The novel Before We Were Yours written by Lisa Wingate raises the topic of tough childhood with traumatizing events. Even though the novel is fictional, it retells the stories of real people that were living in a Tennessee orphanage. The trauma of being put through human trafficking cannot be fully healed. Child abuse puts victims through a never-ending cycle of violent attitudes that they are afraid to break. The mental and emotional distress of such children takes away their identity with little possibility of recovering discussed in Before We Were Yours. The novel discloses children’s trauma and its reflection on their future behavior by developing the conflict of identity and experiencing the physical and psychological loss of their parents.
The Trauma of the Main Characters
The novel narrates the experience of twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her family. Due to unfortunate circumstances, her parents, Queenie and Briny, were separated from her and her four siblings. Queenie was pregnant with twins, and her husband Briny put Rill Foss in charge when he had to leave for the hospital with going into labor wife. Policemen that took children by force represent the inhumanity and venality of the people in the society. Children were brought to the orphanage that was ruled by three women full of cruelty and evil. Miss Tann, Mrs. Murphy, and Mrs. Pulnik were in charge of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society where Rill Foss stayed with her siblings for a long time.
Siblings faced various mistreatment, abuse, malnutrition, and neglect during their stay in the orphanage. Camellia, Rill Foss’s sister was raped by one of the employees of the orphanage, and soon after she disappeared. Miss Tann started behaving as if Camellia had never existed before. The character of Georgia Tann represents hypocrisy and two facades as she, under political influence, makes herself a savior image in society. Miss Tann developed heart-touching advertisements stating that the children were vulnerable, lost, and in the need of a new home, and a loving family. With the help of policymakers, Georgia managed to destroy children’s true legal information, which made it practically impossible for biological parents to find them. Tann did not provide any support to children at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Furthermore, children did not have any medical, educational, or social support. Such traumatizing events led the main characters of the novel to have their identity lost.
The realization that each of the siblings was slowly but steadily adopted by rich families, took away piece by piece from Rill Foss’s personality. The teenager soon develops a dual pattern of losing the identity she had from birth to having a new one, called May, given by Miss Tann. Rill Foss uses her previous name to separate the two individualities she holds inside. The interpretation of how May talks of her former name is a coping mechanism she uses to deal with her trauma. It is rather a response than a dissociative identity disorder. For example, Rill says:
“Rill Foss can’t breathe in this place. She doesn’t live here. Only May Weathers does. Rill Foss lives down on the river. She’s the princess of Kingdom Arcadia” (Wingate 193). These words underline how she separates May and Rill inside to save her mental health. May even questions if her previous self has ever existed: “Maybe Rill is only a story I read, like Huck Finn and Jim. Maybe I’m not even Rill and never was” (Wingate 217). The woman endured agony being named Rill and May but they had different responses to the hurtful events. It is easier for her to handle the events as another person because, in that case, Rill Foss is a viewer, not a participant. If Rill is not a participant, she is not taking any mental damage. It is a way for her brain to block the negative aspects that the trafficking experience brings — posttraumatic stress disorder, suicidality, and self-harm (Greenbaum and Bodrick 4). She made up another identity so she can act in another way to stop feeling the guilt and pain experienced in childhood.
Two of the siblings, Rill and Fern, were adopted by a wealthy composer and his wife, and the couple was treating the children well as they experienced several children’s deaths before. The girls are called May and Beth, the names they had since they were moved to the orphanage. One day Miss Tann appears at the house and demands a large sum of money threatening to take the children back. Fill and Fern decided to run away to their hometown Arcadia. Then, the children got to know that their mother had deceased, and their father was suffering from alcohol abuse. Several days after Arcadia burns down, Briny could not be found. Rill and Fern returned to their stepparents where they spent the rest of their childhood. The tragedy of the period after living in an orphanage is in gone hopes that children had in their hearts to find their parents. The faith that warned the hearts of children was broken as they could never be reunited with family members. The tragedy of losing their parents not only physically but also psychologically brings pain to Rill and Foss.
Trauma received in childhood demonstrates a broad variety of outcomes such as adverse mental, physical, and emotional health conditions caused by exploitation and lack of care. Not every child can survive trafficking as kids experiencing only traumatic events might develop serious mental health disorders. There is no concrete answer to what kind of condition the victim might have over time. Trauma is a response to previous events, and there is no way to erase it.
Greenbaum, Jordan, and Bodrick Nia. “Global Human Trafficking and Child Victimization”. Pediatrics, vol. 140, no.6, 2017, pp. 1-12.
Wingate, Lisa. Before We Were Yours: A Novel. Ballantine Books, 2017.