What It Is Like to Be a Sex Worker And whether we should approve.

(Photo by, and courtesy of, Jerry Tovo)

Editor’s note: Tracy’s surname is a pseudonym, as are her relatives’ first names.

 

It is the oldest profession, I say. No, someone reminds me, hunting is the oldest profession. Exactly. But if the quarry is willing, is the hunt ethical? I cannot decide. Does a woman have the right to sell her body freely and legally? Models do. Lady Gaga sells her vocal cords. LeBron James sells his height. In a world that tells us to forge a personal brand and sell ourselves, surely a woman skilled in the art of physical pleasure ought to be able to use that talent to make a living?

Those appalled by that proposition say the act is too intimate. What innocence I have left wants to agree. But all told, I suspect such a transaction is less intimate than a hopeful first date or a thorough physical exam. Certainly, it is less intimate than writing a memoir. And with criminal penalties lifted, sex work would be cleaner and safer.

I want to approve. It seems cooler, more modern and relaxed. But like abortion, this issue renders me a hypocrite: I say yes for everybody else and breathe relief that it never had to be me. There but for the grace.

Feminist scholars, it turns out, are as ambivalent as I am. Though there are plenty of trans and male sex workers, this is still a predominantly female industry, and the practice does seem to perpetuate the objectification of women. It also excuses and accommodates just about anything men do to gratify their ostensibly overwhelming sexual desires. The transaction erases the need for respect, deference, consideration, permission.

Those appalled by that proposition [of sex work] say the act is too intimate. What innocence I have left wants to agree.

I turn back and forth in the wind. Finally, I ask Tracy Shellington, a former sex worker, if she will talk to me. She is wary at first, not sure of my purpose. Nor am I. Is it prurience? Curiosity? Female solidarity? I have no agenda, I explain; I just want to know what her experience was like.

“Wow,” she says, sounding relieved but a little daunted. “It’s a lot. I did it for a long, long, long time.”

We start at the beginning.

 

 

“Silent all these years.”

—Tori Amos

 

Tracy’s friends walk a few paces ahead in a bubble of intimacy, whispering about her. Finally, they turn and announce rather grandly that she can come with them if she likes. There is this house on the next street where an old guy pays them to look at dirty pictures and touch him.

Relief floods her—you, too? Her uncle Billy started making her do that when she was five. He would pick her up to come play with his daughter, and Tracy would pray the whole car ride that maybe this time they really would get to play house with Ginny’s little toy kitchen. Instead, he would hurry upstairs, and in half a minute she would see him standing at the top of the steps buck naked. Sometimes she and Ginny both had to touch him. Sometimes just her. It lasted till she was nine—that was the year her aunt divorced him.

Now, though, she is much older. Fifth grade. And at least this guy is gonna pay them. “Sure,” she says brightly. “I’m in.”

They troop down to the man’s basement, him a little slower because he is missing the lower half of his leg. She tries not to stare at the waist belt that somehow holds the prosthetic calf in place. The basement goes dark, and the movie projector crackles. Naked bodies writhe on a sheet tacked to the wall. Then comes storytime: He flips through big picture books explaining what the kids are doing to each other. Afterward, he lies down and has the girls take turns touching him.

This part, Tracy is used to. The new part is that he kisses her down there. “You feel that, nasty girl?”

Weeks go by. He owes them a fortune, more than a hundred dollars! The other two girls are on free lunch and Tracy, whose mom works, is on reduced lunch. So she and her friend’s bold little sister, Deb—who has no idea what really goes on at that house—decide to go get the money.

The police officers question Tracy separately. They know, she is sure of it, so she lets the story tumble out. When they drive her home and come inside with her, she wants to die.

Nobody is home. Bored, they start ringing doorbells, then Deb sasses an irate neighbor and he calls the cops. “He owes us money!” Deb says, indignant. When the cops ask why, she shrugs and says, “We do the dishes?”

The police officers question Tracy separately. They know, she is sure of it, so she lets the story tumble out. When they drive her home and come inside with her, she wants to die.

Her mom drops into a chair, crying.

“Would you like to prosecute?” one of the officers asks.

“You bet I would!”

At the station, a bland lady takes down the details. “Where did you think he was going to get all this money?” she asks. “Did he ever give you any money? Did you notice what his furniture was like?” Maybe she is trying to warn Tracy, smarten her up. But the questions only make it feel even more shameful, like she is lying.

The girls have told the police where everything is—the books, the movie reels, all the pictures, even the huge one inside his closet. Peering outside the interview room, Tracy sees officers carrying box after box down the hall.

 

•  •  •

 

Tracy’s father grew up in an alcoholic home and became a drugstore cowboy, robbing pharmacies for a fix. “I didn’t exactly feel like he didn’t love us,” she will say later. “He just got put away somewhere in my head where, if I see him, great, if I don’t, great.” Her grandpa taught her all the important stuff anyway—how to tie her shoes, how to ride a bike….

Unlike her mother, exhausted and martyred, and her grandmother, a proper Southern lady, Grandpa never tells Tracy to sssshhhh. He is sweet—and, she will realize years later, drunk most of the time. Out in the garage, they sit side by side listening to Jack Buck announce the Cardinals game, and Grandpa sips the “cough syrup” he hides out there, winking that this is their little secret, so Grandma will not worry about him being sick.

Tracy’s mom works days at a utility company, nights at the tavern around the corner, where the fringe benefits are free booze and the guys she brings home afterward. Come morning, she forces herself awake at sunrise and takes three buses to work. “You kids quiet down,” she is always saying, and Tracy, wide-eyed and sensitive as a fawn, understands that she is a burden.

 

•  •  •

 

An auto mechanic woos Tracy’s mother to Minnesota. There, he beats her and ogles Tracy’s sister. One day, the girls come home to a locked door, curtains drawn, and the new boyfriend upstairs (with, it turns out, a wealthy older man). In a white-hot rage, their mother packs them up, calls her employer in St. Louis to get her job back, and rents a U-haul.

“Forget this,” Tracy thinks. “My turn.” She has been used by men, and she has watched her mother be used by men, and she has picked up their little secrets, what they want and like. Now she is fifteen, with a brand-new hot figure, and she intends to play them.

She waitresses at the Lucky Dog Saloon on Broadway and drinks on the East Side, or in a little sundress on the Admiral cruise ship. When a nice guy asks her out and she says no, it feels like a Wonder Woman superpower. Invincible, she starts working the street for cash. The “girlfriend experience” pays better, but you have to dress up and smile, giggle at their jokes, let them touch you all sorts of ways, and it takes forever. She wants to be done, grab the cash, go get high. For a sex worker, she decides, faster is better.

She has been used by men, and she has watched her mother be used by men, and she has picked up their little secrets, what they want and like. Now she is fifteen, with a brand-new hot figure, and she intends to play them.

Her first pimp, Corky, sells her crack cocaine. The first time she shoots it into a vein, the euphoria takes her prisoner. In time, the track marks make it harder to work; guys will not pay as much if you are that messed up. Another worker hides the abscesses on her legs with gartered fishnet stockings.

 

 

“Get beaten for it

Drugged for it

Paid for it

Make a life of it.”

—Cassandra Troyan in Freedom & Prostitution

 

The stroll moves. First it is on Washington Avenue, then on Cherokee, and when that gets too hot, it shifts over to Chippewa. The strategy is to work the side streets: The tricks have to circle the block, but the cops keep their eyes trained on the main drag.

Because her mom lives on one of those side streets, Shellington has to make sure to quit before sunrise. The tricks are like vampires anyway—sunlight makes them nervous. One winter night, the sky looks like smudged charcoal, and the air is icy. What time is it? she wonders, suddenly nervous. Nights are long in winter—fewer people are out, and the whole process is slower and more cumbersome, all those heavy clothes. She walks east and sees a cop, so she ducks down a side street, and a customer spots her.

“I saw you the other day,” her mom says casually the next time they are together. “I was waiting for my bus, and I seen you get in a car, and I kept waiting for the car to go by.” She meets her daughter’s eyes. “I wondered all the way to work if that would be the last car you would ever get in.”

Another day, Shellington’s mom hands her a note and says, her voice harsh with distress, “Would you please call this guy back so he stops calling me?” Shellington has given her mom’s number to a few longtime customers—the ones she needs to keep close, because they will put a little cash on her account the next time she lands in prison. “If I hear another trick say how he just wishes you’d get off the drugs,” her mother exclaims. “It takes everything I have not to say, ‘Keep your hands off my daughter. You know damn well if she did all those things you wish she’d do, she wouldn’t be with you.’”

 

•  •  •

 

By now, a cop can bring Shellington in just for walking—this is called a demonstration charge—because she has a prostitution charge on her record. They do street sweeps, too, four or five guys on their walkie-talkies, and load up the paddy wagon. Some nights, social work students from Washington University wait for the women at central booking. After taking a quick survey about condom use and violence, they offer tips, like keeping a condom tucked inside your cheek or using certain defense tactics. Shellington is startled by their kindness—and what seals it is when they hand out jumbo-sized Snickers bars. Coming off the streets and off the dope, that candy bar tastes like filet mignon.

After one arrest, Shellington, now twenty-seven, tells the correctional officer she started drinking hard at fifteen.

“You don’t look old enough to drink now,” the woman exclaims. “How on earth did you manage to order alcohol at fifteen?”

Some nights, social work students from Washington University wait for the women at central booking. After taking a quick survey about condom use and violence, they offer tips, like keeping a condom tucked inside your cheek or using certain defense tactics.

“My mother was the bartender,” Shellington tosses back, hurt that the woman does not believe her.

The look on the correctional officer’s face stings, but only for a second. She has no room left for more shame.

 

•  •  •

 

She is thirty-one, biding her time in an honors center, and her mom is visiting. They watch a tv crime show about somebody being molested. At the commercial break, Shellington’s mom blurts, “Why didn’t you ever tell me Billy was molesting you?”

Shellington freezes like she is nine again. “What?” she says, like, “What on earth are you talking about?” Her mom looks confused, tries to ask again. Ginny, it turns out, is in therapy now. After the divorce, Billy married a woman with two daughters, and she kicked him out fast. “I bet he was molesting them, too,” Shellington’s mom says.

“Sure,” Shellington agrees. They watch the rest of the show in silence.

 

•  •  •

 

Another worker nicknames her “Payday,” teasing that “Tracy makes them think they are fucking kings. And then they file Chapter 13 in the morning.” She knows how to make men want her. And despite the risks, she finds sex work comfortable. There is camaraderie on the street. Roles are well-defined; everybody obeys a common code. In the larger world, she has not experienced that.

The ease can blow up fast, though. A urine test after yet another arrest indicates that she is pregnant, and she winds up in the workhouse with no prenatal care and a full-blown heroin habit. Her mother has just been diagnosed with cancer. Her child will be a ‘trick baby,’ a term she wants to spit on.

As soon as she gives birth, she is shackled to the bed again. She will have twenty-four hours with her son before the Mennonites pick him up. She nurses him for the first time, then tentatively rubs his back, and he burps. Anxious, she looks over at the correctional officer, who has kids of his own. “Sounded like a good one to me!” he reassures her. Relieved, she holds the baby close, cooing to him and patting his soft skin. He dozes. When his eyelids flutter open, he nestles at her breast. By the time someone comes to take him away, they have found their rhythm.

 

 

“Lay me down, pretend I’m real
I’ll give you all the love I’m paid to feel.”

—from the song “I Can’t Go Home Again”

 

“John-shaming”—publishing names to discourage anyone from buying sex—seldom lasts long. In 1979, New York City mayor Ed Koch tried reading the names aloud on the radio. The John Hour lasted less than two minutes—and only aired once.

Shellington hates the practice anyway: “They’ll just want to go somewhere darker, more deserted.” Or they will stop reporting possible cases of trafficking. Right now, one of the best sources for law enforcement is the guys who call in, saying, “I’d swear she was only fifteen” or “She didn’t speak English, and she seemed scared.”

“You don’t want to hurt the families,” argued one man, adding that besides, going to a prostitute was “natural.” Who was the victim?

When police in Kennebunk, Maine, released a long list of prominent citizens charged with patronizing a prostitute, a wiseguy printed up T-shirts that read, “I’m not on the list. Are you?” Many were, and they were steaming mad at the violation of privacy. “You don’t want to hurt the families,” argued one man, adding that besides, going to a prostitute was “natural.” Who was the victim?

Because this supposedly victimless crime has to be conducted in dark alleys and cul de sacs, sex workers are easily hurt, cheated, exploited by their pimps, shamed by polite society, killed without consequence. Criminologist Steven Egger includes sex workers in his list of the “less-dead,” people whose deaths or disappearances are barely noticed. Shellington tells me she did time with a woman who “barely got away from a serial killer. They didn’t believe her ’cause she was a hooker. Down the line, he killed three or four people. My friend Erin was picked up and taken to some abandoned building and held there for a few days. She ended up figuring out who the guy was, but they ignored her because she was a prostitute. That guy went on and killed more people, too. Sam threw herself off I-44 to escape somebody she thought was going to kill her. Sandy, they found in a wooden box off I-70.”

 

•  •  •

 

The man parks under an I-55 overpass and takes off all her clothes—but does not even unzip his pants. He stretches Shellington’s body across the front seat, and she feels his hand tighten around one of her ankles, and her heartbeat turns staccato. Hiding any reaction, she coos, “Oh, baby!” and stretches her arm back languidly, thinking I’m only gonna have this one chance. Bringing the other leg up, she throws the door open, flips herself out backwards, and takes off running. She sees she is trapped—running straight toward a fence—so she launches herself over the barbed wire and up the hill and now she is standing stark naked on the shoulder of I-55. She thinks of Sandy, her soft body crammed in that wooden box. Then she looks back and sees the guy climbing the hill.

A cab pulls alongside her, and a man in a business suit beckons her into the back seat, asks where she would like to be dropped off, and hands her his jacket to cover herself. Nobody says much; it is quiet and calm—like he is an angel or something, she thinks.

Criminologist Steven Egger includes sex workers in his list of the “less-dead,” people whose deaths or disappearances are barely noticed.

Now she tries even harder to stay away from the dark edges of the city, especially the riverfront, where the nervous ones always want to head. One guy scares her so badly, she pulls out strands of her hair, strewing her DNA all over his car.

I force myself to imagine it: A car jerks to a stop. The window rolls down. A face, hard to see in the dark; a voice, rough or scared. You hop in, they speed off—it all has to happen so fast, too fast to assess weirdness or danger, even if you could. And then you are locked into the car—

“And you start thinking, Something’s wrong. This guy’s not right,” Shellington says. “But you can’t freak out; you’ve got to play it cool, so they don’t know you know. If somebody’s got an icepick above your head, you’re thinking, If I make him come, is that when he’s going to start stabbing me? Or if I don’t, is that when he’ll start?

This job she dove into because she wanted control has left her vulnerable in almost every way.

 

 

“If they want to know if prostitutes are positive, they should test the Vice cops.”

—Margo St. James

 

Would decriminalizing sex work ease some of the danger and exploitation? Shellington shrugs. “I mean, some of it. But there would still be the underbelly.” She says she is sure there are women who freely choose this work as a profession, who were never abused or made to hate themselves, whose bodies are not whiplashed by drug cravings. “I just haven’t met them.”

Yet in a Dutch survey, sex workers cited the hours (convenient for single mothers or graduate students), autonomy, flexibility, and income. Quite a few said they enjoyed the work.

This is why I cannot decide what to think about sex work: It exists in such radically different forms, hinged to class and circumstances. I have no trouble smiling at (and envying) the skill and sensuality of a courtesan with spirited self-confidence and a thorough understanding of human nature. Even after two decades of a good marriage, I sometimes feel clumsy in bed, uncertain in technique. Imagine knowing exactly how to seduce in any situation—how to amuse, arouse, drain away tension or sadness; when to retreat into mystery; when to be bold.

I watch young cam girls who have the resources and tech savvy to pull off touch-free, virtual sex work. More power to them. They are taking revenge for centuries of objectification by flipping it: If this is all I am to you, then pay for it. A century earlier, they would have been expected to use the same wiles to marry a man with money—and cast out if they chose a bohemian poet instead.

In the Seventies, Margo St. James, a self-described prostitute and feminist activist, hosted the glitzy Hooker’s Ball in San Francisco. She used the proceeds to fund a nonprofit called COYOTE, Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics. In 1976, COYOTE filed a lawsuit against Rhode Island, questioning how much power the state should have to control the sexual activity of its citizens and pointing up the asymmetry in enforcement, with female sex workers arrested far more often than male customers.

The Swedish model reverses the equation, arresting the customers and not the workers. But that, opponents say, just drives demand underground.

So what do we do? Laws against prostitution work about as well as Prohibition did. What about legalizing it completely, as counties have in Nevada? Sex workers there like the additional health screenings and safety but hate all the barriers to entry (no prior convictions allowed) and the loss of autonomy and earning power. With legalization, it is not the customers but the state and the business owners that hold the power.

This February, Amsterdam announced that it was closing the tourist-bait brothel windows in its Red Light District and setting up an “erotic center” in the suburbs. Nearly all sex workers opposed the move, saying they would lose business and pointing out that the visibility of working in a window kept them safer. One study found far lower rates of rape, other forms of violence, and stalking for sex workers in windows than for those using a club, the client’s residence, their own residence, or a private house set up for that purpose.

When Rhode Island accidentally decriminalized prostitution in 2003, courtesy of a legal loophole, rapes against women decreased by thirty percent. The state restored criminal penalties in 2009. In 2008, the statewide total of reported rapes (which are probably a fraction of the total) was 276; ten years later, when prostitution was again a punishable crime, the total was 379.

Dr. Heather Berg, assistant professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Washington University, says “it’s just obvious to me that decriminalization is the only sensible solution. Policing has been a source of violence and compounded risk. Prisons are full of sexual violence. And managers and pimps like criminalization because it’s job security for them.”

Though erasing criminal penalties would not end sex work, Berg thinks “the conditions would absolutely be better. The fastest way to make sure no one is forced into sex work is not piling on laws and regulations but making sure housing, food, and health care are provided.”

They are taking revenge for centuries of objectification by flipping it: If this is all I am to you, then pay for it.

Even well-intended laws can get in the way. Frances Steele, a Wash.U. alum who is now a project coordinator for Decriminalize Sex Work, points out that in many states, possession of a condom counts as evidence in a prostitution charge—a serious disincentive for safe sex. When sex workers band together for safety’s sake, with one person managing or driving them to appointments, that person can be arrested for human trafficking. A 2019 study showed that online sex work sites had decreased the female homicide rate by seventeen percent, but now those sites have been censored, making it impossible to screen clients or compare notes with other sex workers online. Shutting down Craig’s List to thwart the trafficking of minors was a popular political move, Steele says, but “there was coded language online that law enforcement could tap into, and now they’ve actually lost a lot of leads.”

New Zealand decriminalized consensual sex work back in 2003 and saw a significant decrease in trafficking. Sixty-four percent of sex workers found it easier to refuse clients. Fifty-seven percent said police attitudes toward sex workers improved.

Those who call loudest for criminalization are often middle- and upper-class White women, Berg says, “who have a lot at stake in maintaining the nuclear family and preserving the idea that sex is special and private and should be free.” I am not sure what I have at stake, but I do prefer sex that is not transactional—or strung across the workplace like a tripwire. Many of the sex workers Berg interviewed had grown frustrated by all the unpaid objectification: “A woman who worked at Applebee’s got really sick of having to flirt with customers when, if she danced at a strip club down the street, she could make ten times more.”

Any kind of work can objectify; part of what is so explosive about sex work is that it lays that bare.

 

•  •  •

 

By the time I talk to Asha Malhotra, I am convinced we need to decriminalize sex work.

“Absolutely not,” she snaps. “It will just give people more of a reason to run girls. It gives them a green light, and it removes our voice.” Her dark eyes hold mine. “Feminists who believe we have equal rights have never been in a position where you have none to begin with.”

Trafficked at seventeen, Malhotra later started a nonprofit called Break Every Chain. She believes that decriminalization, like pornography, will only perpetuate the violence and misogyny written into our culture. Even cam girls do damage, she says, changing how men think about women and about sex.

When Rhode Island accidentally decriminalized prostitution in 2003, courtesy of a legal loophole, rapes against women decreased by thirty percent.

She tells me more of her story, how she was working at a strip club and struggling with substance abuse when she was “picked out” by a man who ran women the way smugglers used to run bootleg whiskey. “They use anything that can separate you from reality and let them manipulate you,” she says: bringing you drugs, pretending to love you, noticing that your beliefs waver, that you feel abandoned by your family, that your heart is broken.

At first she was desperate not just for the money but for the attention, the glamour, the escape. “That fantasy dropped away fast,” she says. “It became rape for profit. I’ve been beaten; I’ve had a gun in my mouth.” When a friend came into the strip club and saw her bruises, he gave her $100 and told her to get on a Greyhound bus. She wound up in St. Louis and never went back.

 

 

“The men were just bodies moving on me. Bits of color. They didn’t matter none. Sometimes I just felt like a needle in a jukebox. I just fell on that groove and rode in awhile. Then I’d pick the dust off and drop again.”

—Colum McCann in Let the Great World Spin

 

We talk a lot about men objectifying women, but to survive sex work, you have to detach. With the exception of a few affectionate regulars, clients are a blur of egos and body parts, all demanding to be sated.

I would like to think I could cut my mind loose, let it drift to a tropical island while my body went through the motions, protect the part that is me. But there is a reason we use the word “intimate.” Sex cuts closer to our core than any other physical act. It can rip away the garb and the façade, break through the boundaries, ease loneliness, soothe anxiety, restore a sense of self. Even its biochemistry is rigged to emotion, to tenderness. Oxytocin floods us after orgasm.

It takes me a while to muster the nerve to ask Shellington if she ever had orgasms on the job. “Yes, I did,” she answers, but the words have a clenched sound, no joy in them. After a pause, she says, “There was some shame. Definitely some shame. It felt kind of dirty.” Disassociating let her feel she was not really part of what was happening. Pleasure, even for a second, tore that curtain.

Purchased intimacy is an odd but widespread phenomenon. People are desperate to open themselves to someone, yet they feel ugly or perverse or ashamed, or their bodies do not work the way they want them to, or they need the confidence of paying, the assurance that they will have the upper hand, the emotional safety of a stranger, the relief of dictating what they need. Maybe they want to practice, or test a quirk of desire. To be flattered. To make someone do their bidding. To avoid vulnerability, the risk of rejection, the chance that they are inadequate. To escape the boredom or emotional fuss of an established relationship. Is this intimacy? They hunger for release, but they could manage that alone. They buy sex to not be alone, Malhotra says. “They want to be wanted.”

I give a little terrier shake, trying to clear my head. “They feel wanted even when they’re paying?”

She shrugs. “They have crappy marriages, and their wives are not respectful or kind.”

Sex workers have told Berg that sometimes this is the only place straight men can be vulnerable: “Something about the power dynamic makes them feel they can relax.”

I hate the implications of that.

 

•  •  •

 

“Dammit, Tracy Marie, you know better,” Shellington’s mom used to say. But it was not until she brought a trick home and found her mother lying dead in the hall that the knowledge rose up inside her. “Get out,” she screamed at him, blocking his view of her mother’s body. His eyes on her body would be sacrilege.

From that night on, Shellington worked to get sober. She won back custody of her son. She found work as a customer-service trainer. (“Transferable job skills,” she giggles.). AA was helping her believe in something bigger than herself, bigger than the booze and drugs that cut a jagged line through her family history.

At one of the meetings, a kind-voiced man asked her out.

“Look,” she warned him, “this is how it’s going to be. You’re going to hear a lot of stuff about me, and people will warn you to stay away from me.” He started to promise that he would not listen. “Please,” she said, hand on his arm, “hear me out. Let’s just say, it’s all true. And it’s not anymore.”

A year and a half later, they married.

One night, they were curled up watching Casino, and he exclaimed, “What is the matter with her?” Sharon Stone’s character was gorgeous and smart, yet she kept sneaking off to see some loser.

“She doesn’t know,” Shellington said quietly. “She doesn’t believe who she is.”

Sex workers have told Berg that sometimes this is the only place straight men can be vulnerable: “Something about the power dynamic makes them feel they can relax.” I hate the implications of that.

Since the age of five, abused by a young uncle her family doted on, Tracy Shellington has been terrified that no one would believe her. Even as she tells me her story, she often checks: “You know what I mean?” “If that makes sense?” She is testing my response.

On the surface, our childhoods were so similar—a mother on her own, a stern grandmother, a kindly grandfather going off by himself to drink beer. But my mom stayed home in the evenings, and nobody abused me, and I was shy with boys and finished school. There but for the grace.

Shellington dropped out of high school, but “in eighth grade I would have been voted ‘most likely to succeed’ by a landslide,” she says. “But that’s not how I felt. I was popular and pretty, and I did not cut myself any corners. It had to be the top or nothing at all. But I always had this fear that I was going to get found out.”

When a teacher wrote, “Tracy’s an absolute delight,” she heard, “Do you feel that, nasty girl?” Praise and awards seemed unreal, a stage set for a made-up play. Only the dark stuff felt true.

Now, though, the world is right side up again. She is happy in her marriage and beamingly proud of her nearly grown son. She works as a certified alcohol and drug counselor and case manager, pulling anyone she can reach away from the darkness. It is the best job she can imagine.

Another thing she says a lot? “You can live two lives.”

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