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.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


I saw quite a bit of Tina yesterday. Other than her methadone, she continues to stay clean. It's been months since she nodded out at YANA. She seems to be making friends. She has even begun to take on expression in her face and voice so that she matches her own words, laughing, frowning, and smiling as she speaks. It's really sort of wonderful to be near her, and, still, sort of horrifying as well. The story of her life hasn't changed much.

Her sister has been in the hospital, very seriously ill, for more than 30 days now. Tina makes the daily pilgrimage to visit her. Because the sister had served as a buffer between her and her mother, Tina has also made the entirely reasonable decision to live in a shelter while her sister is gone (see some of the previous posts on Tina to find out what a piece of work that mother of hers is). Tina believes, also entirely reasonably, that her own health has dangerously deteriorated, but she won't get medical care herself. She wants to wait until her sister is home, with her children, not waiting on Tina's daily visits.

In the shelter, Tina met up with up with one of our old clients who's come back to town. Tina brought her in and begged a blanket for her as diligently as she begs for herself and her sister. A grad. student who comes with the professors gave the woman a beautiful, embroidered blanket that she kept in her car. Tina also brought another woman from the shelter, an older woman with what to me was a fascinating appearance. She was slightly built, hair completely covered by a red bandanna. She was wearing a jacket with a skull and cross bones motif (see superstition post for how common something like that is at YANA). She moved with the slow, hesitant gait of many of our women over fifty, and she had a face that reminded me of a turtle's -- bony, with a blunt nose and chin that protruded out at about an equal distance. Tina and this new woman, Marcy, are friends now, but apparently Marcy had previously avoided Tina. Tina explained that she had originally planned to beat Marcy up in retaliation for something a childhood friend claimed Marcy did. Marcy knowing how Tina fights ("I never stop," Tina explained) kept her distance. Tina considered, however, Marcy's age and the fact of her pace maker and decided not to. Then she found out that her childhood friend had lied, and she and Marcy are friends.

"How did Marcy know how you fight?" I asked Tina.
"She's seen me," Tina answered.

That was what I'd figured. It's hard to know what to say to any of that. For one thing, Tina weighs about 11 pounds and has one tooth (o.k., maybe a few more pounds and a few more teeth, but still, she looks like a sweet, little gap-toothed 8 year old, or possibly a wizened little, almost toothless 100 year old.) For another, Tina will sometimes stop in a fight. She's stopped before when she and the other women both ran completely out of breath. For a third thing, though, if someone hadn't intervened, she really probably would have started back up once she could breathe again. Sweet, serious, horrifically sick and abused little Tina is long on ideals and short on pragmatism. And somehow she still has the fight left in her to carry out the family ideal of retaliation. Little Tina is nothing if not loyal.

Santa Clause is Dead

Jennifer walked in. "Santa Clause is dead," she told the room flatly. That wasn't a joke or a bit of irony. Santa Clause was a homeless man who lived in her neighborhood. She had talked about him many times, how he was a fat, white man w/ a tummy like Santa Clause. How he fixed his abandomium up nice and everybody liked him. How children liked to hug him and call him Santa and how he cried one day because, she thought, he wasn't used to being hugged and loved by children or anyone else. How eventually he came to trust her well enough to knock on her door at night if he was hungry and know that she would always give him food.

Santa Clause was in intensive care from the beating someone in the neighborhood gave him. Jennifer worried about him. She tried to visit, but didn't know his real name. This morning, she heard that he died. She said that this weekend she would buy some balloons, say a prayer, and release them in his name. Jennifer loves her neighborhood, all however many blocks of poverty, drug abuse, violence, early death, neglected children and battered women. She absolutely loves it. And when you love a group of people you invent -- or perhaps simply recognize -- all kinds of small beauties, kindly characters, funny moments within their midst. Jennifer's own neighborhood had just killed one of hers.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Liz's Rainbow

Some of our professors are back -- I'll let them write in and identify themselves if they care to -- and they're asking our women about their hopes and dreams again. They brought craft supplies for YANA clients to make big pictures of their goals. Liz, dressed like the 60s had exploded all over her, purple tie dye, giant dream catcher earrings and all, spoke up right away. "The rainbow!" she called across the room. "I'm going to paint the rainbow!"

I was surprised by how excited I was by the thought of Liz revealing her goals. "At the end of the rainbow?" I asked. "What's at the end of Liz's rainbow?" Liz just smiled. I went back to taking care of the day to day needs while Liz joined the four or five women who were who were making their posters. Liz got into the glitter markers right away. She drew a long, brilliant rainbow from corner of the poster board to the opposite corner, using no colors any rainbow ever saw.

"What's at the end?" we asked. She told us there was a pot of gold, then obliged by drawing a few round smudges to represent the pot. When we asked what was in the pot, Liz answered, brightly, a little uncertainly, "Everything."

Other women drew happy homes, sobriety, pretty clothes, peace. Liz had no idea of what to draw. I don't think she has ever had any dreams, just a wild, long streak of glitter and her name signed beneath in tall, red letters.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Our Client's Children, Part II

The storm closed YANA, trapped most of us in our homes, left the Washington/Baltimore area frustrated and out of sorts, but for Lilian it became a source of profound enjoyment. She used it to engineer an overnight visit with her children and grandchildren and was still glowing with the pleasure of it when she came back to YANA. Lilian, like the other women she lives with in her transitional home, is required to follow a strict schedule with curfews. She got up early the day our second storm was expected and took the long bus trip to her children's home. By the time she was "ready" to leave, there was no transportation, and she was forced to stay overnight.

"You engineered that!" Her house manager said when she finally returned at the end of her second day out. "Why else would you have gotten up so early to go out there?" I don't know how Lilian answered at the time, but she laughed gleefully when she told us the manager was absolutely right. She had engineered a long visit with her grandchildren, and it was wonderful. She even slept with the three of them and cooked for them the whole next day. Lilian also explained, quite offhandedly, that the five year old and six year old boys are "slow" because they're drug babies. The 11 month old daughter is smart, though, and fast, and "evil." And then Lilian went back to her grandmotherly pleasure in the baby's fat thighs and boisterous ways and how lovely it was to have a long visit with them at last.

I picked Diane up yesterday, and both of us waved to a little girl sweeping snow on a neighbor's porch. Diane told me that the girl, like other children from the area, visits her often. The visits were painful for Diane, though, because they make her more lonely for her own children, who live with Diane's sister. Diane does talk to them every couple days, though, and believes that she will get them back soon.

Annie went to jail recently for protecting her daughter. The daughter's boyfriend had managed to throw her and their children out of their apartment, but the daughter had returned with the help of the landlord and regained the apartment and gotten a restraining order against the father of her children. He broke back in while Annie was visiting.

You don't always know which stories you hear are true, but I thought, and Sid, with her many years of counseling expertise, also thought, that Annie was telling exactly what she remembered. Annie's eyes got big as she marveled over how fast the man moved, rushing through the door and straight at her pregnant daughter. He got his hands around her throat and was choking her when Annie's own vision began to falter. The room dimmed for Annie. She wasn't sure of all the things that happened next, but she knew they resulted in the boyfriend on the floor, his nose gushing blood, straddled by Annie. She also remembers thinking that it was her daughter who was pulling her away and only slowly realizing that it was actually the police. Annie, belligerent, hyper-aroused Annie, was the one who ended up being arrested. And within a few days, the daughter began letting the boyfriend back in for visits. "I'm not going to jail for her again," Annie announces in her flat, gravelly voice. "I've been there once. I'm not going again." The daughter still calls, though, and Annie still goes.

Tina spent a lonely Christmas in the hospital, but was cheered when someone brought her a picture of her daughter beside the tree. The little girl was smiling, surrounded by an enormous pile of presents for her and her cousin. Wisely, Tina has consented for her daughter to be raised by her paternal grandmother. The child visits with Tina often, and Tina can see that she is being well cared for. Tina explained that her daughter's father had ten brothers and sisters, and that they each were given only one present for Christmas. The women at the table all agreed that this was a reasonable decision on the parents' part and the children were probably happy to get that.

Tina didn't argue this point (though I'm not sure she agreed with it either). Apparently, however, the girl's father had at some point mentioned the possibility that one Christmas present would be enough for their child. Tina's usual monotone took on emotion at this. "Oh no," she said. "Oh no, oh hellll no." She shook her small head. "I told them this isn't the old days. My daughter can't get just one present." Tina's little girl gets all the presents her family can manage, and Tina contributes as much as she can. Whatever donated toys and clothes Tina can get her hands on at YANA (we don't have many, but Tina is actually quite gifted at acquiring whatever is in sight) go to that little girl. So does Tina's money from her small disability checks. Tina has never said anything about the toys and presents she got as a child, but she mentioned just recently that her godmother's son raped her when she was eight. Tina told the godmother, who responded by putting her over a chair and beating her with a belt. I doubt she even tried to tell her own mother.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Diane Update

The local snow storms have prevented Diane from beginning her GED program, but she is still planning to enroll. She's still interested in a number of things, and I am still reminded, from time to time, that her being interested in anything is a triumph. When I drove her home the other week, she mentioned, out of nowhere, that former Baltimore Mayor Dixon (recently driven from office by a conviction for stealing, of all things, gift cards meant for the poor) said she had no regrets. I told Diane that saying you have no regrets seems to be the fashion now days, and that I thought it was ridiculous. I said I certainly regretted some of the things I've done, or failed to do. Diane said she had regrets as well. She regretted a 20 year drug addiction. I had to admit that was a pretty big thing to have to look back on.

Diane went on to tell me about she began. Apparently, not until she was almost out of her teens. She was pregnant, living with the baby's father, who told her he was going out to a job every morning. The job turned out to be a) dealing and b) stealing drugs from higher up dealers. She discovered his actual occupation when she came out of the bedroom one morning to find him dead, in a pool of his own blood. When I murmured whatever banality I came up with ("Sorry to hear it. Must have been hard for you" or the like), she segued effortlessly into memories of having been raped repeatedly by her stepfather as a child, starting at about the age of eight.

As people who read this blog know, childhood sexual trauma, especially within the family, usually precedes our clients' entry into prostitution. I've heard about so many forms of child molestation, so many times, that all I typically register is the extent to which the woman is comfortable talking about it. Usually, though, I'm spared any of the details and the resulting mental images. It was painful to hear that Diane's stepfather "used to put vaseline on his private parts" before raping her and her sister. And it is always painful for me to hear whom the women blame, whom they absolve from all blame.

In Diane's case, there was her sister, mentioned in tones equally wistful, bitter, and confused, who left home without protecting Diane. It sounded as being abandoned by her older sister, the only other person in the world who shared in Diane's secret torture, might have been almost as painful as the rapes themselves. But, Diane volunteered twice, in tones of satisfaction, her mother never knew anything about it. She had no idea at all.

Being raped by the men in the family is bad enough. Having a mother who either consented to the abuse, or was so far removed from her daughter's life that her child knew better than to go to her for protection is simply unbearable. That is the thing that can never be acknowledged.

Liz, Again (No Good Deed Goes Unpunished)

Liz was in, looking sick, distressed, pulling out an envelope full of medical forms for me to see. She showed me six prescriptions and gave me the copay amounts for each. They totaled about $21.00, which seemed reasonable to me. Liz often comes in needing copays. She stays a couple hours, washing up, picking out new clothes, weeping, and chatting, and bragging, always leaving in a visibly better mood. This time, however, one of Angela's community health care crew pulled me aside to talk about Liz.

Without giving any privileged medical information, the woman told me how badly Liz had acted out at the hospital. "Showing her tail" was the phrase used. I tried to believe that was a metaphor. Unfortunately, it was not.

I told her that of all our battered clients, Liz was the one most frequently beaten, that she goes through long periods in which she seems to suffer a serious physical trauma nearly every week. The woman nodded in ready comprehension, "Hmm hmm, with that mouth," she said. No argument there. This time Liz had been acting out with the health care providers who were trying to get her into the long term rehab she needed to save her life. "She doesn't want the prescriptions. She's dope sick," the woman concluded.

And there I was about to hand Liz enough cash for two hits of heroin at the same time that our group was swelling from its normal size of 5 to 15 to more like 30, when I needed to leave YANA to pick up a volunteer who had generously made lunch for the crowd, when a tired-looking middle aged woman who had been procrastinating for months over reentering the job market had finally decided that she was ready to work on her resume with me, and, when, oh, yes, Kimberly had shown up with her nephew (see the previous post). I took the coward's way out, got the health care worker to agree to take Liz to get the prescriptions filled, and hurried out the door to get the lunch and volunteer, stopping only to tell Liz that she was getting a ride to the drug store. Liz reacted with a lot of quick talk about how she didn't need a ride. She was in a hurry. Nobody needed to treat her like that. She needed her medicine right now -- in other words, with all the anger and agitation you would expect from a junkie being denied a fix. Whether Liz is on drugs again (likely) or whether she was that overwhelmed by a delay in getting her usual fifth of vodka (also entirely likely), she was in no shape for me to leave, and I was in no position to stay and try to -- I don't know -- talk her out of needing drugs or booze? I left. She was gone by the time I returned, and there were plenty of other things to do then.

It wasn't until the next week that I found out that Liz had sat in the open area of YANA loudly cursing the health care work in front of the other women, that she had screamed so much in the car that she was dropped off at the drugstore rather than supervised there, that the health care worker and Angela then had words about whether the rules even permitted her to drive a client anywhere. . . In other words, no good deed goes unpunished. You can't care about people's recovery more than they do. Some people can not be helped. Liz is Exhibit A for a whole host of truisms.

And yet, in frequent, but very short intervals, Liz can be loving and funny and kind. She holds on, holds on valiantly, to a kind of cowboy pride in her own sexy toughness. She also seems to go out looking for trouble, daring a world in which dares are answered with gun butts to the head, a pair of girls kicking her in the ribs and face once they've gotten her down, a boyfriend who hits her with his fists. Then she basks in whatever love she can get, gets back up and swaggers right out there again. Liz in other words, is still full of life, however twisted and self defeating that life may be. The next time I'll probably just put everything else on hold and go get the medicine myself.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Remember Kimberly, the cake-making YANA client who had so much to tell us about Liz's evil sister? Well, Kimberly herself is turning out to be more than a handful. She starts off upbeat and enthusiastic about her latest adventures; then, when she gets the usual YANA response of enthusiasm and approval, she rapidly becomes louder, more aggressive, more profane. It isn't long before she's flying around the room like a rickety but triumphant little World War I fighter plane, engine rumbling, spraying us all with equal parts contempt and self congratulation. If she's talking to someone like me, the contempt is in the intonation. If she's talking to another client, she can pretty much take leave of reality.

One time she found a client's coat slipping off the back of a chair. She picked it up and made a comment about straightening up someone else's clothes. There is a lot of doing small things for each other at YANA and then wanting, really needing, to be thanked. The other client thanked her. That was the first, modest little loop of the spiral. Then Kimberly expounded on the negligence of the slipped coat and explained she wasn't anyone's maid. Another crooked loop or two of Kimberly chasing her good deed and the other woman's failure, and suddenly Kimberly was off in the ozone, machine guns firing, loudly playing the part of the outraged mother, telling another middle aged woman that when she was in her own home she could make her own rules, but until she got her own home. . . etc. Thankfully, the woman being berated chose to ignore her.

On another day, when we were especially busy, Kimberly brought her nephew to YANA and then prepared to leave him while she ran an errand. I told her that under no circumstances could she leave a child unattended at YANA. After a little argument and what seemed like genuine disappointment, Kimberly agreed. I foolishly walked off to attend to the two or three other claims on my attention, and walked back in to discover the boy sitting alone, Kimberly nowhere in sight. She had walked off under the nose of a very good YANA volunteer, having coolly led her to believe that she had permission to do so. She did return in 45 minutes or so and listened politely as I explained that she was banned from YANA for the 10 days. Later I found out that she had first assailed another client for not having done enough to take care of the boy.

Although Sid approved -- very highly, in fact -- of the temporary YANA ban, I really don't know how to deal with Kimberly. YANA is a place where we encourage people. It's where we try to help women with a long, long history of abuse begin to feel good about themselves again. But when we show Kimberly approval, or warmth, or even basic respect, she takes it as permission to behave badly. Contain, repress, "take that woman down a peg," just isn't the way we do things at YANA. And I can't think of any client we've had who's been quite like this one.

Thinking about her more, though, I wonder why not. It would seem to me that grandiosity would be a natural enough counterbalance to shame, and shame is a constant theme in our clients' lives.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Lilian has gotten all her bottom teeth pulled. She was back at YANA looking well and making a valiant effort to eat tacos, shell and all, before settling for the meat alone.

Diane has signed up for a GED class! She should be in it right now. My hope is that the three of us -- Diane, Sid, and I -- can meet to form a sort of Team Diane to troubleshoot the problems she's likely to encounter. I can imagine quite a few, from learning disability to no money for the bus to depression to interference from that guy who persists in living with her. We can definitely give her bus money.

Helen came in briefly with her beautiful and probably overmedicated granddaughter. I saw the child twitching for a moment, but later she seemed o.k. I didn't get a chance to talk to her, just saw her eating a taco. Helen still lives with her daughter's family. The apartment she's had for months is sitting empty. I don't know if she doesn't have the energy and resources to get it furnished or if she just doesn't want to separate from her daughter and grandchildren. I gave her information another client brought in about a man who was giving away old furniture.

Love, Peace, and Hair Grease

That was what Liz had to say a while back at the end of another long session of crying and comforting. Once she was all cleaned up, with her jeans tucked into her knee-high leather boots and her hair looking good, she got tired of all the mushy talk. When somebody tried to float another homily about God and doors opening her way as she left, Liz struck a little pose, two fingers up in a peace symbol and all, and announced "You know what they say, Love, Peace, and Hair Grease!" I was pretty much with her on the whole shutting up the well wishers thing. Their platitudes are almost as threadbare as hers, and we hear a lot more of them. Still, "love, peace, and hair grease?" That was weak even when it first came out in her childhood. She didn't have anything catchier, more updated than that to say?

No, she did not. Liz, like almost all of our clients, uses decades-old slang for everyday talk and the most painfully overworked of Christian one-liners for encouragement. Any aging suburbanite who's ever watched cable is likely to use an edgier, more modern vocabulary than our urban prostitutes do. For our women, an ass might be an ass, or it might be a heiney or hind parts. A person who uses a lot of drugs is an addict, or maybe a dope fiend. A vegetarian eats "nare any meat." Dirty dogs do their dirty deeds.

And there's little or none of the language that glorifies street violence. You are not going to hear that a gangbanger rolled up on someone with a nine or a glock or whatever the expression for a powerful gun is now. You rarely even hear the term "driveby." You just hear that someone got shot or almost got shot. And more often than you'd like, you hear that the victim was the woman's cousin or nephew, or, sometimes, her son. Which, I suppose, is a pretty good reason for not using any of the more exciting and accepting words for killing people.

And women in recovery never seem to tire of telling one another that they are blessed, that God never closes a door without opening a window, that God will never give you a burden you can't carry, and that they wish us a blessed day. And though the sentiments are very old, they are delivered, time and time again, as if they are urgent, and astonishing, news. Which, I suppose, they generally are.

We do have "abandominium," though. It's what we all call the abandoned buildings that the homeless move into. I don't know if it's local to Baltimore, or if it's a nationwide term. Either way, it's a delightfully jaunty word, making the joking best of the place that most of our women have at some time in their lives called home.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Our Client's Children

Lynette wasn't in today, so I couldn't talk to her about her apparently brilliant and very troubled son. Helen came, though, with "good news" about her grandchildren. The older two children, girls aged 5 and 6, are in counseling now and both are on medicine for their hyperactivity. I've met these children in their home a few times now. So has Heather, and we were both surprised to hear them referred to as hyperactive by their grandmother. They were curious and well mannered, asked permission to step outside the house and again to go down to my car. They weren't loud. They asked questions and listened to the answers. But, they're both on the hyperactivity meds, and at least one is in a level 4 placement at Bon Secur. I'm not sure if she is the one who was raped by her grandfather, Helen's father in law, at the age of three. But that one, the rape victim, is still "hyperactive" despite the medicine. The three children are also on a different medication to help them sleep at night. Works like a charm, apparently. Sometimes they pass out even before they get to the bed.

What I do consider genuine good news is that the counselors are working with their mother, teaching her to use "time outs" instead of spanking and "hollering." The mother "does a lot of hollering," Helen explained. And, Helen continued, the children's father is still working, but not spending the money on the family. He spends it on drinking, and the two parents "party" and fight most the night in front of the children.

Maybe the kids really are hyperactive, rather than poorly socialized or made anxious by a chaotic environment and the rape. Maybe there actually is some medical benefit to knocking children unconscious every night. It certainly has to make life easier for the parents. An evening routine, story reading in bed, and consistent discipline are hard work. I can't help but think that fundamentally healthy children are being labeled and drugged to accommodate the sick adults who surround them.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Liz's Sister, Part II

A wonderful woman, Angela Jackson, comes to YANA sometimes with her coworkers from People's Community Health Center to talk about AIDS and related health concerns. We had a moderate crowd of listeners, including a few women I'd never met before, and I sat in the back, enjoying another of Angela's smoothly-run lectures and discussions. Shortly into her presentation today, though, a tiny, strange looking woman entered the room. When I got my first, partial view of her, I thought I was looking at Liz, though when she turned to look in my direction, she looked quite different. I wondered why I thought of Liz at all.

The strange little woman sat up front near Angela, talking, interrupting, almost trembling with freakish, random, small waves of agitation. At one point, she got in some cross talk with another client and then said she apologized. Immediately, she said she apologized again. In about another half second she said again that she apologized, this time sticking her face forward and grimacing until it looked like the exoskeleton of an insect.

At one point Angela asked if anyone knew how Hepatitis A was spread. The strange woman said it was from using the bathroom and not washing your hands. She said that's how her dad got it since he had never used drugs. This particular revelation seemed to leave her momentarily relaxed and amused, but as Angela followed up on the spread of Hep. A through feces, the little woman's haggard face continued its rotating display of tics and sags.

At the end of the talk, the little woman made her way to me, said, "I'm Liz's sister! She's in the hospital, and I'm so worried." Then she fell into my arms, making crying noises without actual tears. Samantha was, indeed, a real person, and, at long last, I had met her.

There isn't too much to tell at this point. I took her back to talk to Sid and Angela, and Samantha immediately began interrupting again, explaining that she had brain damage. Soon Angela needed to talk to Samantha alone about some health questions. The good people from Community Health Center agreed to follow up with Liz's hospitalization, and I had to get back to the larger group. It seemed to me, though, that if you grew up loving Samantha, you would have to keep on loving her. She seemed so obviously brain damaged, so incapable of being anyone other than who she was, so far beyond any rational criticism or rebuke.

To my mind, one of the worst things you can say about anyone is that he or she can never be expected to do anything differently or better. It's condescending. It's saying the person is hopeless, saying she's doomed, and I have learned long ago that those poor, helpless people can prove you wrong every time. Probably, I tell myself, there's a lot more to Samantha than I've seen in this one little meeting. But, still, my God. It's actually disorientating to think that Liz must be the healthy one in the relationship.

A Note on Diane

I haven't written about Diane in a while, but I have been thinking about her. Edgar is still living with her, but as far as I know, he hasn't been violent in a while. She went through a period of not coming to YANA and missed the Christmas dinner. And even after she returned, I began to think of how interested in the outside world she had been earlier, and how little interest I've seen her display over the past few months -- ever since Edgar moved in. Then I gave her a ride home yesterday, and right out of the blue, she said, "You know what my biggest shame is?"

You won't catch me changing the subject when a YANA woman says something like that. I asked her what it was. Diane's "biggest shame" is that she has trouble reading an analog watch. And by extension, that she is not as smart as she'd like to be, can't do math, dropped out of school in the 11th grade and began having babies.

We chat for a minute about learning disabilities, and I mention my very-smart husband who claims that he still has trouble keeping positive and negative numbers straight and remembering to write a "p" so that it doesn't look like a "b." Diane takes that in and seems encouraged. I ask if she's thought about getting a GED, and she tells me, quite eagerly, it seems, that she has. She wants one even if she has to start on a very low level learning to work with numbers.

Diane can get determined about a thing. I will help her in any way I can think of, including paying for a course if we can't find a free one. I hope the next Diane post brings good news.

Lynette -- Another New Client

I had an extremely interesting first ten minutes of the day yesterday. I met Lynette, a smallish white woman with snaggly teeth, brown hair pulled back into a pony tail, and a quiet, likable air. She told me that she's clean now, but had a relapse not long ago. She said that she is working on honesty, and that once she is honest, everything else becomes so much easier. As she spoke, she took off her jacket, and I saw a large, elaborate tattoo of a woman's name, encircled by a heart, on her neck.

'Female lover or daughter?' I wondered. I had the bad feeling that I knew the answer. I asked who the woman was.

"My daughter," Lynette told me. "She was murdered almost five years ago. She was 15 years old." Lynette is not the first woman I've seen with that sort of In Memorium to a dead child. As I murmured a little series of generic sympathies, Lynette continued on about a candle light vigil planned for next month on the fifth anniversary of the girl's murder. She told me that the killers had not been caught, but that police believed three people were involved -- two "shooters" and a lookout. I couldn't think of a way to ask whether her little girl had burned somebody in a drug deal or whether she'd been figured for a snitch, so I just kept nodding and making sympathy noises.

We got back to the subject of Lynette's recovery soon enough, and Lynette told me she realized now how much her own behavior affected her seven year old son. She said that when she was at home and sober, he behaved fairly well. When she wasn't, he acted out. She also told me that he was currently suspended from school. When I expressed my frustration that children so young were suspended from school, she told me that he'd been suspended 13 times last year. "He unplugged every computer in the school. Not the classroom," she told me. "The whole school." Even if the little boy hadn't actually managed to get every single one, this struck me as a remarkably sophisticated prank for a 6 year old even to think of, much less pull off.

"Is he smart?" I asked.

Lynette smiled a bit. "We think he might be. He knows his times tables." Not too shabby for a second grader with a drug addicted, prostituting mother and a school that throws him out as often as it lets him in. "He could write his name when he was two," Lynette added.

Oh boy. YANA client with a genius son, who may have already started down the path of some seriously hostile behavior. Come to think of it, being executed at the age of 15 by a criminal organization of at least three people is pretty damn precocious too. Perhaps I was getting much too far ahead of myself in imagining Lynette's children on the basis of only a few startling facts, but, there we were. I was imagining them, still murmuring praise for the clever son and sympathy for the murdered daughter. Lynette, apparently having chatted enough, moved on to get her donations and then returned to whatever system of programs and groups and part time jobs and appointments that made up her life. I hope we see a good deal more of her.

Liz's Sister Part I

One of our relatively new clients, Kimberly, has a lot to say. Apparently, she also makes cakes in a cast iron skillet. I'm supposed to get a peach cake one of these days. I'll let you know if I ever do. Anyway, those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know about Liz, one of our sicker, more troubled, and, in many ways, more endearing clients. Liz lives with a sister named Samantha. None of us have ever seen Samantha, but we hear a great deal about her. Samantha steals from Liz. Samantha spends all her money on drugs, then takes to her bed, demanding care from beleaguered, overwhelmed Liz. Samantha takes Liz's money, then throws her out of the house, not even giving her time to get her heart medication. Samantha has been married to a bipolar man in the suburbs for decades, taking his money and living with a series of boyfriends in the city while pretending to be faithful.

These damaged, complex relationships aren't unusual for our clients, but the stories Liz tells about Samantha can't possibly all be true. Years ago, Samantha kidnapped somebody, and Liz rode in the car afterward with her sister and the victim. Liz was sentenced to more time than Samantha, the judge having explained that being an unknowing accessory after the fact was worse than committing the underlying crime. Samantha also gave Liz syphilis by taking a bath in the same tub that Liz later used. Apparently, the 13 years of stripping and the 17 arrests for prostitution had nothing at all to do with Liz's catching a venereal disease.

I believe that Liz is a reasonably honest person. I don't think she has either the inclination or the self discipline needed to concoct elaborate stories or to prevent herself from blurting out pretty much every single thing she has ever done or thought. Still, the Samantha stories got so over the top that I sometimes flirted with the notion that Samantha didn't even exist. She seemed to be taking on the mythical qualities of an evil twin in the ongoing Gothic horror movie that was pretty much Liz's life.

Then we learned that Kimberly lives right next door to Liz and Samantha. In a cheap Baltimore row house, right next door is really right next door. Kimberly seemed to know everything about the two sisters and to have no compunction at all about sharing. According to Kimberly, Samantha exists all right. She exists, and, if anything, she's even more horrible than Liz ever told us. In Liz's presence, Kimberly reported the continual bedlam Samantha and her array of strange men produced. She repeated language so vulgar that even in Jr. High I wouldn't have wanted to hear it (at least, not all that often in the middle of the night). She emphatically stated that Samantha regularly took Liz's money and then threw her out of the house. She even told us that Samantha had thrown Liz out naked once, and that Kimberly had brought her in and given her clothes. Liz didn't seem to like being reminded of that particular incident, but she nodded grimly when Kimberly looked to her for confirmation.

"And Liz is sweet as gold," Kimberly told us several times. "Nothing at all like her sister. Sweet as gold." At YANA Liz is, well, something of a pain in the ass. But then, YANA is the place for abused people to strut their stuff a bit, act entitled, burst into tears and then luxuriate a bit in all the hugs and kisses that follow. Liz outside of YANA, is just a dying 48 year old woman, still prostituting, still getting fall-down drunk nearly every day, still under the power of a sister she loves.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

New Clients and a New Year

Probably because the Christmas dinner served as such a good advertisement, we began 2010 with a number of new clients. As is typical for our new clients, most of the women were from the recovery house next door. That means that they all have histories of serious drug abuse, but that they are sober now or at least making the effort to be. For many, that sobriety is one very fragile and precious thing. A woman named Didi announced that she had thirty days clean time, and we all applauded. She was almost giddy with her accomplishment, with finding a new place to receive care, with being listened to. When I asked if the women wanted to talk about themselves a bit, she told us that she had been sexually abused as a child and that she was still trying to cope with the guilt she felt for not having taken care of her mother. Didi's mother had been an alcoholic.

"And you feel guilty about that?" I asked. "You think you could have rescued her from her alcoholism?"

"I couldn't have rescued her," Didi said. "But I could have treated her better. I manipulated her. I lied to her. I got into her bank accounts, and I stole from her." In the space of about ten seconds I went from picturing a seriously abused and neglected child blaming herself for her parents' failures to picturing a relentless adult addict, exploiting and stealing from her sick mother. I imagine that both mental images were reasonably accurate. Didi, at any rate, was glad to have spoken, and surprised to hear that quite a few YANA clients have mother issues.

Another new woman, Glenda, quickly spoke up to tell us that her mother didn't like little girls and turned her head to make a spitting gesture whenever Glenda tried to hug or kiss her. Glenda, too, had been raped by family members, and Glenda, unsurprisingly, had been called a slut when she tried to report the abuse. Glenda loved her mother. It actually sounded to me like her mother loved her. When I asked if her mother had a bad past of her own, Glenda said emphatically that she knew she had been abused as a child and that she saw her continue to be abused as an adult. Glenda is over 50, and she was more than a little exasperated by the fact that she was still trying to forgive her mother, to accept her own anger about the past, that she was still trying to fight her way free of the things that happened to her when she was five and ten years old.

I asked another woman if there was anything she would like to talk about, and she looked at us all as if we were mildly crazy. "No, I don't need to talk," she said. "I liked my mother." The room laughed. The women seemed energized by the things they had told. "Women's rap!" Glenda said more than once. "I like that even better than the clothes!" So far, so good for the new year.

Christmas Dinner

Denene cooked it. She had set her alarm for the middle of the night so she could take one turkey out of the oven and put the next one in, but she managed a flawless holiday dinner for 50. Anne's woman's group contributed 50 beautiful gift bags. And the day was wonderful. Every bit as wonderful as the previous week had been bad. More so.

I'm not sure why. It may have been the food. Or the experience of celebrating Christmas together. It may have been Sid's presence. When she wants, she can cause people to feel loved and loving towards each other. It may be because, under Sid's guidance, the women took turns telling the room what was in their hearts, and the room responded with warm enthusiasm. It may be because, again under Sid's guidance, the women gave thanks, not to God, but to the individuals present who had helped them.

Whatever it was, the women talked about the good things in their lives. Lilian's exhusband had sent her gift cards so that she could give Christmas presents. She gave me a beautifully wrapped book with a card calling me her angel. Other women celebrated clean time, the gift of being able to talk about their lives with other women, friendship, renewed relationships with their children.

Maybe a good round of "what are we happy about" will work the next time things get rough at YANA. I'll give it a try.

Leading up to the Christmas Season (post from 3 weeks ago)

When I walked into the office area of Hezekiah House, Sister Catherine looked up from her conversation with Father Joe and said encouragingly, "I see you have a lot of people here today!"

"A lot of pain in the ass people," I blurted out. In the half second it took for me to realize how inappropriate I was, the old nun and old priest had already burst into merry laughter. I muttered something about donations. They seemed to understand perfectly.

The week leading up to Christmas was not good. We got more donations than usual, and, with them, more anxiety about missing out on the largess while other people got too much. The loudest complainers were -- I imagine a number of you have guessed it -- the ones who regularly swipe the most stuff. Clients wielded religion like a truncheon against one another, loudly trumpeted their own altruism, and pulled me aside, repeatedly, to tell on the other women. They didn't always wait for actual facts, either. Suspicions, dark, dark suspicions were far too important not to be shared.

"Greed!" Jennifer exclaimed. "The deadliest of the seven sins."


One woman who usually takes a great deal was reported by several women to have made off with bags full of our highly coveted "toiletries." Unfortunately for her, the largest of her bags broke open in front of several other clients as she was leaving the building. Apparently, the woman refused the offers to get her sturdy new bags for her loot, confirming for everyone that she didn't have permission to take that much stuff in the first place. The growing, collective rage found its focus on this one client as woman after woman identified her and told me the story again. The little mean woman didn't know the client's name, but described her, venomously, as the "one with those ugly marks on her face." I ended up promising that this woman would not get anything the next day because she had already taken too much. It was a promise I didn't mind making, given how obnoxious she'd been in cadging (and demanding) extras from me.

So, the next day she was back, and relatively acquiescent when I told her she wasn't receiving donations that day. She left a little while later, then returned, calling out across the room to me that she needed something warm to wear because it was cold out. She was wearing a coat, but it didn't look all that heavy. The day was bitterly cold. I didn't know whether she had any place warm to go. Whether she even had any place to live. Every woman in the room was listening. I turned her down. The woman was simply astounded. "But it's so cold out!" I told her she could get something the next week.

When I told Sid about it, she said she thought she'd read something like that in the bible. "I was cold. I asked for clothes. You turned me down. Isn't that how it goes?" Sid murmured. I had no apologies. That client was -- probably -- relatively forgiven by the group once they saw her being publicly rebuffed. The overall anger level at least didn't get worse. She really had been stealing from YANA.

It was still an exhausting, and depressing, week. The next time we get that bad I will be more directive with the women. I will lock the cabinets, and we will have a vigorous, and not-at-all free flowing discussion about we behave at YANA. How we react when others are not quite as advanced in their behavior as we are. How we worry about our own conduct rather than anyone else's. If that fails, I'm closing YANA early.