When I felt the first sweat, I was sitting on the floor, in thick brown carpet, with my back to the wood stove. My mouth started to water, filling with that metallic taste accompanying…. there it was. Stomach cramp. I knew I was going to puke.
I put my camera down, still listening to what Natalie (not her real name) was saying, her parents weighing in on occasion. I was there, for her and her family, to tell their story. I’d spent the past three days with them. I’d walked them through an intensely emotional series of interviews; they showed me their life, opening up ever more, a trust of proportion for which I have no scale.
And now I was in their living room, sure I was going to be sick.
I put on my jacket, thinking of an excuse to go out to the car, so I could heave out of earshot; they’d surely hear me in their bathroom. I felt like I had food poisoning, which I’ve experienced often enough. Natalie had cooked that evening and I didn’t want to embarrass her. In fact, they’d been so welcoming I’d eaten nearly every meal with them.
“You know, the only reason I took your call is because of who sent you,” Natalie’s mother told me the first day I arrived. We were sitting in the winter sun on the smoking porch. “I trust her, otherwise I’d have told you the same thing I told all the others. No.”
There were a variety of media suitors, including big broadcast shows. They kept calling. And calling. One reporter even accosted Natalie in the bathroom of the courthouse during the trial of her pimp. An FBI agent came to her rescue.
When Natalie was 15, she was turned out by a pimp in the Seattle area, forced to sell her body for money that he took. He used the “escort” listings on Backpage.com to sell her, at times running three different identities and photo sets of her, posting as often as every hour so she would stay in the top 20. Especially on weekends. So complete was his hold on her mind, that soon she was posting the ads herself, arranging the out-calls, mostly to hotel rooms, and bringing in enough money that she supported him, two other prostitutes, two children, and herself in a three bedroom apartment.
She never walked the street, she was a Backpage girl, and the police used it to set up the sting that brought her in. It was her case, and her mom, that helped pass new laws in Washington state meant to keep minors like Natalie from being used for commercial sex. The controversial one was the “Backpage Bill.”
Owned by Village Voice Media, which generated $28.6 million from online escort and body rub ads last year, this story is what the media wanted, and Natalie was their token “victim.”
While we’d talked on the phone two weeks prior, that first day with Natalie’s family felt very much like a vetting process. I wanted to understand their story, and I think they wanted to understand me. When I do these kinds of stories I consider my subject a survivor, not a victim, and I recognize it’s their story, not mine.
The deal we had when I arrived was I could use Natalie’s audio and non-identifying images of her. I’d change her name, and I wouldn’t name their new hometown. And yet, by the end of the second day, after we’d finished the video interviews (I’d put all of them on camera, with their agreement, just in case they changed their minds), Natalie asked, “It would be a lot more powerful if they saw my face, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes, absolutely,” I replied. “But once it’s out there, it’s out forever.”
Her parents were split; her mom wanted her face obscured, her dad thought she should come out. I laid out the pro’s and cons as best I could imagine, leaving them to decide.
Natalie was considering becoming publicly vulnerable; anyone who recognized her face would be able to connect this horrific story to her. In some cases people may shame her. But there are others who would honor her and even others who might look to her courage to find their own. This is what she held in her heart as she handed me her release.
“If this helps one girl,” she said.
That night, I made it out of the house before getting sick. It didn’t even happen until I was safely in my hotel room, a Super 8 at the crossroads in the center of town, frequented by oil and gas workers. I lost the dinner Natalie had cooked, fell into uncontrollable shivering, and spent the next 20 minutes trying to warm up in the shower. The night was a fevered sweat; I woke every hour as I weathered the stomach cramps.
I was fortunate that the next morning I didn’t need to be moving until 10:30. Natalie was at work when I arrived at her house, but her parents were there. Her mom had taken the day off and her dad was preparing to do some household chores. We sat on the smoking porch for a bit, and they commented on my exhausted appearance.
I hesitated. I didn’t want to appear weak, and I didn’t want to suggest I’d been poisoned by Natalie’s food, which I wasn’t even convinced about. But when I told them I’d been sick the night before, they both nodded. I must have gotten the 12 or 24 hour intestinal flu that was circulating through town. All three of them had suffered through it.
“Really?” I asked.
Oddly, I felt relieved. For me, my sickness became a shared moment with my subjects. That evening, my fourth sitting on the brown shag carpet of their living room, was more intimate. My camera was in hand, but so was my heart. And I think they knew it.