How does one find one’s true identity after being torn apart? They say we aren’t defined by what happens to us, and it’s true, but finding who we are under the rubble of abuse and hardships can be a tall order.
In her earthshaking memoir, Leaving Breezy Street, Brenda Myers-Powell details her life as a survivor of molestation, sex trafficking, and the 25 years she spent as a prostitute and drug addict. She writes about the alternate identity she embraced in the face of danger and survival—someone named Breezy.
“By the time Breezy came, Breezy was a mess. Breezy was created by all the other names, and that ho was something else,” Brenda writes.
While her life story draws back the curtain on the dark and unforgiving heart of Chicago’s streets, it also reveals a testimony of survival and redemption of her identity from every sort of evil. But this process of discovering one’s true identity is not born overnight; Myers-Powell shared with me that her continually changing identity was molded over time by her abusers, pimps, and fellow prostitutes.
I was fortunate enough to hear more of Myers-Powell’s story firsthand over a phone call. Our conversation was effortless; her humor, joy, and friendly disposition made the time fly by. Despite the heavy topics we discussed, I told her how wonderful her humor was throughout her book. At that, she grew excited and said, “The humor was the only way that I got through it. Don’t get caught up with not laughing; please, laugh! If I didn’t have humor, I wouldn’t have made it.”
Our conversation then turned to that life-altering day her identity as Breezy was forever changed.
On April Fool’s Day 1997, she became “a lady without a face” at 39 years old. Ms. Brenda details on this day, a trip in a sex buyer’s car turned deadly. While in the car, the man began to beat her in the face. In her attempt to escape, her clothes became hooked as she tried to flee out the open car door. Before she could fight her way out, the man peeled off, causing her to fall backward out of the car. Her face dragged across the pavement for several blocks until she wrestled her clothing free and dropped to the road.
A little girl riding her bike with “colored beads in her braids” saw the assault and “took off and came right back with some toilet paper.” Brenda’s painful reality was evident as innocent eyes stared up at her bleeding face.
“Did you see what happened?”
She said, “Yeah, I saw everything.”
I said, “Am I messed up?”
She rolled away on her bike . . .
Hot blood poured from the gashes that had replaced her skin. “I had lost my face,” Brenda said. But she describes this incident as the moment that saved her. Being seen, finally being offered help, even though that help came from a child handing her a few squares of toilet paper.
When she became the “lady without a face,” Brenda says, her life was transformed. “The streets can reset you even if you didn’t want them to,” she writes.
And not only physically reset with medical intervention—but her true face, her identity, needed to be reset. She had been manipulated so far from herself through her time as a prostitute, she no longer recognized who she had become. More than that, she had faded away into the background of the world of prostitution and drug use. “Women in prostitution are called ladies of the night as if they are invisible. When people talked about me, it was as if I was invisible. As if I didn’t exist. I didn’t have identity.” Invisibility had become a heavy reality. Not heard, not seen, wanted for one purpose and only on someone else’s timetable. A lady without a face.
Rediscovering the woman within
Brenda made her way to the hospital for treatment before being placed in a women’s shelter called Genesis House. She spent one year in Genesis House piecing back together the face of her identity.
One day, a Muslim woman in the treatment center, Ms. Jerry, held up a mirror to her—a reflection of what she could become, of her true self waiting to be revealed.
“You are God’s doorway to life,” she said. “I want you to think about that and come back and tell me what that means.”
Brenda recalls, “But I couldn’t think of anything . . . God’s doorway. Doorway to life. God’s doorway to life. How does that feel. I couldn’t figure it out,” she writes.
It was a crack in the unyielding wall that surrounded her true identity. An opportunity to relearn and rediscover a person other than who she had been for 25 years, to understand the identity she had claimed for so long was not of her own making but made by the forces who had pushed her down and kept her under. “I had become what they said I was. I was a ho, a bitch, a prostitute. That’s the language they used to describe me on the streets. That’s the language the police used when they arrested me. I began to believe that was my truth.”
Brenda describes the epiphany moment when Ms. Jerry explained the meaning of her enigmatic words: “Through you, God creates life. You bring life into the world. God felt so special about you, Brenda, about women, that he gave us the gift of making life. That is more important than anything.”
What followed, Brenda writes, was a deeper understanding of her uniqueness and her womanhood. “I began to feel special to God, more than even a man.”
“When Ms. Jerry told me about being the doorway, a lotta stuff started poking me. If I was so damn special, why was I out on the street selling it for pennies? I was so much more valuable than that. And I started to make decisions about my body after that.”
As she thought about what “God’s doorway to life,” meant to her in the shelter, Brenda explained to me the power behind this statement that she still finds electric today. “We could shut our legs and cut off the population,” she laughed over the phone. “Why don’t we treat ourselves with the value that we have in who we are and how beautiful we are?”
In Leaving Breezy Street, she goes further:
I was willing to do whatever it took for me to make it. And it wasn’t going to be prostitution because I wasn’t going to sell my body anymore. I had made that decision when I was in the drug program. I never wanted to have sex again without loving it. For the first time in my life I was going to be in control of my body. Who got to touch it was going to be my decision alone. I was God’s doorway to life. I was valuable. My body and my mind had worth. I had been lowballing myself. I couldn’t sell my body now that I understood that.
Somewhere in all this, Brenda’s epiphany is contagious. We have such power as women no matter what backgrounds we come from or circumstances we go through. Our perceived invisibility fades when we become who we are meant to be, embracing all that we possess and dispelling the lies that have been sold to us, hushing the fears that attempt to invade our very being. We mature into our true identity that was hidden but that never went away or left us alone. In Leaving Breezy Street, Brenda found how valuable her mind and body are, and how no monetary value could ever be placed on the sanctity of her life.
“This is not just a story about a prostitute—this is a story about a woman under. Like most of us. Like women, period,” she says.
Brenda’s is a memoir for all women. She invites readers on a path not only to learn about her hardships and the struggle of trafficked women and girls in Chicago and across our nation, but to look in the mirror and realize we can overcome our struggles as the impactful women we are. For readers of every walk of life, Brenda’s voice jumps from the pages to beg us to remember our true identities and who we were created to become. The result is a war cry is for every woman, whether she is juggling children, struggling to climb the corporate ladder amid sexism, working multiple jobs just to pay bills, or facing an abusive situation.
“You’ve got to find that source inside of you,” Brenda urged me, her yearning tangible. “And you know what I’m talking about—all women have it. And once we find it, we’re dangerous. Once we find that, oh, baby, it’s over. It’s over then,” she laughed.
And again, under her soft humor, I could hear the steel strength of a woman who fought hard to learn this—to realize her capabilities, reconnect with her powerful identity, and reach deep down to pull up the lost woman within herself.
Self-care as a path to rediscovering one’s true self
Even with help from Ms. Jerry and those in the women’s shelter, Brenda’s reconnection with herself didn’t happen overnight. After leaving prostitution, she found herself in an unhealthy relationship, after which she realized she still had more learning to do.
I decided to become abstinent because clearly I didn't know how to have a relationship. I needed to learn how to love myself before I could love anybody else. I had all these great self-help books, and in the meantime I was journaling. I started to date myself. I would go out to the movies by myself. I would go out to dinner by myself. I would go shopping and go and people watch. I would sit up in the house and take long bubble baths. I would powder and lotion myself. I watched my weight. My hair was growing. And sometimes I would take it down and play with it. . . . It was my period of learning self-love. I told God, “God, I don’t know what You have in store for me, but if I don’t get in a relationship, I think I’ll be okay, because I’ll have a relationship with me, finally.” I believed that. I was just being with me.
Here, Brenda’s story emphasizes something all of us can bear reminding: in seeking recovery from trauma, and restoring integrity within ourselves, the path ahead is a marathon, not a sprint. Along the way, intentional steps of self-care—not just empty words to “treat yourself” but tailored actions that build up endurance for a long journey ahead—are essential to rebuilding confidence.
Daring to dream
Brenda embodies the strength of self-discovery like few can. Through her work at the Dreamcatcher Foundation (which was chronicled in the 2015 documentary Dreamcatcher), she reaches out to and walks alongside the invaluable at-risk women and girls who need someone to remind them who they are. Driving through the streets of Chicago with her staff in the Dreamcatcher van, Brenda extends a hand to prostituted women and girls with resources, or at the very least, the face of someone who can see their true value.
As Brenda and I discussed the dangers she faces in this work, she spoke confidently that just because she’s rediscovered her true identity is better than prostitution doesn’t mean she’s lost her street smarts. I told Brenda it sounded like she is giving to the women on the streets what she didn’t have for herself. “I’ve got two identities now,” she responded, “Brenda and Breezy. And Breezy is a fighter. She is a survivor,” who emboldens Brenda to do the daring work.
Brenda’s is a powerful story of reconnecting with our true identity, while acknowledging how our most difficult life experiences have affected us, which can embolden us to face challenges that others without those life experiences can’t.
Her fearlessness to rescue others, confront their troubles, and encounter the grime of Chicago’s streets has “Breezy” tattooed all over, as Brenda offers the relational personality and warm smile that cheers women on toward their goals. Her integrity and joy remind us that no one is beyond redemption.
It is never too late to become the “doorway to life” that is locked deep inside us all as women, as people. As Brenda Myers-Powell continues to embrace life, laughing and serving her community, she makes an impact that will reach multiple generations. She is most assuredly not invisible, and those who’ve heard her story most assuredly know her face.