Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Book Review: Faraway by R.K. Kline and Daniel D. Maurer

Looking back, I know that my existence has been defined most of all by those events of my fourteenth summer. I divide my life into two: the periods of time before and after those summer months of '75. I didn't intend for it to be this way. But I understand now that the Kevin before 1975 doesn't exist within me anymore. Sometimes it feels like he's out living a normal life in a parallel universe. He's got his own normal story. But I'm left with mine. - R.K Kline, Faraway

Late last year, I read and reviewed a book by Alisa Jordheim called Made in the USA. It included a series of firsthand accounts from victims of sex trafficking, as well as some pointers on how to assess whether someone might be a victim themselves. The accounts were shocking not only due to their abusive elements, but how they started and where they took place. In one form or another, every story started with the trafficker earning the victim's trust, either themselves or through a liaison of some kind. And they all took place in Ordinary America: rather than in the scary back alleys on the wrong side of the tracks, most took place in subdivisions and in other places that would be considered safe and normal.

Faraway: A Suburban Boy's Story as a Victim of Sex Trafficking by R.K. Kline and Daniel D. Maurer (whose Sobriety I've also reviewed) is a more in-depth account of sex trafficking and victimization. It is a story that took Kline decades to muster the courage to tell, but it is yet another important look into how children and adolescents get pulled into such a life.

Kline begins with a little background: a typical white middle-class family in Florissant, Missouri in 1975. Florissant is just outside St. Louis, and a neighboring community to Ferguson. He is in many ways an ordinary 14-year-old: he goes to school, hangs out with friends, plays at the local park, and so on. At this age, he has already discovered that he is gay, which causes him a great deal of anxiety about what will happen if his family finds out, as well as how to explore and make peace with this part of his identity. He has a few friends who turn out to be gay as well, and they are mildly helpful, but it is when he meets a boy named Tim that he thinks he's made a big breakthrough in figuring out who he is.

Unfortunately, Tim is a front person who brings potential victims to a pimp named Ray, and this is what happens to Kevin. Ray first lures him in with promises of having fun together and airs of serving as an older mentor and lover, but once Kevin is hooked, he is forced into turning tricks with two other hustlers, Stevie and Squirrel, in Tower Grove Park in St. Louis.

The first striking aspect of this narrative, aside from a 14-year-old being victimized in the first place, is how Kevin is drawn into the life to begin with. In both Made in the USA and Faraway, this part of every story is something I personally will always find shocking. That someone--at times even a family member--will first earn and then betray trust in order to make money off the abuse, degradation, and devaluation of another human being will never lose its visceral affect for me. What Tim and then Ray do to coax a confused 14-year-old into "the life" is a demonstration of how innocently these stories begin, and also how quickly they can turn.

The heart of the story in many ways is the bond between Kevin, Stevie, and Squirrel. These three boys, pushed into this predicament not only by Ray but also by circumstances such as desperation and poverty, become genuine friends and look after each other as such. There is more than one occasion during the narrative when the only reason Kevin agrees to work for Ray again is so that he can see the other two, to make sure they're okay and, somewhat ironically, to experience authentic relationship. Stevie and Squirrel truly are the two main reasons Kevin makes it through the summer.

One undercurrent to this story is the role of denial. Fearful of what might happen if his family, friends, school, or anyone else might do, Kevin keeps his sexual orientation to himself, even as he has so many questions. He repeatedly states that his parents in particular drop enough hints of their disapproval of such an identity, which keeps him from turning to them for guidance. There were also indicators that Stevie may have been pushed out of his home by such an attitude. Near the end of the book, Kline rather pointedly makes the case that it is such a cultural stigma persisting even today that helps trap many young gay boys in trafficking, because they aren't sure of safer options prior to their being assimilated.

Again, Kevin's story happens right under the noses of everyone. His family just assumes that he's spending the night with friends when out working for Ray. In fact, he leads two completely different lives: one in Florissant and one in Tower Grove, and nobody in his home life is the wiser. As one for whom St. Louis is a special and treasured place, to see so many familiar areas as the background for this story helped illustrate the point that sex trafficking doesn't happen Out There, but in places we know and call home.

Kline's story does well to illustrate the ways in which sex trafficking is the result of systems of poverty, ostracization, discrimination, and denial. As Jordheim also notes in her book, victims of trafficking do not choose this life, but are forced into it. That is no less the case for gay youth who are told to leave their families or who otherwise are given no safer alternatives. Faraway is a powerful call to awareness of how we as a society have created this problem ourselves.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)