Second in a three-part series.
One hundred and fifty former prostitutes have been through the Magdalene recovery program in Nashville, Tenn. Magdalene is 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, bad girls, are close as sisters, though it's been years since they were on the streets. If the past is sordid and troubled — the streetwalking, 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. "Pinoche, dinero! Pinoche, dinero!"
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 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 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's 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 fairytales. 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 Becca 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'd 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. Since Stevens can more or less set the rules because she doesn't accept federal money, 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," Sheila says.
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 gonna do. I can love her from a distance."
Tara Adcock is now in prison awaiting a grand jury hearing on criminal homicide charges and a grand jury hearing. The women at Magdalene pray for her, and the victim — and work on their own recovery and reckonings. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.