Book Review: The Girl Before, Rena Olsen (2016)

August 8th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

A harrowing (if atypical) tale of human trafficking.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence, including rape.)

If what I’ve been told is true, if I was taken from a loving family, what does that mean for the girls I raised? Were these girls all taken as well? Glen had to know. There’s no way that I’ve been able to work it out in my mind that he didn’t. I want to talk to him, to ask him why, but part of me is terrified of the answer. Terrified to know the truth, because if he knew, if he orchestrated all of it, then what does that make me? What did he make me?

Alt title: “The Deprogramming of Diana McKinley.”

The Girl Before begins with a bang and a whimper as federal agents raid the headquarters of a human trafficking ring in the Rocky Mountains. Among the girls and women rescued is Clara Lawson (real name Diana McKinley), who was abducted from a park near her home when she was just six years old.

Like all of the other children kidnapped by Papa G and Mama Mae, Clara was told that her parents no longer wanted her; had given or sold her to the Lawsons to raise; and would eventually be placed with a family who loved and needed her more than hers. The brainwashing begins immediately, and is reinforced with strict discipline, an emphasis on total obedience, and copious physical abuse. Strict gender segregation is maintained at all ages (after all, can’t have the boys “sullying” the merchandise), with boys trained to be bodyguards, manual laborers, or Papa G’s own personal militia, and girls groomed as “companions.” A high-end brothel, Mama teaches her girls etiquette, reading, writing, proper speech, and foreign languages in order to appeal to wealthy buyers. Some clients even choose “their” girl in advance, with special instructions as to their education.

Clara is one such girl, having been promised to Mr. Q – a man easily thirty years her senior – at the age of twelve. The only thing standing between her and a life as a sex slave is Glen Lawson, Jr. – Papa G and Mama Mae’s only son and the heir to their operation. He and Clara fall in love and, with a little perseverance, a whole lot of nerve, and a bit of Machiavellian maneuvering, manage to stay together, despite the odds. But theirs is a bargain with the devil: Papa G agrees to let Glen buy Clara, but only if they stay and take over the business when he retires. And so Clara becomes both victim and victimizer, as she trains girls the way Mama trained her (albeit with a much gentler, more compassionate hand).

Yet it’s not as though she has any other options (“My life is not about choices.”), nor does Clara know anything other than what Glen tells her. Having grown up in the brothel, raised on its lies, Clara knows no other way of existing. (That, and Glen actively discourages her curiosity in the form of escalating physical abuse.)

The story is told in alternating then/now passages, with Clara’s rescuers – agents Connor and Jay; therapist Dr. Mulligan; and Heather and the members of a women’s support group for victims of human trafficking – trying to undo years of brainwashing in mere weeks and months. More than the abuse, this proved the most interesting part of the narrative: just how do you convince a person that everything she knows of the world is incorrect? That her husband is a monster; that she and her “daughters” are in fact victims; and that her real family never stopped looking for her? Especially when accepting the good goes hand in hand with confronting some rather unpleasant truths about your own complicity, however unintentional?

In many ways, this feels like what the women and children involved in the 2014 raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch might have went through. (Minus the lengthy deprogramming, unfortunately.) Just add a whopping dose of Mormon fundamentalism and polygamy, and Clara’s experience doesn’t feel all that different.

Equally repulsive and fascinating, The Girl Before is a harrowing – if atypical – look inside a human trafficking ring. While I’m hardly an expert on the topic, I don’t think it’s common for rings to spend years grooming girls for specific clients; that represents a huge investment of time, effort, specialized skills, patience – not to mention risk. In fact, Olsen seems to acknowledge this through the words of the judge assigned to Clara’s case (“‘In fact,’ Judge Riebe says, ‘there is nothing typical about your case.'”).

Yet there are clear benefits to structuring the story this way: by following Clara’s journey through the organization, Olsen is able to give us a clearer picture of the many facets of human trafficking, as well as the long-term effects on those ensnared in its web. The battle raging in Clara’s psyche – or should I say Diana’s? – is both compelling and heartbreaking, as she learns to forgive herself for the atrocities she was powerless to prevent.

The ending is perhaps a little too positive to be believable (still rather gloomy though); yet, after 300+ pages of reading about sexual slavery, child rape, brainwashing, Stockholm syndrome, and physical-punishment-as-love, maybe a little optimism is just what the psychiatrist ordered.

Trigger warnings like whoah. (Obviously.) This is a difficult book to read, even as Olsen exercises remarkable restraint (e.g., she never shows us what Glen does to Clara after he tells her to lock the door, and I for one am glad of it).

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: The story opens with a federal raid on a human trafficking ring in the Rocky Mountains. One of the survivors, Clara, is held in protective custody and undergoes deprogramming in the following weeks and months. Through scattered flashbacks, we get a glimpse of her life with her kidnappers, the Lawsons. Physical abuse is commonplace: Papa G and Mama Mae frequently hit the boys and girls for minor infractions; more serious forms of rebellion might earn you a public whipping. Whereas the girls are trained as high-end “companions” for wealthy clients over the course of years, girls deemed untrainable are sent to the “Treehouse” – a brothel where they’re raped by multiple clients a night.

Glen Jr. falls in love with Clara, ultimately buying her from his parents, thus saving her from life as a sex slave. However, he’s physically and emotionally abusive. Having been raised to be obedient to her “superiors” – in this case her husband – Clara has normalized the abuse; it’s for her own good. Likewise, while her relationship with Glen appears to be consensual, a captive can’t really consent to anything. She never says no to Glen when he desires sex, even if it’s rough and leaves her sore and bleeding.

Clara has suffered three miscarriages – which we later learn were caused by a tea Mama Mae insisted she drink “for morning sickness,” at Papa G’s command.

When she catches Glen’s right-hand man Joel attempting to rape one of her younger girls, Clara offers herself up instead. When the rape has ended, she shoots Joel in the crotch. Later on, Clara experiences flashbacks of this one particular incident.

Glen is Papa G and Mama Mae’s only son. Her first three babies were girls – girls who Papa G sold, without her input.

Physical abuse is not limited to the trafficking victims. Papa G often hits his wife and, when Glen gets older, he assaults Mama Mae as well. Papa G also hits Glen, at least when he’s a minor and cannot fight back.

Animal-friendly elements: n/a


Be Sociable, Share!

Filed under , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply