When most of us say, “I’ve been bad,” we mean something like: We went off our diet and we didn’t go to the gym. Or, We gossiped about a friend behind her back. Or, We got so involved in our own angst, we didn’t pay enough attention to a child’s, or friend’s, or sibling’s problem. Maybe we overdid some midlife woman’s controlled substance, like Valium or a diet pill. Something like that.
For Dee Roman, 52—a vibrant woman with a bouncy voice who looks (given her history) startlingly fit—“I’ve been bad” means 100 times the “normal” middle-class, midlife woman’s version of that word. Roman was meth-addicted and sex-trafficked; her last boyfriend had tried to kill her six times (once by putting a gun in her mouth); and she had experienced the deaths (by murder, suicide, accident, or illness) of dozens of relatives and friends. “I count 59 deaths,” she says.
But then in 2008, Roman, who was working as a dominatrix, was invited into a Bible study group called Warrior Princesses in her adopted hometown of Los Angeles. A fellow dominatrix invited her because, she says, “These women sing and they sound like angels.” Roman says with a laugh, “I went not for any `salvation’ but because of the music. I walked into that room as the most depressed person. I was on the path of killing myself,” something she had tried several times before. “I said to myself: Why would these people want anything to do with me?! They have no idea of the depravity I’ve done!”
But the other women there would have none of it. “`We’ve already prayed for you, so it’s done!’ one of them said. I loved her arrogance! They were accepting me as a not-terrible person. That was a shock!”
Roman went home that night and thought, Maybe … I’m not bad. “The woman had said, `You’re a child of God.’ Maybe it was true!” The next morning she put all her meth and coke in a black bag and took it to a women’s faith-based conference. “It was the beginning of a total change I never thought I was capable of.”
I immersed myself in faith; I wanted to change!
The change took place over a three-month period. After the Warrior Princess meeting, Roman became familiar with Mercy Multiplied, a nonprofit Christian organization dedicated to helping young women break free from life-controlling behaviors and situations, including eating disorders, self-harm, drug and alcohol addiction, and sexual abuse. She says, “I immersed myself in faith; I wanted to change!” But it was a month after that, when she walked into a group—named Treasures—expressly designed to help sex-trafficked or sexually exploited women get out of “the life” that her change from survivor to leader and mentor really came about.
Saving A Life
Treasures is led by a 42-year-old woman with a Master’s in social work from UCLA named Harmony Grillo, a former stripper herself. She started Treasures in 2003, and one of its most winning and poignant features is this: She takes busloads of women—some, but not all, fellow trafficking survivors—on outreach missions to strip clubs all over L.A. and Las Vegas. With permission from the clubs’ management, they leave gift-wrapped packages of lip gloss and jewelry with notes saying that they are loved and valued, that they have purpose, and that support is available when they are ready.
When Roman sat down with Grillo in late October 2008, they both say they immediately connected. Roman remembers, “I thought: Finally there’s someone who can understand.” Refusing to hide behind generous PC niceties, Roman explains, “I wasn’t trafficked. I exploited myself.”
I wasn’t trafficked. I exploited myself.
Women who’ve been trafficked or exploited—whether in stripping or prostitution—all come from such isolation, Grillo explains. They’ve had experiences that even the most empathetic women cannot understand. Roman didn’t have to explain herself to Grillo. “And what a great relief that was!” Roman says.
Roman is now a teacher in Treasures support group and has been able to use her story to help countless women and at the same time process her own grief, heartbreak, and shame. “I’ve helped women understand they are more than an object to be used and tossed away by men,” says Roman. “I say to them: `I accept you and love you and I do not judge you.’ Because that is how I was made to feel by Warrior Princesses, Mercy Multiplied—and by Harmony. It makes such a difference!”
The message Roman gives can be boiled down to this: Your past doesn’t have to determine your future.
The Beginnings of Bad
And what a past Roman has had. She says she started out “feeling I was born bad—so bad that I played the role of the bad girl to the best of my ability,” for 40 years.
Raised in the small town of Barberton, Ohio, Roman’s first memory is her mother threatening to cut her heart out with a butcher knife. Her mother was mentally ill and beat her constantly, telling her that giving birth to her had been a mistake. “I was Catholic so I knew you had to honor your father and mother, but, still, I hated my mom. I defined myself as bad. When you’re constantly told you’re bad, you can’t not believe it.”
When you’re constantly told you’re bad, you can’t not believe it.
Roman lived up to what she felt was her destiny. “When I was twelve, it all started falling apart. I started with drugs—using downers and selling speed. I had an eating disorder. And I was raped—violently—by two different men. Boom! I blacked out! And I pretended it didn’t happen.” Her first suicide attempt was at 13. “I took over a whole bottle of pills—aspirin.” But she ended up vomiting the pills up. She also carefully watched her father loosen the tires off the family car while repairing it and made a mental note for something she might want to do later: drive herself at high speed in an unsafe vehicle that blew apart and killed her.
“I became a runaway at 17. My dad said if I left the house I couldn’t come back, and I didn’t.”
Roman moved away with a boyfriend who turned out to be violent—“at one point he ended up putting a shotgun in my mouth and said if he couldn’t have me, no one would.” She ended up being a stripper at 19 “to get away from him.” She became good at stripping and moved from city to city, but this was not a healthy lifestyle in any way. “I was overwhelmed with thoughts of killing myself,” she recalls.
Still—desperate people’s reactions are complicated—she also, she says frankly, “loved” an element of stripping. “It made me feel like a rock star.” So much so that she started playing guitar with a heavy metal band. Stripping often can lead a woman into the next step: actual prostitution, which—if you can steel yourself against the danger and self-abnegation—can be profitable for some rare women.
The Serious Stuff
Roman was such a woman, explaining, “I came to L.A. in 1987 to become a prostitute.” Working with a madam, Roman was pegged as a dominatrix in her first job. “I had long, dark hair and wore `heavy metal’ clothes. So I looked like a dominatrix.”
Dee spent 14 years as a dominatrix, “getting paid well to degrade men and tell them how bad they were.” Her justification for being a dominatrix was pragmatic and self-protective: She knew it was safer for both her and her “client” to do the “hurting” the man requested rather than be on the other end. “I thought, God, am I evil! God, am I bad! Whipping people [who specifically wanted it] stole my soul, but I was thinking: At least I know how to do it, so the person won’t get really hurt. But if I let them do it to me, I might very well get seriously hurt.”
Of her dominatrix years, she says, ‘Whipping people stole my soul.’
At $500 an hour with a two-hour minimum, she was living “well”—if well means money. But she was tortured. And endangered. One boyfriend “tried to kill me six times. I had sex, drugs, money—but I was the most depressed, suicidal person. I was two years in and out of rehab.”
The Way Out
When Grillo met Roman through Treasures, she found her journey unique in the way that Roman made a very drastic, sudden change: a commitment to curb the temptation to do drugs and to face the pain and tragedy of her past through the most inspiringly fast transition. Grillo says that for most women it takes longer.
We write about midlife change in many identifiable ways—empty nest years; retirement; new young husbands; entrepreneurship—but Roman’s was a midlife change that was more exotic and extreme. It also beat the odds: She stopped doing drugs, stopped wanting to kill herself, got out of prostitution, and decided she wanted to help others. Going to church had a lot to do with it, she says—“they accepted me! Then I couldn’t be `bad’!” New friendships and meeting other women who had rescued themselves lifted the isolation veil and empowered her.
Roman took an eight-week course in grief recovery methods, and, through Treasures’ training, she helped create a curriculum for boundary setting. “These girls want relationships so badly, but they don’t know how to interact” in ways that protect themselves from exploitation, Roman says. She read a number of books and used her own background to discover the most effective ways to talk about setting boundaries. Energetic and quick-thinking, Roman made the flip from an example of what not to do to what to do very quickly.
Roman flipped from what not to do to what to do very quickly.
Every week, once a week, she taught between 8 and 12 women about what a “safe person” was, how to enforce boundaries, and how to never let another person make you have sex to earn money for him or to “prove” your love.
“I have taught, by example, how to overcome drug and sex addiction, a lifetime of suicidal ideation,” Roman says. “I speak at churches—which is important to me because I felt I was a pimp who took a hundred people down the wrong road, but now I’ve made amends and gone way past that. I have literally walked women out of the sex industry and taught them they are loved, valued, and created with a purpose.”
One woman she helped, Romina (last name kept private), writes that Roman “disclosed her past to me, without shame or explanation; it was unfamiliar to me to hear a person [in those circumstances] holding that level of self-acceptance.” That self-acceptance “brought me back” to the support group every week, Romina reports. “I started learning to forgive myself because of her. She is a true leader with integrity. I love her dearly.”
Toward the beginning of her mentoring, Roman met a 22-year-old trafficking victim named Alli who “stole my heart.” Alli started calling Roman “Mom,” and, on September 29, 2017, Roman legally adopted her. “I adopted her because I came to love her as a good mother does. She suffered so much abuse in her youth and just wanted to be loved purely,” Roman explains. “I had a secret longing to be a mother and Alli brought it out in me and if you met her you would be convinced she was my biological daughter.” Alli has a baby. “So, I’m now a mom and a grandma!”
This past December, Roman moved to Dallas because the businessman for whom she serves as an assistant in her three-day-a-week day job is based there. But her real work is starting a non-profit called The New Way. She’s raising money from corporations, private individuals, and churches and looking to rent an office to be able to give courses—on boundaries, safe people, healthy relationships, and conflict resolution, among other things—free of charge. The target opening date is October 2019.
At age 52, she’s ready to give energetically to others.
“Dee is one of the most courageous, tenacious people I’ve ever known. Our relationship began with me being her mentor,” says Grillo. “Over a decade later, I can honestly say that I am constantly learning from her! She is one of a kind!”
Roman is a kind of positive-life-change entrepreneur—like teacher and author Marianne Williamson—for women who have lived in pain, She has written a book—under the pen name she sometimes uses, Dvine Roman, called 40 Day Fast From Negative Thinking, which is available on the Treasures’ website (as is Grillo’s book, Scars and Stilettos).
It takes strength and honesty—and charisma—for a woman to admit to and overcome the pain and destructiveness (the long-felt “badness”) of four-fifths of her life and, at 52, to be ready to give so energetically to others. Aging boldly is amped up several levels through what Roman has overcome and through her powerful, life-affirming mission.
Sheila Weller is the author of seven books (three of them New York Times Bestsellers), the best of which is Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation, which Billboard magazine recently named #19 of the best music books of all time. She has been writer of major features for Vanity Fair, a recent longtime senior contributing editor at Glamour, a has written for the New York Times Opinion, Styles and Book Review and for just about every women’s magazine in existence. She has won 10 major magazine awards.