How easily dominoes fall.
Slavery and Hope
“Like wildflowers; You must allow yourself to grow in all the places people thought you never would.” ― Ernest Victor Thompson
I might rather have been withering away in a dungeon during the Middle Ages.
The road to safety might be short or long. Mine was long. It started with parents who hid secrets that lurked in ever-growing shadows, secrets that kicked me onto a path I would never have chosen.
Their misdeeds harmonized with neglect of each other and me to create opportunities for rapists, starting with high school boys. A long, winding row of falling dominoes, that path brutalized me on to graduation into New York City sex trafficking, then onto domestic violence.
I almost stopped being human.
My slave masters’ images still rise. Unlike my captors, the images never die. Along with them come the schoolboys, John, and the stonehearted priest. Then Tony, Rebel, Snake, Jack, and Armando—their images and their wounds live long after they did. How could that many people be dead while I keep living? I who tried to kill myself many times.
Even if hope is a flickering candle, it still lights up the darkest corner.
Unlike many, I survived. But freedom didn’t mean I was free. Recovery brought its own torture, as it does for most victims. Through years of craziness, hope sputtered to life enough to keep me alive—and to overcome.
Despite my broken body, I now refuse to die. That flickering candle ignited in me. An ember, fading and brightening into flame, it continues to burn. Though I’ve often felt as if my mind would disintegrate, it has not. And as my heart heals, I embrace the person I am meant to be. This hope brings me joy and peace I cannot understand. I shouldn’t have this, but I do.
I want others to find hope too; to save them from a fate like mine or ignite their hope enough to break free. And I wish to inspire free people to reach those trapped in abusive situations or slavery. Some people call me Wildflower because no matter how many times life trampled my dreams, I persevere. My name is Nancy. The following is my story.
My mother named me after the song, “Nancy with the Laughing Face” – quite prophetic. Folks often commented on my bubbly, toothy smile and animated hellos.
Mom repeatedly said, “Nancy, you’re a dreamer.”
For better, and for worse, that was true. I dreamed I would be a famous dancer in movies like Shirley Temple and marry my storybook Prince Charming. My fantasies would later keep me alive through the hell that became my life.
When I was two, I wandered from my mother in a department store and stumbled into an elderly man. He led me back to her and bought me a fluffy stuffed kitten that I treasured for years. I wish my life had been like that. I started out so innocent, so friendly.
Not so my parents, whose upbringing strangely portended my future.
After the deaths of her parents, my mother, Dolores, and six siblings landed in an orphanage. She detested being an orphan.
Mom had written her feelings in a tattered notebook I acquired after she died: “I felt abandoned. I spent most of my time reading. I guess you could say I formed a shell so nobody could hurt me. . . . How did I spend my years in the orphanage? I would pray to the God I believed in at the time, begging him to find somebody to love me. Crying many a tear and nobody even hearing me.”
She ran away from the orphanage to pursue a singing career. Right or wrong, she did whatever she had to do. I sometimes wondered why my thirty-one-year-old father handpicked this vulnerable eighteen-year-old-orphan to marry. Perhaps it was easy to control the pretty teenager nobody wanted.
He pursued her relentlessly, set her up with auditions and showered her with gifts and adulation. But she never made it in show business. She grew into a statuesque raven-haired beauty who stayed at home.
Daddy’s financial stability provided Mom the sense of security she craved. Their age difference quenched her desire for a father figure as well. But my disapproving grandmother never mothered her, had little use for an orphan, and rejected her from the start.
Mom settled into the role of the dutiful wife—my father’s third. Less than eight months later, I was born. My brother, Bobby, followed thirteen months later. Mom played house, Candy Land, and catch with us in the backyard. We were happy youngsters in our Red Bank, New Jersey, home.
My father, Robert Walker, possessed an IQ of 150 but suffered from severe depression, which eventually conquered him. Perhaps that’s why Daddy—what he made us call him—guzzled brandy. Although a brilliant engineer, he lost several jobs.
Six feet tall and somewhat stocky, he hid his bald head under a fedora and wore a houndstooth suit to work. At home, he lazed in undershirts and his tired gray slacks. His breath reeked of cigarette smoke, Listerine, and brandy. The Old Spice scent of his shirts defined the happier memories of the rare occasions he let me near him.
My father apparently learned lack of affection from his father, who had abandoned the family, and his stern, unloving mother who didn’t. I seldom saw him hug or kiss my mother. He avoided us kids except to punish us. Daddy rarely smiled. His face froze in a perpetual grimace, his gray eyes clinical and aloof.
Dinner had to be prompt with children seated at the dining room table. It annoyed Daddy to wait. Each night, he laid his pack of Camels next to his plate. He lifted his brandy snifter and in one swig scarfed every drop.
My mother played bartender to keep up with his insatiable thirst for liquor. No one dared speak or disturb his meal. He gobbled his food, lit up a cigarette, and puffed away, which drowned us in a fog of smoke, seeped into my food, and made it taste awful. But I either ate it or starved.
On weekends Daddy played his prized piano, which resounded throughout our house. It irritated my mother. She’d shout, “Bob, stop that incessant noise! I can’t hear myself think!” It riled him when she derided his beloved music. He swore at her, and she swore right back. I fled to my bedroom, locked my door, and blasted my record player to drown out their voices.
When I was five, I saw my first Shirley Temple movie. It enchanted me. “Mommy, can you teach me to dance like that? Please? Please?”
Her singing aspirations dashed and abandoned; Mom had vicarious dreams for me. The following Monday she drove me to the Leah Mauer School of Dance, not far from our New Jersey home. I fell in love with Mrs. Mauer the moment I saw her graceful dance. Bobby had dance aspirations too. Mom enrolled him in classes with me.
I studied ballet and tap in a breathtaking studio of floor-to-ceiling mirrors, golden lighting, and ballet barres which lined one of the walls. Shiny wooden floors, tall leafy plants, and a row of copper chairs completed this little place of heaven on earth.
Mrs. Mauer would say, “Never quit, Nancy. Never give up on your dreams.”
She was a strong influence on me and encouraged me to push harder. I’ll never forget her fun-loving teaching and patient mentoring.
Whenever I wore my ruffled pink tutu, I twirled round and round in front of those mirrors. I felt like a princess and adored being a ballerina. But when Mrs. Mauer positioned me as the lead dancer in a tap recital, my ballet interests faded.
I rehearsed any free moment, determined to perfect the routine. The vibrations on my bedroom floor frayed on my father’s nerves, and he yelled at me to stop. Fearful he would punish me, I took off my tap shoes and practiced in my socks.
The day finally arrived two weeks after my ninth birthday. Mom set my hair in Shirley Temple banana curls. Adorned in a Lamé costume, glittery gloves, and golden tap shoes, I sparkled from head to toe. I struck a pose in front of a full-length mirror, tipped my hip to the side and did a heel tap.
No stage fright for me. I beamed throughout the entire recital. Five girls danced by my side, but I knew all eyes were on me. The audience rose to its feet as I bowed. I shut my eyes and soaked up the applause.
After that, I transformed my bedroom into a sanctuary. An RCA record player became my unfailing friend. I danced to my favorite 45 records. When I danced, I sailed into paradise where my dreary world no longer existed. If only dance had done that for me in the years that followed.
Descent into Hell
Out of nowhere, I felt two arms wrap around my waist. A young man spun me around and pulled me close to him. Not wanting anyone’s hands on me I automatically pushed him away. He took the hint and backed off. But he wasn’t a stranger. He was Rebel, the bouncer who took care of me after Maritska threw me out.
Abandoned and weary, I let Rebel hold me close. It gave me a sense of security. After a few more numbers, he brought me over to a table in the bar area and ordered a bottle of champagne. I had tasted champagne once at a family New Year’s Eve party when I was fourteen. The bubbles tickled, as bubbles do, and in my emptiness, I indulged the feeling. My dancing had also worked up a thirst, and I downed the whole flute. The blissful tipsiness from that one glassful transported me back into my private utopia.
And I fell back into the same old pattern. I foolishly told Rebel of my problem and let him persuade me to go home with him. It didn’t occur to me that I had decided to trust another stranger. Emotionally and physically weary, I yearned to sleep in a warm bed.
I had given up hope of ever having a normal life. My mother didn’t want me. Daddy vanished after Mom left him, Aunt T passed me on to Uncle Joe, the first man who had shown me any genuine kindness, and he threw me out. Rebel’s invitation sounded okay.
“Sure, why not,” I said and followed him to his apartment. I looked around at my new surroundings and sat on the couch.
Rebel lit up a joint. “Want a hit?”
I was already tipsy from the champagne, and I was depressed. I saw no point in going back to work at Ohrbach’s, or anywhere else for that matter. I decided to quit my job.
Rebel blew smoke down my throat. The smoke swam around in my lungs. I let it linger there for a few moments before I exhaled.
Then Rebel dangled a bottle of pills in my face. I recognized the Tuinals. If I swallow enough of these . . . My mind played with suicide again.
I opened my mouth gladly and let him drop them on my tongue. I counted five, swallowed the pills and hoped the little red and blue helpers would set me free from this life of mine.
They failed me. I woke up to a spinning room. Apparently, it was harder to kill myself than I thought. I spent the next fifteen minutes throwing up in the toilet. My sister’s and brothers’ faces flashed across my mind. I missed them and wondered if they missed me too. Then I saw Joe’s face (one of the boys who raped me), and a barrage of horrific memories flooded me.
The terror and desire of life and death left me stuck in limbo. My strength drained. I had no choice but to get back into bed with this stranger. At least I had a roof over my head.
I fell into a vicious routine with my newfound pal. Disregarding my body, my spirit, and my dignity, I allowed Rebel to do whatever he wanted to me.
He kept me doped with downs and angel dust, which made me almost oblivious to his perverse acts. Day and night became indistinguishable. I did what he asked of me, becoming his maid, sex object, and drug dealer. I sold pills and marijuana for him in the Electric Circus. If I didn’t, he would throw me out. That kept me his puppet.
Naïveté can be dangerous. I failed to comprehend the disaster I faced and feared to lose him if I rejected his commands. As it turned out, I would have been better off dead.
One Saturday night, a few weeks after a joyless Christmas, I followed Rebel to the disco. He treated me coolly that night, but I shrugged it off.
On the way, he said, “Let’s go,” and seized my hand. It was an order, not an invitation. He jerked me around the corner to a street of shadows.
“Honey, you’re hurting me.” He ignored me.
His grip tightened, and his pace quickened as he lugged me behind him. I still thought of him as a friend who rescued me from the streets. I wanted to look into his eyes, hoping he’d see my anguish and stop scaring me. But I could only look at the back of his head.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Shut up!” His tone chilled me.
When I saw a black limousine parked under a burned-out streetlight, a once-lived horror movie played as memories of past rapes rushed in. I fought wildly to wriggle out of Rebel’s grasp, but he twisted my arm and slammed my face against the hood of the car. Including the driver, four dark-skinned men sat inside. They wore fur coats and red-brimmed black fedora hats tipped over one eye. I had seen men like that around Times Square and knew they were dangerous pimps. Tremors jetted through my body. I wanted to run. But Rebel had me pinned.