The Slave Next Door – Two Stories Of Slaves And Power in the U.S.

In their book “The Slave Next Door”, Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter spend some time analyzing what motivates a person to make a slave of someone else.  One of the reasons they give is “power”.  Before I quote them on this, lets look at a story they tell.

Meet Sandra Bearden.  Sandra was a twenty-seven-year-old homemaker in a comfortable suburb of Laredo, Texas.  Married, the mother of a four-year-old son, she lived a perfectly normal middle-class existence.  By all accounts, Sandra was a pleasant woman, the sort you’d chat with at the mall or the supermarket.  Yet she is currently serving a life sentence for slavery.
It started innocently enough.  At first, all Sandra wanted was a maid, but she didn’t want to pay a lot.  So she drove to a town in Mexico where she was introduced to Maria and her parents.  Maria was only twelve.  She had very little schooling and dreamed of getting an education-a dream that her parents encouraged but could do nothing to achieve.  Over coffee in their small kitchen, Bearden offered Maria a job, as well as the chance to attend school, learn English, and taste the rich life of “el Norte”.  The fact that Sandra herself was Mexican born helped Maria’s parents feel they could trust her, and they gave their permission.  Sandra smuggled Maria across the border in her expensive car and drove her to her home in Laredo.
On arrival, Maria was dragged into hell.  Sandra Bearden used violence and terror to squeeze work and obedience from the child.  From early morning till midafternoon, Maria cooked, cleaned, scrubbed, and polished.  If Maria dozed off from exhaustion, Sandra would blast pepper spray into Maria’s eyes.  A broom was broken over the girl’s back and a few days later, a bottle against her head.  At one point Sandra tortured the twelve-year-old by jamming a garden tool up her vagina. 
That was Maria’s workday; her “time off” was worse. 
When Maria wasn’t working, Sandra would chain her to a pole in the backyard without food or water.  An eight-foot concrete fence kept her hidden from neighbors.  After chaining her, Sandra would sometimes force Maria to eat dog feces.  Then Maria would be left alone, her arms chained behind her with a padlock, her legs chained and locked together till the next morning, when the work and torture would begin again.  Through the long afternoon and night Maria would fade in and out of consciousness from dehydration.   Like most slaves in America, Maria was in shock, disoriented, isolated, and dependent.  To maintain control, Sandra kept Maria hungry and in pain.
Luckily, one of the Bearden’s neighbors had to do some work on his roof, and that probably saved Maria’s life.  Looking down over the high concrete wall into the Bearden’s backyard, the neighbor saw a small girl chained up and whimpering; he called 911.
 The police found Maria chained hand and foot, covered in cuts and bruises, and suffering from dehydration and exposure.  She was too weak to walk and had to be carried to freedom on a stretcher.  Her skin was badly burned.  (In Laredo, Texas, the average summer temperature is ninety-eight degrees.)

Kevin and Ron say that “it is hard to imagine, but Maria was one of the lucky slaves.  In America, most slaves spend four to five years in bondage; Maria was a slave for just seven months.  They say “We all ask: ‘How could someone so abuse a child- to stake her in the sun, feed her excrement, beat her bloody.’  Yet Sandra Bearden’s treatment of Maria is NOT UNUSUAL (my emphasis). “

Modern slaves come in all races and ethnicities.  For example, in January 2003, a terrified seventeen-year-old girl ran into a store in a suburban mall in Detroit and grabbed a security guard.  She pleaded with him for help, as  a group of men and women burst into the store pursuing her.  The guard stood up to the thugs and threw them out of the store.  Then he called the police, and the girl told her story.  She was waiting at a bus stop in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, and a man and a woman abducted her.  They imprisoned her in a house with other female captives, and she was forced to have sex with male visitors.

In trying to explain the mind of the slaveholder, the handful of experts working with survivors of domestic slavery tell us that power is a key variable in two ways.  For some slaveholders, gaining and maintaining total control over someone is intoxicating and addictive.  (The historian John Acton said that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.)
For other slaveholders, the power of control works in a different way.  These are the masters whose abuse of a slave reflects their own sense of powerlessness.  When the woman of the house feels powerless she is more likely to take it out on the slave.  The slave, after all, sees and knows everything that goes on in the house.  If the wife is a victim of domestic violence or is regularly humiliated by her husband, now someone else, a possible sexual rival, knows these ugly secrets as well.  In such cases, fear, frustration and anger can be redirected into abuse and control.
There is more to the motivations, of course, and the section “understanding evil” in “The Slave Next Door” goes into them.

But here are some lessons I draw.
We generally assume that most people around us are good people.  Sure we know there are criminals, and adherents to extreme ideologies, but in general we feel positive about our fellows.  But people who can pass as ordinary, who we can chat with pleasantly at the supermarket, can be evil.  If we accept the government estimates, about seventeen thousand people are trafficked into slavery in the United States each year.  At the moment (2010), a conservative estimate is that we have 50,000 slaves, and the number is increasing.
Another lesson is that some people love the power to hurt and control and dominate another person.  This is a very important lesson.  I lack this particular character trait myself, but obviously some people have it.
A final lesson: there would be many less slaves if there were not so many patrons of the sex trade, just like there would be less killings in Mexico if we didn’t supply so many customers for their drugs.

I should mention that some of the slave holders on American soil are foreign diplomats and that some countries that like to think of themselves as part of the oppressed victims of the West have a much greater slave problem.  But the authors of “The Slave Next Door” give some ideas of what can be done about it, and a good start is to read those ideas.

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