Names of survivors have been changed throughout for privacy and protection.
Meeting Lanh now, you might not guess how deep her wounds go. She’s a hard worker, a mother of two young children, a strong head of her household. Watching her walk out the door for work, scoop up the baby from his crib, or toss a bowl of rice onto the table, you don’t see any fragility there. She’s tough. Of course, we don’t push her to talk about anything she doesn’t want to. After all, Lanh is safest when she has full control of her history. It is no one’s but her own.
There are stories she can’t keep secret, though, like the labor exploitation. The social workers who know her are all aware that when police found her, she was in a cannabis factory, worked to exhaustion, the only woman among a group of trafficked male workers. Some people close to her know that she was trafficked into the U.K. at age nine. Nowadays, she sometimes talks briefly about the nail bars — the long days without pay, the harsh punishment for mistakes.
It’s been a long time since she got away from her traffickers. But when you mention sexual exploitation, she just cries. She doesn’t say anything; she just cries. I suspected for years that Lanh had a history there, a string of stories coiled up in silence, beyond the reach of language, in the shadowlands of traumatic memories.
Many months ago, though, something happened that broke her silence — chipped into it, at the very least. Lanh found a girl wandering through the streets after escaping from a situation of trafficking and exploitation. She invited the child to her home, took her in, and introduced her to me. Shaking and weeping at the foot of Lanh’s bed, this young person tried to explain to us where she had come from. The things she shared were heartbreaking. The things she left out of the story, though, spoke so loudly you would have wanted to cover your ears. She just referenced “the house,” “the lady,” “the things that happened” when she was driven there every night for three years to pay off “the debt” she owed to her trafficker.
As the young survivor struggled to wade through these thick, dark memories, something was happening inside of Lanh, too. At first, like before, all that came out were tears. But later, she came to me and brought up the story we had just heard. And when she did, to the surprise of both of us, a single sentence came out of her mouth: “This is very hard, because it’s… the same for me.”
It was such a fragile moment. Some ancient silence was breaking apart. “I know…I know,” I said. Without knowing it, this unexpected visitor had given Lanh a window into language. It didn’t matter that the girl’s story came out patchy and unclear, or that it was spoken with a shaking voice. For Lanh, it was enough.
She didn’t have to start from scratch anymore to the find words to convey what had happened to her. She didn’t have to try to keep the memories straight. She didn’t have to fight through a bitter testimony alone.
There are many powerful clinical and therapeutic tools out there, informed by psychology and neuroscience. Honestly, though, so much of healing is still a mystery. I don’t know if you could plan moments like this one. I don’t know if you could truly measure their impact.
At the end of the day, I don’t know how healing really happens. What I do know is that we have to do it together.
Sometimes we need each other to shine a light into our shadows. Sometimes it takes another person’s voice to break our silence. Sometimes we save each other with our stories.