I am a huge fan of the popular podcast Ear Hustle, which details the day-to-day realities of life in prison. It was created in 2017 by Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams when they were both incarcerated, and Nigel Poor, a volunteer at San Quentin State Prison, where I have also volunteered for years. One episode, “Dirty Water,” from Ear Hustle’s second season, was very different from the rest. It was the first to feature a woman, Sara Kruzan, at its center.
The story she told was devastating. She spoke of the abuse she had suffered as a child at the hands of her mother, of being targeted and groomed by a man from her Los Angeles neighborhood at the age of 11, and trafficked by him at 13. When she was 16, she shot and killed her trafficker, was tried as an adult, and was sentenced to Life Without Parole.
“Dirty Water” also featured a former trafficker who was incarcerated at San Quentin. In conversation with him, Sara politely allowed him to tell his story, then gently, firmly, and eloquently challenged him when he did not express full accountability for the harm he had caused his victims. She also explained why she does not like the labels “prostitute” and “pimp” and feels that “sex trafficked” and “trafficker” is more appropriate. Listening to her speak, I was in awe of the warrior-like force of Sara Jessimy Kruzan and thought to myself, “This woman should write a book. I’ve never heard a story like hers.”
I had the good fortune to meet Sara in person and we became friends. I told her I thought she should write about her experience. She balked. In fact, it was not easy to convince her to agree to it. She thought that no one would be interested in what she had to say. I argued that I was, and I was sure others would be as well. Sara is very private. After her release from prison in 2013, she had made the decision to live outside the public eye, due to the abundant media interest in her case.
Though my own experience was vastly different and far less epically brutal than hers, as a reluctant #MeToo complainant in 2017, I understood something of Sara’s apprehension about exposing a painful situation from her past. I had publicly shared mine after years of keeping it private in order to stand in solidarity with a stranger who had offered an uncannily similar story to the one I had experienced.
Afterwards, I received emails from others who said that, because I had spoken up, they now felt empowered to talk about similar incidents they had kept secret for years. I realized that I wasn’t just speaking for myself, I was speaking for everyone who had gone through something like it, and more broadly for my mother, my sisters, their daughters, my daughter, her daughter, and all future generations of daughters to come. I understood firsthand the liberating power of speaking your truth. I shared my story with Sara.
It was idea of coming forward for other silent victims who might now feel less alone that finally convinced Sara to tell her story. She said, “If you think someone might be helped by this, I’m down for it. I also want Summer (her daughter) to learn about my experience from me.”
I temporarily moved to California to spend time re-visiting Sara’s past along with her. Together, we went to the locations discussed in the book. When the Covid-19 pandemic prevented us from continuing in person, phone calls, FaceTime, voice memos, texts, and emails became our mode of communication. Sara and I talked for hours, days, and many many months about the book. I read and studied court documents, police reports, doctor’s reports, personal letters, emails, photographs, and other documentation.
It has been an accomplishment and effort for me to have sorted through the particulars of Sara’s story, but it has been a heroic undertaking for her to relive it again. Surviving what she has gone through continues to be a battle for Sara. And I did not make it easy for her. I asked question after question and took her back to moments she did not want to go back to. While the book was being written, she went through a roller coaster of feelings: She had mixed emotions about her decision to tell her story—There were moments when she was excited and proud, juxtaposed with times when she was nervous and ashamed to think about what people will think of her. Through all of this, we found moments to laugh.
Still Sara also became physically ill at times reading some of the chapters I sent her to fact check. And it’s no wonder. What Sara has lived through will forever impact her. She has been diagnosed with Complex PTSD. Although she is finally free of the actual circumstances that held her in their vice grip, the events of her past continue to haunt her. The irony is that it is also what makes her such an empathetic and great friend. As well as an effective advocate for those who have struggled through what she has. She may feel down at times, but she never gives up.
Although this is not an easy story to read, it is an important one, because it happened and it should not have, and because it continues to happen. Human trafficking is perceived to be something that mostly takes place in the developing world far away, instead of on our own doorstep. That is not true. It will continue to happen everywhere in the world, including right here in America, until pride and relief replaces the humiliation and fear of the survivor who has the courage to expose it, because the perpetrators and enablers are ones who feel fear, shame, and guilt instead. Like me, I guarantee that you will be appalled, shocked, angered, moved, and finally enriched and inspired by Sara’s bold efforts to persevere and survive despite unspeakable, and at times seemingly insurmountable odds.
Cori Thomas: Sara, when we met, it took a bit to convince you to agree to tell your story in a book.
Sara Kruzan: When you mentioned the idea, I was conflicted at first, because I tend to be very private, and I knew it would be uncomfortable to bring up such difficult memories and expose some of the ugliest moments and behaviors I have experienced. I was also worried that people would not be interested in what I had to say—until you convinced me otherwise.
CT: I had never read a story like yours and I knew that it could touch others who had had a similar experience, as well as opening the eyes of a wider audience. I was also aware of the burden of shame and silence, having had my own #MeToo trauma at age 16, which I kept secret for decades. Though my experience bore no comparison to the monumental abuse you suffered, I understood the humiliation and guilt women carry from these experiences, and our tendency to blame ourselves. Can you explain what it was that made you decide that you did want to do the book?
SK: After spending time with you and discussing in depth what had happened to both of us, I began to realize that there is a power and relief in telling your own story instead of allowing others to tell it for you. I started to see beyond the ways I might view or judge myself and became motivated by the idea of helping others. In my life after incarceration, I have spent time advocating for criminal justice reform, particularly as it affects trafficked children, so the book is a way of bringing all these pieces together.
CT: Talking of bringing the pieces together, we really went on an odyssey as we collaborated on telling your story. Before the pandemic hit, it was great that we were able to spend so much in-person time together. We visited many of the locations described in the book, and I was lucky enough not only to have you to speak to, but also many of the people who appear in its pages and graciously shared their memories and insights. Those, as well as the access you gave me to your emails and letters, psych, school, and police reports, trial and legal procedure transcripts, made for a very comprehensive research experience.Compared to my childhood, prison, for all its frustrations and the despair you can experience there, was also the first place in my life where I felt safe.
After the pandemic, I think we utilized every single communication option available except for handwritten letters back and forth. My favorite method was the voice memo, which gave your recollections a conversational tone. What sticks in your memory about the “research” period?
SK: Traveling to Rubidoux, California, with you, to the house where I grew up, and visiting my neighbor, Connie, who was kind enough to invite us into her home, was an eye-opener. She was just getting over an illness, but she let us in, bathrobe and all. She allowed you to take notes, which was also generous of her. Returning to the place where so much had happened, in addition to seeing an old friend who remembered so many details, triggered a lot of memories from my past that were often quite overwhelming.
CT: I know that it was not at all easy for you to revisit your past. And I know that I was relentless in my quest for clarity and detail, to a point that might at times have seemed insensitive. I hope now that you understand I wanted as accurately as possible to describe for the reader what it was to have been trafficked as a minor, and to know how easy it was for an 11, 12, 13, 14, 15-year-old in your world to be forced to perform sex acts, and then to be tried for murder as an adult at 16, and to be sentenced to life without parole, a concept that would be hard to grasp at any age. I wanted the book to allow someone to walk in your shoes and grasp the level of heroism it has taken for you to survive your childhood. I hope you forgive me.
SK: You pushed, while I did my best to hide. There was a lot of wine consumed—way too much at times. It was very difficult to open up some of those tightly locked inner vaults. But it was also remarkable the way that we worked together with the familiarity and openness women have when they feel safe enough to be vulnerable with each other. I will admit that reading some of the chapters and reliving my childhood made me physically ill at times. However, I have learned that only by confronting some of our most unpleasant realities can we hope to heal from them. I forgive you and I am glad now that you were so persistent because I do understand that the clearer the picture, the easier it is for people to see. Including myself.
CT: We shed many tears, but we did laugh a lot too. It’s a blessing that we both have a good sense of humor.
SK: I definitely appreciated that fact—considering the things we had to discuss.
CT: I remember how important it was to both of us to accurately depict the complexity of your experience during your incarceration. I know because of my volunteer work in the prison, but obviously only you know from your lived experience, how important the relationships you formed in prison are.
SK: I was 16 when I was incarcerated. The women I met in prison became, and remain, my family, as do the lawyers who spent years working with me on my case. They are my lifeline. Compared to my childhood, prison, for all its frustrations and the despair you can experience there, was also the first place in my life where I felt safe. That was very important to depict.
CT: You were finally released from prison in 2013 after 19 years. Can you share a bit about what life for you has been like since?
SK: Definitely a roller coaster. After all those years growing up in prison, the free world is something I am still getting used to. I was diagnosed with complex PTSD, which brings with it emotional ups and downs that will likely be with me forever. It’s not easy finding employment or housing after incarceration, and I was shocked by how many people knew who I was. I once went to a job interview during which the manager made lewd remarks referring to my trafficked past. I discovered that it’s very important to pay attention to maintaining mental health, although some of the professionals in the field aren’t well equipped to understand a background such as mine. Healing is an ongoing challenge. I make my health a priority for the sake of my daughter, Summer, who’s now seven years old.
CT: Another reason I have such respect and admiration for you is that you didn’t turn your back on what was the darkest chapter of your life. You are paying it forward in the clearest description of the term.
SK: I feel obligated to fight for the friends I left behind in prison. This feeling is also what sparked my devotion to incarcerated women and to children’s rights.
CT: Can you describe a little about what “Sara’s Law” is and how it came to be?
SK: James Dold, a lawyer who founded the organization Human Rights for Kids, came up with the idea to write a bill and name it after me. Its purpose is to allow for the circumstances of abused children who fight back against their abusers to be factored into their sentencing. I am still moved and humbled by the thought that what I have gone through might be turned into a positive thing that becomes a legal protection for other vulnerable children and will prevent what happened to me from ever happening again, and I have wholeheartedly supported its passage every way I can. I am excited for this bill to pass nationally. Laws travel to approval state by state, and it takes time and effort for them to succeed. One version of the law has already passed in Virginia, and other states are close behind. By the time you read this, hopefully several more states will have joined Virginia in passing a version of “Sara’s Law—HR1950.”
CT: What do you hope readers will take away from this book depicting your life experience?
SK: I hope that they will listen to what comes up for them. I know that the takeaway is going to be very personal: I hope that each reader will realize that with faith, hope, and love, all things are possible; that change on the outside is inspired and activated by change from within, and that they will reflect on the fact that judgments create harm. I hope that they will understand that by exploring our individual vulnerabilities, we all can relate to being exploited, because in some form we all have been. The reverberations of trauma experienced as a child impact the quality of one’s adult life. I hope that people will see themselves in me so that I am not such a stranger. I hope that that compassion will heal us all.
CT: I agree. I hope that, like me, readers will become inspired by your ability to survive such indignity and yet continue to hold your head high. I hope that readers will understand the reason “Sara’s Law” is named after you, and why it should pass, and that they will become motivated to vote and support it so that it can prevent and protect other children from ever again suffering what you did.
SK: Yes! I hope that someday trafficking is seen as the slavery it actually it is. Because there is nothing consensual about a child being forced into adult situations and positions. I hope the reader understands that.
CT: That’s why I also hope that this book changes some of the existing unrealistic narratives that surround trafficking—that it only happens in places other than America, and that it is usually perpetrated by strangers. Most of all, I hope that someday the shame and humiliation of these heinous practices will land with the perpetrators rather than the victims and survivors. What did you learn from revisiting your past and telling this story?
SK: That when we are alone with our demons, loving ourselves is the most important thing we can do. The words captured in this book are seeds that will hopefully grow into conversations, understanding, and healing not just for me, but for us all.
CT: I agree. I hope that as human beings we are capable of enduring and surpassing the darkest nights if we allow ourselves to keep pressing forward. I see your story not as one of trauma but rather as one of triumph over unspeakable obstacles. This is an important story, an American story. It is a human story. Thank you for the privilege of allowing me to know you and tell your story with you.
SK: Thank you for being so determined to help me tell it and for respecting my need to stay true to myself.
Sara Kruzan’s book (co-authored by Cori Thomas) I Cried to Dream Again: Trafficking, Murder, and Deliverance is forthcoming out May 10, 2022 through Pantheon.