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Alex Mar

What Ever Happened to ‘The Most Liberated Woman in America’?

All Illustrations by Michael Tunk

Alex Mar | Atlas Obscura | June 2016 | 27 minutes (6,812 words)

 

Atlas ObscuraOur latest Exclusive is a new story by Alex Mar, author of the book Witches of America, co-funded by Longreads Members and published by Atlas Obscura.

I am standing in the living room of a wood-paneled modular house out in the Nevada desert. Alongside me is Barbara Williamson, once called “the most liberated woman in America”; and slinking toward us, across the grayed-out carpeting, is a large, muscular, wild animal.

Now 78, Barbara had driven me here in a massive red pickup. The plan was to make tea and have a good talk in her office (just past the meditation room). But first, she wanted to introduce me to someone.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

Sure.

I followed Barbara through the kitchen.

Peggy Sue,” she called out gently. “Are you awake? Peggy Sue…”

We turned the corner into the living room, and that’s when I saw her. Her eyes are huge and almond-shaped, her ears point upwards (a signature of the breed), and her paws are striking in their size. Peggy Sue is a Siberian lynx, over 60 pounds, with powerful legs and sharp, two-inch-long canine teeth. She has not been de-clawed. I’d been aware of this fact, but only in this moment does it truly register: Barbara shares her home with what is, more or less, a small tiger.

“I wanted the wildness,” Barbara says. “I have a streak in me that just has a lot of wild desires, and it makes me feel really good to be accepted by a wild animal—I don’t know for what reasons. Back to the old motto: ‘If it feels good, do it!’”

Barbara, with her close-cut, bright-white hair and fuchsia lipstick, in light blue jeans and an ’80s-graphic parachute jacket, strokes the thick fur on the animal’s back and invites me to do the same. As we stand closer, each of us stroking Peggy Sue’s flanks, Barbara tells me they sleep together in the bed at night, sometimes curled up around one another.

Nearer now, the lynx looks a little raggedy, her skin a little loose, her long tail capped with two strange clumps of fur. She recently turned 20 years old—that’s how long ago Barbara retired to the small desert town of Fallon, Nevada, with her husband John. Out here on their 10-acre plot, the two created a spontaneous, guerilla-style sanctuary for “big cats.” Gradually, though, the creatures died of old age: three cougars, four bobcats, two tigers, two Barbary lions, a serval, two lynxes—and finally, three years and one month ago (Barbara keeps count), John himself. And now Barbara lives alone, with a single exotic animal, elderly herself, as her closest companion.

The lynx butts its head up against my legs.

“That’s a love gesture,” Barbara says.

The enormous cat does it again—two, three, four more times. I can feel the size and weight of her skull as she pushes me.

I’m aware that the affection she gives she can take away in a second. Read more…