Lilian is one of our clients from the next door recovery house who began coming to YANA last year when we moved to Hezekiah House. She's little, white, close to my age, quiet, and well groomed. Much of the time she looks like the kind of middle class woman you expect to find teaching a children's Sunday school class -- a picture of mild, if rather vague, contentment. On days when she's not doing so well, she looks a little mousy and pink -- a Sunday school teacher who's spent a too-long morning with children who kept running around the room and throwing things out the window.
If there's ever anything troubling about her, it's her lack of anger or obvious distress. There was the time she got raped about six months back. She was upset then, even a bit trembly, but she accepted comfort from the group as easily as a child lets herself be picked up and held. It wasn't long before she returned to her usual placid state. It was a state that didn't change much when she told us that she had once been kidnapped by a pimp, though she did warn us, seriously, about the dangers of prostituting. Today, Lilian was also fairly matter of fact about her recent hospitalizations. HIV has driven her t-cell count down to 239, which means she is almost AIDS-defined. She was so sick that the hospital was calling her relatives for permission to put her on life support, but what distress she managed was reserved for the prospect of being intubated, and the oxygen mask that "scared the bejeebers" out of her. She was equally unconcerned about the larger picture some time ago when she mentioned that her daughter had stage 4 cancer.
Months later, I did see her get a little teary and extra pink, grieving openly over what she said had been the worst thing to happen to her that year. Her dog had died. I told Heather on the way home that day that I'd come out of my coffin and strangle any family member of mine who got more upset about the dog dying than my being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
Lilian sat in a group once when a professor asked why women prostitute and what people should know about prostituted women. Lilian answered the "why" question like almost all our women do. She said she prostituted for drugs. She also said that she had been kidnapped at least once by a pimp, and she nodded in agreement when the other clients said that they wanted people to talk to them, as long as they didn't talk down to them. As far as I can tell, none of Lilian's opinions vary from the norm. And like most of our clients, Lilian's entry into prostitution seemed to have more behind it than drugs. She mentioned in passing today that she got into prostitution because some girls talked her into it when she was a teenager. She didn't begin on the street; she put an ad in the personal section of a tabloid magazine for "young girls to take advantage of old men" as she put it. Her mother paid for the ad. She was eventually arrested for some sort of money scam she had going with the girls because one of the "old men" they targeted was a police officer. I couldn't tell whether he was undercover or a john that got pissed off and knew how to use the system to revenge himself on the underage girl he'd been sleeping with. Somehow that arrest and a subsequent arrest for joy riding in a stolen car resulted in a four and a half year prison sentence.
When I asked her how she did the prison time, she said it was one day at a time. She couldn't think about the outside world. She couldn't think about the future. She thought about each day as it came. I had the feeling I'd just heard the philosophy that got her through her entire life, but then again, maybe I'd just heard a too-easy way to summarize a woman who doesn't let all her feelings show.