Sometimes people make statements that aren’t true. They say things like, “I’m good” when in fact they aren’t well. These are the statements often heard in passing, as one walks by acquaintances and colleagues in the office or the hallway.
It was mid-afternoon on a Friday when Jennifer and I walked by Lori, who was seated at a table inside the courtyard at the Lawrence Street Community Center. Jennifer has a contagious personality, one that often lends itself to laughter and long conversations.
“How are you?” asked Jennifer.
Lori turned toward Jennifer and me, her back to the table. “I’ve had better days,” she said.
Lori isn’t one to make cordial conversation, the type that people expect in passing, at least. Her words reveal more truth than that, and so does her story.
“When I was eight years old my mom married a pedophile,” said Lori. “He not only abused me, he also got my brother, my cousin and the girl up the street. And those are just the ones I know about.”
As she told about her childhood, Lori did so with a sense of peace; not like the type of peace a person experiences during meditation. It was a different kind of peace, less reflective and more of a graceful confidence.
I think back to my own story. My childhood was different than most. I was born with a birth defect. As a kid, I endured surgery after surgery after surgery, so many that I lost count after the eighth. None of my friends could relate to the feeling, to the anxiety and the fear that comes with being operated on as a child. I navigated those experiences with the help of my family. But Lori’s childhood was more than just different, it was wrong and it was traumatic and the trauma came at the hands of her abusers, people she knew and people she called family.
Yet, as she sat there in front of me on that Friday, she told her story with grace. Few people would dare criticize Lori if she had thoughts of rage and even vengeance. “I don’t look back with anger or regret,” she said. “It happened. It was bad. And it made me who I am.”
Of course, she doesn’t understand a lot of things about her past; like when those police officers, the ones who listened to eight-year-old Lori tell her story—of how she was running around the house in her pajamas and then was raped by her step-dad—replied, “You shouldn’t have seduced him by being in your pajamas.”
When I asked Lori what she would say to those officers today, her eyebrows raised to the middle of her forehead, she put her hand on the table in front of her as if to provide herself with support, support that the younger Lori was often without, and she said, “I have a lot of choice words for those people.”
And when asked what she might say to her mom, Lori struggled to find the right words. She has a fondness for her mom, an empathy that I can’t fathom.
“I don’t know what I would say to my mom. It was her worldview,” said Lori. “She was brought up to please the man. Back then, if you didn’t please the man, you deserved what you got. I’m not saying that’s right, but that’s what they taught us. It was the 60’s and 70’s. Till the day she died my mother was taught, and believed, that men do no wrong. One time, after my ex got a hold of me, she took me to her house. When the police finished photographing my bruises, you know what she asked me? She didn’t ask me how I was or if I was okay, she asked, ‘what did you do to antagonize him?’”
When she said those words, her face softened, she peered down toward the table in front of her, but only for a moment. She lifted her eyes up at Jennifer. “I have empathy where a lot of people don’t have it,” she said.
And then she told a story about her daughter and how difficult it is to keep a child safe in the world. As her kids were growing, Lori talked with them about her childhood and the abuse she experienced growing up. She understands the shame and embarrassment and silence that follow victims of sexual assault. There is this feeling that it’s your fault; that you shouldn’t have been there alone; that you should have taken a different route; that you should have known better. There’s a fear of telling someone, anyone, because shame and judgement and embarrassment linger. Lori gets it because she experienced it.
Lori stressed to her children the importance of vulnerability, “I’d talk to my kids about it,” said Lori. “I told them that if someone ever touches you, tell me, tell someone.” But when Lori’s daughter was molested by a man from their church, her daughter was silent. “She’s embarrassed. She’s ashamed,” said Lori. “I get it. It makes me look back at my mother … and you know what? Being a mom is hard. Mom’s make mistakes… .”
Family and support systems are crucial to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. But as child, when your support systems fail to support, then what? Where does one turn for appreciation and comfort and acknowledgment and love? There are several answers, Lori’s answer was meth.
“I ran away at 14. I did a lot of drugs after that, I used to use meth.”
Sometimes we hear stories that are alarming. It’s hard to know why these stories are difficult to hear. Perhaps it’s because we are humans, and as humans we are image-bearers of God, beings that yearn for good, for harmony, for beauty. To this point, this has not been that story.
My office faces west, and through the windows I can see the Rocky Mountain range. After writing this story I find myself staring out the window, brooding over this story. A friend of mine is the President/CEO of a non-profit who reaches out to victims of sex-trafficking. She reminded of an important insight, she said, “You have to remember this is a part of her story, it’s not the story.”
And she’s right. This is not all of Lori’s story. It’s not the story.
Eventually, Lori will go on to end up homeless. She will become irate at how it happened, how they kicked her off of SSDI, causing her to lose her monthly income of just over $800. She became two weeks behind rent and then was kicked out by the property managers.
I’ll let Lori tell you the rest of her story. “Since I’ve been homeless, I’ve had jobs,” she says. “I used to work for AT&T, in their call center. But I couldn’t pass the computer test. I get sick, too, and it makes it hard to work. When I worked, I couldn’t take a shower. There is no shower out at the women’s shelter, and when I went to work, I’d show up too late in the day to take a shower at the community center. I made it work for a while. I would just paint my fingernails so my employer wouldn’t see the dirt that is constantly under them, but…”
Her voice trails off and the interview ends.
I haven’t spoken with Lori since the first week of February. I was at the Lawrence Street Community Center last week. I tried to follow up with her, but I didn’t find her, and many of the people I spoke with didn’t know her.
I showed a picture of Lori to a friend who lives on the street. He told me that a women’s transitional housing program offered Lori admittance into their facility. Lori accepted the offer and will now have a stable place to live and shower while she works with a case manager toward developing skills to find more sustainable jobs.
And that’s Lori’s story, that’s the story. She is not defined by her experiences, experiences that have often been unfair, wrong and traumatic. Lori’s story is defined by her resilience. That’s Lori’s story. That’s the story.
Faces of The Mission is a blog series written by Jordan Smith, Denver Rescue Mission’s Writer/Photographer (with contributions by Emergency Services Coordinator, Jennifer Fitzgerald), offering insights and real-life stories from people experiencing homelessness and hardships.