I fell into the job of private investigator because I have one of those faces. It’s an ordinary-looking face, but if I ask, ‘How are you?’ sometimes people start crying. They tell me about their divorces, cancers, miscarriages, dead fathers. I used to think that’s just how people were, except they’d say, ‘I don’t know why I’m telling you this, I barely know you,’ or ‘I’ve never told this to anyone before,’ or ‘What’s your name?’ Fifteen years ago, it happened with an attorney I had just met at a bookstore (minus the crying), and he said, ‘I don’t understand. What’s happening to me?’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘It’s my face.’
The lawyer’s expression changed from sorrow to shrewd scrutiny. He was older than me, successful, a man with expensive shirts that matched his eyes, someone who knew how to turn opportunity into money. ‘Come work for me!’ he said.
‘I need a private investigator for my lawsuits. It would be part-time contract work.’ He named an hourly rate that was five times what I was making as a temp receptionist at a pharmaceutical company.
I said, ‘I have absolutely no experience.’
He said, ‘Perfect.’
We exchanged contact information. Three days later, I began my new part-time career as a private investigator.
Our first half dozen cases together were smaller in scope: personal injury, medical malpractice, auto. I showed up and lied to people, which is illegal for attorneys but not for private investigators – not for me. I pretended I was pregnant to investigate a maternal death at a hospital. I pretended to be a triathlete; I pretended to be a wealthy donor; I pretended to have breast cancer. It felt strange to lie to people’s faces – wrong, until I discovered that they actually believed me. Success made it easier, at least. And my remaining feelings of guilt disappeared completely once I saw the outcome of my work: orphaned babies and dying mothers would get care, drunk drivers and reckless doctors would have to pay cash for their crimes. I felt like a vigilante. And a good one – we won every lawsuit. We were court-consecrated.
This is easy, I thought, until the lawyer landed a major David-and-Goliath case.
Title IX sexual assault lawsuits are now common in the US, but this was one of the first, back in 2002. Two female college students had been gang-raped by a group of football recruits and players. The women were suing the university for fostering the sexually hostile environment that led to their sexual assaults and harassment. My job was to discover and interview other football rape victims. I was also tasked with gathering evidence for the original crime, and for the rape culture that permeated the university’s football program.
The case lasted over five years. During that time I learned interview skills to complement my face’s natural tendencies: how to use silence, how and when to ask the right questions, how to detect and subvert deception, how to memorize entire conversations without taking notes, how to follow rumors until they turned to fact, and most of all, how to get people to trust me. Because my job wasn’t just getting information. Rapport was the thing.
In his mockumentary Zelig, Woody Allen’s character is a ‘human chameleon’, unconsciously (and physically) mirroring whomever he’s talking to at the moment. His empathy is extreme and total. Zelig transforms his manner, appearance, and even his racial identity; he’s able to establish instant rapport with everyone from rabbis to Nazis. In the film, Zelig’s condition is a mental illness. It’s also a talent, one I quickly realized I shared. And that talent made people want to talk to me, even despite themselves.
My Zelig-like face was my biggest asset as a private investigator. My mixed ancestry often prompts people to believe we share a genetic kinship (‘Are you Chinese?’ ‘Are you Jewish?’ ‘Are you Irish?’). They swear we’ve met before (‘You look so familiar!’), because I always seem to look a little like them. And who doesn’t confess to her own mirror?
But the rape case required a new level of Zelig-esque lying. In this university’s culture, the football team was a ‘greater good’ that needed protection. I pretended to agree with players as they insisted that one woman’s ‘discomfort’ was ‘worth it if it means winning a championship’. One teen athlete explained patiently, ‘This is glory we’re talking about. Sometimes you have to make a sacrifice.’
‘Oh, yes,’ I said, exuding warmth as I internally feared for humanity. ‘Can you give me more examples?’
I bought nachos for possible rapists in bars that played, ‘Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop’ over the speakers. I met female strangers at the same bars to ask them about getting raped by those players – where, when, how long, by whom, what happened after, what happened before? I bought them drinks, pretending to match their inebriation, wondering if I was playing fair. Alcohol made the football players arrogant enough to tell the truth; it made the victims sad enough to risk talking to me.
For several victims, I was the first person to hear their stories. They told me about their traumas, and then promised to sign affidavits under aliases, hoping the legal threads were so knotted that their most horrific moments wouldn’t be printed in the newspaper before they had a chance to tell their parents. As I exerted pressure on these brave women, I quailed inside, even though I knew winning this case could save countless other women from future devastation.
‘I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,’ they repeated, and I didn’t say it was my face. I said, ‘Maybe you just needed to own your story.’ Then I asked them to put it in writing and give it to me.
Poppy was different, which was part of what made her so valuable to the case. I didn’t have to unearth her – she sought us out. She wasn’t a fragile student victim, or a rapist. She was a madam for an escort service that provided prostitutes for football recruits, directly solicited by the university.
News coverage of the lawsuit had gone national, and Poppy had called a news station to ask them who she should talk to. ‘Because, you know, I’m all about supporting the sistas,’ she told me. ‘And that football recruiter used our service all the time.’ Poppy provided prostitutes for him and about a dozen recruits before the police caught her and closed down her business, shortly before she contacted us.
After a brief phone conversation, I met Poppy in person at a small cafe in 2004, and we talked for three hours. She was maybe 180 pounds, with a generous lap and comfortable laugh. She was half-Korean (‘Are you Korean?’ she asked me), and in her thirties. Her hair was startlingly long, thick and black, with overgrown Bettie Page bangs. She had highlighted her half-moon eyes with sparkly purple eyeshadow. She visibly relaxed when I told her that lunch was on me. ‘Good, because I’m broke.’ And then she articulately answered every question I asked.
Poppy grew up in Oklahoma. Her father was a ‘prick cop’ and her mother was a ‘full-gospel Christian. If my mother wasn’t so high-functioning, you’d think she was schizophrenic. She hears voices and sees God,’ Poppy said. Both parents were abusive. Poppy majored in psychology during college, also working as a domestic abuse counselor and a stripper. ‘It seems ironic, but I knew I was acting out stuff from my family, even while I was stripping,’ she said.
Poppy’s grandmother was a ‘comfort woman’ during World War II, when the Japanese Imperial Army instituted its ianfu state-run military brothel system. Women were abducted into the ‘comfort woman’ system, or lured with promises of nursing jobs. Once enslaved, the women were considered to be ‘public toilets,’ there for military use. In the name of reducing battle stress, up to forty soldiers a day raped, beat and tortured each woman, all day and all night. Poppy’s grandmother had a tattoo over her heart, which was how the brothel marked the women. She conceived and gave birth while there; the soldiers removed the infant and left it to die outside from exposure.
‘I don’t know if my grandmother was where I got the idea to work,’ Poppy said. ‘I got pregnant when I was nineteen, and my son had special needs. He has early-onset bipolar disorder. His medication was $1000 a month, and the doctors told me I had to either hospitalize him or find a way to keep him at home. The first night I went out on a job, I cried and cried. But I made $700.’
When Poppy talked about prostitution, she stopped slouching, and her eyes ignited. She got, well, pretty. ‘It’s not always sex,’ she said. She had an Adult Baby client who outfitted his apartment with an adult-sized crib and high chair. Poppy played babysitter, snapping gum and twirling pigtails while the Adult Baby toddled around in a giant diaper. ‘I refuse to change that diaper, though,’ she said. The Adult Baby was a lawyer. ‘Lawyers are my best clients,’ Poppy said, and waited for me to write that down for my memo to the legal team.
Poppy also had a client she knew only as ‘Shower Curtain Guy’ (‘I don’t remember names or faces – just anatomy,’ she said). Shower Curtain Guy liked to sit on a chair in the middle of the room with a shower curtain draped over his naked body. ‘All he wants me to do is lick his chest through the shower curtain. I always make him buy a new one.’
‘Because it’s unsanitary.’
‘No, I mean, why does he want that?’
She shrugged. ‘It’s usually something to do with their parents.’
Poppy hired ‘girls’, and took a cut from their earnings. She had a stable of prostitutes by the time the football team started contacting her. ‘The recruiter found us through the phone book – we had lines routed all over the place, and classified ads in the PennySaver. He did all the referrals. He wanted black girls or blondes for the recruits – one or the other, always.’
‘High school boys wanted to sleep with older women? Prostitutes?’
Poppy winced a little at the word. ‘Most of the time, the kid gave the money to the girls. But in some cases the recruiter would say, ‘Don’t let the kid know this is a working deal.’ He wanted the kid to think that this kind of thing would happen to him all the time if he came here to play football.
‘One kid said he was a virgin. Some of them were scared, and I felt like they didn’t ask for it, that they were pressured into doing it. I didn’t like to do those jobs because I’m not into mommy fantasies,’ she said firmly, palms pushing something away. ‘But the recruiter gave us so many referrals that I’d see him on the side. Then he’d call me, sometimes twelve times a day. It was weird. I mean, look at me – I’m a large girl, older; I’m not a babe. There really aren’t babes in this business.’
‘So you dated the recruiter?’ I asked.
‘If dating means having sex without money exchanging hands, then yes, we dated.’ Poppy poked an appetizer with one tine of her fork, her flawless manicure gleaming. ‘Sometimes I feel bad about . . . the work.’ She was strangely squeamish about her job title. ‘Whenever a girl called and asked for a job, if she had never done this work before, I’d tell her to think it over. I’d say, “This isn’t an escort service where you go to dinner and a movie. This is adult entertainment. And the money is more addictive than any drug.” You know what I mean,’ she said.
But I didn’t know. I was poor. I had a live-in fiancé who would later become my husband. I had never made $250 in fifteen minutes. Perhaps to differentiate myself, I asked, ‘Did you feel like you were victimizing them? Your girls?’
‘Those women were going to work for someone, whether it was me or someone else. I knew I could keep them safer. I had a protocol – they had to call in and answer a series of questions. The code word was “mercy”. So if a girl checked in and said, “Mercy, it was hard to find this place,” we knew she was in trouble.’
‘What kind of trouble?’
Poppy sat back, resting her hands on the table. ‘It’s not a matter of if you get raped in this business. It’s a matter of when.’
‘Did you get raped?’ I asked.
‘Well, yeah.’ Poppy’s face and voice disconnected from each other. She told me that after being called to one job, a group of young men pulled her into an apartment and threw her to the ground. They dropped a couch over her top half, leaving her bottom half exposed. She was on her stomach. They ripped off her clothing. There were six of them. They each took turns raping her while the other five sat on the couch, holding her down. ‘It went on forever and I thought that was it for me. I was in so much pain afterward. I could barely get out of there,’ she said.
Poppy was speaking across the table from me, but I was lost in her story. I could only see the couch, Poppy trapped beneath it, the men. The dark and the dirt, the weight bending her ribs, and the tearing as each new man forced himself into her. Poppy pouring cereal for her son the next morning. Worse was the image of her heading back out to work the next week, or the next night, or ever.
‘That’s –’ I said, and lost my words.
Poppy gave me a double-take. ‘Aw. Look at your face. You’re so concerned.’ Her own face slowly took on the same canny expression the lawyer had when he hired me.
‘Come work for me!’ Poppy said.
I still felt disoriented, like the fishtailing back end of whatever vehicle Poppy was driving. ‘As one of your . . . girls?’
‘You could definitely work,’ she said. ‘Look at that sweet little face. Shit! You’d be great at it. You’d be the belle of the ball.’
For a dizzy second, I considered it. I needed money, and I had never been the belle of any ball. Then I wondered what was wrong with me.
Over the next two years, I talked with Poppy every few months to consult with her on the case. To supplement the prostitutes Poppy provided, the university had also hired other (more heavily disguised) local sex services for their football recruits. The sex industry operated in code and Poppy deciphered it all, describing menus of services, giving us the prices of competing businesses. ‘Somehow they’re considered to be legal, but I got nailed,’ she grumbled.
About nine months after our first meeting, we met in person again. Poppy was distracted, pale, slouching in her seat, and she had gained some weight. She was having some kind of trouble with the police officer who had dismantled her madam business. Maybe she had been hoping for legal help when she contacted us in the first place. My lawyer-employer had procured her a pro bono attorney to keep her out of jail. The problem was, Poppy was guilty.
And now she was famous too. The legal team and local TV and newspaper reporters were in constant barter, trading and feeding each other witnesses and interviews. I’m not sure who leaked information to the press – it may well have been Poppy herself – but scandal certainly helped our case. Poppy’s confessions quickly spread to the newspaper and the nightly news. Her picture was everywhere.
‘I’m calling them “gas station moments,”’ Poppy said, one side of her mouth jerking upward. ‘Football fans recognize me when I’m pumping gas, and they throw supersized drinks at me with ice in them. Once a middle-aged couple threw boiling hot coffee at me. Sometimes people spit on me.’
I hadn’t considered that the lawsuit could endanger her. ‘Have you called the police?’
‘Police? Ha. I could handle it, except my son’s getting teased at school. Kids say stuff like, “Your mom’s a whore.” He’s only fourteen. I promised him I wouldn’t do it anymore, but nobody else will hire me.’ She ate as quickly as was polite. It felt like she had another appointment after ours, but didn’t want to mention it. ‘Maybe I could make some real money if I wrote this stuff down?’
I had no doubt Poppy could write. Her similes were better than mine (‘Jody’s hair looked like a used Q-tip.’ ‘Wendy had breasts like empty pita pockets.’) But Poppy needed folding money.
‘Have you thought about just working a temporary hourly job?’ I asked. ‘Like fast food or Walmart?’
‘I worked there for a week. Then they found out who I was, fired me and didn’t pay me for my time. I get a job, and I’m gone as soon as they find out. With my name, my appearance – I stick out.’
‘How about cutting your hair? You could dye it.’
Poppy swung a long lock over her shoulder. I suddenly understood that she hadn’t given up prostitution. Of course not – how else would she pay her rent? She needed that shining black hair, and every other asset she had.
‘I’m about to be evicted,’ she said. ‘That cop says he’ll reopen my case if I testify. He says it’ll be bad for me.’
The Title IX lawsuit wasn’t going well, either. The judge dismissed the case on summary judgment, and it was now out on appeal to a higher court. The District Attorney decided not to prosecute one of the football player rapists, despite conclusive DNA evidence and a positive rape kit from one of our witnesses. That kind of physical evidence is considered to be indisputable, but the DA’s reason for dismissing it was, ‘We don’t want to look like we’re jumping on the [university] bandwagon.’
‘If my parents find out what I’ve been doing, they’ll come after me,’ Poppy said. ‘They tried to get custody of my son; that’s why I came here. You don’t know how crazy they are. Once when he was a baby, they told me to beat him for rolling over on the changing table.’ She grabbed her hair in her fists and shook it a little, staring at the placemat. Her nail polish gleamed through the strands of black. ‘I might move out of state,’ she said.
It would be better for Poppy and her bullied son if she moved and started over somewhere else. But we needed Poppy to testify. She was the tawdry face of the lawsuit, a reminder nobody could ignore. If she left the state, the case could collapse. Civil cases aren’t like criminal ones; it’s nearly useless to subpoena a reluctant witness who doesn’t want to testify, or who doesn’t want to be found.
Of course, Poppy didn’t know any of this. I had to keep her ignorant and lure her back to our side. ‘Don’t run away,’ I said. Hurriedly, I named social services: Emergency Family Assistance, Safehouse, Mental Health Center, Family and Children Services. ‘Some of them have temporary housing for families.’
‘My son is special needs. He needs a stable home,’ she said miserably. ‘And I have a dog.’ Our relationship was shifting, and Poppy was speaking to me like a friend. She didn’t ask me for money. Instead, she stared out the window at the aggressively bright day, and at the women exiting the yoga store buoyed by shopping bags.
‘I’ve got to be honest. I really regret coming forward,’ Poppy said. ‘I feel like I just screwed up my life. I wish I hadn’t ever said anything.’
I felt sick, but it was my job to lean into her misery, not away. I wanted to, even. Her anguish felt uncut and addictive. I wanted to crawl even closer, deep into this woman’s strange mind, full of cuts and broken mirrors.
‘You can’t give up.’ When Poppy was silent, I heard myself say, ‘We’d just subpoena you anyway.’
‘What are you going to do, Poppy?’ I asked.
Her purple-shaded gaze skittered around the restaurant, away from my treacherous face.
‘I want a white picket fence,’ she whispered. ‘I just want a normal life.’
In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm describes the rapacity of the writer-subject relationship – in both directions. Despite the journalist’s transparent greed and deceit, Malcolm insists, ‘No subject is naïve . . . [he] knows on some level what is in store for him, and remains in the relationship anyway, impelled by something stronger than his reason.’ I appreciated Janet Malcolm’s reasoning, but I didn’t believe her. I felt responsible for it all – the needs of the case, the costs to Poppy, and the fates of the plaintiffs, whom I had never met.
Poppy had decided to come forward on her own. But the resulting chaos was the kind of thing news spectators love; it makes them feel safe by comparison. Nothing’s more comforting than the sound of rain when you’re not in it. And so the case kept getting coverage. But I was no spectator; I got wet. I was working for the greater good of rape victims, right? That meant I should be working for Poppy, too.
I began job-hunting for her. I scanned ads and called department store warehouses. ‘She could stock inventory in the back,’ I said. ‘Nobody would have to see her.’ I called acquaintances who had small businesses. ‘Can you use an assistant? A bookkeeper? Someone discreet?’ When they asked about her previous experience, I told them, and they politely declined. I called the area’s family shelters. ‘They have a dog. Is that a problem?’
Finally, one of the non-profit workers said, ‘Listen. It’s real nice that you care. But I’ve seen this before. You need to let this woman make her own decisions.’
‘I’m trying to help her.’
‘Sure. But you’re the one who’s calling. She’s not.’
Which only made me more desperate. Maybe Poppy was too depressed to help herself. I thought about her problems all the time. I wasn’t her, but I could have been. I imagined Poppy afraid to leave her apartment, crying into a dirty bathrobe, staring into her open refrigerator until it was no longer cold. I imagined her dressing in the dark to meet dangerous men after her son fell asleep in his bed.
The next time we spoke, Poppy’s voice was bright at the other end of the phone, dispelling the image I’d built up of her. ‘I had a great idea. Let’s write a book together! All this has got to be worth something. Sex sells, baby! Just tell me who I need to call to get money for this.’
I explained how the publishing industry works until we were both depressed. ‘But maybe I could pitch an article on you,’ I said. ‘I have some magazine contacts, editors I’ve worked with before.’ The animation returned to Poppy’s voice after I told her we’d split the money down the middle.
I pitched a Poppy story to a magazine editor I was working with at the time. ‘But can you make it empowering?’ the editor asked.
‘I – well, it’s not an empowering story, exactly. I mean, she’s destitute.’ Stupidly, I told her I was going to pay half the money to Poppy.
The editor used the slow, halting talk that sane people use with the insane. ‘We don’t pay our subjects. That’s not really ethical.’ Then she placed me on hold until I eventually hung up, and she didn’t take my calls again.
The Title IX lawsuit was eventually reinstated by an appellate court. After that, the university settled, and the plaintiffs were awarded $2,850,000. The perpetrators were still free to roam and rape, and the football coach who caused it all received a three million dollar settlement with his dismissal. But it was over, the law firm would get paid for its contingency work, the plaintiffs were vindicated, and the university was court mandated to change policy to protect its female students from sexual assault and harassment. I called my lawyer-employer, congratulated him, and then asked if he would help Poppy.
‘How?’ he asked. I could hear him thinking, And why?
‘I don’t know. Everyone’s profiting from her testimony. But her life has completely fallen apart.’
The lawyer said, ‘She did come forward on her own. She didn’t ask for anonymity or we would have tried to get it for her. She made every one of those choices herself, Erika.’
These were what appropriate boundaries looked like. Janet Malcolm echoed in my head: No subject is naïve. I remembered a kid in elementary school who once approached me and unbuttoned his shirt. Inside, he had stashed the principal’s paddle. When I asked why he had stolen it, he said, ‘Because I’m going to get in trouble today.’
‘I feel bad about her, too,’ the lawyer said. ‘I’m sure her attorney is doing his best.’ My employer was a kind man, too kind to tell me how twisted up I was in all this. Instead, he asked me to send my case files to the firm for destruction, and invited me to the celebration party.
The party was at the lobby of the firm, which had been remodeled in natural wood and brushed metal, with expensive paintings curated throughout. My fiancé was my date. The party was crowded, and white men in suits shook each others’ hands. None of them knew me or my involvement with the case. I met the main plaintiff for the first time; she was gracious, and clearly had no idea who I was.
Poppy was there. She was thinner than before, in a snug royal blue dress. She sidled up to my fiancé and me. It seemed that no one else would talk to her.
We weren’t friends – what were we? I did what I do when I get uncomfortable – made insulting jokes, ate all the cheese at the appetizer table. Poppy did what she did when she got uncomfortable – hinted at a possible three-way with my fiancé and me.
I admired her skill, her up-and-down looks at my fiancé that somehow included me and complimented me on my taste. Sex was layered beneath every comment, and her gaze lingered on our lips, fingers. I had never seen her like this. In her blue dress, Poppy had transformed into her working self, an all-inclusive sexual force with its own gravitational field. There were no clear lines to her. She was as permeable as air.
Poppy was talking about nothing – parties, tricks, sex so casual it was ‘like shaking hands’ (she said this while shaking my handsome fiancé’s hand). But beneath her words and her blue dress, she was saying very clearly, Take me home with you. There are no rules here. Show me your darkest secrets; I’ll keep them. Pay this small price; I’ll be your container.
I do what she does, I suddenly realized. I just keep my clothes on. She solicits money for secrets; I solicit secrets for money. The only other difference between us was where the money went – hers to her son, and for me, to these men in suits who were slapping each other on the back for the win.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ my fiancé whispered in my ear, and we excused ourselves from Poppy and the party. For days afterward I felt ashamed, or maybe angry. I was supposed to be the Zelig – not Poppy. She had treated me like one of her tricks, her Adult Babies, her Shower Curtain Guys. Was that what she thought of me? She had never tried to play me quite like that before. But maybe that was because I had been the one playing her all along. Maybe she was the one who was angry.
The case was over. I had already begun a new lawsuit – another university rape in a different state by yet another football player, this one a repeat offender. A whole new cast of villains and victims awaited me. Poppy’s eternal mess was her own. I had a new one to inhabit.
I stopped returning her phone calls. She left one message, and then another, more formal one. She had the delicacy not to call again after that.
Poppy got her white picket fence, but first she had to undergo years of more barbed wire. She eventually found an employer, who enslaved her financially and sexually. The better choice was to return to prostitution. She set up a workplace in a motel room and slept with clients there, using the lobby computer every morning to make her Craigslist dates. The motel owner finally took pity on her tear-stained face, and offered her a job on the night shift so she could quit the life.
They fell in love. He married her. She joined a professional folk dance troupe. She now lives in the suburbs and does public speaking against human trafficking and sexual abuse. I learned this from a newspaper article in which a Christian non-profit agency took credit for turning her life around. In the photo Poppy stood smiling in a beige kitchen, glossy hair cropped to her shoulders, using oven mitts to proffer the camera a cherry pie.
I made so many mistakes with Poppy, but I’m not certain exactly what they were. I know I was an engine in a vast legal machine that hurt her. So was she. We did it for a cause. I worked for five years to help two students win a lawsuit, one that changed university policy to protect other students from future sexual assaults. I might have helped keep thousands of young women safe from sexual exploitation. In doing so, I exploited a rape victim, and took everything I could from her. Rather, she offered it all to me for free, and I accepted, as I was paid to do. I made right choice after right choice until they added up to something terribly wrong.
I’ve never been able to fully shake Poppy from my conscience, and after fifteen years of the job, I’ve decided to finally abandon PI work. Last month I was offered a career case – a rural cold-case murder of a woman, covered up by local authorities. The details, the vicious cruelty, the narcissism of the perpetrator – this was PI candy, and I was perfect for the case. I craved it with my whole body. But I turned it down. I knew I’d stop at nothing, not even collateral damage. I was too good at persuading people to tell me everything, no matter their personal cost.
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche warns us that we sometimes become monsters when we fight monsters, and if we gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes into us. What Nietzsche doesn’t mention is how easy it is for the abyss to disguise itself. It acts like a greater good. It sounds like a nice person asking for your secrets. It feels like connection, redemption, even comfort. It looks like my face.
Photograph © David Sanborn