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Author Carissa Phelps Shares Her Story of Perseverance in Runaway Girl


A California attorney and youth advocate’s rivetingly raw account of the years she spent as a runaway, juvenile delinquent and prostitute. Phelps grew up with 11 brothers and sisters in “a noisy, crowded house where the competition for space, food, and attention never stopped” and where money and parental affection were in short supply. To escape, the author began frequenting the homes of neighborhood friends. By the time she was 12, she had become adept at “strategizing about where to sleep and how (not even what) I was going to eat.” Her habits led her exasperated mother to abandon her at the Fresno County juvenile hall. From there, she took to the streets and became entangled with a series of pimps and drug addicts, who brutalized her both physically and emotionally. Two dispiriting years later, Phelps landed at Wakefield, a last-chance reform institution for girls, where she met two people who changed her life: a counselor who helped her regain her self-esteem and a teacher who reignited her love of mathematics. After leaving Wakefield, Phelps returned to school, graduated, went to college at Fresno State and completed a joint J.D./business degree program at UCLA. But the fight was not over. In her personal life, she “burned through friendships, drank [herself] silly, and dated recklessly.” Only after she made the commitment to help troubled, sexually exploited girls did Phelps begin to find an end to the restlessness that had kept her on the run. A genuinely important book that casts the problem of sex trafficking in America into stunning, In this brave memoir, Phelps spares no detail of her loveless, troubled childhood. In the second grade, her stepfather throws her out the door in front of the school bus as her mother watches.

One of 11 children in a rundown house in Coalinga, Calif., Phelps skips classes and curses her teacher in the first days of junior high. By 12, she drops out and rarely comes home. When she does, her mother drives her to a juvenile hall and leaves. The state sends her to group homes, but she always runs away, preferring the freedom of the streets, where she meets crack-addicted Natara, a prostitute, and Icey, a pimp, a pair who promise to take care of her. Despite the unspeakable atrocities done to her along the way, Phelps is too young and naïve to escape their dark web. After Icey is arrested for other crimes, Phelps is raped by older men who subsequently discard her. Finally, after stealing a car, she lands in the Youth Authority detention center. There, she meets her first mentor, counselor Ron Jenkins. Slowly and with setbacks, Phelps rebuilds her life and graduates from high school thanks to the perseverance of a teacher. She finds love and acceptance through the kindness of strangers who see her potential. Later, while earning a law degree and M.B.A. from UCLA, the author, as she explains, takes great strides to reach out to troubled kids, and creates a documentary, Carissa, about her life.

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