Most of you probably have no idea who Davis Groves is — unless you miraculously remember her from a story in Needle magazine back in 2013, from a story on Beat to a Pulp later that year, Noir Nation from last year, or maybe Feeding Kate, back in 2012 (damn, time flies). I’m assuming even if you have a copy of the new Protectors anthology, you haven’t gotten far enough to find the Davis story in there because Thomas Pluck has utterly outdone himself and not only does that include stories from writers even my nonreader friends have heard of, I understand the print copy rivals phone books in size (Amazon says the print size is over 700 pages). (And if you don’t have a copy of the Protectors 2: Heroes, I don’t know what you’re waiting for unless you’re as broke as I usually am. Maybe ask for it as a gift? It benefits Protect, an organization that aims to prevent abuse of children so even if you only like one story in it, it’s still worth the price.)
In a world where Protect wasn’t necessary, Davis would likely not exist — at least not the Davis who’s been floating around various story collections these past few years. She’s largely a product of two thing: One, reading stacks of every mystery I could get my hands on with a female protagonist back in the mid-90s. Had I discovered Zoe Sharp’s Charlie Fox, I might not have ever felt the need to scribble bones of Davis in a notebook back then or ever bothered writing really terrible early stories around Davis that have since gone to wherever floppy disks go to die. Might. But Davis isn’t Charlie; they just have some similar qualities. And a lot of the differences come from Thing two.
(Thing two leads to me talking about my former students and some of that could be triggering for some.)
Two, I spent eight-and-a-half years teaching secondary school and four years of that time I spent all day every day (including summers) with teenage girls who’d been detained by law enforcement and the courts. I spent another year-and-a half splitting my time between younger boys (mostly middle school) and the girls who had been detained. I spent another year and most of a summer working in classrooms with all genders in an alternative school setting.
I once wrote that Davis “comes from a place of having been a survivor in a landscape where everyone else was, too, to some extent or another. It’s a fatalism combined with a resourcefulness and stubbornness that expects to go down, but won’t do it without a fight, and probably a long, nasty one.” That part of her comes from having spent all those years with girls who desperately wanted to learn and get a GED, but had done so many drugs in the years before that you could literally watch them forget what you’d just said. Girls who sold drugs to keep the lights on for grandma, girls who sold themselves for family, for boyfriends, for the money to do what they wanted. Girls whose mothers traded them to older men in exchange for housing. Girls who tore their hair out. Girls so full of rage they couldn’t get free of they’d tear up anything, tear through anyone, hurl themselves against furniture and immovable objects. Girls whose mothers beat and burned them, but could would still defend their families to a dying breath. Boys who’d rather let others beat them than give the illusion of fighting back (out of fear of more time and their mother dying before they could get out). Boys more afraid of sexual assault in prison than of dying. Boys who admitted freely the only men in their family to live past 22 were locked up. Kids who’d use certain predatory guard’s sickness to get favors or freedom. And kids who, despite everything, found the routine of being locked up such a comfort they completed credits or earned GEDs — things they often admitted had never seemed possible on the streets.
The 4-5 people who’ve read one or two of the stories have asked me in the past why Davis doesn’t have a longer story, a novel, something. And the answer is that she sort of does. She sort of has a novel-length tale, three novella/novel-length tales, a half-dozen other quasi-finished short stories, and two 35,000-word somethings. (There’s also some other non-Davis stuff on my hard drive, but for some reason I seem to need to get her out of my system and the other stuff just doesn’t have her heart. It’s only been a year-and-a-half since I stopped spending my days with scores of damaged kids, so it might take some time before the much happier and better-treated karate students bring some light into the inspiration section of my head. (Not that they’re perfect, but they have the kinds of middle class problems Davis learned about through books and TV.) The whys of all this writing without reason or purpose or publisher is a matter for another post. Which is why very few have seen anything longer and those were messy drafts. No one really knows what to do with a longer version of Davis. And I get it. She’s regularly…unpleasant. And she’s not a dude, so she doesn’t get as much leeway in the unpleasant department. Or maybe I’m just better at character than plot. Something anyway.
What got me writing this today, though was a couple of things, but largely this story on laist. (trigger warning) The county of Los Angeles has decided, finally, to stop arresting underage sex workers and seek alternative means of providing assistance and intervention for victims of trafficking. This is a rather huge step and one that should have happened a long time ago. I mentioned that Davis is partially a product of my time “in juvie,” (at “da ‘tent” if you want the local lingo) and it may not be a surprise that of the girls I taught there, saying 80% had been abused in some way would be an understatement. Saying more than half had been sex workers of some kind before 18 would also be an understatement. Between the strippers working with fake IDs, the girls selling themselves for drugs or for better access to steal money and IDS, the girls being sold or traded by boyfriends, pimps, parents and other relatives, or working their own rings out of group homes and neighborhoods… Even those arrested for drugs, fights, stealing cars, or breaking into houses, some element of prostitution regularly ended up being either another charge their next visit or the reason they started doing drugs or just some other aspect of their life story.
Which is why, while LA’s new process will help children like the victims in Josh Stallings’ third Moses book, it wouldn’t do much for a lot of the students I used to work with. While some of them did get picked up for prostitution, most involved in that were arrested for other, related, things. And girls (or guys) with pimps or “boyfriends” who trade them around are generally loyal to the person trafficking them. The students I worked with would even point out that they had to go back to those neighborhoods, the county only looks big on a map, or that so what because they had a place to stay and clothes to wear. Trafficking victims who have known a “good” life can be convinced to go back. Victims who allow themselves to be trafficked in exchange for things they wouldn’t otherwise have, are harder to both understand and separate from the life.
Davis has been one of these girls. In the Noir Nation story, she’s on the cusp of finding that’s the best way (for her) to get the money her family needs to get where they need to go. In the Protectors‘ story, she’s spent years doing that and she’s trying to be one of the middle class kids she knows about through books and TV. In the Needle story, she’s on the verge of going back. In the Beat to a Pulp story, she’s trying to break free again and finding it hard. It’s a crutch she uses when she needs quick money, but it’s also a how she looks for connection and validation because she’s not used to getting it in too many other ways — and all those ways require, to her, a bigger sacrifice.
Like many of the girls I worked with in those years, Davis doesn’t really see herself as a victim either — and to suggest she is puts her on the defensive. Partly because she, like so many of the students I met, sees herself as making her own decisions even if all the choices are crappy. Partly, it’s because she’s lived in and around people she knows have had it worse. There’s something she tells a friend (in an unpublished work) as she’s trying to explain that world and she uses the phrase “at least” over and over. I recently saw that same mentality, rationality, used again in Roxane Gay’s call for essay submissions. The description in the first paragraph is so similar to what Davis tells this friend over dinner that it makes the writer part of my brain nod and think “well, at least I got that right.”
Hopefully, organizations like Protect, changes in policy like that in LA County, and writers like Roxane Gay will one day create a world where Davis and her past seems as antiquated as the cell phones in season 2 of The X-Files.