This year at Off the Market: Slavery Then and Now, I had the privilege of hearing from Dr. Laura Murphy, a world renowned expert on modern forms of slavery. Unlike many others in her field, Dr. Murphy has made it a priority to focus her work not only on helping enslaved individuals escape their circumstances, but also on helping them to tell their own stories. A current professor at Loyola University, Dr. Murphy is also the Lead Researcher for Loyola’s Modern Slavery Research Project. So far, Dr. Murphy has interviewed over forty survivors of slavery — documenting their first-person accounts — in order to better understand their experiences, and the lasting effect that those experiences have had on them.
Dr. Murphy began her speech by explaining that real-life slavery is nothing live the Liam Neeson movie: Taken. The majority of enslaved individuals do not have a wealthy fathers in the CIA who have the resources to rescue them within a week; In fact, the majority of victims are targeted because they do not have any local friends or family — no one will come looking for them. This means that many of the targets are either immigrants or individuals of low socio-economic status. Another sad reality of modern-day slavery is that, despite years of joint efforts between governments and NGO’s, there is no easy way to rescue people from slavery. This is because the majority of people are not aware that it is going on, and do not know the signs to look for in order to identify it. If we are to truly end modern slavery, it is imperative that we dispel of our false notions of what slavery looks like.
During her speech, Dr. Murphy emphasized the importance of allowing survivors of slavery to tell their own stories without criticizing them for not explaining every horror they experienced in graphic detail. She explained that many times survivors intentionally skip over some of the most violent situations that they endured because the experiences are simply too painful to share with the world, or they do not feel that they should have to share the entirety of their story with the world. Dr. Murphy elaborated that many survivors are weary of allowing others access to the pain and suffering that hey endured because they had relatively no privacy while enslaved and do not feel obligated to share their private experiences with the public.
Survivors of slavery have multiple tactics of sharing their narratives without laying their experiences out in the open for anyone to examine. Many survivors will use deflection, shifting the focus from themselves to another individual (either a friend or someone whom they helped after escaping slavery) when describing traumatic events. Others will completely skip the most violent encounters by panning the focus to a seemingly insignificant details of the situation. For instance, it is common for sexual slavery survivors to focus on something like a candle, or the color of the walls, when they are describing their rape. In other cases, survivors will code their speech in metaphors, that allow them to explain their experiences without blatantly stating them.
Presently, it has become a trend for (typically) wealthy white women to narrate, or co-narrate, survivors stories with them. Although this does seem beneficial in that it allows survivors stories to be told, it also distorts the survivors original stories. In fact, in many cases, the survivors original story can end up playing second fiddle to narrators personal agenda (whether it be fame, fortune, or the furthering of a specific organization). In order to truly understand and eradicate modern systems of slavery, we must stop viewing survivors as merely the helpless victims of circumstance and begin to recognize them as our equals, allowing them to voice their own stories without our interference.