Her hands still shake. It is a slight trembling, and you notice it when her fingers brush the tabletop or smooth her short blond hair.
It was worse a month ago, when she was airlifted out of Tehran on an official American evacuation plane. She jumped at any noise. She didn't sleep. When she arrived in Frankfurt, Germany, to stay with friends, her body shook so hard her friends thought she was shivering and offered blankets. In the streets of Germany, by reflex, she ran for doorways when cars simply sped by.
Mary Ellen Schneider, an American who lived in Tehran from May 1977 until she was airlifted out during the worst of the Iranian crisis, is in Rockville now, staying with friends.
A year ago, she was a 43-year-old linguistics professor with a love of Beethoven and Shakespeare who was fed up with the fact that her career was going nowhere in the Washington area. She had been divorced 12 years. She had scrounged for jobs in linguistics, depite her pride in holding a masters degree from Georgetown University. Her Iranian friends here had urged her to go to Iran, assuring her that teaching jobs would fall into her hands. She was already a veteran traveler who had lived for a time in Germany. And as her frustrations and unpaid bills had mounted, she made up her mind -- she would go ti Iran.
But last month, Schneider found herself one of a handful of foreigners amid thousands of Iranians who fled the Gasre Central Prison, the largest in Tehran, after armed supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stormed the prison on Feb. 11. She had been there for eight weeks, never knowing the charges, never allowed to contact the embassy.
Snatches of her predicament eventually made the wires. American newspapers last month ran the story of "the Bethesda woman" trapped in a revolution, bringing into uncomfortable focus the terror of a far-off drama.
She had gone to Iran to teach English, was made a professor at Tehran University, where she set up a graduate linguistics program. She earned 70,000 rials a month (then roughly $1,000) at the University, but received little of it because "They were administratively fouled up."
But she was earning $15 an hour tutoring Iranians on the side, and had moved into a two-bedroom apartment with an American engineer. Her list of Iranian friends grew steadily -- shopkeepers, students, bank employes and government employes -- as she became proficient in Farsi, their language.
Despite the problems of life in Iran, things were looking up for Mary Ellen Schneider.
The police, however, were omnipresent. "Even if I was standing on a street talking with four or five students," she recalled, "police would come by and tell us to break it up. People never talked about anything important in public."
Schneider learned quickly. "I kept my mouth shut. Whenever I met Iranians in restaurants or bars, if they asked my opinion of the shah, I just wouldn't have an opinion."
By the fall, she had obtained a new job at Farha Pahlavi University ("the money was better -- and they paid"), but the students were on strike. The violence escalated -- autos and buses were burned in the streets, smoke billowed constantly, a 9 p.m. curfew was imposed.
"You couldn't go to restaurants," Schneider said, "so you just went to friends' houses for dinner and you stayed over." The electricity was turned off at 8:15 every night, so they burned candles. Cigarettes and alcohol became searce.
Schneider was not easily deterred. She continued to hitchhike as she had done from time to time since she first arrived in Tehran -- despite warnings against it from her Iranian friends. "How else would I have gotten around? I wasn't some 19-year-old kid," she said. "I could handle myself."
But then events began to take an ominous turn. Her engineer friend lost his job, and she moved out of his apartment. When she went to withdraw money from her bank, the withdrawal was disallowed. In tears, she went to the manager and told him that she had to have her money to pay the rent.He pulled some cash out of his own pocket and presented it to her. "It's not unusual for Iranians to have these wads of money in their pockets," she explained.
Then one afternoon, the day before Christmas, she returned to her apartment to find police and onlookers clustered around. She walked in and was stopped by several policemen. They showed her the body of an Iranian man and asked if she knew him. She said she didn't.
"They were babbling all at the same time," she said about the police. "I later found out the man had fallen off the roof. The police asked me to sign something and I said I wasn't going to until I got a translator."
At the police station, she was allowed no phone calls. "They never answered my questions, they never told me what was going on." she said.
She was more annoyed than frightened. "I hadn't done anything wrong," she said. She was told to report to the police station two different days in a row -- the Monday and Tuesday after Christmas. She was asked what she did the night before the man was found dead, and she told the police in detail. They scribbled it down in detail. Tuesday night they kept her at the police station. Wednesday morning, a gracious assistant to the prosecutor questioned her, assured her the police had no case against her, and told her the police would drive her home.
But the drive did not end up at her apartment. Instead she found herself at a huge compound. It took a while for her to realize it was a jail. They left her there.
"I told someone to go get the two guys who brought me here, and the [prison guard] wouldn't. I said I wanted to make a phone call and they said the phones didn't connect to the outside."
She was put in a room with 36 bunks, five holes in the floor for toilets, and 35 other women. She was the only American. "I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, Schneider, this is the most depressing thing I've ever seen."
Some of her fellow inmates were imprisoned for such offenses as slitting their boyfriends' throats, which they told Schneider about in great detail, she recalled. Others said they smuggled drugs or passed bad checks.
Schneider refused to let herself cry. Instead she lay on her bunk and played Beethoven concertos in her mind. She went through Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth scene by scene.
Finally she was able to get a message out through a young woman who was being released. The next day a representative of the American Embassy turned up. "She was still thinking like an American," Schneider recalled about the embassy staff member. "She said, 'They can't do this to you -- they've violated your rights.' I told her, 'You don't have any rights here.'"
Four weeks later, the gates of the prison were opened by the revolutionaries of the Khomeini regime as they seized power. Men and women streamed out of the jail rooms. In the midst of it all Schneider simply stood there, not sure what was happening. A bearded Iranian, suprised to see that she was an American, ran in, grabbed her by the wrist, and pulled her out.
Still not sure what was going on, she stumbled into the street and encountered Ray Wilkinson, a reporter for UPI. He took one look at her and said, "My God, are you American?"
She talked to him briefly, then went to Iranian friends who eventually took her to the American Embassy.
But fate had another twist in store: The day she thought she had finally found refuge in the American embassy was the day the embassy was stormed by leftist guerrillas, an event that made nationwide headlines and color footage on the evening news here.
In the confusion, she was dragged out of the embassy through mobs of people who pulled on her and spit on her. She was taken to another prison. There she stayed with 11 other Americans, all men, all petrified, she said. Outside, that night, they heard gunfire.
"The people guarding us talked about what was going on. But they spoke Farsi, and I didn't dare translate for these men with me. They were already scared out of their wits," she said, smiling a little at the thought now.
As it turned out, she and the men were being kept at the prison by Khomeini forces to protect them, Schneider said. The next day they were escorted back to the embassy. By that time, Schneider had had it.
"I could barely have hung onto my nerves any longer. I thought if we're going to get shot, let's just get it over with. I just couldn't stand being torn apart by a mob."
Now, in Rockville, she has no job, no apartment, and a used car her friends bought for her. She has lost all the money left in her Iranian bank -- and also a stereo, $1,000 worth of symphony records, a typewriter and a diamond-and-sapphire ring.
Schneider's ordeal makes a fascinating story which her friends and neighbors insist that she repeat and repeat. But she is actually back where she started two years ago.
The difference is that a revolution has taken place. And her hands tremble. "But if I get some sleep I'll be fine, and I'll stop... vibrating," she said, smilling weakly.