Telling Stories and Keeping Secrets

One of the jobs I’m excited to perform at Polaris is helping to convey the reality of human trafficking from the perspective of survivors of that crime which degrades our common humanity. Yesterday I posted my first blog post, and while it is a bit dry and focused on the legislation anti-trafficking advocates around the country have worked to get passed in the past year, it included a quote from anti-trafficking advocate and child sex trafficking survivor Holly Austin Smith:

“The main trafficker in my case served only 365 days in jail for raping and prostituting a child. This illustrates the need for a sex trafficking law in every state. This man broke my childhood in half and life changed for me forever. The woman in my case posted bail and fled; she is actually still considered a fugitive in the state of New Jersey today. A third trafficker in my case served so time because there was no law in place that was appropriate for his role. He was the guy on the phone who lured me away from home with promises.

“I am also a big advocate for the victim assistance law. After I was trafficked, I received no assistance at all: no counseling, no support. I was put back into the situation from which I was running in the first place. I attempted suicide within days of my rescue. In fact, that was the only way I got counseling, because I was put into a psychiatric facility. Victims of trafficking need immediate aftercare and placement and counseling from therapists who have been trained in the area of victimization.”

Ms Smith is brave beyond the telling of it to publicly discuss her experience being sex trafficked. Many survivors are not. Therefore, as an activist and a writer, I have a responsibility to tell the stories of the people whose lives I am trying to better while respecting their total right to privacy and control over their stories.

I started working out how to do this as an intern with the World Organization for Human Rights USA when I was tasked with writing the stories of survivors of torture seeking asylum in the United States. I needed to keep Human Rights USA’s clients safe and their identities secret, but I also wanted to tell their stories compellingly. But how to obscure identifying details while exposing the reality of their experiences?

In discussing this problem with my boss today, I came to a realization: the details which make a story compelling to me are not those which are unique to the protagonist, but those which the protagonist shares with the reader. I don’t feel connected to Commander Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch because he chew cigars or likes lettuce even less than I do, though those are unique identifiers of his character. I feel connected to him and return with him to Discworld time and time again because I see in his misanthropy and loyalty and sneakiness and just-minded-ness something of myself.

When the time comes for me to write the stories of trafficking survivors who, unlike Ms Smith cannot speak in their own voices, I believe I can both protect their secrets and tell their stories, because what connects me to this issue is our common humanity.

Inspirational Quote:

“The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.”–Anaïs Nin

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