Clemmie Greenlee doesn’t remember the name of the Nashville, Tenn., street where she was abducted in 1972 as an innocent 12-year-old girl, nor does she remember the men who grabbed her and bundled her into the back of a car as she walked home from her local store. What she now knows is, when the car door closed behind her, she would embark on a short journey that would change her life forever.
When the car stopped, Greenlee was taken into a large house and guided down steps into a darkened basement. Handcuffed around a large table were six girls, all about her age. The memory of those girls’ faces is etched into her mind, even after 30 years spent deeply involved in the sex trade as a drug-addled prostitute, and it serves as the driving force that has given her strength to help get clean from drugs and dedicate the rest of her life to battle sex trafficking and the destructive drug abuse that stole decades of her own life.
Greenlee’s story is a cautionary tale on many levels, particularly considering that this weekend’s Super Bowl extravaganza will inevitably result in widespread prostitution activity – something that she was subjected to as a girl. But it is also an inspiring account of how one person with few opportunities came to grips with a harsh world and has dedicated her life to helping fix the problems for others.
While Greenlee’s recollection of the past 40 years is patchy, the first few days of her new life as a 12-year-old prostitute are as vivid now as they were then. “The first thing they do is they throw you on this bed, strip you down, handcuff you and immediately shoot you up with drugs. What they are doing is making your body limp so they can gang rape you or, as it was known back then, ‘turn you out.’”
Nobody came looking for her that day. “I grew up in a very poor economic area,” Greenlee said. “I always used to say I was doomed the day I were born. I was born into two alcoholic families, I was born black, and I was born a woman. I was doomed then. We were born very poor, both my parents uneducated, both alcoholics.”
Greenlee said her prostitution didn’t come about randomly – she was targeted and groomed for the role. “A bunch of men that came down from Memphis and they would canvas the neighborhood, Greenlee told IBTimes. “They were lurking around to find who they could make a target. And they would come around and give items like necklaces and bracelets, nice shoes. You like, ‘Oooh, I want one, I want one.’ That was my biggest problem right there: I accepted one of the gifts, and once I accepted one of those gifts, it put a price tag on me that I never would dreamt of.”
After that, she flitted between home and the house where she was being pimped out. While Greenlee says that her parents did sometimes show a more authoritative side, they were largely unconcerned with her whereabouts, usually too drunk to know if she coming, going or even around anymore.
She doesn’t remember being in the same house or apartment for more than year; her parents would regularly move, sometimes once a month, either because they couldn’t afford the rent or the lights were about to go out. Her father lost a succession of jobs because of alcohol and it was this habit that introduced Greenlee to her first drink when she was just 8 years old.
“I started drinking beer because my parents sent me to the refrigerator to get them one, and I used to open it on the way back from the fridge and eventually I would taste it. I liked it.”
By age 11, Greenlee was smoking marijuana, and by 12 she had starting taking acid. That’s the same year her parents moved to the projects in Nashville, a move that subjected Greenlee to a whole new level of sordid, illicit behavior. “The projects was just full of stuff we weren’t really in tune with,” she said. “Girls getting raped, gunfire, ducking because bullets coming through your windows. We were seeing all kinds of stuff, things we never knew anything about. And that kind of took a toll on my life.”
Shortly after the move and at only 13 years old, Greenlee became pregnant, not by one of her tricks but by someone who knew her, she said. Not long before her 14th birthday, she gave birth to a healthy boy and named him Rodriguez. She took him home, but her joy was short-lived, as she found herself back out on the streets just two months later. Years would pass before she saw her son again. He was raised by her parents. His life would eventually turn out to be as tragic and as desperate as her own.
Greenlee remembers being taken to major events like the Super Bowl, but also doctors’ and lawyers’ conventions, where she had some of her “better clients,” she said. Greenlee doesn’t recall the details of her work at the Super Bowl, only that she was busy. “With all the drugs, it would be hard to know which ones it was. That’s how many times they make you do things and try things in these hotels.”
There was little help back in those days for people in Greenlee’s position. While some might point to the church as an escape route, she said churchgoers used to walk right past her on the street. “The church people would pass us and see us standing out there and they would see me at 12 or 13 years old with a short dress on, titties hanging out and lipstick and high-heel shoes. I want you to come and pray for me, ask me my name, ask me why I’m standing out here.” No one ever did.
The streets were brutal for Greenlee. She was stabbed in the back, beaten in the head with a pistol, had one eye injured. “I had to go to the hospital to get stitched up; my vagina was busted because I can’t take these objects and these grown men’s penis, so when I went in the hospital, why did no one notice me with all these scars and wounds? You’d think they’d send a counselor or social workers, someone to save me.”
As well as being in and out of hospital, Greenlee found herself spending increasing amounts of time in jail. Then, after spending 12 years as a prostitute, she snapped and stabbed a man five times in an attempt to kill him. Luckily for both of them, she failed. She said the prosecution wanted her to be sentenced to 21 years in jail, but because her victim hadn’t died, she served only nine months inside.
At the age of 30, Greenlee ran away from her pimp. In a way, history repeated itself: No one went looking for her that day. She had aged out of the game, as she said. “I was a full-blown junkie and wasn’t performing like when they first got me. I was costing them too much and I needed more drugs to perform and the customers were complaining because I wasn’t performing like used to, nothing like when I was 13 or 14.
Her relief at escaping from a life of sexual servitude was dampened by the realities of the new life she started to lead. Too ashamed to reach out to her family, Greenlee slept rough, as she put it, for 10 years. Some nights she spent under bridges, some in abandoned buildings. Her dinner would come from hotel trash cans.
She had been pimped by three different men in those years, one she barely remembers. She heard that one had died from a unknown disease; she said she was told it wasn’t HIV, which was an unknown quantity when she was being pimped out in her youth. While walking the streets of Nashville lately, Greenlee often wonders if the girls she’s trying to help are still under the control of the men from her past and if they’re being sold to the same men. Do those men feel guilt for the lives they’ve ruined?
“I really do believe some of the pimps do regret,” she said. “You gotta look at some of the pimps that have done this: They daddy was a pimp or their friend was a pimp and they showed them how to make money, never work, how to make money, it’s just like drug dealing. I think it trickles down.”
But more than that, Greenlee wants to know what was going through her customers’ minds. “They as sick as the pimp because you knew I was 12 years old, but you still paid for me and you still had sex with me. But I wanna know what you think about when you go home to your wife and your two daughters.”
In a paradoxical way that almost defies logic, Greenlee turned once more to prostitution in her early 40s to save some money and try to get out for good. She was jailed one last time.
Upon release, she reached out to a friend for help. The woman, whom Greenlee did not want to name, had often looked for Greenlee around Nashville’s dangerous streets, crack houses and wherever she thought she might be. She had scraps of paper with her name and number on it. Perhaps many years after she should have made that call, she picked up the phone and as quickly as she was whipped off the street as a 12-year-old girl, she started her recovery as a 42-year-old woman.
“One of the reasons I thought I should get out and do something is because of the ladies, the little girls in the basement, but they ladies now, because I would always want to come back and save them.”
Unfortunately for Greenlee, many of the girls she'd met in that basement 30 years before had gone off the grid. Most had died or were suffering from mental issues that inevitably come with decades of brutality.
“I always want to go back and get them and save them, but a majority of them got sick and most of them are now dead. I see them on the news or I been told that they died.”
Greenlee consoles herself with the knowledge that she got out and has since been able to help others change their lives.
After getting herself on the straight and narrow, Greenlee had one more life to save: the son she had barely known. Though he had lived with her parents, he more or less raised himself and had been on a path similar to hers. Greenlee admits that she may have even bought drugs from him at one point.
She lost touch with him as she was preparing to go into a rehab program in 2001, she said, struggling to hold back tears now. “I got out two years later. He was 29 at the time and I went looking for him to let him know that I was clean and I got help and I know how to help you and I’m coming to take you to rehab.”
For Greenlee, the thought of reclaiming her son and living a normal family life was something that she had dreamt about for three decades.
She met with him on the Saturday not long after she was released from rehab. She had new energy and was determined to turn her son’s life around.
Two days later Greenlee received a call.
“I got a phone call from Vanderbilt Hospital telling me that my son has been murdered and I need to identify his body.”
According to police, Rodriguez had walked down the street wearing a blue scarf in a red-scarf area. He was wearing the wrong gang colors and was murdered for it.
“I could use his death to go back out there [and] give up, but he wouldn’t want me to do that,” Greenlee said. “He saw me clean, he saw me trying to help the community, and he saw me doing things for the homeless, the girls and the gangbangers. His death gave me strength to create new ways to help people.”
Greenlee started two nonprofit groups to help her get over the death of her son and help other mothers deal with similarly traumatic episodes. Her first groups were the Nashville Peacemakers and Mothers Over Murder.
Amazingly, Greenlee doesn’t hate the man who killed her son because, as she says, he needs help too.
“I looked for the guy that murdered him because I want to help him and I want to love him. Fifteen years in prison isn’t going to help him, but five years with me is going to help him. I’m gonna teach him something. I don’t want the police to get him, I wanna get him.
“That’s why I’m hoping that my hope, my strength and my courage keep on going, ’cause it makes me feel like I’m saving those eight girls that nobody came to save.”