Maria Landon’s childhood was indescribable. Her mother fled the abusive home, her father raped her and pimped her out as a prostitute. As an adult she was locked into abusive relationships, emotional pain and repeated suicide attempts. As she tells Heather Tomlinson, it is only God who could heal the wounds of such terrible trauma.
When Maria Landon was born, her father paraded around the hospital with a cigar in his mouth, drunk, infuriating the ward sister. He boasted that he would make his new daughter ‘the best little prostitute on the block’. As a child he raped her, laughing when she said that it hurt. He told her she was fat and ugly, and that ‘no one will love you except me’. And he kept to his promise, forcing her to prostitute herself on the streets at the age of 13, for his own financial benefit and to feed his alcoholism.
Maria’s mother left at a young age, having been beaten and forced into prostitution herself. Two of her brothers were taken into foster care, as they had been neglected, being left in their own mess in a room in the home she shared with them as a child. Tragically, Maria, known as Ria, and her older brother were left to suffer at the hands of her father. There would be periods of going into care, when her father would find himself in prison. Ria was desperate for his approval but his alcoholism and abuse continued. She attempted to soothe her pain by using drugs such as amphetamines, and drinking heavily when she was forced to go and prostitute herself.
‘I hated what Dad did to me in his bed and couldn’t bear to think about any other man doing it to me,’ recalls Ria, in her memoir, Escaping Daddy (HarperCollins). ‘No matter how many times I did it, I always felt terrified as the car pulled off with me inside, and I always felt as though I had been raped afterwards, even though I was clutching the punter’s money.’
As an adult, Ria began a life of abusive relationships and alcohol abuse, as she struggled to cope with the effects of her excruciating past. She had two sons at a young age, which gave her focus and helped her to stay away from drugs. But the relationship she found herself in was violent and controlling. Sometimes, in desperation, she even returned to her father, to escape the danger at home. The troubles led to several attempts to kill herself.
Road to Healing
This devastating story has been told in detail in her two books, Daddy’s Little Earner and Escaping Daddy, which came out at the height of the popularity of the ‘misery memoir’. Ria’s story was so powerful that she had two publishers fighting over her to get it on the shelves. But these days, it is the story of her road to healing that she prefers to tell, and how Jesus has changed her life.
She tells of a loving Christian counsellor who helped her start to process the trauma of her past in her late 20s. She became interested in fairly ‘New Age’ methods, such as positive thinking. ‘I had looked for healing in so many different things, counselling and psychotherapy – I’d tried every possible self-help course I could do,’ says Ria. ‘There was still a sense of not belonging anywhere, and not being whole, and still feeling dirty. Especially the relationships I’d had, they’d exacerbated the feeling of being used, as if all I was good for was being used for sex.
Now in her 40s, Ria has found peace. ‘Things have changed. I think only God can heal these wounds, these deep scars,’ she says. And when she looks back, she can see that God was with her through every dreadful chapter of her life. ‘I can see where he was in it every step of the way,’ she says. ‘It was me who was pushing him away.’
Ria came to Christ in 2009, at the end of writing her second book. Her sons had left home, and on completing her memoirs, which had taken ten years, she felt lost. At this difficult time, a friend invited her to church. ‘That connection with God was immediate – I felt that I needed Jesus more than I’ve ever needed anything in my life,’ she says. ‘I was terrified and I felt so dirty.’
She felt many questions and doubts about who God was, and why suffering happens, as well as guilt and regrets about her past. ‘I had to keep coming back to the fact that either God was a good God or a bad God,’ she recalls. ‘Either I was going to believe what the Bible said of me or not – all of it or none of it. I started to read these things like, “you’re fearfully and wonderfully made”. I felt [I belonged] to God in a way I’d never belonged to anyone in a relationship. He’d created me and my life was his, not anyone else’s.’
Ria has found healing through her relationship with God. Rather than the methods she’d tried in the past, which all tried to change the way she thought, she found that a relationship with the living Jesus changed her from within. She opened up to God about how scared she felt, and brought to him the emotions from her past. She would cry and allow him to heal her wounds as she opened her heart.
However, it took some time before she could trust him enough to I felt that I needed Jesus more than I’ve ever needed anything in my life contemplate God’s anger. ‘In my first 18 months I couldn’t read the Old Testament because it was too scary, because there was this angry father. It took time to trust him enough to explore that. You’ve got to learn to trust him that he does care about you and he wants to help you. He doesn’t mind if you get angry with him. What he wants is for you to go to him and just allow him to heal you.’
It has not been an easy road, however. ‘It takes time. If you’ve had 40 plus years of all that pain and heartache, it’s not going to happen straight away. We’re growing together. He’s given me a mirror to look at myself. He doesn’t force himself on me. I can see what is wrong with me. I have to decide, do I still want to be that angry person who goes out and gets drunk? No, I don’t.’
When talking to Ria, it is clear how much the Bible has played a role in her recovery. She mentions it frequently, and stresses the importance of choosing to believe it as true as a way to healing. She has tattooed Hebrews 13:5 on her arm: ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ And she spends hours every day reading the word. ‘The more I read my Bible, the more perfect it becomes,’ she says.
She has also found that her church in Norwich is acting as a new family for her, replacing the one she never had. Her pastors and mature Christian friends are playing the roles of mother and father that she was deprived of as a child, attending her graduation in English Literature and Cultural Studies.
Miraculously, Ria has found the strength to forgive her parents through God’s grace and power. ‘Over the years I’ve had these flashes of forgiveness and empathy for both of my parents,’ she says. ‘Then something will come up and it’s there again, all the bitterness and anger and hatred. With God, the more you understand what his forgiveness means… the more you can keep [forgiving]. Even when these things come up again and I’ll feel anger and hatred, I’ll say, “Lord, I’m sorry, please help me to forgive authentically.” Then you find you really do forgive that person.
‘He’s not letting you down by asking you to forgive that person; he’s as angry as you about it,’ she says. ‘I do pray for my parents. I pray for their salvation, because I know how painful it is to live without God. I can see how much pain they’ve been in and what they’ve lost, and that really saddens me.’
Ria spent her first years as a Christian talking in churches and giving her testimony, and helping a Christian outreach to prostitutes. But recently she has become ill with rheumatoid arthritis and the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia, which has forced her to take time out. Now she spends large parts of her day in prayer with the Bible, and starting crafts she has never had the chance to do, such as sewing and crochet. And while sometimes she gets flashbacks to her painful past, she finds it easier to turn to God when it happens. ‘Those big hurts, those feelings of devastation, and those really painful feelings, they really don’t come up any more, though there are little flashes of them,’ she says. ‘If I get a flash of that sort of feeling, it’s straight to God and it can go really quickly. It’s not as bad now.’
She is keen to stress the horrors of working in the sex industry, and to speak against the glamorisation of prostitution in stories such as the film Pretty Woman and the book and ITV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl. ‘That is so far from the truth it’s unbelievable,’ she says. ‘Prostitution is the most miserable place to be. If you do meet a woman saying she’s happy doing that, it’s because they’re making themselves believe that they are, because they have to survive it.’
Her story has given her the opportunity to reach out to others who have suffered terribly. When she found faith, she argued with the publisher of the second book to include her conversion at the end. They resisted, but she insisted. Now the thousands of people who read the book hear her testimony of God’s ability to heal. She still receives emails every week from people who have suffered great trauma and who want to reach out. ‘I don’t talk about God unless I feel it is right to do so,’ says Ria. ‘It’s surprising how easy it is once you’ve exchanged a few emails. When people are hurting, they’re not going to be surprised if I talk about God. If that isn’t received well I can still support them.
‘Most of the people who contact me say that there is so much comfort knowing someone else has gone through what they’ve gone through. No little girl deserves to have had that happen to them or to suffer from it the rest of their lives. Some people will email me confidentially saying they’ve often wondered about God – but no one knows what happened to them as a child.’
Ria calls on the Church to love those caught in the drugs and prostitution trap. There may be many secular agencies that can help them, she says, but they cannot offer the love that a church can offer. ‘Where else is there for them to go? If they’ve been brought up in that lifestyle, they don’t feel good enough to walk into a church. I think it is so important that our church doors should be wide open, welcoming the most lost, so they know they’ve got a future, that they can leave their old life behind. That’s not why God put them here. It’s not what he created them for.’