Yesterday, we had a school worship service. The whole process lasted the entire day—from before I arrived at 8 am until 5 pm, when important guests arrived for dinner. So I was at school for nearly 12 hours.
I’m starting to understand that what causes most of my difficulties now is that the childhood torture created an intense reactivity. And my reactions are also confused. I have strong, mixed, and sometimes mystifying thoughts and feelings about a lot of things. So arriving at calm and clarity takes work and effort. It also takes time.
Days like Saturday’s worship service mean hours of coping with non-stop confusion and reactivity. Before dinner had even begun, I felt so exhausted I wanted to cry.
We have a half day on Saturdays anyway. Sunday is the only full day off from school, and it’s difficult for me sometimes because there isn’t much time for me to make sense of myself or my experiences. It’s even more difficult when the days are extended for one reason or another—like Saturday’s worship service or a football match in the evenings. It means there isn’t enough time to rest and recharge before the onslaught of having to cope with the world again.
But at least I have this much.
I know the other volunteer teachers are using their Sundays to explore their new environments, to make friends, to have fun. I am just trying to manage and make sense of everything I have had to suppress or set aside to get through the week with some degree of functionality and sanity. I am beginning to be able to accept this as being my life, instead of wishing things to be other than how they are, or trying to pretend I do not need to do this and then having the consequences of denial catch up to me later, or even seeing this as a character flaw or a weakness that needs to be overcome.
One tiny piece of yesterday was a memory of Veronique. There is a teacher here in Country X with a voice something like hers, and speaking to her over tea yesterday brought the memory of her back to me.
Veronique’s name was not really Veronique. It was Natalya. I don’t know why I felt the need to give her my own special name. Maybe I wanted to claim her as my own in some way, or maybe Natalya was not really her name either, but the kind of name adopted by or given to sex trafficking victims like a brand name—something to make you exotic, appealing, sexy. Something to make you sell better. And so it did not make any difference.
But I remember two things about Natalya very clearly now: I loved her and she was murdered.
I read about her death in the paper. I think it was one of those notes on the back page: Mutilated body of unidentified white female found dumped in shallow water in City Y.
Maybe that wasn’t her. But I never saw her again after that. Other explanations for her disappearance are possible. Perhaps they moved her to another location. Maybe she was found by Immigration officers and returned to her home country. But at 12, when I read the two-line report about it in the newspaper. I was convinced they had murdered her. My reaction to someone’s voice over tea on Saturday is rooted in that conviction. Whether the conviction is correct or not.
Natalya was a victim of gross human rights violations. In all likelihood, she was deceived by mercenary human traffickers who promised her a job and a life of promise in the United States. Or maybe she was out-and-out kidnapped. But she did not come here to be a sex worker. No one does.
Once she arrived, however, she was sold to sex traffickers and remained at their mercy until they killed her. It’s not an unusual story really. It isn’t unusual, either, that her pimp forced her both to perform in pornography and to work the streets. I don’t think it was even unusual that she performed in pornography that featured sex acts between women and girls designed to be sold to a male audience. She wasn’t the only young woman I performed in pornography with.
But I don’t remember the others with any clarity. I remember Natalya. I remember her because she was kind. If you are forced to, in effect, rape a child on screen you can do it in a few different ways. You can do it harshly, because that child is even more vulnerable and powerless than you are and the child is someone to take your anger out on. You can do it in an entirely dissociated state, as if neither of you are there, because the horror of what you are doing and of what someone else wants you to do is too difficult to bear. Or you can do it with some concern for the child and her suffering, in spite of the fact that you are also suffering.
Natalya did it the third way.
I don’t know that we saw each other aside from our hours in front of the camera. I don’t recall whether we interacted in any other way aside from the sex acts we were forced to perform on each other. But touch can be immensely communicative, even if we did not actually speak and could not understand one another’s language. Natalya’s touch said, “I do not want to hurt you.” It said, “I care about what happens to you.” Above all, it said, “I understand you are there. You are real to me. You are not merely an empty shell of a bod that exists only to be used.”
I don’t think that is an easy attitude to have while you are being exploited in one of the most dehumanizing and humiliating ways possible. I think it is an extremely difficult one to maintain. But Natalya did that for me.
As a child, I don’t think I knew many people that decent or that humane. When she was murdered, it felt to me as if the last really good person had been snatched off the face of the earth. When I recall her now, I am overcome by an old sense of despair, as if there really is no one and nothing to live for any longer. It isn’t true, but feelings can be like a time capsule, letting us know exactly how we felt in the past.
I am getting better at coping with despair. I am beginning to be able to mop the floor while feeling there is nothing else to live for. I can make lunch while feeling that I cannot cope with life any longer and everything hurts too much. I am grateful for that. It means I can fully experience my feelings without having my life fall entirely apart. I can keep up a little at least.
At the same time, I want to make something good out of this. In a very literal sense, Natalya did not survive. I did. I think when you live through a horror that others do not, there is an internal pressure to live on their behalf. Natalya never made it out of the game, let alone to Country X, and there is a sense that I am here for her sake as well as my own and that experiencing my own freedom fully is the best way to allow her to be free as well.
* This post was written almost two weeks ago.