Book Review: Slave Stealers, by Timothy Ballard

Note: This post will delve into a rather dark subject. I will gloss over some of the worst parts of it, but younger readers will need parental guidance or restriction.

A few weeks ago I heard a presentation given by Tim Ballard, who refers to himself as an abolitionist. I have always associated that term with 19th century figures like Frederick Douglas, Harriett Beecher Stowe, Harriett Tubman, and Abraham Lincoln, who all helped to abolish slavery in the United States of America. Why do we need abolitionists in 2020? The answer is simple and disturbing: because there is slavery in the world today.

Ballard is the founder of Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.), a nonprofit organization fighting against human trafficking all over the world. According to a fact sheet on the O.U.R. website there are an estimated 40.3 million slaves in the world (more than the population of California), a quarter of which are children, and there are about twice as many female as male slaves. The United States of America is the most common destination for victims of international human trafficking, because we have such a high demand for child prostitution and child pornography. About 2 million children, mostly girls, are slaves in the sex industry. They are abused in pretty much every way that a human being can be abused.

You will probably be hearing more about this topic soon, because a Hollywood film called The Sound of Freedom, dramatizing one of the first O.U.R missions, is set to be released during the summer of 2020.

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After hearing Ballard’s very moving presentation I bought his book, Slave Stealers: True Accounts of Slave Rescues Then and Now, and decided to write a book review to share his work with my readers.

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Ballard started his career as a special agent in the CIA working in the Department of Homeland Security, where he was trained as an undercover agent to infiltrate human trafficking operations, especially those involving children. A major turning point in Ballard’s career happened when he became aware of a child abduction case in Haiti, where his government department had no jurisdiction. He made the tough decision to leave his job and start O.U.R. so that he could help this case. The book details much of what happened in the Haiti operation, which ended with both heartbreaking failure and unimagined success.

O.U.R. identified a human trafficking operation in Haiti that was posing as an orphanage. Ballard approached them pretending to be a child trafficker, and they offered to sell him some children. After they had finished haggling over the price and exchanging money the Hatian police arrested the traffickers. Twenty-eight children were freed that day from the fake orphanage, but the one boy they had been trying to recover had already been sold and could not be traced.

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Harriet Jacobs in 1894 (Wikimedia)

As he prepared for this mission, Ballard spent a lot of time pondering over his purpose. He was drawn to the stories and writings of abolitionists in the 1800’s, and spent time visiting historical sites from their lives. About a third of the book is spent telling the story of Harriett Jacobs, a North Carolina slave who escaped to the north and became an important voice in the abolitionist movement. Nineteenth century Americans used their slaves not just as manual laborers, but as sexual objects. As Jacobs wrote in her personal memoir, “Slavery is a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks. It makes the white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent and licentious; it contaminates the daughters, and makes the wives wretched” (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, quoted on p.36).

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Abraham Lincoln in 1863 (Wikimedia)

One passage in the book that I found particularly powerful and well-written was Ballard’s formulation of the changes that happened to Abraham Lincoln in the months leading up to his Emancipation Proclamation (chapter 11, p 169-193). Other writers and historians have considered the Proclamation to have been primarily a military or political move, but Ballard describes it as the consequence of “a conversion” (p.173).

Lincoln was a northerner who despised slavery, but initially he didn’t go out of his way to fight it. His first motivation in leading the war effort was to preserve the Union, and he would have left slavery in place if he could have achieved his first aim. But over time he began to see the Civil War as God’s punishment on the nation for the sin of slavery.

Lincoln’s conversion grew in the fertile soil of humility, watered by personal struggle and loss during the first years of the war. He turned to God in his suffering. “It is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter,” Lincoln said as he pondered over whether to emancipate the slaves. “And if I can learn what it is I will do it” (p.181).

Ballard’s purpose in describing Lincoln’s conversion to the abolitionist movement was to give modern readers a case study. In our day there is a comparable evil among us, and in order to fight against it we will need to convert millions of people to the cause of resisting it. Some will join as soon as they become aware of the enemy, and others will take more time and struggle before they commit to act. The justice of God will help many people to see their duty. Harriet Beecher Stowe said, “Not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks into the ocean, than that stronger law by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God” (p.185).

Stowe’s quote is a reference to Jesus’ unequivocal condemnation of child abusers: “It is impossible but that offences will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones” (Luke 17:1-2). Our little ones are being offended all around the world, and with God’s help we can bring their offenders to justice and liberate the captives.

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The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but clearly it wasn’t enough to heal the racial animosity in the United States. It wasn’t even enough to end the practice of slavery in some parts of the South, where poor and uneducated black people still lived and worked under similar conditions well into the 20th century. Economic oppression supported by Jim Crow laws proved to be almost as effective as chains had been before. It took 100 years before the civil rights movement in the 1960’s broke down the barriers to upward mobility for black Americans. Failure of the Reconstruction Era to secure the civil rights of former slaves is one of the great tragedies of American history.

And what will be the outcome for liberated slaves in our day? It will not be enough to just lock up the bad guys. The offended children must be supported, rehabilitated, and nurtured back into society. The resources required to do this will be enormous, and the time commitment will be long and may stretch through the lifetime of the child, but if we neglect or mismanage the “reconstruction” then we will have only done half of the job.

Consequently, O.U.R. has a robust recovery division, and the first thing they do when planning a new operation is to make sure that they have the resources and facilities to care for the children they hope to rescue. If they cannot assure that the children will be safe afterward, then there is no point in doing the liberation mission. Ballard indicated that a great portion of their operating budget is spent on aftercare for the rescued children, supporting the local orphanages and providing food, medical, and mental health care.

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As mentioned before, this is not just a problem in 3rd world countries. A main economic driver of this darkness is the demand for child prostitution and child pornography in the United States of America. We are not just talking about an isolated pervert here and there; this is a multi-billion dollar international industry, and it is right here in our back yard.

Some time ago I saw a patient in my clinic who had been a victim of child sex trafficking. Thankfully she had been liberated, but the emotional wounds of her bondage were still bleeding, as it were. In order to investigate her neurologic symptoms it was necessary for us to perform an MRI study of her brain. As we discussed this she became very anxious.

“I don’t want to do anything that you are uncomfortable with,” I said.

“Okay,” she said. But she didn’t look okay with it.

“What are you most concerned about?”

“Do I have to take my clothes off?”

“No, not for an MRI.” Her question was unexpected, but it made sense that she would ask it. “Have you ever had an MRI?” I asked.

“No.”

“You have to go into a pretty tight space and stay there for about 45 minutes.”

Her eyes got wider. She told me that her captors used to keep her locked in a cage when they weren’t hiring her out. “And they also choked me a lot,” she said.

“I’m so sorry that happened to you,” I said. “An MRI would probably trigger you.”

She nodded vigorously.

“I don’t want to do that to you,” I said.

“But I want to find out what’s wrong with me,” she said.

I thought for a second. “What if we gave you a medicine to help calm you down before the study? Do you think you could do it then?”

“You’d have to put me all the way out, I think.”

“We can do that, if you want us to.” I was proud of her for being so brave, and grateful to her for being so open with me and sharing her concerns. Wanting to do something more to secure her trust, I looked her in the eyes and said, “I promise that we will be nice to you. We will not abuse you or violate you. You are safe here.”

We stared at each other for what felt like a long time. It seemed that she was weighing the risk of placing her trust in me, and I didn’t blame her for hesitating. Her trust had been betrayed as mercilessly and as violently as her body had been. But I prayed that God would heal her soul, and that my example could help her believe again that there are good people in the world. I wanted with all of my heart for her to know that she does not have to be afraid in my clinic.

She did have the MRI scan, and at her next visit we reviewed the images together. What a rare opportunity, to see your own brain! How may people in the history of the world have gotten to do that? Sadly, far fewer than the number who have been abused like she was.

This patient was diagnosed with a functional neurologic disorder. Her physical symptoms were caused not by a disease or damage in her nervous system, but by her psychological distress. This is one of the medical complications of severe abuse, and it just adds an exclamation point to the anger I feel towards those who harmed her. Sexual abuse is the curse that keeps on cursing.

Again, I pray for her healing, and for the hundreds more like her that I have met in my clinic over the years. I also pray for the abusers, that they will be brought to justice for their crimes. And, God willing, that they may repent and be forgiven, if that is possible for them.

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There is much work for us to do, if we are willing to act in the cause of abolition today. Slavery in the South could never have lasted as long as it did were it not for the complacency of the North. So let us end our complacency today, and participate in the Lord’s work “to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (Isaiah 61:1).


Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.