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To the young Cheryl Diamond, life felt like one big adventure, whether she was hurtling down the Himalayas in a rickety car or mingling with underworld fixers. Her family appeared to be an unbreakable gang of five. One day they were in Australia, the next in South Africa, the pattern repeating as they crossed continents, changed identities, and erased their pasts. What Diamond didn’t yet know was that she was born into a family of outlaws fleeing from the highest international law enforcement agencies, a family with secrets that would eventually catch up to all of them.
By the time she was in her teens, Diamond had lived dozens of lives and lies, but as she grew older, love and trust turned to fear and violence, and her family—the only people she had in the world—began to unravel. She started to realize that her life itself might be a big con, and the people she loved, the most dangerous of all. With no way out and her identity burned so often that she had no proof she even existed, all that was left was a girl from nowhere.
Surviving would require her to escape, and to do so Diamond would have to unlearn all the rules she grew up with. Wild, heartbreaking, and often unexpectedly funny, Nowhere Girl is an impossible-to-believe true story of self-discovery and triumph.
1: The Chase
It's the simple mistakes that get you caught. Not the epic dramas we imagine—a high-speed car chase or a helicopter spotlight pinning you in the darkness. Instead, it's the fingerprint on the edge of a letter, a call to your mother on her birthday, or a surreptitious visit home. Some of the cleverest fugitives in the world were captured because they thought it was safe to let their guard down, to breathe, for just a moment.
I learned all this in my years on the road with my family, decades of moving without warning from city to city, country to country, continent to continent. I memorized the mantra of Sikh prayers, how to add and subtract on an abacus, and how an internal combustion engine works. But my hardest lesson was something very different. I had to learn our rules:
• Always have a back story. Rehearse it until it is your real story, until it comes without thinking.
• Never give outsiders the phone number of where you live. Never. Instead, set up an answering service in a different town, where people can leave a message after the beep. Always check these messages from pay phones.
• Make sure all mail goes to a P.O. box. Before picking it up, take abrupt turns, circuitous routes, with eyes trained on the rearview mirror, making sure there isn't a tail.
• Pay for everything in cash. Never own a credit card.
• And, most important, when you leave a place—no matter how much you love it, no matter how many friends you've made—you can never, ever go back. You cannot contact people you used to know. Relationships have to go up in smoke along with old documents.
It sounds simple, but few people can do it continuously over many years. They get tired and careless, or start to miss those they've left behind. And then, as Dad likes to remind us, you're as good as dead.
That hallucinatory feeling of early dawn at the Golden Temple, the words of Guru Nanak chanting gently from my lips, is as smooth as a dream in my memory but also as real as yesterday. Those moments in India, my father's warm hand on my shoulder as dawn broke over the Himalayas, were the first beliefs I developed and stored permanently in my heart. It was all somehow perfect, even the young soldiers armed with big guns, even my brother's fist going through the wall. Everything Dad promised seemed easily within our reach. There was so much more I didn't understand—not then, hurtling down a mountain, or later, when Frank and Chiara turned into people I could never imagine, nor on the last day I saw my brother. Not even today.
But why did we run so fast and for so long? Why did we risk it all?
That answer is simple.
We were being hunted.
And yet, my family sang on, in a little car held together with faith and chicken wire, even as the seeds of our dissolution—my father's temper, Frank and Chiara's battle of wills—began to take hold. In the years that follow, those moments of beauty will become more and more fleeting. By then we'll have mingled with the Yakuza in Japan, witnessed apartheid at its turbulent end, seen the Pyramids, and eaten hot cheese deep in the wilds of Romania. By the age of nine, I will have lived in more than a dozen countries, on five continents, under six assumed identities. I'll know how a document is forged, how to withstand an interrogation, and most important, how to disappear.
And the money? It's never clear where that comes from. I'm taught to shoplift, but that's just to build character. The cash seems to appear without anyone exerting visible effort. Sometimes Dad says it's the interest on an investment, and sometimes he'll let out a whoop while watching the gold prices spike on CNN, but there never seems to be anything like work involved. As long as I can remember, there has always been another bank account. Always there, just a wire transfer away. Ready to buy us freedom.
Watching my father as he drives across borders, the sharp angles of his Viking profile so like mine, I came to see that in our life of inconsistencies, there is one enduring thing: He believes in me. They all do.
This feeling has nothing to do with the beautiful places they take me to, the temples, ancient ruins, and untouched beaches. It's because even when I'm so tiny that Dad jokingly makes restaurant reservations for four-and-a-half people, they always treat me as a full member of the team. Of course there is a huge amount expected of me in return. I know that I must be the best, the fastest, the bravest. As a gymnast I will push myself all the way to a podium at the Junior Olympics, and standing there, I'll know it's only a step in the right direction. Yet, I see the pride in their eyes, even if I am their overly sensitive, idealistic, stubborn, impossible fireball. They know I will fight to the death for them.
I don't care how many cops are on our trail, I don't care about Interpol. They are my world. Maybe not a perfect one, but I see all the best in them. It makes me want to fly higher and higher so they will always look at me like this; like they don't want me to be a girl who sits quietly and lets the world go by, but one who chases it, bursting with life. Their partner in crime.
Back then it all seemed so right. I could not imagine that my future had already been written in the stamp of a fake passport before I was even conceived. That my fate would be a harsh one—meant to be impossible to overcome or escape.
Some people believe life is a chess match, where each move you make affects your destiny, and you decide the strategy. But what if everything was already decided?
What if you were born on the run?
2: Amritsar, India, age 4
We acquire something I've never experienced before—a routine.
Each dawn is ushered in under a golden dome and every afternoon we head back to the temple complex, to help at the Langar—the free kitchen in Amritsar, where volunteers feed thousands every day, working almost around the clock. Following my family at a jog, I weave through the streets as the sun beats down, surrounded by women in vibrant tunics and men in multihued turbans.
There's noise, a haze of incense, careening mopeds, and color, color everywhere. The rest of the world seems to live in black and white compared to India. We halt only briefly, so Dad can carry a tiny turtle across the road to safety. He is committed to saving various creatures through rescue protocols and strict vegetarianism. The fate of the cyclist is a hiccup along this path that we would, honestly, rather not discuss.
Our gang steps into the complex—white buildings with stately columns—stretching in front of us. Today, I'm determined to help make chapati, despite Frank telling me confidentially that people under four feet tall with blonde hair aren't allowed to help. The dining space is cavernous, filled with the clatter of bowls as long lines of people sit cross-legged on the floor, eating.
Mom manages to get me into the open kitchen, near the giant cauldrons cooking dahl lentils and the rich scents of curry, where I settle between Frank and Chiara. There is much winking and conspiratorial smiling between Mom and the woman in charge. I give them a look of great dignity, intending to blow their minds with my efficiency. Frank and Chiara mold the dough and I slap it in the center a few times before it's flipped onto a huge searing plate. Dad doesn't actually help—manual labor is not his thing. Instead, he talks to people, discussing philosophy and religion. Once someone starts speaking with my father, they seem to become mesmerized, hardly moving from the spot. I have seen it many times before, the instant power of that smile, of his unshakable presence. It makes me sit straighter, because out of everyone, he's ours.
Glancing around the rest of the dining area, I begin to notice a disturbing trend. Some of the people we serve are hungry. Not the type of famished I get after a day of not finding safe food to eat while we travel, but hungry with the worried, inward-looking stare of someone who is all alone.
Very late that night, I tiptoe into my parents' dark bedroom and poke my father's shoulder. His eyes open and focus immediately. Dad is good at waking up alert and ready for anything. "Hi," I say. "It's me."
He grins. "I can see that. Come on up." He helps me climb over him, all elbows and knees, and I begin to divide his wiry Viking beard into three parts so I can braid it.
Mom stirs, sleepily touching my arm. "Did you have a bad dream, Bhajan?"
I look at them both. "Why are there poor people?" My parents pause, and then rally, explaining how there are so many people and there isn't always enough to go around. "But why isn't there a law that rich people have to give them something?" I feel myself becoming teary.
"That's communism, sweetheart," Dad says. "It can be a slippery slope. . . . Although, some people like to be other-directed. They just want someone to tell them what to do."
"Ah, that's the secret of how governments control millions. You tell people they'll be taken care of, if they do what they're told. It's comforting not to have to think for yourself."
"I don't want to be other-directed!" I burst out, my voice louder than I expected.
Mom's soothing, cool hand strokes my forehead, and Dad looks at me in that way he sometimes does— as if he dearly wants to share everything he knows, as if I will desperately need it to survive. "If you want to be in charge of your destiny you have to be constantly aware, Bhajan. Constantly. Otherwise someone will lead you, and you'll be just another slave."
My hand is on the rise and fall of his chest and I can feel his heartbeat quicken. I stay silent in thought. He often talks this way, in extremes, with triumph or disaster the only two possible outcomes. If there is such a thing as doing all right, or muddling through, it's an entirely foreign concept to me.
"I'll never be other-directed." I promise. My words are soft in the dark, but I mean every one.
He touches my cheek and lifts the blanket so I can fit snugly between them. All the worries and questions begin to lose their shape, and I feel my eyes closing. Because there is no better place than this. Tucked between them, where no nightmares, monsters, or fear can touch me. The safest place in the world.
Two days before we are due to leave for Delhi to continue our pilgrimage of discovery, Chiara gets a marriage proposal. Apparently, another dad approached our dad at the temple. The family is well-known, and has quite a bit of money, so they were shocked to hear that our father thought sixteen was too young for Chiara to be entering into holy matrimony. Like the traffic, major life decisions seem to move fast here. I don't think Chiara is even interested in this boy and has never chatted with him. Of course Dad would never have allowed us to talk alone with someone, especially of the opposite sex, unless expressly approved by him. That's something other people do. People who don't think of their futures.
I stroll toward the hotel with Mom and Chiara, along the white temple path for the last time, smiling at the people we know.
"Wait!!" Frank is sprinting after us, with the long-legged stride of an athlete, dark ponytail flying.
He skids to a stop, barefoot. "Mom, Mom, I just heard! Dad told me. This is perfect, it's so perfect . . . We could leave Chiara here!"
"Frank." Mom rolls her eyes.
"No, no, please just listen," he implores, actually dropping to his knees on the pathway. "This family will take care of her, they will! And let's face it; she may never get another proposal. We could be free!"
Chiara stares down at him angrily. Mom takes a deep breath, releases it, and then continues walking, Frank still entreating her.
Back in our hotel room, Frank's tall body collapses on his bed, a defeated arm thrown over his eyes. I climb up and sit cross-legged on his chest to comfort him.
"Oh Bhajan," he says sadly. "We were so close."
I brace a leg against the back of Mom's seat as our car fights its way into Delhi, trying to steady the world. On all sides we're besieged by vehicles: tiny cars, lumbering buses with people hanging out the windows and clinging to the sides, rickshaws, bikes, and motorized scooters, all driven by people who clearly have no regard for the sanctity of life. I'm feeling oddly weak, my head lolling against the seat.
On nearly every concrete island, between honking traffic lanes, are makeshift shelters built from junk and tied together with twine or rags. I see skinny, big-eyed children in torn T-shirts standing barefoot on the blistering concrete while cars scream by. Outside the more modern buildings, child beggars sit, some missing an arm or with a mutilated eye barely healed into a jagged scar.
We veer into a tight roundabout, seemingly endless because no one lets anyone change lanes, and I start to feel my stomach heave. Crumpling forward, I moan.
"Shh, don't cry," Mom reaches back to rub my knee.
"It's good for you to see this, Bhajan." Dad tells me sternly, still stuck in the left lane, going into his sixth round. "Don't ever forget how lucky you are—"
"I need the bathroom!" I sob as pain shoots through my belly. Dad's whole expression changes in the rearview mirror as he focuses on my face.
"Don't throw up on me!" Frank frantically rolls down his window and maneuvers me toward it. I squeeze my eyes shut as Dad leans on the horn and fights his way into the next circle of hell. We screech to a stop in front of a café with taxi drivers drinking chai and swatting at flies outside. My legs don't seem to be working properly, so I'm half-dragged, half-carried to the bathroom. The stomach cramps are so violent that I scream out in pain while Mom grips my hands.
"What's wrong with her?" Dad asks anxiously when I emerge, slumped against Mom's leg.
"She must have caught a strong virus. We have to get her to a hotel. Now."
Frank is tilting a water bottle to my lips, but I turn away. All I want is to crawl into a quiet corner and sleep. When they haul me out of the car at a big hotel with a revolving glass door and uniformed parking attendants, I'm delirious with fever, blabbering—and then my world fades to black.
I'm not sure how much time has passed when I wake to the sound of frantic calls for a children's doctor, any doctor. Faces swirl above me, my mother with her cool hands and soft kisses. "Say something, Bhajan. Bhajan, look at me." I can't move my mouth, I'm just too tired, so I close my eyes. It feels like I'm drifting peacefully, a raft being pulled farther and farther from the shore
It's nighttime. Another voice. A cold instrument presses over my heart, and through barely open lids I see an Indian woman leaning over me, a doctor's bag on the bed. The longer I look into her kohl-rimmed eyes, the deeper they seem, like moving amber. She turns away abruptly and speaks to my parents.
"She's going to die soon. Unless you can find a way to get a lot of fluids into her."
Her words rob the room of all sound, and then everyone starts talking frantically. They're arguing about a hospital and whether I will just catch something worse if I go. The terror-sharpened voices fade away, away, until . . .
. . . Something hard is clicking against my teeth and I crack open an eye to see Frank and Chiara on the bed, sitting on either side of me, with little glass droppers in their hands.
"It's just water, sweetie. You have to have some, okay?" Chiara is using her perky voice, which I can't stand, but even that doesn't bother me now. Dad is yelling at someone on the phone about airplane seats, but that's nothing unusual. Mom's focus is on changing the cool cloths on my forehead, squeezing my hand, and heaving suitcases out of the closet. Why don't they all just go to sleep, for God's sake and let me be? I turn away.
"Bhajan, Bhajan." Frank rubs my shoulder. "Let me give you this water!" Up close, I can see he's trying not to cry. "It's me, Bhajan, will you do it for me? C'mon."
I feel the dropper click against my teeth and, for him, I try. The first drops of water burn down my throat. Then suddenly I am in Mom's arms, draped over her shoulder, boneless. "Move! Move!" Now Dad is issuing orders. We rush through the deserted lobby and out into the gray early-morning light.
"Open the trunk." Dad snaps at the sleepy taxi driver and together they start shoving our bags into the back.
That's when I see her. She's among the raggedy kids who are sleeping against the wall of the hotel. Except she's awake. Her body is small and delicate, the torn clothes she's wearing barely cover her emaciated limbs. She must be four or five, like me, with the same large, almond-shaped eyes, dark brown instead of blue. She doesn't move. Time stops, and we watch each other as everyone else loads the car. I notice her arms tremble, like the just-played string of a sitar. They are crossed, as if trying to hold herself together.
"All right, get in!"
I feel Mom move forward, hugging me tightly, as if to press her strength into my body.
It's so clear to me in that last moment, before I slip into unconsciousness: This little girl is not going to make it. There are just three meters of space separating us, but she is being left to die. I'm being saved. And we both know it.
3: Sydney, Australia, age 5
I turn on the TV and fall in love.
"I'm the Bush Tucker man!" A weathered ex-military operative in his thirties holds a squirming worm aloft as he crouches in the wilderness. "You may think this is just a worm," he addresses the camera in his thick Aussie accent, "but really, it's also protein."
This is the first manifestation of my attraction to competence above all else when it comes to men. Can he survive in an apocalypse? That's my question. My experiences, combined with listening to my father, have led me to believe that an apocalypse is not only likely, but something that should be taken into account while making everyday decisions. I'm not panicked necessarily—just alert.
It's four months since we left India, and with a steady diet of avocados, flax seed oil, Bush Tucker man, and illegally obtained raw goat's milk, I've made a remarkable recovery. The allowed hour of TV during my convalescence was a shock at first, but Dad approves of my program choice—I'm picking up survival skills in case of a military takeover.
Having successfully learned today's lesson—which roots are edible, and which will kill ya' dead—I run across the apartment in my new favorite outfit, a poofy floor-length white dress that I got for my fifth birthday. Climbing to my favorite perch on the windowsill of our massive apartment, I can see clear across the harbor to the white curves of the Sydney Opera House. To me, the view looks like the sails of some magnificent ship against the achingly blue sky. It's beginning to feel like home. And that is when I notice the change in him.
As I sit on the windowsill, Dad plants a kiss on my now rosy cheek and starts to pace, looking preoccupied. I watch him, so restless, his body silhouetted against the sky, eyes searching the horizon. It unsettles me and maybe that's why, two days later, I make a mistake.
My gymnastic team and I line up on the track field. "Ryyyyyight, kids," Coach Anita announces, stretching out the vowels, Aussie-style, "We're going to have a number of races today to see where we're at." She directs us to our positions twenty-five meters from the finish line.
The shrill whistle pierces the air and we're off. I sprint ahead, fists pumping, suddenly in the lead and feeling the joy of being so alive. Of being strong again. Halfway through I realize the other girls aren't even trying to win. It's probably the smart choice; today is blistering hot and I already sense how exhausted I'm going to be. But where is the fun in running slow?
Coach Anita takes me aside after the second sprint. "Now, Harbhajan, don't you think it would be nice for you to even things out and let the others win from now on?"
Has the woman lost her mind? I consider informing her that this sounds dangerously like communism, which can be a slippery slope.
By the time we're done, I'm sweaty, exhausted, and limping slightly. "Well done!" booms one of the other girls' fathers, smiling heartily at me. I've seen him around a few times, looking very Australian with his broad shoulders, ruddy complexion, and open face. "So how are you liking it here, or do you miss all those street cars?"
Panic comes at me fast. Backstory, what's our backstory? I try to jog my memory, but we've been in Australia a while and, besides, I think I have heatstroke.
"I was there in '82," he hollers. "Smashing place, what area did you live in?"
Oh God, I've been briefed on this, but can't remember. With each new country, Dad not only changes our last name, but also builds a different history, a different place we're from. He drills me in mock interrogations when I least expect it. I've asked him if we could just schedule a time for this, so it doesn't occur when I'm relaxing on the couch planning my future with the Bush Tucker man. But apparently, real interrogations happen when you aren't feeling like it.
The correct response to each question is always deflection, suggesting the interrogator should ask my mom or dad. I used to break down sometimes and cry in these rehearsals, at the confusion of telling my dad to ask my dad, but I'm five now and I think I've got it down. Why there are so many people chasing us, though, is a mystery to me. I know one of them is called Interpol, because I've heard my parents talking about its alerts and searches. But they aren't the only ones after us. In my mind it's like a many-tentacled beast. Waiting for us to make the slightest slipup, or let down our guard for a moment . . .
. . . The broad-shouldered, ruddy-faced dad is still staring at me, morphing from a chatty well-meaning Aussie into one of the shadowy people I fear. "Well?" he asks, looking confused.
Am I going to mess everything up? Destroy us all? Is he with the authorities? My head pounds. "Ask my Mom," I blurt out, and half-run, half-limp to the car.
Dad decides we're going to leave the country a few days later. I know I'm probably not the reason—it's something about visas and moving targets being harder to find—but I still feel guilty. Grabbing our Monopoly set, I find Frank sprawled on the floor of his room, reading. "Oh God," he groans. "Why do you have to wear that thing?"
I look down at my poofy dress. "It's elegant."
"It's ridiculous. And I'm not going to play with you."
He picks me up, deposits me outside his room, and slams the door.
An hour later I'm lying on my bed, like a beached starfish in my party dress, when my door clicks open. "Move over." Frank tosses Asterix and Cleopatra onto the duvet and we lie on our bellies, side by side, as he reads to me. His long, square-tipped finger traces the words I need to learn. Apologies are unnecessary.
Frank and I spend the majority of our time together since he can't stand Chiara, and given that we move so often, the thought of putting effort into maintaining outside friendships is exhausting. Other kids don't really get us and can be frighteningly persistent in their questioning. Even Mom has become strangely silent and withdrawn; I can tell she doesn't want to leave Australia. But she never complains, and so I decide it's time to take action on her behalf.
When everyone except Dad has turned in, I climb out of bed. Tiptoeing from my room, I join him on the sofa of the darkened living room. His arm warm around my shoulders, we crack open pistachios and watch the stock prices on CNN while he explains how to buy long and sell short. "Does Mom want to stay here and have a house?" I ask tentatively.
"You don't miss a lot." He smiles at me.
"So are we gonna settle down?" I hear a bit of hope creep into my voice; I like the Aussies.
"Bhajan, that's exactly the kind of weak thinking that leads to disaster."
I chew thoughtfully, watching the numbers scroll across the bottom of the screen, as a woman with immobile blonde hair talks.
"Staying in one place looks safe, but that's how they find you. Always remember—you should never operate from a position of uncertainty or fear. Never."
I imagine them coming, men with guns breaking down our door in the night, the screams of my family. He must feel me tense, because his voice softens. "Bhajan you don't have worry. I'll always take care of you."
It's actually a
"A riveting tale of trauma and resilience."
“Like Tara Westover’s Educated, Cheryl Diamond’s memoir tells the harrowing story of how crippling a childhood can be under the despotic narcissistic rule of a controlling father . . . Diamond has a powerful story to tell, and she tells it well, creating strong characters and settings, describing the complicated motivations of her parents and older siblings, all while conveying her yearning for ‘normalcy,’ whatever that is.”
—New York Journal of Books
“A shocking rollercoaster ride of a story that shares secrets of life on the run but also asks big questions about what family means and who we truly are, no matter what the name on a passport might say.”
“This memoir is proof that truth really is stranger than fiction.”
—CrimeReads, “The Most Anticipated Crime Books of 2021: Summer Reading Edition”
“[A] remarkable true story of growing up in a family of outlaws.”
“A transfixing chronicle . . . Propulsive . . . Eloquent and bracing, Diamond’s story will haunt readers long after the last page.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A beyond-harrowing memoir . . . Diamond's tale might just be the most mind-blowing of them all.”
—Booklist, starred review
“Former teen model Diamond reveals a childhood both wacky and cliff-hanging in Nowhere Girl; on the run with an outlaw family, she lived in more than a dozen countries, on five continents, under six assumed identities, by age nine.”
“Nowhere Girl beautifully captures the intensity, darkness, and fierce love within an uncompromising outlaw family. Diamond's odyssey would leave the most adventurous among us panting to keep up.”
—Alia Volz, author of Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco
- On Sale
- Jun 14, 2022
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Algonquin Books