Content warning: This story contains references to sexual assault.
Rachel Monaco-Wilcox | Milwaukee, WI
As a six- or seven-year-old, I wanted to be out in the woods with my imagination, all the time. I loved to read. I would sing. I fished and netted butterflies. I wrote poetry. I loved to make art and get messy. I was an introverted child, but I had explosive interests. I was curious about everything.
Throughout my youth and teenage years, I struggled with deep depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior. A lot of that was the result of early childhood trauma. I was sexually assaulted when I was seven. I didn’t get help immediately afterward, because no one other than the perpetrator and me knew it happened. I said nothing. There’s always a lot going on in the family of young children, and things are chaotic. I had two working parents. My father was a pediatrician and was on-call constantly, and so other people’s emergencies were, in my child-mind, a lot more important than anything that happened to me.
I was afraid that if I talked about it, I would blow up everything else that was safe in my life. I was smart enough to know the kind of impact that any disclosures would have had, so I didn’t say anything. I think my sister possibly knew. My parents might have had some idea, like, ‘Something’s wrong, but we’re not clear what?’ There’s a tendency to just keep everything moving forward. The resilience of kids is legend, but that just wasn’t my journey.
Starting around age eight, I was really struggling. I would try to run away from home. When you’re eight, what that looks like is you go to the end of your two-acre yard, and you hide under a tree with your backpack. I would lay on the ground, and I would let my sadness go. I would feel sheltered by the earth. Being alone in nature is the safest possible setting for me. I’ve always felt a sense of nurturing and peace and safety there.
My art and my poetry and going out into nature were my ways of healing myself, or trying to. But there are some wounds that just keep weeping and won’t go away. When I was fourteen, my parents wanted to do something to help me cope, so I went on antidepressants, saw a psychiatrist, and got all kinds of psychological testing.
My mother and I were—and still are to this day—very close. She knew what my soul needed. I just needed to completely get away. I remember going for my first silent retreat when I was only sixteen years old. I went to a Catholic retreat center and stayed in my tiny little room for three days. My parents knew I was well cared for. I just could not continue to function as if nothing was wrong. And periodically throughout my life, I’ve had to take those moments.
I went to Marquette University after touring a couple of different schools. I was in a tough, tough time in my life then, and I ended up really resonating with Marquette. Thank goodness. It changed a lot of things for my future. At Marquette, they truly live the mission of Cura Personalis, or care of the whole person. You’re not just there to get your As and get out and get a job. It’s about your spirit’s wholeness, and being able to bring that to a passion for work that serves the world but also sustains yourself.
That experience changed everything for me, because it was where I finally started to understand how to heal on my own terms. It continued to be a tough time in my life. I spent part of my freshman year as an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital. But I took a leap, and it was the first of probably many significant healing leaps in my life that I needed to take.
I’m sitting in this room full of women and hearing their stories. They talked about some of the pervasive and severe challenges they face as tribal members. I listened to their pain and their honesty, and I felt something build inside me—a connection, and, really, an anger. A fire in the belly.
I thought to myself, ‘For these women, stopping smoking while pregnant is the least of their problems. I am not making an impact. There are bigger problems here that I can’t solve unless I have more power. What am I going to do about it?’
At the time, I knew I wanted to go back to school. I thought I might pursue an MFA in poetry because I just can’t imagine not thinking about the world poetically. On the other hand, there was a part of my brain that said, ‘For God’s sake, girl. For the first time in your life, do something practical. You need to earn a living.’ So I went to law school.
I started my law career in trusts and estates, where you’re working with families or people who are making plans for leaving a legacy, financial or otherwise, and individuals who have some frailties and vulnerabilities, as well. It was truly a fit for me. I’ve loved it for many years, and I continue to have my small private practice.
About seven years after law school, I took a job as a tenure track professor at Mount Mary University, as chair of the Justice Program. I was absolutely excited. But I walked in there thinking, ‘Look at the student body: we’ve got all women, 60 percent first-generation students, many women of color. What’s going on in their lives?’
The reality I discovered was, some of my students were trafficked or had family members who were being trafficked. Many had experienced sexual assault. I started to really think about needing to address how human trafficking and sexual assault were around us every day. I thought that would help build some sort of niche for Mount Mary University’s Justice Program, and lo and behold, it did.
Human trafficking is really about compelled service. It’s a person providing services who is not voluntarily providing them or fairly compensated for them; they’re in that position through someone else’s force, fraud, or coercion. It can be sexual exploitation or it can be labor services: cleaning hotel rooms or working in the construction industry or a restaurant. Some of the cases anyone could see here in Wisconsin could be workers who are being exploited on dairy farms. Somebody can be trafficked being filmed with a webcam, and someone else puts those sexual videos up online to make money. All of those fall into this giant universe of human trafficking.
I started to become known for what I was doing at Mount Mary when I got a call from Detective Dawn Jones of the Milwaukee Police Department. At the time, she was handling pretty much all the human trafficking cases in Milwaukee, if not the rest of the state. There were so few people doing that work at the time.
She said, (and I’m paraphrasing), ‘We have six women that just testified in federal court against their perpetrator. He’s convicted and the case is over, but they all have a really hard road ahead. One’s facing arson charges for a traumatic breakdown—she lit the apartment on fire where she was being kept. Another is in paternity court, fighting for her child against her pimp. Another has thousands of dollars of municipal fines for solicitation and pandering. Can you help them?’
Because of my background in private law practice, I knew a lot of lawyers. I picked up the phone and started calling, and I found attorneys to help these women.
Immediately I knew that where there’s six, there’s 600. I thought, ‘We need a legal clinic for survivors of trafficking, and maybe even victims of other similar crimes.’ So in 2013, I started the rough shape and work of Legal Options for Trafficked and Underserved Survivors, or LOTUS.
LOTUS exists to provide free services to survivors of gender-based violence and human trafficking. That includes free legal services, survivor empowerment, and advocacy.
I was flying blind in the creation of LOTUS. It just came out of knowing this was work I was meant to do. LOTUS would never have existed without the deep need for me to simply heal myself. It’s the answer to, I think, an unmet desire in my heart for how I could have been helped, for how I could have been spoken to, for how I could have been invited to talk about what happened. How I could have been invited to live a life post-assault.
Six years later, LOTUS has seven staff members and a much bigger budget. The organization is based in Milwaukee, but LOTUS serves the whole state of Wisconsin, and the clinic works with any victim of exploitation or sexual violence. I think it’s important to note that there is no one face of sexual violence or human trafficking.
Victims of trafficking face so many obstacles post-trafficking. With sexual exploitation, that can be anything from criminal convictions for prostitution to severe physical problems. The biggest of these obstacles are often the legal and the emotional ones.
LOTUS has wrestled with getting the legal side of things to work alongside integrated survivor empowerment. That means that the person regains a sense of agency in their own life, that they overcome shame and isolation, and that they do it in their own way, regardless of what the culture or their traumatic past may dictate. They start to set personal and professional goals. They stop feeling divided or numb. They take a courageous leap toward a true voice and purpose in their lives. Survivor empowerment is complicated, but it’s important, too. It’s essential to changing the status quo of injustices, because it puts people in leadership roles who own the lived experiences to be there. It’s about representation.
One of my proudest moments was when LOTUS was able to get a prostitution conviction removed for a survivor. It was the first time in Milwaukee County, and only the second time in the whole state’s history, that this had happened. We’d worked with this beautiful survivor for several years. The day that her conviction was removed by the Court, she sent a text message that said, ‘Because of you my life will never be the same, and I cannot thank you enough.’
Tragically, it wasn’t but six or seven months later that she passed away. She had health complications, and she died. Even in my deep grief about her loss, which will remain with me forever, I will always be proud that she was in a different place than she would have been had LOTUS not existed. And I got to be a part of that.
It’s very hard, working so closely with these issues and with people who have gone through such trauma. I’ve tried various ways to deal with it. Numbing out is effective, but not healthy. I think I numbed out, ironically, through overwork.
The better way through is, honestly, to deeply feel the pain. Being able to sit with people in their grief can be healing, as long as you recharge your battery. To say, ‘Okay, I just heard that person’s painful, detailed, and raw truth. I might be the first person they ever told. Maybe I shouldn’t go back to the office right now. I need to go take a walk. I need a run today. I need to light a vigil candle and pray for this. I need to make a piece of art. I need to lay down on the bed with my dog.’ Often, it’s those very non-mental things that help the most. It’s giving yourself space to feel the pain, to not rush to fix the unfixable.
Become part of the Love Wisconsin
I was not a runner as a child. I was a cross-country skier, a dancer and a swimmer, but running never really connected—until one day it did.
While I was training for my first half-marathon, I would go to Pike Lake State Park and run in the woods. I kept seeing this guy. He would just float over the trails. I’m like, ‘Whoa, he’s good.’ I would watch his arms and calves and how his feet moved when he passed me.
One day we were in the parking lot at the same time, and I started to talk to him. His name was Brian Seegert. He said, ‘You look like you’re a strong runner. It’s great to see you out here.’ I explained about my upcoming race, and he said, ‘I’m happy to run together anytime to help you train.’
I went home and said to my husband, ‘Honey, I met this guy in the woods.’ He said, ‘What?!’ I said, ‘No, he’s really nice. It’s okay. He’s a safe person.’ And he was—he’s an ambassador for Hammer Nutrition and is really well-known in Wisconsin’s running community. Brian and I became friends, and he introduced me to ultra-running.
To claim the title of an ultra-runner, you’re going to run any distance longer than a marathon, or 26.2 miles. You might run 50K, you might run 100K, you might run 50 miles, you might run 200 miles.
Brian said, ‘You can do this. No pressure, but I know you can do it. I’m running these races. Do you want to try and enter?’ So I ran the Door County half-marathon, then the North Face Endurance Challenge marathon, and it was great. I loved it. Less than three years later, I was running 50Ks on a regular basis. I completed my first 100-miler in November of 2019. I almost won the race—I was three minutes behind the first-place male. I was the leading female champion of the tBunk Endurance Challenge in Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest. I ran this race again in 2020 and repeated my female championship win.
What I get out of running is a connection to the deepest parts of my soul. The most honest part of me is when I’m truly connected with nature. I run outside all year long. I run at night, I run in snow, I run in sleet, I’ve run in 100-degree weather. I love witnessing our natural world and feeling my center through running.
As a deeply introverted person, I love to be alone. Running gives me hours of time to be alone, but it also gives me lots of community. There’s a very vibrant worldwide ultra-running community, and a strong community in Wisconsin, too. That community is so supportive and uplifting, and I don’t have to pretend to be anything that I’m not. Oftentimes, I have felt the pressure to appear more polished or more sophisticated or more pulled together than I really am. And ‘ultras’ are so non-competitive. You don’t need more competition than 100 miles facing you. It’s enough of a challenge all by itself; you don’t need to beat anybody. You brought along your own demons to beat—and it’s a long race so you’ll talk to them all, probably around 3 am.
You know, the work that I’ve done is hard. It’s heavy. I have to find ways to let it go. And I like to think every time I’m out there and my foot hits the pavement, it’s my body letting go.
My time at LOTUS needed to come to an end, because I needed to stay me. I needed to create. That’s the love of my soul, is to create things and share beauty with the world.
So in July of 2020, with full support and appreciation from our Board of Directors, I made the decision to move on from LOTUS.
I’ve spent the better part of the last year by myself in a one-room cabin on the south shore of Lake Superior. I’m doing a lot of my own creative, introverted work. I call it creative rest. I’ve embraced nonverbal stuff: photography, artwork. I’m learning about how powerful the visual image can be in a world that’s saturated with words. I’m working on healing my body from the reality of what happens to you when you start a nonprofit and it explodes and you’re working 70-hour weeks for four years.
I needed time to heal and to remember. To ask myself who I am now, what I’ve learned, where I’m going next. What am I passionate about in the same way I was passionate about founding LOTUS?
I’m still devoted to the idea of making an impact on society and culture, but in a very different way. What I’m learning is how powerful a person can be through sharing creativity or small, high-impact messages from a place of deep solitude or introspection. I know that for some people, the past year was incredibly heartbreaking and difficult because of the isolation that the pandemic brought on, and because of not having a refuge inside your own mind.
I feel like, for the future, people would do well to be really grounded in understanding the relationship between their own solitary, introspective process and what happens in the world of justice and advocacy. Could I help other people explore the relationship between the personal and the internal and justice and advocacy? Is there a way I can offer people a creative respite that could be integrated into their work?
I don’t have specifics yet, but little seeds are forming.
Rachel’s story was produced by Maria Parrott-Ryan. If you want to learn more about human trafficking in Wisconsin, here are links to two articles written by Rachel. Faces in the Shadows: Let’s Tell the (Complicated) Truth about Human Trafficking and Under the Radar: Human Trafficking in Wisconsin.
Listen to The Power of Untold Stories (with Rachel Monaco-Wilcox), an episode of Human Powered podcast.
This slideshow has five of Rachel’s paintings: 1. Phoenix: Embracing profound change. 2. Sun: Light comes from inside. When you feel it, shine and your world will open. 3. Autumn’s spare palette draws attention to what we are letting go of. 4. Rachel’s Lotus Flower: Transformations hold pain, acceptance, and grace. 5. Lake Superior freezes over.
This video shows the need for LOTUS and describes the Untold Stories project, a survivor empowerment writing, and art workshop.