Basket.”

The mechanics of “Open the Basket” are as follows. You form groups of three, and in every group two players are Baskets, and one player the Chicken. The Baskets form a circle by holding hands, and the Chicken stands inside the circle.  The one Chicken left without a Basket is designated “It.” She screams, “Open the basket!” whereupon the Baskets let go of each other’s hands and the Chickens dash to other Baskets. The It runs inside a Basket, leaving another Chicken, usually the slowest and clumsiest, Basket-less. The newly Basket-less Chicken screams, “Open the basket!” and so on. You have no idea how traumatic it is to be the perpetually Basket-less Chicken. It was not until my late teens that it occurred to me that I was not cut out to be a Chicken in a Basket. I realized that I was destined to be an outsider, and have been a comfortable outsider since.

But that’s enough of my personal epiphanies. Going back to that fateful day in 1972, I did not see anything unusual in the sudden suspension of class. In the preceding months class had been suspended often—the reason had something to do with law and order and Plaza Miranda. On this day I overheard my mom talking to a friend on the phone. She was using her “Keep your voice down, I don’t want to scare the child” tone, which always succeeded in scaring me. She looked out the window, as if she were expecting a tank to rumble down the street.

I was six years old at the time. I thought that the object of my mother’s anxiety was a Chinese woman named Marsha Lo. I wondered who this Marsha was and what she looked like. Since she was discussed in hush-hush tones, I figured that she was either a powerful being like Gigantor, or a horrifying crone like the evil aunts Etang Discher played in those old movies on TV. I had a great fear of Etang Discher. I thought that if she saw me, she would try to drown me.

Apparently the immediate effect of martial law was to make parents paranoid. The long-term effect has been self-censorship

That is all I remember of the day Marcos declared martial law. For the next 14 years Big Bad Marsha lived in our house, and even if we couldn’t see her, she was a constant presence. Sometimes she seemed to possess my parents in much the same way the demon possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist. I would ask a perfectly harmless question like “What’s martial law?” or “Why does everyone have to be home before curfew?” and my parents would look alarmed, say “Sssh,” and change the topic. Apparently the immediate effect of martial law was to make parents paranoid. The long-term effect has been self-censorship.

My recollections of the early years of martial law are vague and disjointed. I’m not even sure these memories are mine—I could’ve read them somewhere and filed them away as my own. I remember some big to-do about an assassination attempt on Imelda Marcos: someone had attempted to stab her, and for some time afterward she had her arm in a cast. I remember the Madame’s plan to force-feed the “City of Man” with high culture by way of “Renaissance Theater.” On Wednesday nights all the TV channels would air cultural programs—ballets and such—and we were expected to view them as avidly as we would Combat starring Vic Morrow and Rick Jason. Most of all I remember Apo Makoy butting in on all my morning cartoons to deliver yet another looong and boooring speech.

Most of all I remember Apo Makoy butting in on all my morning cartoons to deliver yet another looong and boooring speech

 I was one of the lucky ones: my parents had neither political nor economic interests, and like most members of the middle class, their abiding concern was not to rile anyone in power. We were not openly harassed or persecuted. We proceeded on our orderly way, quite unaware of how Big Bad Marsha was screwing with our minds.

There is a vast gulf which separates the people who grew up in the Sixties from the martial law babies. The Sixties kids had freedom and experimentation and a sense that they could do anything. We had “Sssh” and restrictions and the weird fear that we would disappear for no reason at all. Most of us were not arrested or tortured or thrown in the slammer, but there was no need to: we were already being programmed into a generation of zombies.

Incredibly, I hear people talking fondly of the martial law years: how clean the streets were then, how organized things were, how manageable the traffic. They conveniently forget that these things were achieved by scaring us shitless. We’ve been through all that, for crying out loud. Screw us once, shame on them; screw us twice, shame on us.

About author


She is the author of the novel “The Age of Umbrage”, and of “The Collected Stories of Jessica Zafra”. “Twisted”, her wildly influential column in the 1990s, spawned a dozen collections of essays on books, travel, movies, music, and popular culture. Recently she was awarded the Gawad Balagtas for Literature in English by UMPIL (Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas). <br><a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener"></a>

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