Brenda Myers-Powell told BBC her three-decade harrowing experience in the world of prostitution. She said what led her to become one as a child in the 1970s, how she got out, and how she is making sure no one else gets in.
Born in 1962 on the West Side of Chicago, Brenda lost her mother, who was 16 at the time, when she was six months old. She never really knew the cause of death because her grandmother, ‘who drank more than most’, said she died of natural causes –something Brenda finds hard to believe.
“It was my grandmother who took care of me,” she said. According to Brenda, she did everything a sweet grandmother would do, but the problem was her drinking. When she brought her drinking partners home and passed out, the men would molest Brenda.
“It started when I was four or five years old and it became a regular occurrence”, she recounted. Although she believes her grandmother was unaware.
Because her grandmother wasn’t always at home because of work, she spent a significant part of the day at home, and the molesters took advantage of this.
The transition came one day, when she asked her grandmother about the women would stand on the street looking glamorous outside their house.
“Those women take their panties off and men give them money,” her grandmother had said, and since men were already doing that to her, it didn’t seem like a very bad idea.
Because of the psychological effects of molestation, it became hard for her to say ‘no’ and according to her, little boys could ‘basically have their way’ if they treated her nicely.
And so at 14, she had two baby girls from boys in the community. That was when her troubles began as grandmother began demanding money for the kids feeding.
One Good Friday evening, in front of the Mark Twain Hotel, wearing a $3.99 dress, cheap plastic shoes, and some orange lipstick to make her look older, she began the 25-year journey.
She cried through it all, but she had to do it.
“They knew I was young and it was almost as if they were excited about it,” she said about the five men who had her that night. She returned home with $400 and gave most of it to her grandmother who didn’t seem to care where it came from. It happened again the next weekend but the third weekend was not in any way rosy.
Some guys approached with a gun and kidnapped her in the trunk of car because according to her, she was ‘unrepresented on the street’. The rest of the night began with them taking turns to rape her on a cornfield and then taking her to a hotel room and locking her in a closet.
Leaving her in the closet, they starved her and agreed to only let her out if she worked for them. It was a spirit breaking tactic.
For the next six months, she worked for them, unable to go home, pimped to several men, and when she tried to escape, she paid the price. It came with loads of physical abuse, but that was the easy part, the mental abuse was the real thing.
“The things they would say that would just stick and which you could never get from under,” Brenda said.
Pimps according to her, are very good at torture and manipulation. They’d promise to treat her better if she behaved but then the good part they promise never really came.
There is nothing glamorous or elegant about prostitution, she explained.
“A prostitute might sleep with five strangers a day. Across a year, that's more than 1,800 men she's having sexual intercourse or oral sex with. These are not relationships, no-one's bringing me any flowers here, trust me on that. They're using my body like a toilet.”
“I've been shot five times, stabbed 13 times. I don't know why those men attacked me, all I know is that society made it comfortable for them to do so,” she said about violent customers who brought their anger and mental illnesses to prostitutes, knowing fully well they couldn’t go to the police.
It was about 14 or 15 years before she did drugs.
“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,” she said.
In all her 25 years as a prostitute, she didn’t see a way out until April 1, 1997, a nearly 40-year-old woman.
A customer had thrown her out of his car, and as her dress got caught, he dragged her six blocks, with the ground eating away at her skin and face.
“I went to the County Hospital in Chicago and they immediately took me to the emergency room,” she said. “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 in those moments, while she waited for someone to attend to her injuries, she thought deeply about her life for the first time in 25 years. She remembered looking up and saying to God, "These people don't care about me. Could you please help me?"
Help came quickly, as a doctor took care of her and directed her to the hospital’s social services office. Contrary to her previous understanding of how mean that office could be, they gave her a bus pass to a place called Genesis House. It was there that she found a hero and mentor in the woman who run the place, Edwina Gateley.
At the house, all her needs were taken care of, and she stayed there for almost two years, healing body and soul.
After three years of healing and abstinence, she met an ‘extraordinary man’. “I was very picky –he likes to joke that I asked him more questions than the parole board”, she said on BBC.
She began volunteering with sex workers and helping a university researcher with her fieldwork. But in 2008, together with Stephanie Daniels-Wilson, Brenda Myers-Powell founded the Dreamcatcher Foundation. A dreamcatcher, according to Brenda, is a Native American object you hang near a child’s cot to chase away nightmares. And that's what the foundation is about, chasing away those bad things that happen to young girls and women.
A recent documentary film Dreamcatcher, directed by Kim Longinotto, showed what their work was about –meeting women who are still working on the street and making them know, “there is a way out, we’re ready to help you when you’re ready to be helped”.
They also go to after-school clubs with young girls who are exactly as she was in the 1970s. “I can tell as soon as I meet a girl if she is in danger, but there is no fixed pattern. You might have one girl who's quiet and introverted and doesn't make eye contact. Then there might be another who's loud and obnoxious and always getting in trouble. They're both suffering abuse at home but they're dealing with it in different ways - the only thing they have in common is that they are not going to talk about it,” she said.
So far, 13 of the girls they’ve reached out to have graduated from high school and are now college. She said, “They came to us 11, 12, 13 years old, totally damaged. And now they're reaching for the stars”.
At 58, she is currently married to the extraordinary man she met 11 years ago who says he looks into her eyes and sees a girl with a pretty smile that he wanted to be a part of his life.
Currently, those two little girls she had before she was 14 grew up to be successful young ladies. One is a doctor, while the other works in criminal justice. Brenda and her husband have adopted her nephew.
She rounded off with the words, “There is life –and I’m not talking about a little bit of life. There is a lot of life.”