Brenda Myers-Powell was just a child when she became a prostitute in the early 1970s. Here she describes how she was pulled into working on the streets and why, three decades later, she devoted her life to making sure other girls don’t fall into the same trap. Some people will find Brenda’s account upsetting. Here is her story:
Right from the start life was handing me lemons, but I’ve always tried to make the best lemonade I can.
“I grew up in the 1960s on the West Side of Chicago. My mother died when I was six months old. She was only 16 and I never learned what it was that she died from – my grandmother, who drank more than most, couldn’t tell me later on. The official explanation is that it was “natural causes”.
“I don’t believe that. Who dies at 16 from natural causes? I like to think that God was just ready for her. I heard stories that she was beautiful and had a great sense of humour. I know that’s true because I have one also.
“It was my grandmother that took care of me. And she wasn’t a bad person – in fact she had a side to her that was so wonderful. She read to me, baked me stuff and cooked the best sweet potatoes. She just had this drinking problem. She would bring drinking partners home from the bar and after she got intoxicated and passed out, these men would do things to me. It started when I was four or five years old and it became a regular occurrence. I’m certain my grandmother didn’t know anything about it.
“She worked as a domestic in the suburbs. It took her two hours to get to work and two hours to get home. So I was a latch-key kid – I wore a key around my neck and I would take myself to kindergarten and let myself back in at the end of the day. And the molesters knew about that, and they took advantage of it.
“I would watch women with big glamorous hair and sparkly dresses standing on the street outside our house. I had no idea what they were up to; I just thought they were shiny. As a little girl, all I ever wanted was to be shiny.
“One day I asked my grandmother what the women were doing and she said, “Those women take their panties off and men give them money.” And I remember saying to myself, “I’ll probably do that” because men had already been taking my panties off.
“To look back now, I dealt with it all amazingly well. Alone in that house, I had imaginary friends to keep me company that I would sing and dance around with – an imaginary Elvis Presley, an imaginary Diana Ross and the Supremes. I think that helped me deal with things. I was a really outgoing girl – I used to laugh a lot.
“At the same time, I was afraid, always afraid. I didn’t know if what was happening was my fault or not. I thought perhaps something was wrong with me. Even though I was a smart kid, I disconnected from school. Going into the 1970s, I became the kind of girl who didn’t know how to say “no” – if the little boys in the community told me that they liked me or treated me nice, they could basically have their way with me.
“By the time I was 14, I’d had two children with boys in the community, two baby girls. My grandmother started to say that I needed to bring in some money to pay for these kids, because there was no food in the house, we had nothing.
“So, one evening – it was actually Good Friday – I went along to the corner of Division Street and Clark Street and stood in front of the Mark Twain hotel. I was wearing a two-piece dress costing $3.99, cheap plastic shoes, and some orange lipstick which I thought might make me look older.
“I was 14 years old and I cried through everything. But I did it. I didn’t like it, but the five men who dated me that night showed me what to do. They knew I was young and it was almost as if they were excited by it.
“I made $400 but I didn’t get a cab home that night. I went home by train and I gave most of that money to my grandmother, who didn’t ask me where it came from.
“I prostituted for 14 or 15 years before I did any drugs. But after a while, after you’ve turned as many tricks as you can, after you’ve been strangled, after someone’s put a knife to your throat or someone’s put a pillow over your head, you need something to put a bit of courage in your system.
“I was a prostitute for 25 years, and in all that time I never once saw a way out. But on 1 April 1997, when I was nearly 40 years old, a customer threw me out of his car. My dress got caught in the door and he dragged me six blocks along the ground, tearing all the skin off my face and the side of my body.
“I went to the County Hospital in Chicago and they immediately took me to the emergency room. Because of the condition I was in, they called in a police officer, who looked me over and said: “Oh I know her. She’s just a hooker. She probably beat some guy and took his money and got what she deserved.” And I could hear the nurse laughing along with him. They pushed me out into the waiting room as if I wasn’t worth anything, as if I didn’t deserve the services of the emergency room after all.
“And it was at that moment, while I was waiting for the next shift to start and for someone to attend to my injuries that I began to think about everything that had happened in my life. Up until that point I had always had some idea of what to do, where to go, how to pick myself up again. Suddenly, it was like I had run out of bright ideas. I remember looking up and saying to God, “These people don’t care about me. Could you please help me?”
“God worked real fast. A doctor came and took care of me and she asked me to go and see social services in the hospital. What I knew about social services was they were anything but social. But they gave me a bus pass to go to a place called Genesis House, which was run by an awesome English woman named, Edwina Gateley, who became a great hero and mentor for me. She helped me turn my life around.
“It was a safe house, and I had everything that I needed there. I didn’t have to worry about paying for clothes, food, getting a job. They told me to take my time and stay as long as I needed – and I stayed almost two years. My face healed, my soul healed. I got Brenda back.
“Through Edwina Gateley, I learned the value of that deep connection that can occur between women, the circle of trust and love and support that a group of women can give one another.
“Following my time as a prostitute, I simply wasn’t ready for another relationship. But after three years of healing and abstinence, I met an extraordinary man. I was very picky – he likes to joke that I asked him more questions than the parole board. He didn’t judge me for any of the things that had happened before we met. When he looked at me he didn’t even see those things – he says all he saw was a girl with a pretty smile that he wanted to be a part of his life. I sure wanted to be a part of his too. He supports me in everything I do, and we celebrated 10 years of marriage last year.
My daughters, who were raised by my aunt in the suburbs, grew up to be awesome young ladies. One is a doctor and one works in criminal justice. Now my husband and I have adopted my little nephew – and here I am, 58 years old, a football mum.
So I am here to tell you – there is life after so much damage, there is life after so much trauma. There is life after people have told you that you are nothing, that you are worthless and that you will never amount to anything. There is life – and I’m not just talking about a little bit of life. There is a lot of life.”
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