The invitation was to teach a writing workshop at a treatment center for victims of human trafficking. The person who asked was someone I knew, or rather, used to know: we had been friends in college. Back then she, too, wanted to be a writer. Instead she became a psychologist. For the past ten years she’d been working at the treatment center, which was connected to a large psychiatric hospital a short bus ride from Manhattan. The women she worked with had responded well to art therapy. She thought writing might be even more helpful, as it appeared to have been very helpful to other trauma victims, such as war veterans with PTSD.
I wanted to do it. As a community service, as a favor to an old friend, and as a writer.
I thought of the baroquely pierced and tattooed young woman I’d met some months earlier, in a workshop I taught at a summer writers’ conference. It was a fiction workshop, though what she was writing was closer to memoir — call it autofiction, self-fiction, reality fiction, whatever — the first-person story of Larette, a sex-trafficked girl.
Her writing was good for three main reasons: a lack of sentimentality, a lack of self-pity, and a sense of humor.
Her writing was good for three main reasons: a lack of sentimentality, a lack of self-pity, and a sense of humor. (If the last sounds unlikely, try to think of a good book that, no matter how dark the subject, does not include something comic. It’s because a person has a sense of humor that we feel we can trust them, says Milan Kundera). One of those life histories that had to be toned down to avoid straining belief. (Readers would be amazed how often writers do this.) She had spent two years in a residential recovery home, fighting drug addiction, shame, and the temptation to flee back to her pimp, whose name was tattooed in three places on her body. Later, she enrolled in a community college where she took her first writing course.
The women at the center were encouraged to keep journals. Or, as my friend the psychologist put it, to journal. The journals were meant to be private, she said. Some of the women had been alarmed by the thought that someone might read what they’d written, and she’d had to assure them this wouldn’t happen. They could write whatever they wished, with perfect freedom, knowing no one else would read it. Not even she would read it.
She suggested that those for whom English was a second language write in their native tongue.
Some women were careful to hide their journals when they weren’t using them. Others carried their journals always with them. But a few insisted on destroying whatever they’d written immediately or soon after they’d written it. And that was fine, too, she told them.
The women were asked to write every day for at least fifteen minutes, quickly, not stopping to ponder too long or let themselves be distracted. They wrote in longhand, in notebooks provided by the center (my friend believes in studies that show longhand is better for concentration and that a lined page is more welcoming than a blank screen for receiving intimacies and secrets).
Of course, there were some who refused to journal.
The same women who get angry with me for expecting them to revisit bad experiences, she said. You have to understand what these women have been through. For most of them the abuse didn’t begin with the trafficking. Some were deliberately put in harm’s way — in some cases out-and-out sold — by members of their own family. And just because they’re not being abused anymore doesn’t mean they’re not still hurting. At some point I always end up asking them what they think would be the best thing that could happen to them, and I can’t tell you how many say, I think the best thing for me would be to die.
But there was a group of women who took happily to journaling, often writing for much longer than fifteen minutes a day. My friend wanted to give these women a chance to be in a workshop, a safe place where they could not only write but share their writing with one another and an instructor. Among those who’d signed up, she said, I could count on a certain level of English, though not every one was a native speaker. Even the native speakers, however, had expressed worries about their writing ability and were particularly concerned about spelling and grammar. She had told the women that, as in their journals, they should pay no attention to spelling and grammar.
So it’s important that you ignore those errors, she told me. I know that won’t be easy for you, but these women have enough problems with self-esteem, and we don’t want to inhibit them.
She showed me examples of the artwork the women had done: headless bodies, houses in flames, men with the mouths of ferocious animals, naked children stabbed in the genitals or through the heart.
She had me listen to tapes of testimony some of the women had given, and the drawings came alive.
I keep calling them women, she said. But we see many who are still girls. And those are some of the most tragic cases. We have a fourteen-year-old who was rescued last month from a house where she’d been kept chained to a cot in the basement. When the sexual abuse is compounded by captivity — that’s when the damage is most severe. At the moment this girl is unable to speak. There’s nothing wrong with her vocal organs — not that doctors can find, anyway — but she insists on remaining mute. We see this kind of psychosomatic symptom from time to time: mutism, blindness, paralysis.
I once saw a photograph in a magazine: a long line of men snaking outside a shack being used by some teen prostitutes. I don’t remember what part of the world it was. I do remember that there was nothing about the men to suggest anything out of the ordinary. Several of them are smoking cigarettes. This one is looking at his watch, that one is studying the sky, another is reading a newspaper. Overall, an air of patient boredom. They might have been waiting for a bus, or for their turn at the DMV.
My friend told me about another case. Again, doctors could find no injury or disease that would have prevented the patient from speaking like any normal person. But she would not speak. When it was suggested that she start journaling, she was enthusiastic. In a week she had filled a whole stack of notebooks. She wrote in an astonishingly cramped script, the tiniest letters imaginable, my friend said. Just watching her scribbling away was frightening. Her hand ballooned, her fingers blistered and bled, but she wouldn’t — couldn’t — stop.
We never knew what she was writing because she didn’t share it with us, my friend said. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was mostly repetition and nonsense. Fortunately, we were able to give her medication that helped her stop the maniacal writing and start speaking again.
According to Larette, she, too, had gone through a period of mutism. Whenever she tried to speak her throat would close painfully, as if invisible hands were choking her.
I would try very hard, in spite of the pain, but the most I could manage was a dry squeak, like an asthmatic mouse, which made people laugh. I was so ashamed that I stopped trying. When I wanted to communicate I’d use writing or some kind of sign language or silently mouth the words. Still, my throat hurt all the time.
In therapy, she remembers an incident that she hadn’t thought about in many years. This involved her grandmother, about whom she tried to think as little as possible. When Larette was ten, her mother was stabbed to death by a boyfriend. There being no father in the picture, she was placed in the care of her grandmother. Larette referred to this woman, an increasingly desperate meth addict, as “my first slaveholder.”
She was the first one to sell me to men. I remember we were sitting at the kitchen table, and she got up and went to the fridge. She opened the freezer and took out a Popsicle which she unwrapped and broke in two. I remember it was cherry, my favorite flavor. She popped one stick in my mouth. Lemme show you, hon. She put the other one in her own mouth and went to work on it.
This was one of several memories Larette had doubts about including in her book. She was afraid it would sound too made-up. She kept deleting it, then putting it back in, then deleting it again.
I know another woman, a writer, who has at times made her living as a sex worker. She is against the latest thinking that says every prostitute must be seen as a VOT. She wants a firm line drawn between a slave and a free and willing worker like herself. Brothel raids, john stings, and public john shaming fire her outrage.
God save us from the white knights, she says. Why is it so hard to believe that we don’t all need, or want, rescuing? But then, hasn’t it always been impossible for society to accept that what a woman does with her body is strictly her own business.
A story this woman likes to tell concerns the French actress Arletty, who in 1945 was convicted of treason because she’d had an affair with a German officer during the Occupation. In her defense she said, My heart is French but my ass is international. (Actually, my friend prefers a different, more succinct version of Arletty’s famous quip: My ass is not France.)
God save us from the white knights, she says.
My friend the sex worker says she is amazed how naïve most women are. They have no idea that most men have had sex with a prostitute, their own fathers and brothers, boyfriends and husbands among them. I have heard Larette say the same thing — as I have heard men say they are doubtful of men who claim never to have paid for sex.
In a recent television documentary, a former prostitute who worked out of a suburban motel explains that Monday mornings were her busiest times: apparently nothing was so good for business as a weekend spent with the wife and kids.
I once asked my friend if she enjoyed being a sex worker. I was pretty sure she’d say yes. But she looked at me as if she hadn’t heard me right. I do it for the money, she said. There’s nothing to enjoy. If I could make a living off writing, I wouldn’t do it at all. It’s easier than teaching, she said.
Write about an object. Write about something that is, or was, important to you. The object can be anything. Describe the object, then write about why it’s important to you.
One woman wrote about cigarettes. Her best friend, she called them. She’d started smoking when she was eight. I would never have survived my life without them, she said. I would rather smoke than do just about anything. Another woman wrote about a knife she had used to defend herself. She was not the only one to write about some kind of weapon. But about half the women wrote about a doll. All but one of the dolls came to a bad end. They were lost or broken or in one way or another destroyed. The one doll to escape such a fate was now hidden away in a secret place from where the writer hoped someday to retrieve her. That was all the woman would say. She shook her head when I reminded her that she was supposed to describe the object. If she did that she might draw down evil, she said. The doll would come to harm, she would never see it again.
Week after week, reading the women’s stories on the bus ride home, they begin to seem like one big story, like the same story told over and over. Someone is always being beaten, someone is always in pain. Someone is always being treated like a slave. A thing.
The same nouns: knife, belt, rope, bottle, fist, scar, bruise, blood. The same verbs: force, beat, whip, burn, choke, starve, scream.
Write a fairy tale. For some, a chance to fantasize revenge. Again, always a tale of violence and humiliation. Always the same vocabulary.
No writing is ever wasted, goes the teaching. Even if something doesn’t work out and you end up throwing it away, as a writer you always learn something.
Here is what I learned: Simone Weil was right. Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. ●
Illustrations by Lixia Guo / BuzzFeed News
From THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Sigrid Nunez.
Sigrid Nunez's latest novel, The Friend, won the 2018 National Book Award in Fiction. She is author of the novels Salvation City, The Last of Her Kind, A Feather on the Breath of God, and For Rouenna, among others. She is also the author of Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag. She has been the recipient of several awards, including a Whiting Award, the Rome Prize in Literature, and a Berlin Prize Fellowship. Nunez lives in New York City.