Saturday, November 28, 2009

Precious

There's a movie out now about our women, though the word "prostitute" is never used. It tells the story of a girl named Precious whose father rapes her from the time she is three until she is sixteen. I call her prostituted, and thus, one of "ours," because her mother knows about the rape and allows it. She lets her husband have sex with their child in exchange for his remaining in the marriage. And then, unsurprisingly, she hates her daughter for being "loved more" than she is.

Turned into a sexual object by the most dominant person in the home, while the rest of the family both benefits from her abuse and despises her for it, Precious acted out on the big screen what we at YANA see in the faces and lives of our clients everyday. But for me, the most telling part of the movie is not what happens to Precious, but what she dreams could happen. Imagine a girl whose parents rape her, beat her, call her an animal and tell her she's too stupid to learn anything. You might imagine that going inside her mind would be like entering a sort of macabre fun house of twisted images, revenge fantasies, black despair. Instead, Precious holds on to the same hopes almost all of us have. She wants to be pretty. She wants to be loved. She wants to be a good mother. She wants a happy family. She wants to achieve.

I watched Precious fantasize her life on screen, and I thought of the YANA women every step of the way. I thought of the women who gathered around Liz and Tina, praising them when they dressed up in donated clothes and how all them understood the importance of that moment of beauty. I thought of the shy smiles on the women's faces when they tell me they have a new boyfriend -- a great guy, someone who doesn't use. I thought of a woman who blinked back tears when her friend told the rest of us that she was a caring mother. I thought of the day I took Janet to the hospital to see her baby once more before the social worker took him away. Most of the time, Janet watched while I held her little boy, and afterward she told the staff all about how I talked to him and rocked him in my arms. Janet's own family began raping her when she was three. They tried to keep her away from the funeral when her father died. Janet called me her mother, and I think she longed for her child to be held by a loving grandmother, in exactly the same way that Precious did. Precious took pride in her steadily improving test scores. Sheri was overwhelmed with pride when she got a diploma from the "Phenomenal Woman" course offered by the health department through YANA.

Precious is a hit movie. It's obviously gunning for some academy awards. I left the theater thinking that maybe people do want to know about "our women." Maybe they can believe how brutal their lives are. Maybe they want to know how prosaic, how deeply held, how enduring their dreams are.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dear H.

A while back someone named "H" left a very thoughtful comment on the blog, and I haven't had time until now to respond. I 'm doing so now in a post because I thought that what H had to say was important enough for a longer discussion.

H. took me to task a bit for a reference I made in the "Whatever Happened to the Little Girl" post. I said that 12 seems to be the average age for entry into prostitution. H. asked how I know what the average age is and seemed genuinely interested in any statistics I could give him (I'm assuming H is male). The truth is that even "seems to be" is stronger language than I should have used. I had mentioned in an earlier post that people who work with prostituted women often cite research claiming that 11 to 13 is the average age at which people enter prostitution, but that I didn't know how the studies were performed. I can tell you that at YANA, the counselors have worked with many hundreds of women in Baltimore and have found that almost all of them have been subjected to very severe sexual abuse at a very early age. I've been to symposiums about working with prostituted women and have heard the directors of other agencies say the same thing. As I may have quoted in another post, one woman announced "Incest is the boot camp of prostitution." The rest of the room nodded. A police sergeant, Byron Fasset from Dallas, Texas, has formed a unit specializing in working with underage prostitutes. He's kept statistics on more than a thousand girls and found a near universal pattern of abuse suffered by both the girls and their mothers. I see the faces and hear the words of the women at YANA. Even to a layperson like me, so many of them seem frozen at some very early stage of development, and it's easy, very easy to imagine that a part of them just stopped growing on the day they first learned what horrible things that the grownups would do to them.

But none of that is proof of the average age at which women or girls enter prostitution. For one thing, I seriously doubt that anyone has done the kind of exhaustive study necessary to know the average anything for prostitution. There are precious few provider agencies in this country, and they aren't in the business of keeping statistics or probing the women for information they might not want to give. Academics are starting to take an interest in prostitution, but how many of them do you think are out doing lengthy evaluations of thousands of women all across the country? We had a woman do her Ph.D. research at YANA. She spoke to ten of our clients for a little under an hour each. My understanding is that her committee not only accepted this day and a half of research as being good enough for a doctorate, but they also praised her for her great street creds.

And even if we did know the real averages for childhood sexual abuse, how would we know whether the children were actually prostituted? Remember that prostitution can have a very broad definition. If, for example, mom is turning her five year old over to her drug dealer or landlord once in a while in exchange for a little credit, then that five year old has been prostituted. If mom is letting dad have a go at their three year old in exchange for a little peace in the home, then that three year old has been prostituted. If dad is turning a blind eye to what his buddies or maybe his own father does to his eight year old in exchange for their approval, then that eight year old has been prostituted. I know that happens, but how would I or anyone ever know how often it happens? Usually, the child will only know that the landlord, or the dad, or the strange men in the neighborhood hurt her. She won't know who benefited from it.

And much of the time, she doesn't want to know. Within the safety of YANA, most of our clients will talk openly about being raped as children, but they do not think of themselves as having been prostituted as children. Prostitution was their own decision, and it most certainly had nothing to do with their mothers. Recently Sid spoke about the 5 year old in North Carolina who was prostituted by her mother. The child was found dead. Our women were appalled. "Anyone under the age of 18 who is prostituted is a victim of human trafficking," Sid explained. "Have you ever heard of anyone under the age of 18 who was prostituted?"

"People from the Philippines!" one woman said. "I've heard about that!" Nobody else seemed to have ever heard of such a thing anywhere, and the subject swiftly died in an embarrassed silence. So, to answer H., no I don't know the average age at which a woman or girl enters prostitution. And I don't think anyone does, even for one country. If you're thinking about walking-the-street prostitution, then your estimate of somewhere between 16 and 24 sounds as good as any other to me. As for your "defensiveness" about people who try to "demonize" prostitution with claims of child sexual abuse, well, human behavior is complicated, and all we have are anecdotes. If your girl friend is the basis for your "defensiveness" around the idea that being raped repeatedly as a child leads women to prostitution later, it's always possible that she really is that co-ed paying for college tuition that we hear about so much on the t.v. shows. Maybe she went into prostitution for any variety of her own reasons. But if she's been prostituting, and she's promoting defensiveness around the idea that anything her parents did was the cause. . . well, like I said, she might be the exception to all our anecdotes. Then again, H., she might not be.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Thief

We had some unhappy women at YANA the other day. Jessie was visibly wilting. She whispered that she needed to talk to me and Heather privately, then sat staring sadly out the window. Sherie was there too -- which was good news because Health Care for the Homeless had managed to procure a small grant for her to get some special services, and time was running out for her to collect it. Sheri had to wait a while to see our nurse practitioner, Marti, and then she came back out scowling dramatically and muttering grimly about people not understanding that she had appointments. Marti called me in to talk, and Sheri and I both knew who the subject of the conversation would be.

Marti was just plain fed up. Sheri came to get prescriptions refilled and wouldn't submit to any examinations. Marti had already refilled more than she thought she should and wouldn't do it anymore until Sheri came in for some blood work and the rest. Sheri had even turned down the grant, claiming that she didn't have time to come in over the next couple days. Marti is like everyone else I've met at Health Care for the Homeless, absolutely dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor, patient, good humored, a consistently positive person to have around. I expect that the experience of being ticked off with one of our women was distressing for her. Although I needed no convincing whatsoever, she explained at some length that it had been necessary to cut Sheri off, that Sheri was harming herself, that even more than most of our other clients, Sheri was the source of her own problems. I agreed, also at some length.

Meanwhile, Heather was left with the furious Sheri whose humor had not been improved by the knowledge that Marti was in the next room telling on her. Endlessly patient Heather "reflected back" to Sheri her emotions, calming her considerably. I've seen Heather in action with the other women (and with me when I've had her trapped in the car on the way to YANA and decided to get a little free counseling). She is very, very good at sending out the sympathetic rays. By the time I returned, Sheri was admitting that part of her "condition" was a tendency to overreact and snap at people. She was also making somewhat vague promises to go down to Health Care for the Homeless for a check up. She also looked exhausted, and after, foolishly and against the rules, giving her a little bus money, I hustled her out of there to go home to rest.

I wanted to get to Jessie and have that talk about what was making her so terribly sad. When I turned to her though, she told me, smiling, that she had already talked to Heather about it. Jessie had been grieving because she'd seen Sheri stealing four deodorants. I'm not kidding when I use a word like "grief." As I've mentioned a time or two before, our clients are fragile people. They come to YANA to be in a safe place, removed from all the ugliness of their lives. I think that when they see people getting away with "addict" behavior here, they feel hopeless. It might not be too great an exaggeration to say that they see it as the bad winning over the good.

"Well," I said. "Addict behavior. We had one client who almost made it out the door with a t.v." This gets a laugh. Heather has obviously done a good job calming Jessie as well. We talk a bit about people being at different stages, and Jessie nods. She says that some people come to YANA for the wrong reasons. I say that some people get less out of YANA than others do. They get coffee and donated clothes, but not a start on a better life. Jessie doesn't seem to be angry any more, but she certainly had been. She would have called Sheri out on her behavior if they'd been at the rehab., but Jessie had figured out that angry accusations and heated discussions weren't the thing at YANA. Her self imposed restraint hadn't been easy. Respect for YANA had made angry, and it had kept from getting any satisfaction from her anger.

Oh well. Sheri had been close to my son, Daniel. He laughed when I told him about it. How does a healthy person, happily off at school, get mad at someone like little Sheri? How does a comfortably middle class person take the theft of four deodorants seriously? When I told Sid, she made the obvious assumption that Sheri wasn't getting any blood work done because she was selling the pills instead of taking them. Sid wants to help Sheri "go away somewhere." When I told my husband, he said he felt like crying. How could anyone be so bad off that she needs to steal four deodorants?

What's my reaction? I guess I'd like to see her off in some rehab. too. I'm not the one to talk to her about it, though. Sheri's poverty doesn't make me particularly sad. As far as I'm concerned, the circumstances of her life are just that -- circumstances. Something needs to happen, though. Sheri has been coming to YANA longer than I have, and she hasn't made friends there. Not any. She hasn't gotten clean. She hasn't gotten counseling. She sits alone with the three deep slash marks on each arm from a suicide attempt, barely coherent, stealing on a fairly regular basis and persistantly wheedling me for small hand outs. And, as far as I can tell, she longs for. . . everything, community, love, expression, recognition. The same things almost everybody else wants. I have no idea whether she'll even start to try to get them.

Lilian and the other Ladies

In one sense Lilian seems to be doing better -- she is more talkative and more vibrant than she once was. I suspect that this is the result of some change in medication. Either she's sober now after taking some street drug that numbed her, or she's on some different combination of medicines prescribed for her. Maybe she's taking fewer meds, or maybe she's on a good antidepressant (we had a client the other day who announced, "I'm feeling good! That antidepressant is working!"). I don't get the impression that she's coming to YANA wound up on crack or the like, but, then, drugs affect people in different ways, and I'm no expert. At any rate, she is increasingly charming and fun to be around, while just as oblivious as she ever was to the larger issues in her life.

This week she showed us the two or three large bruises on her arm and complained about having 18 vials of blood taken from her. She said it was because the doctors believed she'd had a mild stroke the week before. "They think that's why I'm leaning to the right and drooling," she told the room. And then "Look at those bruises!". But before anyone could express any sympathy, for her, she triumphantly delivered the punch line, "But guess what?! They took so much blood they gave me a $10.00 Walmart Gift Card. That's a Christmas present right there!" Lilian burst into gleeful laughter over having been given a present by her doctor and seemed finished with the conversation.

I asked her to look directly at me for a second and confirmed that one side of her mouth was sagging. I fell completely into Lilian mode in telling her this. "Not much!" I assured her. "I never would have noticed if you hadn't told me about it!" She had a follow up appointment with her doc. -- I didn't feel required to say anything more than that. Besides, I don't feel capable of battering down that weirdly powerful invisible shield she's managed to erect between herself and the horrors that seem to lie in wait.

As Lilian was leaving later, she stopped to tell the other ladies the latest bit of gossip. "You know that 14 year old boy that got raped and then the guy cut his throat?" Everyone but me seemed to know quite a bit about it. One woman wasn't sure whether the killer had been caught and the rest quickly told her that he'd been caught the next day at a 7-11. "Well, his grandmother is in my house," Lilian said. "She was holding up well until the funeral yesterday. Then she fell apart." Lilian delivered this news kindly, the way one woman will tell the others about the well being of someone else from the church or the neighborhood. Grandmothers in rehab, people whose children get killed, women like our women so often know one another. It was community news for them. And the reaction was a community reaction. Even after Lilian was out the door, the clients were still reassuring me and each other of the tortures that would befall the child killer in prison.

"They're going to do to him worse than what he did to that child," a woman said.
The rest nodded like they were in church, hearing hearing the God's honest truth.
"That's right. That's right," the women affirmed.
"That's what we always did!" Jessie said.
"You don't know how fast news travels in prison," one woman told me. "They're going to know before anyone. They're going to be waiting for him."
This prompted another round of "that's rights."

Then one of the women made the mistake of telling us what she personally would do to the man if the 14 year old had been her son. I didn't think anything of that. Most parents I've known would be talking about dismemberment if they imagined their children raped and murdered. Unfortunately, Jessie took the opportunity to point out that while she used to think the same way, she had been "working on her spiritual side." One's spiritual side is very, very important to our women, especially once they get into rehab. Embarrassed, the speaker began a rapid fire explanation of just how important her own spiritual side was to her and how much she was learning in her bible class.

"For example, did you know that when you're asleep you're dead?" She smiled proudly delivering this bit of knowledge to people who obviously had no idea. "That's right! Your pores open up, and your immune system doesn't work, and everything goes in and out of you. You're dead! King James is the truth!" There wasn't a woman in the room foolish enough to touch any of that, and in a minute or two we were all restored to the usual low hum of conversation. Sad stories. Small victories. A nearly endless supply of improvised strategies so everyone could get by.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

YANA Today

YANA was slow today. Liz came in after two weeks on a psych ward, still wearing a hospital i.d. on her wrist. She was sad about having gotten drunk immediately after having been detoxed. And her sister has kicked her out yet again, so that she has no clothes, no medicine, no food, no place to sleep. Our visiting professors tried talking to her about available resources, but Liz has good medical care when she wants it, and she had no interest in going to a shelter. She got some warm clothing, and Diane fixed her a cup of soup and a cup of coffee. I asked her about the abandaminium Officer Leather Glove had set up for her. Officer Leather Glove, as she calls him, has been a friend to Liz for years, showing special kindness to one of the more frequently abused citizens on his police beat. Months ago, he put some sort of notice (a sign? crime tape? I wasn't sure) around an abandoned house and told people that only Liz was allowed in there. I think Liz values his caring about her more than she does the house, but at any rate she smiled happily at the mention of Officer Leather Glove, and told us that she was staying in the abandominium he gave her.

In other news, we've had a nice illustration of how much working with the poor does to expand one's overall sense of charity, compassion, and general, dare I say it. . . saintliness. YANA, exasperated by minor, but ongoing, variations in the use it permits other groups to make of its space, has banned any use at all of its space by any other group. The decision had been discussed with Hezekiah House management in advance and heartily approved. Approved, but apparently not followed when one of the nuns needed the space. Then, as Sid and I carried on an immensely important discussion of my personal life in the general office area, Brother Joe pointed out, with the kind of accuracy that can only be described as barbaric, that we were doing exactly the same thing we had banned other groups from doing. After we retreated to Sid's office, we realized that Lilian had been ringing the front door bell in the rain for something like ten minutes. The manager of one of the banned groups had been downstairs the whole time, but, knowing that she was a YANA client, had declined to let her in. As the rain soaked woman and I went upstairs, I told her that he was angry at us because he couldn't use the YANA area. "Well good!" Lilian answered. And then, triumphantly, "It's our space!". She forgot the inconvenience and personal insult, cheered, enormously, it appeared, by a bit of gossip about having put something over on one of the other charities. What the hell, she was happy the whole afternoon. There seems to be plenty of room for pettiness in saving our little part of the world.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Lilian

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.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

(Helen) Vickie Reading at the Baltimore Book Festival

A couple years back I won the Maryland State Art Counsel's top award for short fiction. The award was for the first chapter in a novel I'm writing, but when it came time for the winners to read out loud at the book festival, I asked if I could read an essay about one of the YANA women instead. A good natured organizer gave me permission, and I sat in a tent on a noisy and rainy night, trying to tell our little group what it meant to know Helen. Click on the video if you'd like to hear something about this extraordinary woman's life.


video