Who doesn’t love a mighty story? I’m reading a really good book right now and I want to turn you all on to it — Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home by Richard Bell.
It doesn’t get much more gobsmackingly courageous than this — five children, free black boys in Philadelphia, are stolen by slavers and transported to the South — and how they eventually, miraculously escaped.
It’s non-fiction and paced like a Stephen King horror novel. It’s an absolutely riveting read about an ugly chapter of U.S. history — the “Reverse Underground Railroad.” The unchecked and largely unpunished practice of kidnapping freed people of color for profit and selling them into slavery.
I’m not going to give away the story, (GO READ IT!) but one part in the beginning really whacked me in the gut — the boys are duped by the offer of work. To go the docks and unload a shipment of fruit, for which they will be paid a quarter.
A whole quarter.
The author explains 25 cents would seem a princely sum to a hungry child in the 1820s. These children, 8, 9, 10 years old, their foolish crime was believing a stranger would pay them a decent wage for a hard job. For that belief — that fortune had smiled upon them and they would get a fair deal — they lost their freedom and their families. They were kidnapped, abused, and sold.
For believing they were worth a quarter.
That was the fatal mistake, the give, the too-good-to-be-true ruse — that they’d had a lucky break. Children who really needed a lucky break. And who were by their nature trusting, small, and vulnerable. They had the audacity to believe that someone offering them a job would treat them well and pay them a quarter.
It was their undoing. Had they not believed it, had they been cold-hearted 9-year-old cynics with full bellies, and zero needs, perhaps they would’ve turned down the offer.
I thought of that quarter recently.
“I’m a stupid woman; I’m a dumb, dumb, dumbass.”
In the Atlantic Monthly story “The Perfect Man Who Wasn’t” this is what a victim says after she learns she was conned in a romance scam. Derek Alldred is not the charming suitor he appears — he’s a career criminal and Missi Brandt is one of his many marks.
Her crime? The too-good-to-be-true ruse? That she was lovable. That his interest was sincere.
All the insanity that follows is based on that one fundamental hook — that this man — tall, generous, affable — cared for her.
That was her quarter. Had she not believed it, had Missi Brandt been a cold-hearted 45-year-old cynic without a divorce and zero needs, perhaps she would’ve turned down the offer. But she audaciously trusted. She was optimistic and hopeful about love.
I think this is the insidious thing about deceit, the way it subverts a victim’s self-worth. That people come away from abuse giving up on hope for better things. That they shouldn’t believe in quarters. Or better treatment. Decent wages for hard work. Reciprocated love.
From “The Perfect Man Who Wasn’t“:
Even more damaging than the financial ramifications was the damage to their fundamental faith in the world, that bedrock sense that things are what they seem. “My mind was all over the place—Am I being taken or am I being overly suspicious?,” Derek’s Las Vegas victim, Kelly, recalls. “It’s so far-fetched—you’re just like, there’s no way. He gets into your life, your family’s life, your finances. I didn’t know that people like him existed.” The damage rippled outward, affecting the women’s family and friends as well: “It just about killed my mother,” Linda said. “He would sit and talk with her for hours. She’s like, ‘Was all of it a lie?’ ”
That’s the hard lesson — predators exist. And we must be wary, while still holding on to our self-worth.
Which is hard, when your belly is empty and you really need a job. Or when you’ve been hurt and you’re hungry for love. In a perfect world, there would be no hunger of either sort. But we live in a fallen world with bad people who prey on vulnerability.
We also live in a world full of resiliency and bravery. The children who escape the slavers are unimaginably heroic. I suppose the same audacity that allows you to believe in the promise of a quarter’s wages, permits you to believe in the odds of your survival. The victims of Derek Alldred also banded together to take him down.
Let me be clear, I’m not comparing the suffering of enslaved children to the pain of being chumped by a con. These crimes aren’t in the same universe. (For starters, the victims of Derek Alldred were able to eventually convince the police to do something. The bereft parents of those stolen children had zero recourse. Stolen isn’t just the story of 5 boys, it’s the story of systemic indifference to the horrors inflicted on African-Americans.)
Predators understand human psychology, our hooks. Cons know what bait to dangle. How to take your very best qualities — your hope and optimism for the future and use it against you. They feed not only on need and human frailty, but the strongest, best parts of their victims — our faith in another’s intrinsic goodness and sense of fair play.
We should never beat ourselves up for believing in higher ideals — justice, true love, a decent job. Victims aren’t dumbasses. The same qualities that made you a mark are probably the same qualities that make you a survivor — sticktoitiveness, hard work, being of high value. In Stolen, the boys are kidnapped because they trusted the wrong person. They’re saved, in part, because they risk trusting the right persons.
So I don’t think the answer to life’s villains is cynicism. Better powers of discernment, wariness, sure. But no one escapes monsters without a vision of a better world beyond monsters. Escape is an act of faith, not cynicism. So dream big. Hold out for more than chump change.