Try Forgiveness: A Conversation with Markie Ethier

The following is a piece written by Unsinkable’s Jody Carrow from her interview with Markie Ethier


I watched your TED Talk and read about you in Flare Magazine – I was pretty blown away. Can you talk about what life looks like for you now?

I work for the YMCA and I’m an Anti-Human Trafficking Program Consultant. I educate law enforcement, service providers, teachers, youth about human trafficking – what the signs are, how to prevent it or how to work with girls who have been victims of human trafficking. I do that part time and I absolutely adore it. I’m married, I just got a puppy [laughs] – life is lookin’ up right now!


I’m wondering, now that you’re an educator, if you can see looking back how you slipped through the cracks.

Absolutely. I was young and vulnerable, looking for love, friendship and attention. I thought that I found that in my pimp, and did whatever she wanted to have her approval. The money was enticing as well. I saw what she had, and to me, that was success. She was awful to me but I just wanted to be a good person in her life. I thought she needed better people.


Well, she probably did…

[Laughing] Right, I was naïve to think that I could fix her.


In terms of your family and community network, where did it go wrong? What did they miss seeing? This is not an attempt to blame anyone, but more for the purposes of supporting the education that you do.

It looked very similar as to what I was doing day-to-day. I had a couple girlfriends and I would stay at their place for a week at a time. That was normal, us girls would just stay at each other’s places for a week, switch houses, kinda do that thing. I was 19 years old. It wasn’t abnormal for me to be out of the house for long periods of time. The traffickers made sure that I kept in contact with my dad a little bit so he thought things were okay.

He knew something wasn’t right, but he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know a crime was taking place, he was more like, “Who are these people you’re living with?” I was already kind of pushing the limits with going to parties and stuff, so it didn’t seem any different.

Then people heard what I was doing – not that I was being human trafficked – but the shameful side of me in the sex trade. Everyone found out quickly and my reputation was destroyed. All of my friends wrote me off because they didn’t want to associate with me.

It’s so sad. I needed people the most and everyone thought I was a lost cause. My dad always tried to get me back. He’s always been loving, but yeah, no one knew what was happening, what was there.


Once the news was out, how was that for you when you realized that your dad knew what you were doing?

Ummm…I denied it. It was hard because I would talk to him on the phone when I had to, but usually I would ignore his calls because it was way too hard on me. I had too much shame and guilt. I grew up in a Christian home – he thought I was saving sex for marriage and so the fact that he knew this about me, I just had to ignore him because I couldn’t face it. It’s humiliating. And it’s an icky topic – you don’t want to talk about sex with your dad and so I ignored him as much as I could. I would call him every couple of months, but everything was lies coming from me anyways.

Until you were trafficked, what did you understand forgiveness to be?

[Laughing] I didn’t know much about forgiveness. I thought someone does something wrong to you and you say the words and you’ve forgiven them. Then all is well. It never made things better, it was a formality that you did and that was it. I did it as a kid because my parents would tell me to, but as I grew older, forgiveness wasn’t a part of my life at all.


How did you get to a place where you were able to forgive?

[Laughing] My now husband kind of forced me into it until it actually started to make a difference. I also had tried everything I could think of in terms of counselling, drowning my emotions in alcohol and drugs and reading self-help books. Forgiveness was a last resort.


Right. So what did that practice look like? I mean, forgiveness becomes a discipline at that point, doesn’t it?

Yeah, it does. It’s a daily thing. I was having breakdowns every day and I would have hysterics – you know the side effects of trafficking and this is what, 7, 8 years later? – and day to day was a struggle for me. My emotions were so up and down and he would say to me, “You need to forgive.” So, he told me to pray, pray about my situation. I’d be bawling my eyes out and I would go pray and ask, What is this about? And then a name would pop in my head. Or a situation from way back when and I would realize that’s what was bothering me now. So then I say: “I forgive you (and I say their name) for what you did and how it hurt me and why I forgive you.” And then I let that go. Some people I would have to do that for like, 2 months every day and others I would say it once and it did feel good right after. Like a weight had been lifted.

When you pray about it and when you think about it, you explore questions like, why am I letting them hurt me? What hurts must they have to have done this to me? And you realize it’s not that personal.


Who have you been forgiving?

I have a list of about 80 people. I started with the people who trafficked me. Next were all the johns. I’ve always felt that I am more hurt by the johns than by my traffickers because they are the ones that really do lasting damage to you. You know, the married men who are buying you, people who actually steal your dignity.


Were you able to forgive yourself? Did you need to forgive yourself?

Oh god, yes. I did. I think I was the main one that I needed to forgive. I didn’t realize that I was so mad at myself. Like I didn’t consent to any of the bad things happening to me, but I still felt like it was all my fault. I ruined so many lives and I humiliated my family – I just carried so much guilt and shame. Suddenly coming public with my story has helped me so much in that healing and so much with forgiveness.


How so?

You’re not hiding anymore. I can truly be myself. After this happened, I was always paranoid about who knew what about me. Like: What do you know? Do you know I was a stripper? I would always have my back up. Now that the story’s out there, I don’t have to hide who I am. And I can easily identify who and what needs to be forgiven since my story is out and I’ve had the chance to process and talk about it. People can think what they want about me and I’ve accepted that. I don’t care about other people’s opinions because I care about myself more than what they think. I like myself.


Did you have people during those years that you knew always loved you no matter what?

Oh yeah. My dad. A lady by the name of Katarina MacLeod – I don’t know if you’ve heard her name in the sex trafficking circles – she is survivor herself and she was my mentor. I met her when the police were called and they introduced me to her and she has been by my side ever since. She was probably the number one influence on my healing – I had so many suicidal thoughts and I’d call her up and she understood me. A lot of people want to understand so badly but they can’t because they didn’t go through it. They didn’t experience customers, experience that life. So connecting with her was the best thing that could have happened to me. I would say they are only two that cared about me through the whole process.

Have you ever connected with any of your traffickers or johns – do any of them know they’ve been forgiven?

I recently connected with one former john in the past couple weeks. He called me and apologized to me which was amazing. Because he genuinely didn’t think he was hurting me. Everyone has their own ideas of sex work, right? And most johns just think well, it’s consensual…he watched my TED Talk and he said, “I had no idea that this was the way it went for you.” So that was nice and I forgave him. I felt a lot better because I truly thought tricks knew the damage they cause. But most are as oblivious to that as society is to human trafficking.


What do you think people misunderstand about human trafficking?

I think, if people know what human trafficking is, even on a small scale, it’s still hard for them to wrap their head around consent. Like, why did she not leave? Why did she stay? I get that so often. I don’t think people understand that it wasn’t initially a choice and that after you’re in that world, there is no other choice. You think we chose to do sex work? No. We chose only because it was that or get beat up.


There’s a big difference between “consenting” to have sex with a john – meaning they haven’t raped you – and using healthy decision-making to choose to become a sex worker. You may consent to the actual act, but did you consent to being trafficked, to the conditions that forced you there in the first place?

Exactly. It looks like consent because we aren’t kicking and screaming. People don’t see the layers of psychological damage and brainwashing that is taking place.


You describe so well how masterful traffickers are about picking their time, picking their person…stripping away all their meaningful connections and self esteem.

Traffickers are masterful manipulators who pick the most vulnerable people. And usually the girls that get trapped in the trafficking situation feel that it’s a little bit better than what they were living at home or before. For me, it was that I had freedom and could live in a condo in Toronto and that I was making money (not that I ever got to keep any). I didn’t have rules, I was wearing nice clothes…there were really, really bad days, but there were also good days. So I would hang on to the good days and think maybe one day if I was good enough or make enough money then it would always be good. So you’re trying and trying to make things better.


You’ve been capable of a kind of forgiveness that many of us, myself included, are not practicing. What do we not know about forgiveness?

[Long pause here] Forgiveness can transform your life. It’s hard to look at forgiveness when you are grasping on to your ego. But I think people can understand that they will feel so much better about themselves if they forgive. People come at it from the standpoint of, “I’m not gonna break down and give them the upper hand” but really you’re giving yourself the upper hand! You’re letting go of everything. You’re saying, “You’re not going to tie me down”. You’re saying, “I’m letting it go; I’m no longer attached to you. I’m letting myself go, I’m letting you go. Both of us do not need to be imprisoned by this. It’s in the past.”

You can only go forward if you let things go. And to be able to truly forgive, you have to forgive with no conditions. It doesn’t work if you have the, I’ll forgive but I won’t forget mentality. Everything needs to go. And you’ll feel free and you’ll feel better. There’s so much good that comes out of forgiveness. And then you allow other good things to come in.


Forgiveness isn’t saying, “What you did was okay.”

Yeah. It eats away at you and you come to realize that every day there’s going to be people you need to forgive. You hold so much real estate in your body with those negative feelings and those emotions make you tight and heavy. And you actually feel looser and lighter when you forgive. It’s really powerful.

Say your boss ignored a really good piece of work you did that day. And you’re like, “Man, I spent 5 hours on that and he didn’t give me the time of day” and you hold that without forgiving it. You have all these encounters throughout your day that just keep building and building and building. So forgiveness really needs to become a daily practice – you need to be asking all the time: what am I holding on to?


In your opinion, is there such thing as the ‘unforgivable’?

No, I don’t believe there is the unforgivable. That would mean that you’re looking at their actions instead of inside your heart.

Forgiveness comes with no conditions: so no matter how huge the hurt, the crime, the manipulation etc., forgiveness is for YOU to release yourself of the pain.

The more someone feels like they shouldn’t be forgiven, the more you should forgive because your desire to get that last bit of revenge is proof of the pain you are holding inside.


If someone reading this happens to be in a human trafficking situation, what would you like to tell them?

That there’s so many resources out there to help them. There’s so much hope. There’s a life outside that world. Money and ‘loyalty’ isn’t worth the damage that is being done to you. It’s so hard to leave a trafficker because you think you have all your bases covered. But there’s so much more out there to life without a trafficker.


What would you say to survivors of human trafficking?

That’s a good question…[long pause] that they have so many people that can relate to them and to help them. I’m proud of them. It’s hard to go through the healing process [here Markie becomes a bit teary].


Do you think a part of you will always be healing from this?

I believe I will heal fully from this. I have come a long way in my journey and I believe with forgiveness and God, all things are possible. That’s not to say I won’t have hard days or triggers, but I won’t be carrying around hurt or resentment.


Can you talk about how you think the practice of forgiveness has impacted your own mental health and recovery?

Forgiveness is huge for mental health. Before I forgave, my emotions were so imbalanced. I struggled with: why is this happening? Why do I feel this way? But when you dive into forgiveness, all those questions are answered because you can connect with what’s making you hurt and then you can deal with the hurt. When those questions are gone, then you don’t have those waves of emotions. I used to have anxiety attacks and very low lows and I’m just more steady now. I have a full understanding of what’s hurting me.


Does forgiveness allow you to feel the emotions without spinning in the mental anguish about them?

Yes. It’s almost like you’re viewing a problem from the outside. You’re unattached.


I really appreciate your time and your candidness. You’ve made me realize I have some forgiveness work to do!

Thank you. Try it out over these next few days! Light a candle, turn off lights, phone, any other noise you can. And just have a clean open space. My husband and I call it “Candle Time.” When one of us is struggling, it’s like, “I’m going to the candle” and we just do it.


Maybe we could all give forgiveness a try today. Thank you, Markie, for the example you have set and all the work you do to lift others up.

Jody Carrow