More bitter than sweet

I spend a lot of time reading – well, when I’m not writing that is. I read a huge variety of things – romance, romantic suspense, suspense, mystery, thriller, chick lit, sci fi, and nonfiction, too.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been reading Ashley Judd’s All That Is Bitter and Sweet. It’s a memoir that tells about her childhood, and also of her work in foreign countries with different groups that are working to end or at least decrease such diseases as AIDS, HIV, and malaria.

I’ve been struggling a bit to finish the book. I confess that I found the parts about her childhood to be very interesting. Until I’d read this, I had only heard some vague rumors that Ashley’s mother was not the sweet little country girl she portrayed herself to be. So reading about what Ashley, and her sister Wynona, went through as children, and how it affected them as adults was fascinating.

It also served as something of an eye opener for me. While I don’t have issues with my family from the way I was raised, I do have people in my life that have treated me badly and hurt me deeply. While I don’t generally tend to let anger motivate me, and I thought I had accepted and moved on from what had happened, as I read this book, I began to realize that maybe I hadn’t accepted as much as I thought I had. That served to make me do some serious thinking about those people and situations, and to begin trying to truly make peace with those things in my past.

But the rest of the book, the part that doesn’t speak about her childhood and her personal life, has been a bit of a battle for me to read. Initially, I thought it was because of Ashley herself. There’s a lot about her sobbing, crying, being in pain, finding things so horrific and feeling so bad for the children and women she encounters in her social justice work.

Let me back up a bit. She works with an organization that goes to such countries as India, Cambodia, and various places in Africa. This particular organization’s main focus (at least as I take it from the book) is on educating prostitutes in these countries about condom use and attempting to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS. Many times, the prostitutes they are trying to help are women (and sometimes men or children) who are actually sex slaves – people that were kidnapped, or somehow tricked, and are now forced to work as prostitutes.

Back to my original point now – Ashley meets with these prostitutes, often young women and sometimes even children, and as she writes, ends up incredibly upset by what she sees and hears. Don’t get me wrong – I would think there was something wrong with someone who didn’t feel bad for these people, who didn’t wish they could do something to help. But some of the reactions she has, at least as they are written, seem to be a bit…over the top. Perhaps she’s just a more sensitive person than others. But it’s also the way she writes about the high ranking officials she meets, and the attitude she gets with some people (I won’t spoil the book, but let’s just say if I ever see her in a hotel somewhere, I won’t be asking if she’s on vacation) – it’s not a holier than thou attitude, exactly, but it does come across as though she is offended by anyone who doesn’t share exactly the same opinion as her own.

But I’ve realized now that a larger part of my struggle to finish this book is the topic itself. While she doesn’t go into great detail, she does describe how these women are forced into prostitution. She talks about the rapes that some of them endure, how some of them choose prostitution because the alternative is allowing their children to starve.

The thought of these things make me sick. What makes me even sicker, though, is that these women do it for so little. Prostitutes here in the states charge double digits, at least, most of the time, and high class escorts can get exorbitant fees (I don’t know exact rates, I’ve had to look around online and talk to people who’ve done this kind of work as research for a couple of ideas I’ve had for books). But these women in other countries are doing this for pennies – literally. We’re talking a dollar or two, if they’re lucky, to allow a man to use their body. These men will pay an extra dollar or two to not use a condom – and in some cases, they’ll simply beat her for asking him to use one, and then rape her anyway.

That is why I struggle to finish this book. I’ve realized how very fortunate I am to have been born here, where I have the freedom to choose my own career. I was lucky to be born in a country where I am in charge of my own body and I don’t have to tolerate a man beating me or raping me. I think about what my life would be like if I’d been born in any of the countries these women are in, or many other countries, and the thought terrifies me.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to have no rights, to be used and abused and not only have other people think it’s normal, but to think it’s normal myself. But I don’t need my imagination, because this book paints such a vivid image of what it would be like. And it’s a very difficult thing to comprehend.

I’ve had people look at me like I’d grown two heads when they hear that I write books in which I murder people, kidnap kids, and even kidnap women for use in an illegal porn business in one book, but say that the sight of a gruesome murder on TV makes me cringe, or that the thought of sex slaves makes me sick.

But the thing is, there’s a huge difference between the characters I create and then proceed to make their lives hell, and real, live people (or what appears to be real, live people when I’m watching Criminal Minds or NCIS). When I write, I’m making the people up, and I know they’re fake. I can bring them back to life simply by erasing what I’ve typed, or take them out of the dungeon they’re in, or give their kid back to them by changing a few words here and there.

I can’t hit the backspace button on my laptop and free sex slaves in India or Africa. I can’t hit delete and give children who’ve been raped and turned into prostitutes back their childhood innocence. Knowing that these are real people – living, breathing people with feelings, minds and hearts – dealing with these lives is very different.

I have four chapters left (well, actually, about three and a half, I think) before I’m done with this book. I’m determined to finish, but it’s not going to be easy. The book itself is well written, it’s just the subject matter that’s giving me problems.

If you haven’t read this book, it is well worth reading. It’s an eye opener, for sure. It will introduce into your mind many things that you may not have thought about before. It will give you a glimpse of a life that you will not only be grateful isn’t yours, but also wonder how anyone survives it.

But be prepared. Realize before you start the book that the things you are going to read are real, and that right now, there are thousands of women in those countries (and others like it) that are living that life right now. There are little girls being born in those countries who face that same life for their own futures. There are little boys being born who will be raised to think that that life is normal and acceptable.

It will make you think. It will make you cry. And if you’re anything like me, it will make you want to vomit at times.

But it will also make you grateful for the life you have, for the problems you have. I know it’s done that for me.