Our city has had a spate of prostitute killings over the past few years, with at least nine young women found dead, their bodies beaten, abused, and abandoned in various locations around the nearby countryside. Many in society tend to consider such women “throw-aways,” and their deaths are not given priority in our thoughts, or when it comes to police investigation. Even media reporting of the deaths often tends to diminish the dignity of these women, referring to them as living a “high risk lifestyle,” with the implication being that they have somehow contributed to their fate through the type of life they led.
During my time at summer school last month, we did a lot of role playing, working out different ethical situations by acting out scenarios. One in particular was based on a real ethical case that had come before the psychologist’s board. I had the dubious privilege of playing the part of a woman whose children had been apprehended. The complicating factor in the case was issues of the husband’s drug use in the home, and the wife’s occupation – prostitute. One of my fellow students was playing the role of the psychologist, and although he did a great job of staying in character, I managed to disconcert him and elicit an involuntary smile when he asked my occupation and I responded, “prostitute,” in a very matter-of-fact way, as if my job were no different than working at the local MacDonald’s
Of course, in real life I do not consider prostitution a “normal” occupation. However, on some level I understood the person whose role I was playing. I do not believe that women who are trapped in that way of life in any way deserve to be thrown away or consigned to the fringes of society. I believe their murders should be actively investigated and treated with the same horror that accompanies any waste of a life, and none of us should feel complacent or safe because we do not happen to live a “high risk” life style.
I don’t pretend to know the underlying reasons why a woman would get involved in the prostitute life style. However, these killings have affected me profoundly. Not just because I’ve gained a greater understanding and compassion through my studies and my work, but because I briefly knew one of the victims. In discussing the killings, one media report made a concerted effort to humanize these women. The article named them, described what they had been like as children, and included observations from family members; comments designed to help readers realize that each of these women were persons, persons who at one point belonged to a family, persons who had mothers who loved them and children they loved dearly. Many of the nine victims had tried to get their lives on track unsuccessfully.
Reading the stories, I recognized one. I met Debbie several years ago, at a New Year’s Eve party a family member had invited me to. She was a distant relative of the people hosting the party, and I don’t believe anyone knew much about the life she was leading. For some reason, Debbie bonded to me as soon as we were introduced. Perhaps it was because we shared the same first name. Perhaps it was because she was just as uncomfortable and shy as I was in a crowd of people we didn’t know very well.
Whatever the reason, she latched on to me and stayed close for the duration of the party, except for the times when she and her boyfriend would disappear into the washroom together. I later realized, of course, that they were up to no good in these sojourns. My suspicions were tweaked by the runny nose, sniffles and reddened eyes evidenced each time they would emerge, but somehow I didn’t really accept what I was seeing.
No matter where I wandered during the party, Debbie would find me, and sit next to me, eager to talk. She was a pretty girl, articulate and well-spoken, and she was a pleasant and enjoyable companion. As the evening wore on, she told me her story. She spoke about her three little children, told me how much she loved them, and then confessed that her youngest one, a baby just one month old, had been apprehended by Social Services. Her eyes filled with tears as she described how hard she had been working to try to get her daughter back. She candidly admitted that she had made many mistakes in her life, that she had a drug problem that she was trying to conquer. I was surprised at the depth of honesty she showed, but it seemed like she really felt she could trust me for some reason. She described how she wanted to go to school, to better her life, make herself into a good parent. We shared many experiences – I too was going to school, and I understood how she felt about her children. She asked me many questions, seeking my suggestions and counsel on things that she could do, ideas on courses she could take, careers that she would enjoy. In the space of those few hours, I came to know Debbie very well.
Finally the clock struck twelve, and as everyone celebrated the countdown, Debbie hugged me as if we were longtime dearest of friends. We both wished each other the very best in the new year. Soon the party began to wind down. She was clearly disappointed when I got up to leave, and as she followed me out to say goodbye, she expressed the very sincere hope that we would be able to meet again some time.
In the days to come, my busy life engulfed me again, and I gave little further thought to the events of that night.
About a year later, I heard that the girl I had met at the party that night had been found murdered in a field. It was not until some time later that I read the newspaper report on the prostitute slayings, discovered what had occurred in the months after that New Year’s Eve party, and made the connections.
It seems that the loss of custody of her little daughter had set in motion a series of events that became unstoppable. Debbie had tried in vain to get her life back on track so that she could regain custody of her daughter, but she had been unsuccessful. Her parents took custody of her children, and no matter how hard Debbie worked, she could not pull things together. Eventually her life deteriorated into an endless round of drugs, partying and prostitution. One day she left home to call a friend from a phone booth and never returned. Her remains were identified through DNA testing when they discovered her skull six months later. The rest of her body was never found.
I was deeply saddened for the young woman I once met, someone who I connected with, someone who shared the same hopes and dreams I did. I sympathized with her passionate desire to have her child returned home, and I understood her drive to improve herself. I also understood just how difficult it must have been for her to fight her way out of the downward spiral, and how she must have finally just given up hope.
Perhaps my awareness has become heightened during the past few years, but it seems that I’m repeatedly seeing the truth of the adage, “there but for the grace of God go I”. None of us should ever feel so smug and self-satisfied as to think that we will never be touched. Life can take a very unexpected turn, throwing us into desperate situations. Not all of us have the resources and strength to fight back. I think of Debbie’s little children, who will grow up without knowing their mother. I hope that one day they will know that, in spite of her faults and the life she eventually ended up trapped in, their mother was a person.
Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology.