WARNING: This is part of a series of stories to be published over the next few weeks that contain potentially trauma-triggering material.
Although they were only grocery-store roses wrapped in cheap cellophane, Mary opened them gently. Laying them on a small, wobbly TV table, she snipped each stem before carefully placing them in a plastic vase. “I’ve always thought Hope and I could have a flower shop; it’s something we could do together,” she said wistfully.
She was speaking of her 22-year-old daughter, Hope, who was home at last after years of being sex-trafficked by violent pimps since the age of 14 and then spending three years languishing in mental health facilities. Today, Hope sits on a mat on the floor, chain-smoking. Numbed by the powerful drugs prescribed by her doctors, she hardly seems to be part of this world. Her eyes appear to be focused on a far-away mystery.
It’s a beautiful, sunny day. Mary, Hope and a neighbor are gathered in a dark room in the rear of her little house. Everyone, except me, smokes continuously, lighting their next cigarette with their last. Hunkered down here in the dark, they smoke as though creating a buffer from that outside, prying, sunny world.
That world is a frighteningly unpredictable place for them, one in which social workers can decide you don’t qualify for housing, where long forgotten mistakes can topple your world.
Mary and Hope are both emotionally fragile. Traumas, big or small, can render them completely unhinged, followed by screaming and calls for police. “When our little dog got run over I started to cry and scream and hit my head,” Mary recalled. “Hope calmed me down, she said, ‘Mom if you don’t stop they’re going to call the cops.’”
During one such episode, Hope hit an officer and was charged with assaulting a police officer. For a while it looked like that might prevent her from living with Mary, because Section 8 housing excludes tenants with histories of drug or violent crime. Mary appealed the decision and Hope was allowed to stay.
“Hope and I know how to calm each other down,” Mary said.
Although we’ve spoken on the phone many times, this is my first visit with Mary since I wrote her story (Native Girls Are Being Exploited and Destroyed at an Alarming Rate) about being sex trafficked on boats in the harbor in Duluth a few years ago. Hope was living the life full-time then, and Mary had no idea where she was. Knowing the dangers first-hand made the worrying all the worse for her. But now Hope is home and they occupy a tiny cleft of safety surrounded by their cigarette smoke.
It took months for Mary to locate Hope in the labyrinth of jails and mental health institutions in the region. “People, other patients and inmates would call me and tell me where she was. They said she was crying for me,” Mary said. “Finally, I got involved and started bitching at people. She was being passed around from one institution to another. Finally I found her and was able to get her released to live with me.”
Mary had explained to me over the phone that Hope was slowly coming to realize that the pimps didn’t love her; they only took care of her so she could make money for them. “All the drugs and booze she took during those years damaged her; she was not a stable person to begin with, plus I was in the life myself and she was mostly on her own,” Mary told me.
The realization that her most recent pimp, “her daddy,” as she called him, really didn’t love her is almost too much for Hope to bear. She takes the knowledge in by bits and pieces and then retreats, sometimes breaking down into crying and laughing jags.
“That last pimp took and took and then he took some more. He even took her per cap money from the tribe, like $50K,” Mary said.
I sat and listened to Mary talk of her own days in the life and Hope’s recent past. Suddenly Hope stood up. “I don’t want to talk about this,” she said, and left the room abruptly.
Mary smiled gently and continued. She described her numerous suicide attempts, sometimes with great howls of laughter. “I was on a boat in New Orleans and got so drunk. I decided to kill myself and jumped off the boat into the Mississippi. The current was so strong it ripped my shirt off!”
A launch boat captain pulled her from the water but got chewed out for having a woman on his boat by a harbor official. “All I had on was my bra and jeans; they found a garbage bag and punched holes in it for me to wear. The launch boat captain gave me some clothes and took me home and sobered me up.”
A female pimp, Alice, had taken Mary and her children from Duluth to New Orleans so that Mary could service customers who came into the woman’s bar. “She had these really rough, dirty, wooden ‘fuckin’ rooms’ on the roof and that’s where she had me and the other girls take care of all those men. She used to use my children to keep me working for her; she said she’d turn them over to protective services if I tried to leave.”
Eventually Mary got away from the woman and returned to Duluth.
She gained weight there and the pimps stopped bothering her. She wonders if overeating may have been a subconscious way of protecting herself. Sometimes a dark, dark place would call to her and she would try suicide again. “I tried to hang myself but my knees were so bad I couldn’t stand up on the stool long enough,” she said.
After a pause, she continued. “I guess you could say suicide has not been my greatest work of art,” she said laughing loudly. “I know I had to survive all that for a reason; My mantra all these years has been, ‘All for the love of Hope.’”
Mary knows that she and Hope both need to talk about all that has happened to them; they need to talk in a safe place with people who understand.
Although Mary has only an 8th-grade education, she has a keen understanding of the workings and limitations of the local social welfare agencies and programs available to her.
“Most of these mental health programs are cookie-cutter programs, they don’t address your needs. They want you to get better in a few months and get a job. That’s not going to happen for people like me and Hope. We need intensive help,” Mary said. “Even after all that time Hope spent in jail and mental health institutions, they never once touched on her real issues. She wasn’t talking about them and they sure never asked about them.
“Mostly they just come and give us medication. Once Hope’s worker sat down to talk with me and asked if I liked Hope’s boyfriend,” Mary recalled. “That boyfriend was the pimp who was still writing her letters from prison! I was shocked! These people are clueless!”
I try to sort out the sequence of events leading up to Hope’s return, but Mary struggles with memories of time, dates and the order of things, so I finally give up. So much has happened that maybe putting it into order would be too painful. I abandon my linear questioning and just let her talk.
When Hope was 14, she was victimized by James Redd, the infamous Hip Hop Candy Shop owner in Duluth. Redd plead guilty in 2007 to sexually assaulting teenage girls; he was also convicted of selling cocaine. According to a story in The Duluth News Tribune he provided drugs and alcohol to victims and took advantage of their vulnerable state. He trafficked girls to men in Minneapolis and other cities in exchange for drugs, clothing and money.
Mary eventually took out an order of protection against Redd, trying to explain to Hope that Redd didn’t love her, and was using her. Hope, however, still speaks fondly of her time with Redd and their trips to Chicago to buy drugs and penny candy.
Mary explains that Hope has always been easily led and has been an easy mark for predators. She believes that her mental illness was brought on by all the drugs forced on her by pimps. “We also have a history of mental illness in our family. My mom was diagnosed as schizophrenic; she had hallucinations. She placed all of us kids up for adoption because she said she was afraid she would sexually abuse us,” Mary said.
Mary shows me the social workers 1960 referral report for giving her over to state guardianship.
This is a family where there have been twelve children and they have all been placed out of the home because of neglect.
In describing Mary’s mother Ruthie, the report goes on, Because of excessive drinking sprees, she has been hospitalized at the State hospital numerous times, The hospital considers her to have a schizophrenic type of disorder of long standing, and predicted her adjustment would probably be of marginal standing. In our first contact with her she was in an acute psychotic condition, completely out of contact with reality, and hallucinated in the auditory and visual spheres, and was very deluded. She reported hearing voices that were accusing her of murdering others and having unnatural sex practices with her children.
“I think she was afraid that her boyfriend at the time was going to abuse us and she wouldn’t be able to protect us. I recall him doing something to one of us kids,” Mary said.
According to Mary, Ruthie had a lot of guilt over her own drinking, prostitution and inability to care for her children. “In the end, though, I think she loved us. I know I loved her, no matter what. I knew her pain.”
Mary also knows Hope’s pain. The pain that makes her sleep all day or sends her screaming and writhing on the floor, begging an imaginary “Daddy” not to hurt her anymore.
Now, however, after several months at home Hope mostly stays in her room, sleeping or listening to her head phones occasionally breaking out in strange laughter. “Laughing I can handle,” Mary said.
Suddenly Hope appears in the doorway. “Let me tell you a story,” she said. “Do you want to hear it? She told a long convoluted story of plane rides all over the country, of sex with men, expensive clothing, drugs and the night in a luxury hotel in Miami where room service brought up mimosas and chocolate-covered strawberries. She spoke of a long series of stays in jail and mental health institutions where they nicknamed her “Hollywood” because she liked to dress flashy. “They all said I looked famous,” she laughed.
“Later I met James and he was so sweet to me. But then he beat me with a belt when I was naked. I don’t know what I did to deserve that.”
“You didn’t do anything,” Mary said. “Nobody deserves that.
I ask Mary what her vision is now for her and Hope.
“I have a new social worker who is young, so I can train her. She’s promised to get therapy for me. I also want family therapy, so Hope and I can learn how to live together; we need to get organized around here,” she said.
“The game got me twisted,” Hope said. “You can write that down.”.
Mary also wants to get her walls painted and lose some weight so she and Hope can go out and walk together. “We just want to live, you know?” Mary said. “Hope is my shoulder and I’m hers.
“I think Hope is content now. Sometimes she keeps me company while I make dinner. She peels potatoes and we visit. Those are our good times. Those small things are all we really want now.”