Relapse And Recovery: A Tale Of Two Prostitutes

Apr 26, 2011
Originally published on April 27, 2011 3:31 pm

Second in a three-part series.

One-hundred-and-fifty former prostitutes have been through the Magdalene recovery program in Nashville, Tenn. It's a private two-year program for women with criminal histories of drug addiction and prostitution.

On a recent Saturday night, two women who completed the program drive their former "tracks" — the places prostitutes walk.

"This is the Bottoms," says Sheila Simpkins, behind the wheel.

"Could you imagine walking alone back here by yourself and getting in a car with a stranger and having sex with him?" hoots her best friend, Tara Adcock. "I think about that stuff now, and I'm like 'I was crazy!' "

Tara and Sheila are close as sisters, though it's been years since they were on the streets. If the past is sordid and troubled — the street-walking, the drugs and addiction — then the present is tantalizingly good and sober. They have come through so much. Over the years, between them, the two women racked up nearly 200 arrests for prostitution and drugs.

Sheila, 41, is a petite woman with gray eyes and an intense manner. Tara, 37, has a blond ponytail and huge blue eyes. Tara was the wilder one, the one who'd take an empty pistol and jack cars and fleece men. Sheila was the one who gave her shelter. She didn't commit any robberies but says she "destroyed a lot of lives" through drugs.

Tara says the crack they were on made them feel 60 feet high.

"I'd knock on every door," Tara says of a hostel where undocumented workers lived. She would cry out in Spanish to the men to advertise herself.

Cleaning Up

Sheila calls crack the "devil dressed in white." Almost seven years ago, Sheila's boyfriend, Randy, got busted. It was a sign. Sheila was tired. She wanted to go straight. She wanted so much more.

"I really thought that one of these days I'm going to get my life together and we're going to get married and we're just going to have this happy old family. But I don't think he'd seen it," Sheila says.

So Sheila, who had left home as a teen, worked in multiple states as a prostitute and overcome profound sexual abuse as a child, had a goal. She and her longtime boyfriend married and went straight. They have since made a sound marriage with steady lives and thriving toddlers. She has been clean for almost seven years, goes to church and college, and is the assistant resident manager of Magdalene's housing program.

She lived for two years in Magdalene, a recovery program founded by Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest, in Nashville. At Magdalene, communities of women live for free, get counseling and transform their lives. Stevens started the program in 1997, following her calling to serve prostitutes and abused women.

"I don't care if prostitution is the oldest form of sexual abuse in the history of mankind," Stevens says. "I don't think people have to stay in it forever. I think people have a choice to say also, 'I want to live differently now and I want to see my children and I want to know what it means to forgive people who abused me as a kid.' "

Because Magdalene worked so well for Sheila, Tara was interested, and Sheila picked Tara up from prison two years ago and brought her straight to Magdalene.

'It's Not About Falling'

Magdalene is about work — not miracles, not fairy tales. Seventy-five percent of its graduates make it. That means a quarter don't. And there have been a couple of stunning relapses, including two women Stevens counseled who left the program, went back to the streets and were murdered.

So, relapse is the powerful undertow always lurking just below the surface at Magdalene.

This past January, after four years clean, a drinking bout began for Tara. It was New Year's Eve. Then came the crack.

She had been working at Magdalene, but after the relapse, she chose to go to work for a hotel chain.

"I lost a lot. I lost my car. I pawned everything in my house. I lost probably my pride. I was so embarrassed to come around anybody," she says. "I was doing so good."

Relapse is a part of life at Magdalene. Stevens can more or less set the rules because she doesn't accept federal money, so relapse is viewed as part of recovery.

Sheila Simpkins, the former prostitute, put it this way: "I'm not saying relapse is mandatory, but guess what? It happens. It does. It happens all the time. It's not about falling. It's about picking yourself up."

But then, in late March, Tara stopped calling Sheila. A few days later came word that Tara and her female partner had been arrested in connection with a homicide. Sheila was devastated; she didn't want to know the details.

"Right now I want to continue to love her, so I don't want to know," Sheila says, a few days later. "And she will always be my sister for life. I can love from a distance, OK? And that's what I'm going to do. I can love her from a distance."

Tara Adcock is now in prison awaiting a grand jury hearing on criminal homicide charges. The women at Magdalene pray for her and the victim — and work on their own recovery and reckonings.

The audio for the story was produced by Rolando Arrieta.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

: This story lasts about six and a half minutes, and it contains graphic content.

JACKIE LYDEN: We're in a jack-o-lantern neighborhood - a light in the darkness here, maybe another there; all hulking shadows and abandonment.

M: This is the Bottoms of South Nashville.

LYDEN: Sheila Simpkins and Tara Adcock are in a car, driving photographer Stephen Alvarez and me where they used to walk as prostitutes - bad girls, close as sisters.

M: This is where all the roughnecks are.

LYDEN: Well, it's warehouse after warehouse, and empty...

M: This is a pretty rough area.

LYDEN: Tara, 37, is a ponytailed blond. Sheila, 41, also petite, has an intense manner.

M: And I walked around - I walked around here at like, 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning like I belonged, OK?

LYDEN: Sheila, who lived with a boyfriend she called her dope man, often gave Tara, the wilder one, shelter - a place to change her clothes, or take a shower.

M: Could you imagine walking alone out here - by yourself - and getting in a car with a stranger that you don't even know, and having sex with him? I think about that stuff now and I'm like, I was crazy.

LYDEN: Tara says the crack they were all hooked on made her feel 60 feet high.

M: This is where I would work - in apartments.

LYDEN: What do you mean? You would just like, knock on the doors?

M: Knock on the door.

LYDEN: Really?

M: And there'd be like five or six, and I'd hit every one of them.

LYDEN: What would you say?

M: Pinocha, dinero.

LYDEN: Sometimes she'd rob, steal a car, carry an unloaded weapon.

M: Can you imagine me with a pistol?

LYDEN: Can you imagine you with a pistol?

M: Not now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

M: Not today.

M: Not today, yeah. Now, when I think about it - God, man.

ADCOCK: We destroyed a lot, a lot of lives, OK? All in the name of trying to get high.

LYDEN: And then one day, Sheila's drug dealer boyfriend was home when the cops broke the door down and arrested him. It came as a relief. Sheila says she was truly tired. That was seven years ago.

M: I really thought that one of these days, I'm going to get my life together and we're going to get married, and we're just going to have this happy old family, you know what I mean? And it's just going to be like that. But I don't think he seen it.

LYDEN: She and her boyfriend went straight, made a sound marriage with steady lives and thriving toddlers. Sheila, a college student, says she's a real good mama. She's the housing director for Magdalene now. She told Tara, who was in prison, about how Magdalene changed her life. Tara took it seriously.

M: I had seen how good she was doing. And so I wrote Ms. Donna Greer(ph) at Magdalene, and Sheila, and asked them if I could come to the program. And so my best friend picked me up when I got out of prison.

LYDEN: Magdalene was founded in Nashville 14 years ago when Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest, followed her calling to serve prostitutes and abused women.

M: I don't care if prostitution is the oldest form of sexual abuse in the history of mankind, or the oldest work - or whatever anybody says. I don't think people have to stay in it forever. I think people have a choice, also, to say: I want to live differently now, and I want to see my children, and I want to know what it means to forgive people that abused me when I was a kid. I want to know what that feels like, and what that looks like.

LYDEN: Sheila tells of another prostitute who'd worked the program, but left when she hooked up with the wrong guy. He ended up shooting her during a sexual encounter down a ravine.

M: He leaves her there to die, OK. Now, God had to of helped her up that hill so that someone could see her to get her some help. Now, if that ain't her bottom, that's scary, isn't it? And she's out there doing the same stuff again.

LYDEN: Relapse is the powerful undertow, always lurking just below the surface for many at Magdalene. This past January, after four years clean, a drinking bout began for Tara. It was New Year's Eve. Then came the crack. Then she vanished from Magdalene.

M: I lost a lot. I lost my car. I pawned everything in my house. It was more - I lost, probably, my pride and my - you know, I was so embarrassed to come around anybody, you know what I mean? And I'm just now, you know, getting that back. You know, because I was doing so good. I got my own house, had my own car. I'm just getting loans and just - I'm very humiliated right now.

LYDEN: Sheila calls crack the devil dressed in white, and she wasn't going to let Tara fight that devil without her.

M: I've been with her this whole two months, OK? I've kind of been the cushion, OK? I'm not saying that relapse is mandatory, but guess what? It happens. It does, it happens. It happens all the time, OK, and it's not about falling. It's about picking yourself up.

LYDEN: During the time that I spent with Sheila and Tara in February and March, I couldn't help but feel the fragility and the hope in them. When I mentioned we'd been on a drug and prostitution sting with the vice squad, they recognized the name of the detective. Really? You were out with him? He used to bust us. Give him a message, said a glowing, vibrant Tara.

M: Look, if ya'll see him again, tell him that Tara Adcock and Sheila McClain(ph) - Simpkins love him, and we're doing good.

M: Yeah, tell him Brandy because he knows me as Brandy.

LYDEN: But she wasn't doing well. It was hard to hear it when the news came. Just weeks after we spoke, Tara Adcock was arrested in connection with a murder and carjacking. Sheila, who hadn't heard from her in a while, was devastated.

M: To be honest, it's like I'm grieving a death when it comes to Tara at this moment. I didn't believe it - or let me say that I didn't want to believe that, OK. I didn't want to believe that.

LYDEN: So she prays. She prays for the family of the shooting victim, and she prays for Tara, her spiritual sister. She doesn't want the details.

M: Right now, I want to continue to love her, so I don't want to know. And she will always be my sister for life, OK. I can love her from a distance, OK, and that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to love her from a distance.

LYDEN: Jackie Lyden, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

: You can see a video about the women of Magdalene by going to our website, npr.org. Jackie's series, "Nashville: Up From Prostitution" concludes tomorrow on MORNING EDITION with a look at the challenges of staying off the streets.

U: What I do is, when I think about situations like that, I play the tape out. If I walk away, leave where I'm at, where is it going to take me to? Back under that bridge? No, I don't want to go back.

: That's tomorrow, on MORNING EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.