“The Girl Before” review and thoughts on human trafficking

I recently read a book called “The Girl Before” by Rena Olsen, and everything about it is sticking with me. [You can read my Goodreads review here.] I picked it up on a whim at the library since it was on the Readers’ Choice Nomination list. [And, let’s face it, if I read and submit ballots for five of the books on the list, I get a free book.] Anyway, I chose this since I’ve been getting back to my thriller roots. I just didn’t know how deep the topic would be. Here is where I make my obligatory statement that there will be a lot of spoilers in this review. Normally I don’t post them, but it’s impossible to have this discussion without divulging crucial plot plots. Here’s your chance to bail if you want to read the book without knowing anything in advance.

Here’s the cover in case you haven’t come across it yet.


This book isn’t so much a thriller as it is a psychological quest for understanding, truth, and self-acceptance, though the publishers market it as a thriller, probably because thrillers sell well and “psychological quest” isn’t really a genre in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

The premise is based on a girl growing up in a training house where the expectation is to either move on to live with a client (a fancy term for owner) or be shunned to live out life in the on-site brothel, which means being killed after a certain length of time. Fortunately for Clara, our main character, she was slated to be sold to a client at the ripe age of seventeen. Instead, she got tangled up with Mama Mae and Pa’s biological son, Glen, and the two began their romance after Glen insisted that he choose Clara for a wife, against his very angry parents’ wishes. The pair initially tried to escape the sex trafficking life to live beyond the borders of the compound, but they were caught and brought back. Eventually, they settled on their destiny and, after they were married, they got a compound of their own, and they furthered the family business of kidnapping, buying, and selling girls.

Except Clara didn’t know about the kidnapping part, and neither do we as readers until we’re about one-third into the story.

And this is where a lot of reviewers on Goodreads start to quibble about the story. The common complaint is how did Clara, after having lived the life herself, not know what happened behind closed doors? The fact that Clara (and maybe we should call her by her actual name, Diana) had lived the life, had been essentially indoctrinated in it to where that was her normal baseline, it makes it all the more believable that she didn’t know about the kidnappings. Of course, though, she knew about clients: they had “open houses” and “auctions.” She knew about the brothels and the Treehouse, where delinquent young girls went for punishment. She knew about the boys camp, too, because the human trafficking wasn’t limited to just girls. Boys were trained to become body guards, and probably sold to become sex objects as well. I would have liked to see more of the male victim side of it since there is a lot of focus on the girls. But the fact remains that Diana knew about several parts of the business and turned a blind eye toward them because, to her, it was normal.

We learn, later, that Diana was kidnapped at age six (I believe, though she could’ve been four) from the park by her house. Her older sister, Charlotte, reluctantly took Diana to the park then left her there. By the time their parents rushed to the park, Diana had already been snatched by people who had obviously been stalking her since they knew Diana’s name and her parents’ names as well. I don’t know about you, but my first memory that I can conjure on my own (not with the help of home videos or photographs or stories) was when I was six years old. [This isn’t typical, though, and usually it’s closer to four or five years old.] Anyway, when Diana was kidnapped, she was just entering the stage of forming her own memories. She was brought in and told that her parents didn’t love her anymore and had sold her to Mama Mae and Pa so they could give her a better life. We learn that Diana didn’t acquiesce immediately, but after meeting her best friend and bed mate, Macy (real name: Emma), Diana calms down and starts to accept her new identity as Clara.

At six years old. [Possibly younger because I can’t quite recall her exact age, but I’ll do some research on this and update it later.]

She lives this life for twenty years and sees some pretty horrific stuff, including discovering Macy’s death from brothel life and not conforming, realizing that many women in the brothel died in an intentional fire set to destroy evidence, and so many more things.

Human brains have plasticity. What that means is that our brains can reform new connections, and it literally changes. (When you learn something new, then practice it, it literally affects your brain and the way you think. Cool, huh?) The thing about it, though, is that while adult brains have plasticity, children’s brains are infinitely more plastic. The power of suggestion works quicker in children, and children form their routines easier than adults. A new normal as a child is easier to accept, and it’s harder to change as an adult.

I’m an example of that. It’s only when I look at my past through the lens of a normal, functioning adult or in therapy that I see that my childhood wasn’t normal. It didn’t even come close to normal. My daily routine, which, let’s be honest, wasn’t really routine at all, wasn’t what my other classmates experience, yet I didn’t know the difference at the time. It wasn’t until I hit high school that I suspected something might be a little off, but I hid all that stuff in an attempt to fit in anywhere I could. (Turns out, I had one best friend and a favorite teacher on my side, which is apparently all you really need to survive.) As I moved out on my own after graduation, I was still hard-pressed to give up those unhealthy life skills that were drilled into me from childhood, even though I knew they weren’t normal or healthy. And still, after nearly a decade of adulthood and having my own children, I still see the effect the past has on my present, despite my attempts to change it into something new.

Change is hard, and sometimes it’s easier to just continue living the way we’ve always know. Just like Diana did until she could not any longer. Until the truth hit her so squarely in her face that she had no more ways to deny it like she could before. Until doubt crept in, in the sneaky way it does, and permeates everything. Until she realized that she could have a better life, that she deserved better, despite her twenty some-odd years of hearing differently.

I learned tonight while writing this that human trafficking is believed to be the third largest criminal activity in the world. Third. This isn’t something that the author pulled out of a hat that is rarely experienced. No, there are empires created around the buying, selling, and abusing humans. And this form of modern slavery continues today, right now as you’re reading this. We think that America has maybe moved past this–after all, we hear of sex trafficking in countries like Albania or Colombia–but America’s seedy underbelly shows that trafficking is alive and well here too. If this story–Diana’s story–is anything like what other people experience, this is our wake-up call. [Actually, we can infer that Diana has it better off, marginally, than some of the other women who are cycled through the system, but we, as readers, can still see her pain, her abuse, her damage.]

If this book and discussion rile you up, good. It should. We should feel uncomfortable that people are dying out there because of this, that they are sex slaves. Sometimes all of that can become very overwhelming too. After all, we are just one person. How can we tear down the empires of these traffickers? Fortunately, there are organizations out there dedicated to do just that. Hope For Justice and Polaris are just two of them. What we need to do is consume information about this, then spread it. Share some of these linked articles with friends, family, colleagues, old college friends. Get the discussion started on this. Read memoirs of people who were in the human trafficking trade and learn their stories. Recognize the signs of someone trapped in the lifestyle because not all of them are hidden away in compounds, invisible. They are on the streets right now, probably holding up a sign for loose change or standing on a street corner waiting for people to pick them up. The people that society looks down on are the people most likely stuck in this, and we, as a society, are allowing them to fall even deeper in those cracks. So, read and educate yourself, then try to educate others. [And if you can, donate your time or money to organizations who go up against human traffickers.]

For me, I don’t want this to just become another book I read in 2017. I want it to continually spark something within me, to keep having discussions with people on and offline. I don’t want to ever become complacent about something as serious as trafficking just because I may not see its direct ramifications in my life.

So now it’s your turn. If you’ve read the book, what did you take away from it? Have you seen human trafficking at work? How are you going to further this necessary dialogue to get it into the mainstream?

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