By Jan Pudlow
Wendi Adelson sat down to write a law review article on an esoteric point of law, but the voices of her human trafficking clients swirled in her brain, shouting to be heard.
Adelson, now a visiting clinical professor at Florida State University College of Law, gave those clients a collective voice in a true-life, but fictionalized, saga of modern-day slaves in our own backyard, in her novel: This Is Our Story.
“I want to make sure people understand the nuance of what’s going on here, that human trafficking isn’t just like the movie, ‘Taken,’ where you have rescue scenes and brothel doors getting kicked out. And then, oh, everything’s over. Everything’s OK.
“It’s not that simple. Doing work representing victims of human trafficking here in Tallahassee, you have to get over people not believing it could possibly happen here.”
As a program director for the Human Rights and Immigration Law Project at FSU’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, Adelson represented, among others, Guatemalan women who thought they were escaping poverty to come to America to become maids.
But their new domestic positions turned out to be coerced prostitution, as their captor shuttled them daily to trailers and apartments around Tallahassee to have sex with multiple men. They were ordered to work off the costs of being smuggled across the Mexican border, walking four nights until they got to Houston, and then driven in a van to Florida’s capital.
The Guatemalan women eventually fled to the house of a Tallahassee neighbor, who then called police, setting in motion a federal prosecution against Colombian organized crime.
Because Adelson speaks Spanish, she ended up driving her clients to doctors’ appointments and mental health appointments, serving as both legal advocate and translator, as she helped them through the court process, and jumping through the legal hoops to remain in the United States.
“What I’ve tried to do was write a story — it’s hundreds of people’s stories — people who I’ve represented and people I’ve read about,” said Adelson, now director of the new Medical Legal Partnership at FSU College of Law’s Public Interest Law Center.
“It’s a composite. There’s a ton of reality, but there’s no one person’s life, so there’s no confidentiality that’s been violated,” she said.
The novel follows the lives of three women:
• Rosa Hernandez, a 14-year-old eighth-grader living in poverty in Argentina, who thinks she is being recruited by a Miami woman to learn the restaurant business in America, continue her education, and earn a stunning $400 a week. Instead, she is held captive at the woman’s house as a violently abused servant.
• Mila Gulej, 17, bored to be working in a restaurant with her mother in Slovakia, dreams of a more glamorous life as an actress in New York. She answers an ad and ends up gutting chickens at a Chinese restaurant in Atlanta, and dancing at a strip club to pay off her “debt,” held by a man she thought was her boyfriend.
• Lily Walker Stone, a former corporate lawyer, who moves to Hiawassee Springs because her husband snagged a job as an English associate professor at North Florida State University. She ends up working at the Immigrants’ Justice Center of the Big Bend.
“I tried to make it as close to reality as it could be. I tried to represent individuals’ lives before, during, and after their experiences with trafficking, so you could see the vulnerabilities that led to someone being trafficked.
“Because sometimes I hear people say, ‘Oh, they should have realized it. Why would they stay?’ It’s the invisible chain, the psychological coercion.”
Details of sexual violence and exploitation fill this page-turner with the dark side of cruelty, but lawyer Lily’s wry sense of humor provides some comic relief.
“There’s also a lot of humanity and people trying to grapple with growing up in all sorts of different ways, in dealing with difficult circumstances, and dealing with loss and trying to move on and really see a positive future for themselves,” Adelson said.
Her intended audience, she said, is “people who are just on the cusp of graduating from college, starting careers, and thinking about their place in the world, and what they wanted to do.
“I’m sort of advocating for public interest lawyering as a career option,” Adelson said.
“But also, just the general public — anyone who’s interested in hearing a story of what it means to be an immigrant, what it means to be a victim, what it means to try to represent someone and be an advocate for people who are marginalized; anyone who is interested in that story or interested in the question of human trafficking and why we have this exploitive practice still going on in 2012.”
For Adelson, writing the novel was “a form of therapy to get these stories down and not keep it bottled up. Being able to share it and have people say, ‘Wow! I didn’t know what was going on! I can’t believe people are living like that!’ — that means something to me. And I can give something to my clients, as well, just to let them know that people care.”
One review of the book posted on Amazon.com is from Marisa Cianciarulo, as associate professor of law at Chapman University in Orange, California, who specializes in clinical teaching and immigration law with a human rights focus.
“She brings to life the utter disregard for human dignity that characterizes traffickers around the world. She movingly and persuasively demonstrates how the victims are brutalized into believing in their own lack of self-worth, lack of recourse, and lack of a future,” Cianciarulo writes.
“The book ends with a bittersweet, frustrating, but all too real resolution that brings into stark relief the magnitude and gravity of human trafficking.”
To purchase This Is Our Story, go to www.wendiadelson.com, where there are links to both Kindle and paperback versions.