About a month ago, the place I work for held a fundraising event in which we told the pieced together story of the kind of woman who might find herself sexually exploited, addicted to drugs, and in need of a recovery home. I was in charge of pressing play for the first part of her story, in which two actresses told the story of how they were sexually abused as children, tricked, doped, raped, sold, etc, and wound up gazing out of windows wondering “Doesn’t anyone see me?”
The people who went through the experience were…overwhelmed. I forget sometimes that the gruesome reality of the women I work with is not a common thought space for many people. I spoke with one woman afterward who was struggling to process the fact that these sorts of things happen (and I tried not to scream SOME VERSION OF THIS IS SUPER COMMON, YOU HAVE JUST BEEN PRIVILEGED ENOUGH NOT TO KNOW IT), and I realized she was kind of mentally thinking of our women as martyrs. Or victims. As someone Other and Pitiable.
It made me realize that what I really want people to know is that these women are women. They’re human! They have personalities that delight and frustrate me. One participant likes my Harry Potter references, and another will always say, “Oh my God, NERDS,” and then we nod and high-five each other. That same mocking participant UTTERLY geeks out about Vampire Diaries and can imitate the voice and posture of every character on the show.
Another is incredibly organized, and when we went on a picnic outing, she was the only one who brought something to share. That something was gorgeous plastic plates, utensils, pita bread with homemade dip and sun-dried tomatoes. Another woman struggles with depression, but we decided to try to learn Korean together, so whenever I say “An-yong!” to her, she breaks into the cutest giggles.
Another decided she wanted to apply for a job (her first ever), so she researched the hell out of what to wear/say/do, and had me ask her questions from a list of fifty she’d printed out and answered. She got the job despite laying down very strict time boundaries because her effort was apparent.
Another repeatedly assures us that she knows cannibalism is wrong but “I just want to eat my baby so bad. HIS CHEEKS.” Another wanders listlessly around until you meet her eye. Then she smiles peacefully at you and wanders the other way. Another is an over-achiever, the only one interested in completing my daily spelling lists because “It feels so good to be good at something.”
They all revolted when they thought someone wasn’t getting paid enough for her sewing work, and they were all going to donate some of theirs to make up for it. Another participated in a slam poetry reading at a hipster coffee shop, and at every person before her, she got paler and paler. She performed amazingly, but insisted we immediately leave because she thought she was going to throw up.
Another grows black flowers. Another over-tans. Another comments about how good someone looks “when you draw your eyebrows on.” Another can’t process quickly in a big group. Another has to wear our Ugly Shirt often because she runs out of the house last minute in ill-fitting shirts. Another keeps falling in love with construction workers named Shawn. Another, another, another…
Some of the stories they tell churn even my hardened stomach. These are women who have been raised by abusive parents, who have had DESPICABLE things done to them over and over by multiple and varied people, who have DONE despicable things to others as well. They are wracked by guilt and shame and worthlessness, and they cling to the tiniest hope that maybe they can change their lives into something entirely new so that their kid won’t live through what they did. They fail and they succeed…and they tell jokes, and they welcomed me, and they’re silly and kind and vindictive and self-deprecating and smart as hell.
I really love them. Not because of what they’ve gone through. But because they are each of them beautifully unique humans who deserve to be known and loved and appreciated for who they are underneath all their bad decisions and awful circumstances.