Monday, August 27, 2012

YANA Women are Great Art!

Patricia Henley (long term writer, national book award finalist) has visited YANA and maintained a sympathetic interest in our women for years. She's written a play inspired by and dedicated to YANA which has been shown in the midwest. We ought to be seeing here in Baltimore! I read the play this morning, and it's seriously good.

Patricia has titled it If I Hold My Tongue, and it's about the great mass of secret traumas that burden our women. I've been talking to prostituted women for nearly ten years now, and almost all of them long to tell that thing that they are afraid of, or shamed by, or merely certain that no one else wants to know. If I Hold My Tongue gives prostituted women a chance to step forward and say the unsayable. And it gives the rest of us the chance to hear their truths in a play that is suspenseful and funny as well as deeply moving. It's what art is supposed to be.

Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler has written that Henley captures the "sweet sadness of life" and makes it "shimmer" in her writing.  I think she spins it into gold for this play.

Even though it's set in Baltimore, the play hasn't opened in Baltimore or the DC area yet. The clever director who first presents it here is going to produce a winner. Directors, producers, college students with theater departments: get hold of this play. You can reach me through comments to this blog, but it would probably be faster to email Patricia at or comment on her site at  You're in for a treat.  

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Today at YANA

For those who are new to this site: YANA is a nonprofit program in Baltimore for women who prostitute or who have prostituted in the past. In the years that the YANA counselors met thousands of times with hundreds of women, they found that almost all of the clients were victims of overwhelming childhood sexual abuse -- often perpetrated by their own families. Fathers, stepfathers, uncles, cousins, and big brothers raped our women when they were little girls. Mothers, stepmothers, aunts, cousins, and big sisters pimped them out to family members, drug dealers, landlords, and strip club owners -- and sometimes molested them as well. The prostituting women we've met are often intensely conservative, shamefaced women doing what they were taught as children, while yearning for a community where they can be treated with respect. YANA is a place where they have that respect. Today's post gives an overview of the typical needs and accomplishments of our prostituted women. Anyone who wants to know more about the women discussed today can look them up through the labels on the right.

For those who are old friends of this site: today I'm posting updates on Liz, Jessie, Diane, Linda, Tina, and many others.

Liz: As the result of heroic effort by Heather, from People's Community Health, working through YANA, Liz has now had two meetings with social workers and doctors who are getting her into a detox program for alcohol, followed by a place to live. Liz has looked to be close to death for a long time. She was so thin, so often beaten up, so often in tears, trembling, praying not to die or telling us all that, "The Lord has me." Now at the age of 49, she is about to go on the "cocktail," getting treatment for her long term HIV infection (probable AIDS). She warned us all today that she'd be getting fat soon after the detox. Liz said she once weighed 185 pounds. She rocked back in her chair, legs spread and up in the air, one hand out giving us the finger. "I had a picture taken in a bikini just like this!" Then she roared with laughter along with the rest of us. "My son said, 'Mom! Put some clothes on!'" Liz has got to be Liz. Losing the addiction does not mean losing the attitude.

Jessie: She's been clean for years now, working full time at a job through her transitional program and taking classes through Open Doors. Jessie is a tremendously likable Black woman who wishes she had become a scientist, but thinks that the head trauma she suffered from an abusive boyfriend has left her "not smart enough" for serious study. Still, the hospital where she interned has called her back for an office job. She had done research work at the hospital during her internship that sounded at least comparable to the first job I got after getting a degree in English from William and Mary. Jesse has a handicapped son whom she gave up for adoption years ago when she was still using. She longs for contact with him, but knows, "I can't give him the kind of lifestyle he enjoys now." Jessie has saved $500 that she wants to give the adoptive mother to spend on Jessie's son as well as the woman's other children.

Diane: Diane is doing better with her depression and anxiety, though taking classes on her HIV status has her frightened. She gets nervous sitting in a group of people she doesn't know, especially when they're talking openly about a subject that still makes her feel ashamed. Diane, a Black woman around the age of 40, loves other people, but she prefers to do little helpful things for them without having to spend a long time involved with anything emotional. She is planning to move out of her Section 8 housing without telling her on again/off again boyfriend and abuser where she is going. This much is great. Less great is her plan to let another man move in with her at the new place. He is someone she's known and liked for a long time, but the moving in together is his idea, not hers. This is a woman who once stood at an intersection for over an hour afraid that she would be hit even if she crossed with the light. A stranger finally helped her across. Diane really does not need anyone pressing her into an anxiety provoking situation.

Linda: An older White woman, Linda is one of my favorite clients. She's back in town after spending some time in Ohio with one of her daughters who needed her. While she was gone, another daughter moved without telling her. Linda stood at her daughter's old door knocking until the police drove up wanting to know why she was there. When she answered, the police accused her of wanting drugs instead (abandoned buildings quickly become crack houses). "No sir," Linda answered. "I've been clean for 3 years, and I don't want to go to jail no more."

"Oh, I've never heard that before!" the cop told her. "I guess I'll have to take your word!" (Yes, he was being sarcastic.) Linda continued explaining until suddenly the officer realized who she was. In fact, Linda's daughter had left a message and the new address with no one other than the officer's girlfriend. He gave it to her. Linda was still amused, telling me about it.

Later, Linda (forgetting how much I already knew) talked about how she stopped using heroin. She gave all credit to Sid, telling me that Sid talked to her for 4 1/2 hours. "I didn't know she knew the signs of when people needed to use, but she did. She told me she know I was going to see the money man as soon as I left. I said 'WHAT?!" Then I told her she was right."

I doubt that Sid (our director) spent a full 4 1/2 hours talking to an addict in need of a fix, but I know she spent a long time, and I know how deep and sympathetic her understanding can be. For many women, talking to someone like Sid can be a life changing experience. Linda didn't even go into rehab. She "lay down for 3 days" and didn't use drugs anymore. And she did one other thing: she rescued a 12 year girl out prostituting on Wilkens Avenue. That experience is written up on the Whatever Happened to the Little Girl post.

Linda was in getting donations, telling me the other women in her house got into her room and wiped her out while she was away visiting her daughter. How Linda -- blunt, street smart Linda -- could have been surprised by that still amazes me, and yet, our women are constantly being surprised by the bad things that happen to them. I guess they need to believe that their friends are nicer and their surroundings are safer than they really are just to survive.

Tina: Tina, a tiny white woman in her late 30s, didn't come in today, but she was in yesterday. She's suffering from pneumonia, which may actually be good news since she has been unable to breathe for some time. She's been afraid she was about to die like her sister did recently. Tina wants to live for the sake of her sister's children. She is very sick, and she is in pain. She flags; she rallies; she makes wise plans; she comes in drooping from what has to be a fist full of street pills on top of her methadone.

The New Women: Two new women came in today, one White, quiet, anxious-looking, the other a bit younger, Black, warmer and more outgoing, dressed a little crazy. They were both court ordered to YANA. I think they both liked it. Time will tell, but Sid, feeling a little exasperated, has said that women do as well at YANA when they're forced to come as when they choose to. My guess is that even the ones who are forced soon make the decision that they want to be in a place where they are welcome and respected.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Kimberly is Out

Kimberly is one of our most troubling clients. She's smart, I think. She's definitely grandiose and hostile. She can contain herself for a little while, but as soon as she gets a little encouragement, she starts spiraling into crazier and crazier displays of superiority and contempt. Apparently, while I was on vacation recently, she became increasingly emboldened, to the point that she tried to lead a prayer for one of our most vulnerable clients, Liz.

That sounds like it might have been sort of nice, doesn't it? Kimberly began by announcing that Liz would die soon (probably true, and a prospect that has Liz absolutely terrified). Kimberly is quite loud when she's excited, and quite repetitive as well, so I'm imagining the nearly shouted insistence that Liz would die! die soon! certainly die! As always, she gave advice as well. She told Liz to get a life insurance policy so that she could have a funeral. Then she tried to lead the rest of the women in prayer for poor about-to-be-dead Liz. I gather that the other volunteers got her shut down at that point.

Kimberly left soon, and when she came back, she was told that she couldn't return until she had a conversation with Sid. This prompted a loud accusation of racism since Kimberly, like most of our current YANA clients, is Black. The other clients were having none of that. They defended the White volunteers, and told her to "just look around her" if she thought YANA was a place that didn't welcome Blacks. Kimberly threatened to go to Sid's superiors (there are none -- take that any way you like). When told that there was no one over Sid, Kimberly said she would complain to Hezekiah House (our landlords). She later tried an unscheduled meeting with Sid, was rebuffed, and did not return at the scheduled time. The plan at this point is that she is out for good.

There's good reason to ban Kimberly. She persistently pushes or breaks YANA rules. She lies; she manipulates. She attacks the other clients. She shows no sign of wanting or receiving anything positive from the organization. She's an enormous burden on the volunteers. I dislike her to the point that my skin crawls when I see her come in. And yet. . .

Yet, when I think of her, I find something enormously appealing in Kimberly. While I don't know her background, there's a lot of reason to believe that she's had the sort of childhood so many of our women have suffered through: malicious parents, serious sexual trauma, no protection, no stability. That's the sort of background that convinces you that you are less than the people around you. And Kimberly is resisting the only way she knows how. She finds someone weaker, and she stands over that person like a dog that's won a fight, howling to everyone in earshot, "Look at me! I'm better than this person! More than this person! I'm the one who can dominate!"

She's still trying so hard not to be worthless. I have a weird sort of admiration for Kimberly. I just can't help her. I can't change YANA to be the much more structured environment she needs. I can't work up much optimism that she'll find the sort of place she needs.

Tina's Sister is Dead

I've posted about Tina many times. I've said that she is small; she is sick; she doesn't back down from a fist fight; she believes in revenge, and she believes in family. I've said that she and her cousin Liz remind me of a pair of leathery old cowboys, bones smashed almost to dust from all the hard falls they've taken, still riding the same sad, few streets of Baltimore with death, for each of them, almost visible on the horizon.

Somewhat more prosaically, I've also said that Tina's mother tried to hang her when she was still in elementary school and that Tina believes she was infected with HIV by the aunt who regularly injected her with heroin when she was 14. I haven't written how she became a prostitute because I've never asked her that. Anyway, I think I already know. A poor family like Tina's doesn't spend daily heroin money on little girls without a reason, and what more efficient, economical reason can there be than to keep them compliant for their tricks?

Another thing I haven't written about was how much Tina loves her sister. They're close in age, and although the sister was the favored child, she was still abused more than enough for Tina to cling to her and love her. Tina's sister got the heroin injections too, of course, prostituted, got HIV and then AIDS, got sick, gotten beaten, was in and out of comas. After her children were born, she went off heroin and onto methadone so she could care for them. She married, drove a car, lived in a Section 8 house with her mother and her family. Her husband was a drug dealer and violent, but he didn't hit her or their children. On the whole, Tina's sister seemed far healthier than Tina. Still, she spent a long time in the hospital, seemed to get better, then developed some sort of strange lung infection and rapidly died. Tina's reaction has been an enormous surprise.

Tina's using fewer drugs, often far fewer, so that she can care for her nieces. Drug dealer dad is still on the scene, but Tina doesn't think too much of his parenting abilities. She's sure she can do better. The Section 8 house has already been transferred to Tina's name because, in Baltimore at least, people with HIV get faster city services. She's afraid to live there with him, but she does so anyway for the sake of the children. To a very large extent, Tina has stepped into her sister's shoes and has begun living a healthier life. I had thought her sister's death might just kill her instead.

Tina herself seems to have at least a fair understanding of how much she is helping herself by helping her nieces. She told us one day that she didn't worry too much about her own daughter because she knew her child was happy and safe being cared for by her (paternal) grandmother. All of Tina's focus now was on her sister's daughters. Then Tina said she knew she was being selfish. Of course, we assured her that she was not. It might be more accurate to say that she was being the best sort of selfish, protecting and strengthening herself through a worthwhile mission. She may have been the last sort of person Ms. Rand and Mr. Brandon were thinking of when they wrote the "Virtue of Selfishness," but she's a living example of some of their better ideals.

Faced with tragedy, Tina did not give in. She did not accept merely surviving from day to day, hoping only to avoid greater pain. Tina has a project. She has love. She has a deep desire to impose her will on her own ugly little corner of the world and make it a better place. Despite all her many wounds, Tina is just plain strong. She makes me feel the way I did when I was 14: that there will always be a great love to be had, something important to do, a big fight to be won. All those romantics who used to write about the indomitable human spirit should be so lucky as to meet someone like Tina.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Grieving for Lilian

This is the 6th or 7th time I've written something about Lilian, but it will be the first time I tell you about the person she has become. As I wrote in the beginning, she's a petite, white woman, well groomed, well dressed, somewhere near 50. When I first knew her, she was quiet, rather dull, in fact, and I didn't think so much of her. She'd stare into the distance or make some remark in her flat affect way, and then drift back into her mousy silence.

In the fall, her energy level picked up dramatically, and suddenly a lively, teasing, sweet natured personalty emerged. I assumed that the change in Lilian was a change in drug usage, and I was right. The Lilian who was fun to be around was the real Lilian, no longer repressed by whatever she was putting in her veins or taking in a pill. She was rapidly becoming sicker, though, leaning a little sideways from a stroke, her t-cell count plummeting almost to the point of full blown AIDS, going into the hospital with serious breathing problems. None of that seemed to bother her, however. Lilian had a level of denial that made her seem indomitable.

She disappeared for a while, and came back sicker than ever. She was still the same sweet natured Lilian, eagerly finding the good news or the humor in anything and laughing delightedly at her own self mocking jokes. The denial, however, was gone. She even spoke about having to start getting honest with herself about how sick she was. She was thankful for the support she received. She was thoughtful. She seemed like a remarkably well integrated adult. I don't know how such growth can be possible for a woman who was helped into prostitution by her mother while she was still in her teens and who appeared to have spent all or most of the long years that followed caught up in the trauma and addiction that come with a life of "getting into cars." Still, there it was. I saw the growth. I saw the whole person, the one that had been dormant all that time, blossoming forth with all her rich appreciation of the world around her.

Lilian came back sporadically, used the snow storm to manipulate an overnight visit with her grandchildren away from her transitional house. She was still a pleasure every single time she came. Recently, she has been gone for 8 weeks. It was time spent in the hospital and a nursing home. She is leaning on her cane much more dramatically now. She's had the AIDS pneumonia and probably another stroke. Her legs are badly swollen, and her hands shake from the seven medications she's on. She has an infection in her intestines that the doctors can't cure, and they've told her that they will have to remove her colon. That means a colostomy bag.

Lilian is still alive. She's still a lovely person but every time I see her now, I think of a snowman, slowly decreasing in the sun and the rain. It's hard to imagine a return to health for Lilian and hard to imagine that she has all that many more years left. She's still trying, though. She still has her good attitude. I'm going to try too, although my attitude isn't nearly as good. I hope to find a way to take her for a second opinion on the colostomy bag thing. Still, I've already started to grieve for a good woman who may have begun to enjoy her life only at its end.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Why do Women Prostitute? Part III

Without prompting, a young YANA client wrote down some of her feelings and gave them to me to read. She also gave me permission to post her writing on the internet. Here is what she said:

When women get sexually assaulted people fail to realize that it lead's to alot of things. Some of us don't feel loved. We get into prostitution and other things. When being in situations like that we alway's seem to think that it's our fault but in reality it's there's.

We feel abandoned and it hurt's to really talk about our problems. Most of us have trouble sleeping, trusting people. I should know because that's how I started off. Some people ask what do you think about while your doing it? I said that it's different for others but your mind goes through phases.

When your out and about there's alot of things to watch out. The main one is getting locked up or having sex for no money. Alot of people will Judge you but not realizing the situation that brought you to this point. Most of us have flashback's about our rape or situation. Some of us would have never imagined that what we once endured as kids that's would be our situation year's later.

I'm so glad that I found someone who would really listen instead of Judging me. The trouble with most of us is that we have no guidance or no one to talk to about our problem's at all. Some people ask me what I'm addicted to the money or the sex? I'm addicted to the money because it's fast. It's not a easy journey for most but it's a stepping stone. If it wasn't for God, YANA and positive roll model's most of us would be still dealing wtih day to day life style that we once lived. By the grace of God I survived.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mother's Day (almost) with the Prostitutes

Today was slow for the most part, and I was bored, flipping through the equally boring books on a back shelf, more than a little resentful of the fact that YANA would close if I left early. Then, when it was finally almost time to go home, Janet came in. Janet was one of the first clients I met at YANA. Chronically stoned, speech slurred from drugs and not enough teeth, HIV positive, very actively prostituting, pregnant again with a small legion of children already scattered about the city in other people's custody, Janet sized me up and decided to call me "mom." Have I mentioned that I had no training and no background in working with prostitutes, or with addicts, or, for that matter, even with the poor? I found my new "daughter" (only about 10 years younger than I am) more than a little overwhelming. If she noticed that fact, Janet didn't care. She kept slipping me little notes about the hardships in her life and asking for small amounts of money. I didn't give her cash -- at least not all that often -- but Janet worked her will on me. I did become a sort of mom to Janet, paying her extra attention and doing extra favors for her.

It was hard not to feel for one of the most abused of all our severely abused clients. Janet's uncle began raping her when she was 3. He continued for 8 years, until he was arrested and convicted of it. He served one year in jail and was then welcomed back into the family with open arms. Janet's father began giving her heroin at about the same time. I've never heard why, but I'd be willing to bet he was raping her too or prostituting her out to his friends. What else would have justified the 10, 20, 30 dollars a day it cost him to keep her enslaved? When she was in her teens, her cousin killed her mother, and the aunts who had cared for her in the past abandoned her. When her father died many years later, Tim Bridges, YANA's deputy director, took her to the funeral. Her family hadn't wanted her to come. Apparently, they thought she wasn't good enough for them.

Despite her childhood of abuse -- and her adulthood of continuing abuse -- Janet had an oddly adorable, high spirited nature. She was an open hearted little girl who burst into tears when she was sad, then called herself a "crybaby," dried her eyes, made a joke, and went back out, smiling, to join her friends on the street. I don't think anyone expected her to make any big changes. She was our perpetual lost and loving child. Janet, however, had other ideas.

She is clean today and has legally regained custody of her two teenage daughters. The girls, who had endured years of, at minimum, emotional abuse, are giving their poor mother a run for her money. The little one shows her teacher and principal disrespect "in a horrible way" by pulling down her pants and telling them to kiss her ass. Janet, as she puts it, "perseveres." She tells them the right things. She goes to the school, monitors homework time, plays games on "family fun day" at home for as long as her teenagers will sit still for something like that. She takes them to Kennedy Kreiger for counseling. She is currently desperate for money, and we are arranging for her to talk to some people about a job. Maybe I'll slip her a hundred tomorrow, as a present to myself if nothing else. We don't see her very often any more, but it was something very fine to hear her talking today. For those of us who know what it is to be a parent, the example of Janet doing so much with so little is a wonderful thing.

And while I was talking to Janet, Tina came in with a client from the past I didn't recognize. Tina pulled out an elaborate, music playing Mother's Day card, asked the spelling of my name, and made it over to me with several inscriptions offering sweet kisses and warm hugs. She had several other Mother's Day cards as well, for, I assume, her own mother (see previous posts about the attempted hanging) and whatever other women she has adopted as her own.

The client I didn't recognize, Gloria, told me that her mother was murdered in 1992 and that her son "died at her feet" 7 months ago. I told her that we would celebrate Mother's Day tomorrow and that if she came back she might want to participate in a talk about our mothers and our children. I told her that a lot of the women had children who had died, and that many of them would want to share happy memories of their daughters and sons. Gloria seemed eager to come.

Motherhood -- the failings of our clients' mothers, the failings of our clients with their own children -- is a deeply felt theme in the women's lives. So many of them try so hard. So few of them give up hope.