“If this book leads to even a single rescue, then my time in bondage was worth it,” Shyima Hall writes in the penultimate paragraph in the final chapter of her new memoir. That “time in bondage” she refers to is four long years during which she was a slave. This is not a long-ago story. This is a 20th-into-21st century nightmare: “when you are a slave, your life belongs to someone else. It is an unimaginable existence for most people, and I am glad of that. I hope that soon no one will ever have to feel the overwhelming sense of loss, frustration, exhaustion, hunger, demeaning words, and physical abuse that I did.”
In her native Egypt, Shyima El-Sayed Hassan was born in 1989 into a large family living in extreme poverty. She was the seventh of 11 children of an abusive, usually-absent father and a powerless, desperate mother. She knew little of her older siblings, although she remembers being sexually molested by older brothers. She helped care for the younger children, whose names she is no longer “100 percent sure about.” And yet she remembers those early childhood years with longing and love.
At 8, Shyima’s parents sold her to a wealthy family; her enslavement was the price for a theft committed by Shyima’s older sister when she was a servant in that home. At 10, the captor family moved to southern California, smuggling Shyima into the U.S. with a hired attendant (who traveled first class, while Shyima went solo in steerage). For two years, she lived in “a tiny windowless storage room in the three-car garage” of a luxurious home in an exclusive gated community. Shyima, who had been one among substantial staff in the five-floored mansion on the sprawling compound in Egypt, was now alone in serving her captor family of two parents and five children. Two years later, when she was finally rescued from her captors, her English vocabulary consisted of three words: hi, dolphin, stepsister.
In spite of being ‘free,’ Shyima knew virtually nothing of the world outside her captors’ home. What most children, most human beings, took for granted – school, friendships, hobbies – were all unknown experiences for Shyima. She would endure two foster homes, and an adoptive family that gave her an American last name but little else, until she was able to choose her own life as a young adult.
As wrenching as Shyima’s life story is, as literature, her memoir ultimately disappoints. Co-written with author Lisa Wysocky, whose previous titles are mostly equestrian-focused, Hidden Girl tends toward uneven, repetitive, pedestrian at best. How unfortunate that such an important story – more 17,000 new slaves are trafficked into the U.S. each year; a mere 2% are eventually rescued – gets mired in such a mediocre narrative. That said, perhaps content trumps style here, and aware readers can work together to make Shyima’s wish – to “put an end to the terrible custom of slavery” – come true: “I hope that it is sooner rather than later.”
Readers: Young Adult, Adult