This excerpt is a tough story. It comes from Nobody’s Girl, a memoir of abuse and human trafficking by Barbara Amaya, whose column about human trafficking appears in The Washington Times three days a week, and it details her transition from trafficking victim to human rights advocate. Published a week ago by Animal Media Group of Pittsburgh, it is available here.
I STOOD on the cement sidewalk for a moment, holding my arms tightly across my chest to warm myself. The cool night air confused me. I couldn’t understand what I was doing outside the warm bed where I’d fallen asleep. What time was it? I had to go to school in the morning.
I shivered in my pink flowered nightgown. It was quiet and dark, and all I could hear were the crickets making small noises, their chirps echoing off the neighbors’ houses and back to me. The moonlight shone down over the grass in our front yard, lighting up the drops of water on each blade of grass and making them twinkle.
I turned and walked the few steps back to my dark home. As I went inside and made my way through the quiet living room, I felt a sudden relief as I heard my spaniel dog’s nails click on the hardwood floors. Honey whined softly at me, and together we padded down the hall to my bedroom.
I opened the door to my room. Everything looked so peaceful. My lavender bedspread was crumpled on my bed, and sitting on top of my bedspread were my stuffed animals, just where I’d left them—lined up beside the pillow at the head of my bed and all the way around the edges, where they formed a soft, safe barrier for me to hide behind. My favorite fluffy brown bear stared back at me, his friendly black eyes seeming to say, “Coast is clear! Make a run for it!” Honey looked up at me from the floor and slowly wagged her black tail. She seemed to want me to come to bed as well.
I ran as fast as I could across the cold floor and jumped into bed, pulling the covers up over my feet. My heart was beating so quickly that it felt like it would pop out of my nightgown. I peeped out from under my soft blanket. Honey looked up at me from her bed on the floor, and I smiled. No one was hiding under my bed, waiting to grab my feet. I knew that, of course. But still…
I held on tight to my teddy’s furry brown ear and closed my eyes. There were no monsters. But that summer, I had been lying in bed half-asleep when someone reached up from under the bed and grabbed my feet. Not a monster, but my uncle, who frightened me as he grabbed me and held me so strangely and so tightly. When I tried to tell my mother the next morning, she told me not to talk about what he had done and not to tell anyone. She said that I must have been dreaming and that I must try to forget my bad dreams if they made me sad.
I felt myself growing sleepy as I wiggled my toes under the blanket. Tomorrow was the first day of school, and I would get to wear the new red plaid dress and white knee socks that were all ready for me to put on in the morning. I was so excited to see my friends again and a little curious about the new kids I didn’t know yet. What did I have to be afraid of?
I told myself to stop being a baby and go to sleep. My uncle had gone back to his own home soon after that scary night. Tonight it was just me and Teddy in the bed, and my dog Honey sleeping on floor next to us. I was in the second grade now, and big girls weren’t supposed to be afraid of anything. I would listen to my mother and do my best to forget about my uncle. I pushed all the scary thoughts back down deep inside, where I couldn’t think about them anymore.
I was eight years old, and I was a big girl.
When I was ten, my father changed me forever.
Up until that day, I was a pretty regular little girl. I’d pushed all the bad dreams about my uncle out of my mind, and I didn’t think about scary things under the bed anymore. I lived a normal life. I went to school, played with my friends who lived near me, and was a Brownie—a young Girl Scout—and a member of the Barbie Fan Club. Like many other girls in the 1960s, I loved Barbie dolls and troll dolls and had a huge collection of each.
The memory of that day fades in and out of my mind. I remember being in my living room at home, sitting on the floor and setting up a tea party for my Barbie dolls. I can picture the brass lamps on either side of the long sofa that was against the wall. My father was sitting on the sofa, a cold beer in one hand and the other hand on the remote, flipping to different news channels on the television set. At that time my golden-blond hair was pulled into a ponytail just like my Barbie dolls’ hair, and I remember I was wearing my favorite pink shorts and matching top.
As I was setting out my Barbies in a circle on the braided rag rug my mother had made, my father said suddenly, “Come sit with me, honey.”
I didn’t want to stop playing, so I grabbed my favorite Barbie, Carly, as I headed to the couch. I wasn’t sure what he wanted, but he seemed to be in a good mood, so I wanted to please him.
As I sat beside him, Carly dangling from my hand, he reached an arm around me and hugged me to him. This is nice, I thought. Though he still kept his eyes on the television, he didn’t show me physical affection often—no one in the family did, really—so I leaned into his warmth. Maybe we could be close like I had always wanted.
But then the hug changed. He dragged me closer until I was almost sitting on his lap. I was starting to feel smothered, and I couldn’t understand why he was grabbing me so tightly. I didn’t want to upset him, though, so I didn’t say anything. I glanced at Carly, whose hair was becoming tangled while I was in his embrace. Her dress was crumpled in my hand, just like my clothes were getting messed up. I remember hoping my mother wouldn’t notice the wrinkles. She always got angry when she had to reiron my clothes because I had been playing in them.
My mother had gone to the store with my little brother, Jeff, and my older brother and sister, Bill and Pat, were hanging out with their friends. Usually I was relieved when they weren’t around. Pat and Bill were much older and treated me like a pesky little sister, and though Jeff was only two years younger than me, he was too little to be much fun. For the first time, I wondered when they’d all be back.
My father started to stroke me all over, very softly at first, then harder and faster. “I’m not going to hurt you, Barbara,” he said.
I wondered why he would say that.
Then his hips started moving against me in a really uncomfortable way. My face felt hot. None of this seemed right. I started to squirm in his arms. I didn’t understand why my father was doing this, and I was scared.
After a while his whole body relaxed. I was quiet for a few moments. Then I said nervously, “Daddy?”
Suddenly he threw me away from him. “Go to your room,” he said angrily. “Go, go on now. You’re a bad, dirty girl.”
Shocked, I grabbed Carly and the rest of my Barbies and ran to my room.
When my mother came home, she yelled at me about my messy clothes.
The Fairfax, Virginia suburb where we lived was full of large ranch-style homes on quiet, tree-lined streets. A brand-new elementary school was half a block from my home, and the neighborhood had built a huge swimming pool for all the residents to enjoy. Our neighbors were friendly enough; everyone knew everyone else, and front doors and windows were
never locked. During the Christmas holidays, everyone worked together to decorate the sidewalks with brown paper bags filled with sand and candles. It was a quiet, stable neighborhood, one where anyone might want to live.
My father had found work at the Pentagon after separating from the Army when he was younger. According to my mother, he had planned each step of his working life in minute detail. She said he always knew that he would work for the government and later retire from there when he was older. I guess he knew what he was talking about, because he did just that. He was a quiet man who tended to keep to himself, and he had a weird sense of humor that always seemed to make me mad.
My mother, on the other hand, was not so easygoing. She was someone who did whatever she could to get her way and make things go how she wanted them to go. Even if she wasn’t quiet like my father, though, she wasn’t a loud person. She loved to talk to people, perhaps because she was a stay-at-home mom and had never worked outside the home. She had married my father when she was only sixteen, and he, twenty-one.
Our family looked like any other you might see on television. At the same time every night, my two brothers, my older sister, and my mother and father and I would all sit around our wooden dining table to dig into the delicious food my mother always prepared. She had grown up in Tennessee with nine brothers and three sisters, and knew how to cook. She made us a homemade feast every day, Southern dishes all made from scratch: biscuits, fried chicken, cornbread, and pot roast. We were just like any other family sitting in a warm kitchen around a lovely table, talking and eating—a nice, normal family.
But after that first night, I knew I wasn’t normal. I was a bad girl with a shameful secret, and I couldn’t look any one of them in the eye because I was sure they’d find out. My father never had to say anything. I always knew I shouldn’t tell. How could I? How could I tell people what an awful person I was?
It happened a few more times in the following months, always in the living room, and always in the evening when my father was drinking beer. I do not know where my brothers and sister were during these times; maybe they were in their rooms, or in the basement. I do not know where my mother was.
I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I knew I didn’t like it. I felt so uncomfortable when he tried to touch me in my private area. I knew it must be bad because afterward, he was always mad at me. I tried to tell my mother what was happening, but I couldn’t. I was afraid to tell her. I thought she would be mad at me, too.
What confused me most was that in between the abuse, he seemed like a regular dad, going to work and coming home, making jokes, and sitting with us at dinner like any other father. Sometimes I’d stand in my parents’ still, dark room in front of the large wooden chest of drawers where my father kept all of his folded cotton T-shirts and boxer shorts, and I would look at the different things that were lying in the blue leather tray on top of the dresser. Small, different-colored stones, one cuff link, a pencil, a small black plastic comb, coins—I’d pick up each object and examine it as if I were a detective searching for clues to my father’s behavior. I’d turn each item in my hands as I thought over and over, Why? I couldn’t find an answer. All I knew was that I wanted my father to be like he had always been before.
I kept thinking that this was all my fault, and that if I had been a better girl, none of it would have happened. But I didn’t know what I had done to make my father keep doing these things to me. How could I make it stop? I was just ten years old, and all I could think to do was to start going outside in the evening, so I wouldn’t be in the living room alone when he was there.
Sometimes I wasn’t able to escape my father by leaving the house, and he would call me over to sit with him on the couch. I started to experience something very strange when my father would start hugging me. My heart would beat faster and faster, and I would float out of my body until I found myself watching everything from a corner up on the ceiling. Later,
when it was over and I had come back to my body, I would float away again each time I tried to remember what had happened. I quickly learned to stop thinking about my father and what he did to me on the couch. It was better that way.
Many nights, as I lay in bed, I could hear my parents fighting with each other, their muffled, angry words piercing the walls. I was never exactly sure what they were fighting about, but I was certain it was connected with me.
Later, after they would go to sleep, I would slip into their bedroom and in the soft light from the bathroom nearby I would stand next to their bed and look down at them. I would stand very quietly and count my toes:
One, two, three, four…why are they fighting about me? Five, six, seven…I must be very, very bad. Eight, nine…what is wrong? Am I missing something? Ten. I am okay. Nothing is wrong with me.
After I had counted my toes, I would creep quietly out of their room and back into my own. One night as I stood next to their bed, my mother turned in her sleep and startled me out of my counting routine.
“Barbara? What are you doing? What’s wrong?”
I didn’t answer, and she went back to sleep. The next morning she didn’t remember that I had been in her room at all.
Like I was no one.
From Nobody’s Girl. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of Animal Media Group.