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Reclaiming My Worth After Human Trafficking and Sexual Abuse
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When Brooke Axtell was seven years old, her nanny subjected her to sex trafficking. Today, she is a champion and advocate for women around the world who have experienced sexual violence and trauma.
Beautiful Justice shares Brooke’s own gripping story, both the trauma of sex trafficking and also her pathway through healing, moving on, and reclaiming power. Along the way, she imparts warm wisdom for others who have experienced similar violence, providing lessons from her own life and from the thousands of women, advocates, and lawmakers she’s spoken with. Relying on her own experiences and a keen awareness of public policy, she provides a clear-eyed awareness of the ways that our culture and government work against women experiencing violence around the world.
Inspiring and powerfully redemptive, Brooke encourages readers to take part in a creative resistance as a path to justice.
You can’t keep fire in a cage.
You can’t keep the wind in chains.
What is true cannot be tamed.
The falling tide will rise again.
I have danced with the hurricane.
I have kissed the mouth of thunder.
I reach for the lightning
when everyone runs for cover.
Dare you come closer?
Closer you will find:
I am the wild kind.
An Invitation to Beautiful Justice
WELCOME. Thank you for being here.
This book is my offering to you.
I write these words in honor of survivors and their allies.
Survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and human trafficking. Survivors of childhood abuse and neglect. Survivors of emotional abuse, sexual harassment, and exploitation. Survivors who know what it feels like to be violated, devalued, and cast aside.
I share my story of overcoming abuse and finding emotional freedom to encourage you to step into your own. I believe you are worth fighting for. No matter what trauma you may have experienced, I want you to know healing is possible for you.
In this book, you will discover how I healed from child sex trafficking, sexual assault, and domestic violence to become a leader in the international movement for human rights. At the end of the story, you will also find what I call “soul medicine,” encouragement and guidance for your unique path to Beautiful Justice.
Beautiful Justice is the art of taking back our lives and reclaiming our worth after abuse. It is a form of justice that does not depend on what happens to our perpetrators. It is centered on our recovery as a creative process.
Beautiful Justice honors our resilience and agency.
We don’t have to wait for someone else’s choices to set us free. Every decision we make as survivors to speak our truth, reclaim our worth, name our desires, and step into our dreams is a powerful expression of justice that must be celebrated.
I believe survivors have a right to redefine what justice means to them outside of the criminal justice system. I am passionate about creating a more expansive and life-giving view of justice that centers on survivor voices and choices rather than a model that reduces justice to punishing a perpetrator for a crime.
Of course, accountability for perpetrators is needed, but in a world where the vast majority of rapists and abusers will never spend a day in jail, we are creating our own justice by cultivating ways to thrive, awakening our deep resilience, and emerging as leaders. We don’t have to wait for someone to be imprisoned in order to finally feel free.
One definition of justice is “the quality of being just.” An exploration of the word just reveals a meaning that is powerfully relevant for survivors of abuse. One meaning is this: “what is deserved.” When we consider what is deserved after an incident of abuse, we often focus on what we believe the abuser deserves.
But what about survivors? What do we deserve?
In the aftermath of physical and emotional violence, how should our communities respond to us?
As a survivor, I do not want to be reduced to someone else’s criminal act. I want my creative power to be seen and acknowledged as more important and vital than what was forced on my body. Beautiful Justice means I don’t have to wait for a power outside myself to finally tell me I am worthy.
Beautiful Justice is the integration of inner healing and cultural healing, recovery of the individual, and the movement for social change. It can include a survivor’s choice to press charges against a perpetrator (in her own time, for her own reasons), but it does not depend on this.
Beautiful Justice is a return to our innate wholeness. It is the remembrance of our power. It is the path of transforming pain into fierce wisdom, wisdom that can ultimately help heal our communities.
Beautiful Justice also includes our deeply intimate and personal definitions of what it means to live a beautiful life. I marry beauty with justice in my vision of recovery because beauty signals that we are moving beyond mere survival into abundance.
When I consider the places and people that have been most nurturing for me, I see irresistible beauty: captivating art, the wild grace of nature, the luminosity of a soul devoted to a path of love.
In a world where the criminal justice system often fails us, we still have the power to create our own justice. For instance, although approximately one in six women will be sexually assaulted, more than 90 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail.
And in the rare instance that the criminal justice system effectively convicts the perpetrator and protects a crime victim, justice is often incomplete because incarcerating an abuser does not set a survivor free from the impact of the trauma.
If a young trafficked girl sees her trafficker sentenced to prison, yet she lives with a relentless sense of shame and wakes up feeling worthless, that is not justice. If she still feels compelled to tolerate abusive behavior from men in order to win their approval, that is not justice. If she feels the only way out of her pain is drug and alcohol abuse, that is not justice. If she feels her only value is her sexuality and the ways she can please men, that is not justice.
It is not just because it is not what she deserves. She deserves to know her worth.
That is why, even when perpetrators are held accountable for their actions, we still need a more expansive view of justice. We need a justice that includes the emotional freedom of those who have endured abuse and exploitation.
In the course of this book, I am redefining justice to include and honor our well-being as survivors. As we take back our power and reclaim our worth, we are stepping into Beautiful Justice. We are no longer waiting for someone else to set us free.
The trauma of abuse ruptures our connection to our sense of worth. But our worth is unconditional. Beautiful Justice is the way to reconnect with that unwavering worth.
The pain we feel is not infinite. Love is.
And love invites us to relinquish all the lies we have been told about who we are, so we can come home to our wholeness. By devoting ourselves to this healing path, we make the world a more just and compassionate place.
I have seen the ravages of justice denied, and it is time for us to create our own justice, to define our own vision of what it means to honor our worth.
What does a survivor of abuse deserve?
to be heard
to be supported
to be believed
to be celebrated
to be loved unconditionally by our communities.
Our tenderness is strength. Our bliss is a form of resistance. Our self-compassion is revolutionary. Our pleasure is lifesaving. Our humanity is undeniable. Our collective hope is intoxicating.
A NOTE TO ALLIES
If you are reading this book as an ally to survivors of abuse, you, too, can be a part of creating Beautiful Justice. Here are ways to begin:
1. Survivors are told they are worthless. Affirm our worth with your actions and words.
2. Survivors are taught their desires do not matter. Encourage us to explore and honor our desires. Support us in practical ways to manifest our dreams.
3. Survivors are treated with contempt. Offer us compassion.
4. Survivors feel isolated and alone. Invite us into your circle, your family, your heart, your home. Keep reaching out.
5. Survivors fear the pain will never pass. Remind us of our joy.
6. Survivors feel silenced and ashamed. Remind us our voices matter. Listen deeply when we share our stories and heal your own shame, so you can walk this path of recovery with us.
7. Survivors often blame themselves for the abuse. Remind us it is not our fault and we are worthy of love.
When you don’t know what to say, you can say this: “I am sorry you are hurting. I am here.”
You can ask these simple, yet powerful, questions:
What do you want?
What do you need?
How can I support you?
What would feel comforting right now?
What is one way you can be kind to yourself today?
What is the truth you need to tell?
Together we are creating Beautiful Justice. With each small act of compassion, we are mending a brokenhearted world.
In Fierce Love,
What the Fire Sang to Me
Worthy of Love
As I STEP ONTO THE STAGE of the Grammys, I hear the voice of President Obama, telling the world that violence against women and girls must end. “It’s on us,” he says with quiet confidence and conviction. His words resound through my body as I walk forward in the dark.
Then the spotlight hits me. The rows close to the stage are illuminated. I see pop music icon and sexual assault survivor Madonna.
“How many of us have remained silent for years, bound by shame?” I wonder.
When my time to speak comes, I pray to be a channel of healing and liberation for those experiencing abuse. Peace envelops me. “My name is Brooke Axtell, and I am a survivor of domestic violence. After a year of passionate romance with a handsome, charismatic man, I was stunned when he began to abuse me.
“I wanted to believe he was lashing out because he was in pain and needed help. I wanted to believe my compassion could restore him and our relationship. My empathy was used against me. My compassion was incomplete because it did not include me.
“When he threatened to kill me, I knew I had to escape. I revealed the truth of my relationship to my mom, and she encouraged me to seek help at a local domestic violence shelter. This conversation saved my life.”
I feel my power returning to me. I am not afraid anymore.
“If you are in a relationship with someone who does not honor and respect you, I want you to know you are worthy of love. Please reach out for help. Your voice will save you. Let it extend into the night. Let it part the darkness. Let it set you free to know who you truly are: valuable, beautiful, loved.”
After I finish my last line, Katy Perry sings “By the Grace of God.” Her voice resonates with beautiful clarity. “By the grace of God, I picked myself back up.” There is strength in her vulnerability.
I descend the stairs backstage and see Annie Lennox coming toward me. She has tears in her eyes and says, “You are wonderful.” As she embraces me in a warm hug, my heart floods with gratitude. I am overwhelmed by her kindness.
It took me so long to view myself with empathy and respect, but tonight I cross a threshold in my healing and freedom. I recognize I have finally learned to value my own voice.
As I make my way back to my seat in the audience beside my mother, I think of all my survivor sisters and our allies who are devoted to the undeniable worth of women and girls. I feel them walking with me. I hear women’s voices once buried by violence shake the earth beneath me and harmonize.
Together we are untamed light. My whole body vibrates with the knowledge of our collective power: to heal, liberate, and bring an end to the cycle of violence and oppression.
When I return to my seat, I talk with film director Ava DuVernay. She is here to watch Beyoncé, Common, and John Legend perform the song “Glory” from her film Selma.
“You are fabulous,” she says.
I am in awe she is acknowledging me.
“Thank you. So are you,” I reply.
Surrounded by influential celebrities and producers in the entertainment industry, Ava generously takes a moment to encourage me. She has nothing to gain from speaking to me, so I deeply appreciate her authenticity and grace.
I tell her how much I love her film and how important Dr. King’s work is for me as a human rights activist. When Beyoncé performs “Glory,” chills rush through my body. It has always been my dream to be a part of the legacy of freedom fighters. Yet I lived for many years not knowing whether I would ever find the emotional and spiritual freedom I deeply craved.
I consider all I have overcome to reach this moment as well as the stories of the abused women and girls I carry with me. The stories of those who survived and the stories of those who never made it out alive. Draped in a black sequined evening gown, I have shared an extremely concise account of the abuse I survived as an adult. But I could not convey in only a couple of minutes how brutal the darkness was before I reached the first glimpse of light.
Though flooded with gratitude to be here, even during this night of celebration, so many are still trapped in abusive relationships and disconnected from the birthright of their worth.
BEFORE I EVEN return to the hotel, I receive messages from women across the country telling me how powerfully my story speaks to them. Women reveal how they had been beaten, shot, run over by cars, verbally abused, and demeaned by their husbands and boyfriends, men who claimed to love them. Some send photographs of their beaten faces. Daughters write to tell me how their mothers and sisters were murdered.
The next morning I give an interview on Access Hollywood. A man who works for the show approaches me and says, “I heard your speech last night, and it meant a lot to me. I went through an abusive relationship, too. It wasn’t physical. It was emotional.”
“I am sorry to hear that,” I say. “Thank you for sharing your story with me. Many survivors say emotional abuse is the worst part.”
In the following days, I also receive stories of resilience. Women decide to leave abusive relationships after hearing my speech and start their healing path. Many of them say they related to what I shared about my empathy being used against me. In all these messages I hear a common refrain, “My compassion did not include me.”
One of the most moving responses comes from a fifteen-year-old girl, a courageous poet and survivor of sex trafficking. A few weeks after the Grammys, I speak to her recovery group for survivors of child sex trafficking in Miami. The girls ask me questions about my own recovery.
Then the young poet says, “I really related to your speech.”
“What part resonated with you the most?” I ask.
“The part when you said, ‘I am worthy of love.’”
Later that night, I receive a photograph of a journal entry she wrote in response to our conversation. She says, “As I learned tonight, it’s very important to have hope. It’s important to have someone, anyone, who cares. No matter what people may say or do to you, it’s important to never give up. I believe faith with the right help can go a long way. And you’re not going to change overnight. It takes time and there is nothing wrong with that. I learned tonight that I am worth something and that I am made for greatness.”
This is why I continue my work as an advocate and human rights leader with gratitude and hope. In the face of such darkness, I see survivors rise up with the knowledge of their worth, and it is magnificent.
Another teenage survivor of sex trafficking asks me, “After everything you went through as a child, how can you still have hope? How did you get to where you are?”
“The healing path is difficult,” I say. “But you are worth fighting for. Never give up. Be patient with yourself. Reach out for the help you need. Surround yourself with people who see how valuable you are and will remind you of the truth when you can’t believe it for yourself.”
Her question brings me back to the beginning, to the first time a man told me I had no worth, to the first time I was sold for sex.
I AM SEVEN YEARS OLD, and my favorite color is pink. I love ballet. Books, dolls, and art fill my room. I read for hours on my white chaise surrounded by stuffed animals and listen to my music box with the delicate roses and gold edges. My dream is to become a writer one day.
I love to sing “Castle on a Cloud” from the musical Les Misérables. The young Cosette, separated from her mother and condemned to a life of abuse, cries out, “I know a place where no one is lost. I know a place where no one cries. Crying at all is not allowed. Not in my castle on a cloud.”
My teachers at school tell me to stop sucking my thumb. “Big girls don’t suck their thumbs,” they say. What do they know? They do not see what I see. This is how I comfort myself, and I won’t give it up. I stop sucking my thumb at school but continue at home. It helps me fall asleep at night. It helps me forget.
When I take baths, I rest on my back and sing the first song I created, “Flying wings, angels sing, strawberry dreams.” Over and over I sing the same chorus, moving my arms like an angel.
Hanging from the bathroom wall is a framed verse from the book of I Samuel. It is known as Hannah’s Prayer, but in this version, my name replaces the name of the son she prays for. The calligraphy reads, “I have prayed for this child, Brooke, and the Lord has granted me what I have asked of him, so now I give her to the Lord. For her whole life she will be given over to him.”
My mom taught me God is love. But she is in the hospital now because of a sickness that left her unable to walk or speak. The doctors say she may never walk again. I fear she will never return. My dad travels for work to take care of our family and pay for the expensive hospital bills, so I have a string of nannies. One after another.
The fat Irish woman who left us in the house alone and told us it was “hide and go seek.” The lady from India with the scarred face who stole my mom’s credit card and showed us a movie about strippers. The sensitive Polish woman, whose husband painted landscapes with prize racehorses. The baton twirler from Iowa.
The two women from Ethiopia who smiled sweetly and made rich, spicy food, traditional dishes from their homeland. The joyful woman named Dee Dee, who had a thick braid of blonde hair falling down to her lower back and later married a man named Dee.
The studious woman with wiry hair, a mouse face, and glasses who wrapped a towel around me when I got out of the tub. I loved the African ladies most. One of them slept in my pink room for a while. She smelled like red spices and shea-butter body cream.
MY NANNY NOW is a man who says he serves God. Jack wears baseball caps and plaid shirts. He plays video games and refuses to wash the dishes. My nanny talks about God, too. He says it is God’s will for him to punish me for my sins.
What punishment do I deserve? He does not say the word, and I do not have language for what is happening. I cannot tell anyone what his deity demands on my white iron bed with the pink sheets. “You are a worthless whore,” he tells me. “You make me do this to you.” When he hurts me, repeating the Lord’s Prayer, I fly outside my body.
His voice echoes within me: “Deliver us from evil. Deliver us from evil.” A part of me splits off to survive, to guard the truth, to carry the unbearable weight of this. I multiply and disappear.
The first time he hurts me, a door opens into his underworld. A place filled with secrets and shadows, people with dead eyes. He secretly takes me to houses and parties to sell me to men for sex.
They film me with adults and other children. I am caged and taunted like a trapped animal. This all happens in one of the most affluent areas of Texas, Highland Park, in Dallas, where families live and play on idyllic oak-lined streets laced with luxury cars and sprawling mansions.
When they film me, I fly outside my body to take refuge in the beautiful worlds I create: one with a white horse, one where I dance with the angels. Each time they invade me, I soar above them.
I am passed from man to man, hand to hand, like a disposable doll. My soul travels and retreats, crosses oceans, centuries. I live a thousand lives in a single night. Imagination is my fortress.
Reality is unbearable, so I create my own.
This rhythm continues. During the day, I attend school. At night, I belong to him—and whoever is interested in buying me. The buyers are wealthy white men who are hungry to inflict pain. Some of the most painful moments occur when I am forced to watch others being abused.
I numb myself, circling my life as if it belongs to someone else. I became a watcher of the abuse. This is happening to some other little girl, the evil one who needs to be punished, I tell myself. I create a wall, so I can live on the light side and be the good one who lives without pain.
But I cannot fully escape this torment. It bleeds into my writing and art. When I visit my mom in the hospital, she looks like a pale mannequin in her white gown, surrounded by tubes. I don’t know what to say, so I give her a poem I wrote about a baby lamb that is separated from her flock. She encourages me to read my poem aloud.
Over the steep hill
Under a bright horizon
A small lamb lay in a soft green pasture
All alone and full of fright
With wandering eyes
It searches for its flock
But is overcome
My brothers laugh when I reach the part about the fear, so I crawl under a table to hide while the nurse comes in to tend to my mom. “How are you?” the nurse asks warmly. “I read a poem,” I reply, as if that explains everything. What I do not say is this: I am afraid. I am afraid I am going to lose her. I am afraid she will stay like this and never come home.
But after a month of treatment and physical therapy, my mom does return home from the hospital in a wheelchair. She is still unable to speak, but she writes notes to me, saying, “I love you.” “I love you,” I write back. “You can talk,” she writes on a small piece of paper. But I don’t want to talk. I am too terrified and ashamed. My mom senses something is wrong, though, and fires my nanny.
WITH BOTH MY parents finally home, I return to the comfort of family dinners, laughter, and music. When my dad is in town, he plays guitar for us and sings silly songs as I dance around the living room with my brothers, Luke and Cliff. He rewrites the lyrics to fifties and sixties tunes, so each one of us has a theme song to dance to. My theme song is called “Brookie Boo,” which is a rewrite of the Buddy Holly classic “Peggy Sue.” Every time he starts the song “Brookie Boo, I love you,” I giggle and prance around the room.
My dad also creates a series of adventure stories called “Sissy and Bubba.” This courageous brother-and-sister duo travel, on their own, to places like the Amazon jungle and Siberia in hot air balloons on undercover missions and overcome countless villains all before their bedtime.
My older brother, Luke, is tall, quiet, and a keen observer of everyone around him. He lives for his time in nature: exploring creeks, fishing, and collecting insects and turtles. Strong yet tenderhearted, Luke exudes a steadfast loyalty.
He doesn’t say much, but fights for those he loves. When one of the cruel neighborhood boys tries to bully me, he stands up to him until he finally backs down. “Leave my sister alone,” Luke demands, clenching his fists. When the same pudgy black-haired boy tries to attack our soft-spoken Polish nanny, Luke stares him down and punches him in the face without saying a word.
My younger brother, Clifton, loves to express himself, radiates passion, and always finds some kind of mischief. He bolted out of the house at the age of three and furiously pedaled his Big Wheel down the street, completely naked. He is endlessly curious and wants to know how everything works. We call Clifton “Day Day” because before he could talk, he would wander around the house repeating the word day, day, day, day.
My dad makes me laugh again. Blaring Led Zeppelin in the car, he does his weird car dance where he pumps his fist in the air as we both sing along with Robert Plant. He plays his favorite classic rock records for me and introduces me to artists like Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Dad also takes me out to eat at my favorite Mexican food restaurant and treats me to trips to the local book and music stores, telling me I can pick out any book or CD I want. “Always remember,” he says as we browse adventure stories and fairy tales, “books are our friends. Readers are leaders.”
I smile, indulging him. “I know, Dad.”
He takes me to art museums, concerts, and Broadway musicals. For my first concert, my mom, dad, brothers, and I go to see the Beach Boys. I adore their music and dance the whole afternoon beside my father, wearing my new pair of white sunglasses. He reminds me joy is still possible.
With all the demands of his travel, providing for our family, and taking care of my mom, my dad notices no signs of the abuse. My parents think my sadness is due to the pain of having been separated from my mom and her struggle with severe health issues. I only want to please him and make him proud of me.
One of Dad’s nicknames for me is “Ferocious Brain.” He walks into the kitchen in the morning and pats me on the head, saying, “How is my Ferocious Brain doing today?” He affirms my intellect, my ability to think for myself, and often plays devil’s advocate, so I have to defend my point of view.
"Beautiful Justice is a fierce declaration of survival, grace, and dignity. Axtell bares her soul to the world in searing prose that demands we hear the voices of survivors with respect and compassion. Her perseverance in the face of brutality reminds us of all that is noble in the human spirit."
—Siddharth Kara, author of Modern Slavery: A Global Perspective and Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery
"Beautiful Justice is a powerful, poetic call to remember that our worth as women, as survivors, can never be taken from us. Our worth is right here for us to reclaim, from within. Brooke Axtell's story of healing her trauma, returning to her body, and finding fierce love for herself, leads to the greatest triumph of all, to the light no darkness can extinguish; the voice of her own soul."
—Meggan Watterson, author of Reveal and The Sutras of Unspeakable Joy and coauthor of How to Love Yourself
"As a survivor of sexual exploitation and abuse, Brooke takes us on her journey with painstaking honesty and integrity. She takes the reader through her music and poetry and shows us how strong the spirit is. We intimately meet the girl, the woman, the survivor, the advocate, the artist, as she inspires others to their healing. Brooke is an inspiration to all sexual abuse survivors, and as she eloquently writes, 'The pain we feel is not infinite, love is.' The is a lot of love in Beautiful Justice."
—Dr. Patti Feuereisen, founder of Girlthrive, and author of Invisible Girls: Speaking the Truth About Sexual Abuse
- "Brooke Axtell's genius book Beautiful Justice proves that every woman has a story that deserves to be heard, and no matter its contents, can be transformed. You will find your story in hers. You'll be reminded that we can all play a part to create a world where women are valued."—Gina DeVee, creator of Divine Living
- "In her reclamation of worth, Brooke is a beacon. A white hot burning flame of truth. The words and wisdom held within this book are fierce and much needed medicine for these times."—Lisa Lister, author of Witch and Love Your Lady Landscape
- "Axtell [is] an example of the power in speaking out."—Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone
- "Beautiful Justice lives up to its name. Brooke Axtell's beautifully written story is born of personal tragedy and triumph. Told with warmth, humor and pride, she shares lessons we can all learn from."—Terry Lickona, co-producer of The Grammy Awards
- "Beautiful Justice perfectly describes Brooke Axtell's deeply compelling book. Her poetry weaves her personal story of abuse and child sex trafficking through her own heroine's journey to healing. She reveals how she turned the pain of her trauma into passion for social justice. And she offers a handbook for sexual abuse survivors (and, frankly, all women), gently coaching us to reclaim our bodies, our voices, and our power to lead and live as we freely choose."—Gloria Feldt, cofounder and president of Take the Lead and author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power
"Axtell plumbs the horrors of her trauma as a poet, bard, seeker, and seer and establishes herself firmly as a moral and spiritual authority-and, endearingly, as a teacher and as a friend . . . It is in fact Axtell's unflinching candor that allows the reader to grasp the full extent of trauma and the turbulence of the healing journey. Axtell assumes nothing and therefore reveals everything. If one ever doubts the importance of artists and authors to serve as moral beacons for society, let them read this exceptional book."
—Sanjay Rawal, award-winning documentary filmmaker and activist
"A powerful voice."
"Brooke is a multi-talented, inspiring and impressive woman. A rising star."
—Debra Condren, bestselling author of Ambition Is Not a Dirty Word
"Brooke is a dynamic young force."
—Suzy Spencer, New York Times-bestselling author of Wasted
- "In Brooke Axtell's stunning book of fierce love, fierce devotion, and fierce healing, she shares her personal journey through abuse, step by step, and integrates it into a roadmap for others. She honors the many different paths of a woman's spiritual and psychological inner terrain and affirms there are as many paths as there are women. Brooke generously reveals the way art healed her life and in turn shows us the way to do the same with our own."—Deborah Kampmeier, filmmaker and director of Hounddog and Split
- On Sale
- Apr 2, 2019
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Seal Press