Late 1950s in Saginaw, Michigan.
Joyce Dixson is a 7-year-old girl living with her mother, grandfather and grandmother. Joyce says, “My grandmother never had a house that wasn’t big enough for all of us, my mother, my brother and me because she knew we’d end up there.”
Joyce never knew her father, “I got all the names, you know, I never knew what bastard meant until I got older.”
She remembers her time in that house. She remembers her friends, her street, and she specifically remembers when a carnival rolled into town.
For her, it was easy to remember because it changed everything for her, “there was a carnival across the street from my grandmother’s house and it was free. So they had the, you know, the, the Merry go rounds and they had the Ferris wheels and all those things and we were excited. So I remembered asking my grandmother if I could go and she said, yeah, yeah, yeah, go. So I went to the carnival and this preacher guy says, well, you kids can play on the Merry go round and all that kind of stuff. But first you have to listen to what I have to say. When we were seven, we didn’t really want to hear it, but we knew we had to. But what was so interesting was that he started to talk about this man named Jesus. I had never heard anyone talked about the way he talked about that man. And when he got done, I didn’t want to stay at the carnival. I remember going to my grandmother’s house. I went back home and sat on her old three piece sectional, you know, the, the kind where the good pieces were covered in plastic. I remembered sitting there and I was like, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, come into my life. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. It was amazing. I was seven and I felt something happen and I thought nothing bad will ever happen to me. No one will ever hurt me because I’ve got Jesus.”
Joyce felt like she had a forcefield, a safety net. In her mind, she was almost bulletproof, until she wasn’t, “The very next week I was molested.” In a very small period of time a foundation was built beneath her feet and then crumbled.
Joyce recalls the night everything changed, “I was in my own bed and I wake up in the middle of the night and a man is sitting on the end of my bed, one hand over my mouth, his other hand in my pajamas. And what I remembered was that he had very large hands and you’d better not tell or you’re going to get in trouble. You’re going to get a whip. I remember laying there and somewhere in his excitement, he must’ve forgotten where his hand was because now I wasn’t over my mouth. It was over my nose and my mouth. I couldn’t breathe. I remember lying there and all that pain and thinking, where’s Jesus? Where’s Jesus? Where’s mama? Where’s anybody? And the worst part about it is there was a room full of people 15 feet away or less.” She says, even worse than these basic horrible facts is that this is what she encountered every Friday night for as long as this man was a friend of the family.
For Joyce this was the beginning of the redirection of her life. The road she was on was unsteady and in many ways unfulfilling, “there’s something about being molested at such an early age that, I don’t know, it’s like this aura that’s always with you. Any chance for healthy self esteem is destroyed before it’s ever been able to develop.” She began having sex regularly by age 14 and would have her first child at age 16 - her second when she was 18. Joyce couldn’t figure herself out, “I was out there trying to find my place, trying to find where I fit. I just didn’t fit anywhere.”
What she didn’t realize at the time is what she was looking for was validation. She wanted to be seen, respected and loved. Joyce tried every way she could think of to make things work, “I went to school and did all those things and tried to have jobs. I had good jobs, just nothing work, had boyfriend, nothing worked for me. And one day I meet him”
This “him,” this guy would become her world, for better or for worse. She says he was impressive, with his girls, cars, money and swagger. He bought Joyce and her family things. They ate it up and fully endorsed the relationship. But beyond the surface, this guy was not what he appeared to be. Joyce said he would beat her, and sometimes those beatings would leave her battered and bruised. When her family would see her marked up they would ask, “what do you keep doing to this man to make him do this to you? And, and if you leave him, what about us? He’s good to us.” Joyce felt trapped, from both sides.
Only she knew who this man was, “after the honeymoon was over, found myself getting up, you know, getting off the floor and getting up off the floor for saying things like, I thought, bitch, you don’t think, I think for you.” Their relationship only regressed. He would play the nice guy with Joyce’s family, but at the same time, “he was on another side of town saying things like, go ahead and leave and you’ll come to your mama’s funeral or go ahead and leave and I’ll have those two bastards or yours turned out in a week.”
Joyce says it’s easy for people who don’t understand how human trafficking works to ask “why don’t people just leave?” But she is quick to point out that a questions like that come from a place of ignorance. For women like her in a situation like she was in, it’s just not that easy. She says, “I hate it when people ask that stupid question about why didn’t you just leave? You could’ve just left. Well, I’m going to tell you why. Because when people like that say things to you like they’re going to hurt your mother or I’ll have your kids turned out or I’m gonna do something to hurt someone in your family when you know that this threat has been made by someone who could easily do it with no remorse at all."
So, it’s not that easy, "So it’s that kind of thing that will, that says that I just can’t get up and leave.” And because Joyce couldn’t leave, her situation only got worse. She would become his property. A money maker. Joyce would be trafficked, “all of a sudden appointments are being made from you in hotel rooms.” Her life was not her’s to control.
Her trafficker began setting up appointments all over the place, with men she’d never met before. She was treated less than human, more like an object. One evening things went worse than ever before, “this one instance, there were three guys waiting for me and they had already talked about what they were gonna do to me and I’m there and it’s all three men in there. They’re doing terrible things to me. I mean heinous things, degrading things, and they’re laughing. And I remember laying there in so much pain and I remember praying, God, please help me. Please help me. Then I thought, why in the world would God want to help you? You nasty thing.” Joyce’s self-worth was at an all-time low.
She took the abuse, waited for it to be over and planned to clean herself up and get ready for the next thing, but she never got that chance, “they stripped me naked, put me in the middle of a bed and beat me with pool sticks. The wager was how many licks I could take before I went down, so they beat me. Finally, the stick was broken cross my head. I thought it was over. He called for another stick and he started to beat me with that stick. But I remember going down, I couldn’t see, but I could hear and I heard someone say, you have to kill her. You can’t take her to the hospital because they’re going to ask too many questions. I remember praying again, God, please don’t let someone read to my children that they found their mother naked, dead face down and in a ditch.”
She didn’t see the conversation, but she heard another man say, “I can’t kill her,” which may have offered a small amount of relief, but Joyce was hurt... bad. They decided they would wrap her up in blankets and drop her off at the loading dock of the nearest hospital. She thinks she laid there for three hours before a maintenance worker found her and got her inside. She stayed in that hospital room for 13 days.
On day 13, the hospital finally reached someone to pick Joyce up, “guess who they released me to, to him, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I knew that if he didn’t kill me, someone in the streets was going to kill me. So I decided that my only way out was to kill him.”
What Joyce did next would set the course for the rest of her life, but she couldn’t have imagined how it would end up.