hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Confronting a painful past

Berkshires artist leads as new group takes aim at sex trafficking



Contributing writer

LENOX, Mass.

It's a long way from Jeanet Ingalls’ early experiences of extreme poverty, violence and sexual abuse as a “street kid” in the Philippines four decades ago to her life as a mother, fitness trainer and artist in the comparatively peaceful and affluent Berkshires of today.

But Ingalls said that distance of time, space and circumstance frequently evaporates in a flood of painful memories of her childhood as the neglected daughter of a drug-addicted prostitute in a small town in the Philippines.

Before she was rescued when she was 8, Ingalls was one of the millions of children living in such dire conditions around the world. Her mother left her to fend for herself in their tiny shack or on the streets.

On visits to her mother's brothel, Ingalls said, she witnessed and was often pressed to participate in sexual acts and abuse. She was also regularly raped and beaten by boys in her neighborhood.

She escaped the fate of many other children in her situation when she was adopted by two Christian missionaries, Pauline and Freeman Barton, and brought to Lenox, where she has spent most of her life.

Now an artist and personal fitness trainer, Ingalls has channeled her energies into creative expression, sports and physical fitness and into raising her two children, Emma, 14, and Spencer, 8. She says she has seldom talked about her early childhood to other people.

But the scars of her early youth have never gone away, and she said she suffers the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: intrusive, upsetting memories, increased anxiety, flashbacks, emotional numbing and so on.

“For many years, I struggled with the pain and memories of my childhood and kept them largely to myself," Ingalls said. “But I finally realized I could no longer sit back and let this happen to other women and children. I had to tell my story and bring public attention to the millions of other girls and women who are trapped in similar situations today."

Ingalls explained that, like others with PTSD, she had to confront her past directly. She has chosen social activism as her path to healing.

Two years ago, she began recruiting friends and community leaders to help her. And earlier this year, they publicly launched Shout Out Loud Productions, a nonprofit organization based in Berkshire County. The group held its first fund-raiser in April at Shakespeare & Company, and it aims to make a documentary film as its first project.

On the trail of abuse

According to its mission statement, Shout Out Loud is “focused on raising the global awareness of sex trafficking, socially accepted abuse and poverty in the lives of women and children.” The group specifically aims to use film and art to tell the stories of victims of sex trafficking and to shine a light on its practitioners.

Although Ingalls is the driving force behind the effort, she emphasized that Shout Out Loud is a group with a core of about 20 volunteers and board members, as well as others who provide support and assistance.

"This is very much a team effort," Ingalls said. The group’s initial documentary, called “Between Sea and Sky," will use her experience as a departure point from which to explore the lives and struggles of women and young girls in similar situations.

Ingalls plans to return to the Philippines several times over the next year, accompanied by screenwriter Stephen Glantz and cinematographer Richard Sands, both of Pittsfield, to record interviews with her own relatives and acquaintances, other trafficked children and women and care workers. The footage will be compiled into a final film next spring.

Shout Out Loud plans to screen the completed documentary at film festivals and line up wider distribution next year.

In the meantime, the group will post segments of an online video diary, featuring interviews and other updates. The first installment, in which Ingalls describes her own childhood experiences, is already posted on the group’s Web site, www.shoutoutloudproductions.com.

Once the film has been competed, Ingalls said the organization plans to pursue other projects and to provide support to other organizations working on these issues.

"Right now we're concentrating totally on the film," Ingalls said. "But beyond that there are many possibilities to use film and art to raise awareness.

"We also want to provide healing, creative outlets for these women and children," she added. "When you're in that situation, you often feel completely alone with no one to turn to. These girls and women need support and help to find a different a way." Shout Out Loud is working to raise funds for the film with benefit events, grants and private contributions through its Web site. The group’s initial goal is to raise $70,000 to produce a portfolio trailer and also raise the estimated $250,000 cost of the final film.

Breaking a cycle

The International Labor Organization, an arm of the United Nations, estimated in 2005 that 1.2 million children worldwide were enslaved in forced labor situations including sex-trade work.

Trafficking takes many forms. It includes children sold to sex tourists overseas, young women who are kidnapped and imprisoned in brothels, and runaways who become victimized by pimps. It is a global problem that occurs in every country and region, even in supposedly safe American communities like Berkshire County. Ingalls and others involved in Shout Out Loud say all forms of human trafficking are an outgrowth of deeper social and economic issues, including poverty, desperation, violence, drugs and alcohol and cycles of abuse among generations.

They also say these abusive situations are rooted in cultural attitudes that support and enable exploitation of girls and women.

"Trafficking and these other problems are as bad, or worse, as they were when I was a girl,” Ingalls said. “Why is that? Because the culture accepts and allows it. It's a matter of tonality. In order to really change, we have to change that tone. As individuals and as a society, we have to say this is not acceptable and has to stop.

Another factor that allows sex trafficking to continue is a sense of resignation over the extent of the problem and a belief that it is too entrenched to change.

Ingalls said one goal of Shout Out Loud is to help connect people with solutions, through the organization’s own work and by providing links to information and other organizations working on the issue.

"Larger change starts with individuals and spreads out from there," she said.

Ingalls sees her own work as a form of healing from her personal trauma by taking action to help others. However, she admitted that it is often difficult to go back into her past and to expose it publicly.

This may become even more difficult when she returns to the site of her early childhood in the Philippines -- without the emotional protection of distance.

"I honestly don't know how I'll react when I go back," she said. "But this is the path I am on, and I will have to find that out when the time comes."

Confronting her own past, however, is a crucial step, she said. "Everyone has their own stages and ways of dealing with trauma, but if you never acknowledge what happened, you stay stuck in time," Ingalls said.

Reflecting on the lives of her own children, she said, cemented her decision to go public with her story.

"I look at them and realize that they are fortunate to grow up without being surrounded by constant violence and sexual abuse," Ingalls said. "It makes me remember how desperately I wanted to be in a place like this, and how many other girls and women yearn for that freedom today. I want to do what I can to give them that chance."

Your Ad could be Here