Carissa Phelps, The “Runaway Girl” Who Stopped Running

A new memoir, Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time, written by Carissa Phelps and co-authored by Larkin Warren, was released in early July.

Long before becoming an attorney and youth advocate, Carissa Phelps escaped harsh living conditions at the age of 12 and then encountered even more trouble. The critique in Kirkus Reviews spells out what happened after she ran away: “…(S)he took to the streets and became entangled with a series of pimps and drug addicts, who brutalized her both physically and emotionally. Two dispiriting years later, Phelps landed at Wakefield, a last-chance reform institution for girls, where she met two people who changed her life: a counselor who helped her regain her self-esteem and a teacher who reignited her love of mathematics.”

Individual therapy, family therapy, and group therapy all provided needed assistance.

Although she went on to achieve advanced education, “…the fight was not over. In her personal life, she ‘burned through friendships, drank [herself] silly, and dated recklessly.’ Only after she made the commitment to help troubled, sexually exploited girls did Phelps begin to find an end to the restlessness that had kept her on the run.”

Chitra Divakaruni‘s review in the San Francisco Chronicle tells us that one of the main points Carissa Phelps makes in her book is that any child who doesn’t believe anyone “cares about what happens to her” can be vulnerable to the kinds of problems she herself encountered. And here’s what Divakaruni observes are the major strengths of Runaway Girl:

  • First, Phelps does not take the easy way out and lay all the blame at the doors of the adults in her lives. She recognizes the particular mental makeup that makes teenagers ‘run,’ even as caring adults are trying to help them. She describes vividly the dangerous high that comes of being on the road with no rules to follow, no one to tell you what you can’t do. Because she understands the runaway mind-set so well, she can later connect to rebellious teenagers in juvy and help them.
  • Second, she gives the reader valuable insight into a problem that is larger than most people realize: ‘One in seven American children will run away from home, and within forty-eight hours, one out of three will be asked, as I was, to ‘take care’ of someone.’ The average age at which street children are bought and sold for purposes of sex is ‘between twelve and fourteen; some are as young as five.’ It is her hope that this book will open the eyes of America to the magnitude of this problem and its root causes and inspire people to make a difference.

Divakaruni adds: “Kafka famously wrote, ‘A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.’ ‘Runaway Girl’ just might become such a book.”

Previous to the book, a documentary called Carissa was made by Phelps’s classmate at UCLA, David Sauvage. In the video clip that was once available on YouTube, he offered some background on making it. When Phelps approached with him the idea of filming her difficult story to just “get it over with,” Sauvage wisely observed it’s not something to get over with “but something to go into.” Go into it she did, and her journey to a better place is one that’s now helping many others.

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