I first began to notice the wisp of a girl with long black hair as I drove home from work in the evenings. She was usually standing on a corner beside a gas station in downtown Annapolis, her sliver of a face pockmarked, her dark eyes locked onto each passing vehicle. Her ragged clothes and weary demeanor were conspicuous along this busy downtown corridor, where leafy blocks of historic homes meet antique shops and cobblestone streets.

It took a few weeks for my curiosity to boil over, but I eventually pulled my car to the side of the road, approached her, and struck up a conversation. My press pass, I figured, was license enough to talk to whomever I pleased. Sarah, I learned, was a prostitute. I was a reporter at The Capital. A lot of people wanted something from this troubled twenty-four-year-old. I wanted a story.

What she told me that day, and over the weeks that followed, turned out not only to be a great story, but a minor media phenomenon, one that has taken Sarah all the way from her precarious existence on the streets of Annapolis to Dr. Phil’s coveted couch in Los Angeles. And yet it’s a story that has also left me with questions about the nature of the narrative I began to construct that day last April. With Sarah’s recent appearances on national television, these questions have only intensified.

Sarah’s story is what you might call a parent’s worst nightmare: cute, all-American kid dabbles in drugs and careens into a downward spiral. Until she began experimenting with heroin around age seventeen, Sarah insists that she had a fairly typical childhood in a quiet middle-class neighborhood outside Columbia, South Carolina, with her mother, Cindy, and her twin sister, Tecoa. She considered herself a budding artist who loved to draw and was rarely seen without a camera around her neck. The household was strictly vegetarian and junkfood was forbidden; Sarah didn’t even taste a Coke until she was ten.

When I met Sarah, more than six years after she began using heroin, her life was a shambles. Her drug habit, which now included crack cocaine, had forced her to drop out of community college several years before. She had dipped in and out of prostitution and rehab centers ever since.

Annapolis is a quaint state capital better known for its annual yacht races and sumptuous crab cakes than its prostitutes. I knew that Sarah’s salacious tales of sex with local lawyers, construction workers, and soccer dads in minivans would shake things up. My sense of this deepened when she invited me into her innermost sanctum, a tiny trash-strewn clearing behind some bushes in the local cemetery where she spent much of her time. I sat on a tree stump and watched her smoke crack. “I know I’m killing myself,” she told me as her body stiffened and her bloodshot eyes rolled into her head. “But I just can’t stop.”

It turned out to be the first of several such encounters with Sarah, each one as disturbing as it was compelling. It was also my first serious encounter with the dueling loyalties that hover over journalists—to the story or to my humanity. “This,” I’d say to myself after one of Sarah’s raw testimonials, “is great fucking stuff! I can’t wait until my editor reads this.”

Several weeks after I met Sarah, my story was published on the front page of The Capital. It chronicled her life over the course of several days. Our attempts to conceal Sarah’s identity failed when a series of photos we ran of her, though taken from behind, allowed people to recognize her on the street. It was something we’d gone to great lengths to avoid, and for me and the photographer I worked with, it was a painfully embarrassing mistake that still makes me uncomfortable more than six months later. In a matter of days, Sarah went from an anonymous street urchin to something of a local celebrity. People were seduced by her candor, her street savvy, and by the story of a middle-class white girl—not unlike their own children—whose life had unraveled so tragically.

 

Peter Holley is a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.