- Andy Soper
The room couldn’t have been more than 6 x 6. A round table was squeezed in with three blue chairs positioned randomly around it. Juvenile Detention is stark. My friend, Leslie, and I sat waiting for a 16-year-old girl to be brought to the visitation room.
Arranging myself in the corner, I realize that I take up too much space.
‘I should have covered my arms, shouldn’t I have?’ I asked Leslie. ‘I’m gonna freak her out.’
‘You’re good, little brother. You’re with me.’
We were visiting a young woman who’d found herself to be a commodity. A product to be consumed. Brought from Florida by a local pimp, she was sexually exploited by men in my city.
Leslie is a survivor of this abuse. She’s brilliant. She’s gritty. She should be in this room.
I am 275 pounds. I am heavily tattooed. I am 6’3. Worst of all, I am a man. I represent the people who hurt her for cash.
What the hell was I doing in that room?
She walked in with her arms folded across her stomach, an oversized, blue sweatshirt covering her frame. She offered Leslie a shy smile and hugged her.
‘Honey, you’re looking good! Your nails are done… oohhh … you’re gonna make it.’ Leslie draped her with compliments and asked follow up questions from their previous visit. Unless Leslie was holding her hands, the girl kept them tucked at her sides. She wrung the cuffs nervously.
‘Honey, this is my little brother. He looks out … he looks out for children. Where he goes, I go. Where I go, he goes. We’re partners. We’re gonna help you do whatever you want.’ Leslie prepped her for my part of the meeting.
The girl sat shifting her glance between the table and my face.
This was my cue.
‘I’m not going to pretend I know what happened. I don’t. I can tell you honestly that I’m sorry it did. I’m in a position where I can help you do what you want to do. Whatever you want to happen, I want to help make that happen.’
God, I sound like a bad salesman.
By this point, my throat was hurting. I realized that my voice was coming out like an old record, scratching out my sympathies. I tend to boom my words out when I know (or think I know) what I’m talking about.
I threw a cough drop in my mouth, but I wasn’t sick. My body was just having a reaction to my attempts to appear smaller – vulnerable. If I leaned across the table, her arms would hold tighter to her belly. If I laughed with Leslie, the girl would smile, but shift awkwardly as if she was unsure if we were actually laughing at her.
As I tried to listen, she tried to talk. Neither of us knew exactly what we were looking for at that moment. Leslie was gracious to us both. She allowed us both to feel strong with her.
After an hour, we’d made a plan for our next visit. I’d written down the steps on my notepad and made little stars next to the one’s that this girl had said were most important to her. I made the stars with broad strokes so she could see me do it.
There’s nothing like a punch list to make you feel confident.
Leslie hugged her again and I extended my hand saying something about how it would all be all right. I’d heard Leslie say it, but somehow those words fell out of my mouth like a medic promising a dying soldier he’d be just fine (even without his legs).
As we walked through the double-bolted green doors to leave, I glanced over my shoulder to see this young woman – sold for sex as a child– being led back to her cell like a criminal.
I sat down in the company car and told myself I’d never do this again. Clearly, a man should not be the one in that room. I would just be the ‘resource guy’ – efficient and detached.
Most importantly, I would never feel that vulnerable again.
Vulnerability must be a philosopher’s nightmare. There is no deconstructing vulnerability. When we feel we can define it, it reinvents itself with a new face, body, and eyes.
She was vulnerable. She’d been hurt, stripped of her options and dignity. Even through her smile, her pain was as audible as the electric hum of the mechanical locks holding her in the building.
My vulnerability came from a different space. My gift was nothing except for the receiving. The packaging only hindered its acceptance. I could do little about either reality.
Maslow would point out at this point that my ‘vulnerability’ was much farther up the pyramid and, perhaps, I should put on my big boy pants and stop equating myself to a deeply victimized child. I acknowledge that.
However, as we played out this paradox, our interconnectedness and mutual vulnerability existed outside of the ‘victim’ and ‘advocate’ roles we now played. They existed outside of ‘petite’ and ‘lumbering.’ They existed outside of ‘female’ and ‘male.’
Our vulnerability was rooted in the ‘gift’ and the ‘giver’, ‘I and Thou.’
If I reject my place in that cell, I reject the gift she offers me.
We returned the following week – offering our gifts and receiving hers.
Andy Soper is the Project Coordinator of the Manasseh Project. After earning a Master’s Degree in Popular Culture from Bowling Green State University, he taught at BGSU and Cornerstone University before beginning work with abused and neglected children in both Residential and Community Programs at Wedgwood Christian Services. He currently develops programming to address the commercial sexual exploitation of minors.