TRIGGER WARNING This article or section, or pages it links to, contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.
To many Duke students, Darshanie “Dee” Henderson, a Perkins Library housekeeper, wears one of the friendliest faces around campus. However, this hasn’t always been the case. Over the last 40 years, Dee has fled countless difficult situations and often questions how she is still alive today. While we couldn’t speak to everyone in her position, we hope that Dee’s story shines light on issues experienced by those in the Durham community and many others. Dee and all those like her are nothing short of survivors. This is her story.
Part I: Unwanted and forced to run
Dee Henderson first opened her eyes on July 1, 1976 – just three days before the United States Bicentennial. While many Americans paraded throughout Washington D.C. to celebrate our free nation’s 200th anniversary, Dee’s journey began roughly 2500 miles south, in Georgetown, Guyana.
During the first two decades of her life, Dee experienced abusive and neglectful treatment from her immediate family. Her mother gave birth to her out of wedlock – she never knew her father – and her family insists she was the product of an incestual relationship. Over the course of her childhood and subsequent adult years, she experienced situations that are nearly impossible for many to comprehend.
“When I was little, my mom used to tell me that our struggles were my fault,” Dee said. “She told me that the only way I could make up for that was through sex – so she would give me to her boyfriend so he could molest me.”
This abuse occurred while Dee was still a child. Once she turned five, she moved in with her uncle – the first of many male figures to falsely promise her safety – and rarely spoke to her mother. She soon found that her troubles were only just beginning. Dee’s uncle forced her to wake up every morning at 3 a.m. to start working – first cleaning the dishes, then helping to cook. She experienced constant molestation throughout.
“Every home I lived in treated me like I was a slave,” Dee said. “I never knew what it was like to have a childhood. All I knew was that I had to work and have sex just to make it through the day.”
All I knew was that I had to work and have sex just to make it through the day.
Many generations before Dee was born, her ancestors were shipped from India to work as migrant workers when Guyana was still a British colony. While these ancestors eventually became wealthy landowners, including Dee’s own grandfather, her uncle inherited the family fortune and refused to distribute the wealth amongst the rest of the family. He relegated Dee’s family members to a life in permanent poverty, and continued to hold her hostage as his personal laborer and sex slave.
“Whenever I tried to tell people what was happening, no one ever believed me,” Dee said. “I was already such an embarrassment. They always thought I was the problem. I had no choice but to go through the abuse because I didn’t have a voice. I truly believe God was on my side all along, because I don’t know how I never got pregnant.”
Eventually, Dee’s uncle brought her to New York City. He secured residency for himself in the States, then adopted her in order to bring her along with him. He again promised her a better life complete with a high school education – but that never happened.
“Once again, here I was working just to survive,” Dee said. “I’ve gone through so many processes in my life where I’ve felt worthless, but I’ve never given up. I’ve tried to commit suicide several times, but now I know that ain’t for me. I’ve cut myself, taken pills, everything you can think of – but I always got really scared and that’s how I know I don’t need to try that anymore.”
After living with her uncle in New York for two years, Dee was ready to make her first escape. Little did she know, her life on the run was only just beginning.
“One day, I realized when you turn 18 in America, you can run away and nobody will look for you,” Dee said. “When I turned 18, I met a guy who I hoped would be my one-way ticket away from my family for good. But he knew that I was weak – and that’s when he started abusing me. We moved to Baltimore together, and I stayed with him under all that abuse for seven years because I had nowhere else to go. I was young – I didn’t know anything about life.”
Out of pure impulse, Dee collected her belongings, which comprised of a handful of undergarments and a t-shirt, and set out in the hopes of finding a better life. She aimed to run as far away as possible.
“I was working for Greyhound at the time, so I took a Greyhound bus all the way to Las Vegas,” Dee said. “I didn’t tell the boy I was leaving, I just grabbed my backpack and took off.”
After a week of exhausting travel across the nation, Dee arrived in Las Vegas with nowhere to stay and hardly a penny to her name. She explored the city, reporting to no one but herself for the first time in her life.
“I didn’t know whether to go left or right when I got off that bus, all I knew was to find the Strip,” Dee said. “When I got to the Strip, oh my God my smile was so big from all the bright lights and happy faces. I had no clue where to go, so I went to a casino, put a dollar in the machine, and thought, ‘This is it, I’m gonna be a millionaire tonight.’ That obviously didn’t happen.”
After a few aimless hours in the casino, Dee went to use the restroom. She was so exhausted that she slept on the floor until a bathroom attendant woke her. Dee bashfully explained her situation, and with that the woman offered her a place to stay, fed her dinner and bought her clean clothes. Dee slept for two days straight.
“I owe so much to this woman,” Dee said. “I was so embarrassed after all she did for me. I stayed with her for three months, and over that time she helped me find a job and eventually my own place to live. The worst part is, once I moved out, I only lasted on my own for a week.”
With a new job and a couple months’ salary, Dee ventured out to make friends. She was eager to reinvent herself, spending many nights on the Strip. It wasn’t long before she met yet another man who promised to make her world a better place – and as soon as he learned she was living on her own, he persuaded her to move in with him.
“That’s when I stopped talking to the woman who helped me,” Dee said. “I never should’ve burned that bridge, but all I ever knew was to run. Next thing I know, things started getting out of hand. That man told me he was a pimp and began to take control over me, beating me and abusing me, and I was lost again. I’ve always been lost.”
That man told me he was a pimp and began to take control over me, beating me and abusing me, and I was lost again.
With bruises covering her face and body, Dee lost the only real job she had ever had. She was unemployable and trapped in another abusive relationship with no foreseeable way out.
“I gave up on everything,” Dee said. “I knew I needed money if I ever wanted to leave that pimp, so I started working for him. I was looking for that love, that male figure in my life, and sex was all I knew. As a prostitute, these men held so much control over my soul.”
Dee found herself back in one of the darkest places she had known since Guyana, as hardship continued to dictate her life. Her desperation to break the cycle overwhelmed her, and she soon fell back on her instincts to run away for what felt like the hundredth time.
“I’ve always felt worthless,” Dee said. “I felt like my only position in life was to clean people’s houses and assume a position of sex. Then I came to Durham, and that’s when everything changed.”
I’ve always felt worthless.
Part II: Grown and learning to love
After leaving Las Vegas, Dee arrived in Durham, North Carolina. She doesn’t remember what originally drew her to the Bull City – but she certainly doesn’t regret it. Now, over a decade later, a lot has changed in Dee’s life. While her mental health has come a long way from her low point in the slums of Guyana and the red-light district of Las Vegas, her life is still far from perfect. Her living conditions remain in turmoil, her financial situation is extremely unsteady and she struggles to maintain intimate relationships.
For twelve years Dee has bounced around what she calls “the hood” of Durham, renting rooms in different houses until each grows too unsafe. Some nights she wakes up to women screaming, other times to glass shattering or gunshots popping. She’s spent time living in cars, too, but aims to avoid that after acquiring a serious infection while sleeping in one last year. Dee’s experiences in Durham shed light on a larger issue faced by so many communities on a daily basis. People all over the nation bounce around between minimum wage jobs, stuck in impoverished neighborhoods with no foreseeable way out. However, what sets Dee apart is how she chooses to spend her time on Duke’s campus. Since joining the Perkins Library housekeeping staff in 2013, Dee has fostered unforgettable friendships that have undeniably changed her life.
“For the first time in my life, I can truly say that I love what I’m doing,” Dee said. “Duke students have turned my ugly soul into something beautiful, because they are the ones who instill all of these wonderful thoughts in my mind. Here I am at 40 years old, running around Duke like I’m a 21 year-old just hanging out with my friends. The best part? Nobody’s forcing me to be here – it’s my choice to work, and I love working for these kids.”
From the stacks to the link to the most obscure cubicles on the fourth floor, nearly every Duke student recognizes Dee. While it took months before she felt comfortable opening up and connecting with students, Dee now has more friends than she ever imagined was possible.
For the first time in my life, I can truly say that I love what I’m doing.
“I feel like in a way, everyone at this school has heard Dee’s name,” senior Eliza Meredith said. “She’s the ‘Big Momma’ of the library. There are so many students who run to her with problems, and she is always there to give them a hug. It makes me so happy that she’s finally receiving the love she deserves.”
Dee’s transition to ‘Big Momma’ – an endearing nickname with an unknown origin – didn’t happen overnight, of course. Her life experiences, namely the abuse and molestation, prevented her from allowing herself to trust anybody. It’s precisely these experiences, though, that Dee has shared with a number of students over the years. As a result, she now serves as a confidant for so many struggling students today.
“A few days ago, I was sexually assaulted,” an anonymous student said. “Because I have such a strong connection with Dee, she was one of the first people that I told. She’s been nothing but a rock to me, and I almost feel guilty feeling sad about it when I hear her story and everything she’s been through. Then I realize that she’s there for me no matter what.”
This student is not alone. There are many students who trust and confide in Dee – some because they know she can relate, others because she offers such wisdom and advice. Either way, to many students, Dee is much more than a housekeeper.
“Dee is my Duke,” Eliza said. “When you talk to her, it’s a reality check. The things that stress us out are nothing compared to what she’s been through, and that’s why she’s so important to me.”
Now, Dee is in the process of exploring Duke’s GED program, with the hopes of earning a high school diploma. This will likely open many new jobs for her, leading to a better financial situation that enables her to move out of “the hood.” Until then, with a monthly rent equivalent to a week’s pay, accumulating savings remains incredibly challenging. Despite these hardships, Dee refuses to dwell and insists on holding her head high.
“All my life, all I’ve wanted is for someone to love me,” Dee said. “Now here I am, and the love is overflowing. That’s why I want to share my story. I want the kids to know what I’ve been through and how much they have changed me by just giving me love. If telling my story helps just one other person, then I’ve served my purpose in life.”
According to many, Dee’s selflessness is just one of her defining qualities. Her passion for befriending students, along with her unconditional love for those around her, all work together to make Duke a better place.
If telling my story helps just one other person, then I’ve served my purpose in life.
“Dee has a way of connecting with students that is unique and purely genuine,” senior Neal Pierre-Gatke said. “She’s not only a Duke employee, but also our crazy, loud and ridiculously funny friend.”
Both inside and outside of Duke, Dee continues to inspire others. She doesn’t allow shootings in her neighborhood to tint the way she interacts with the world; instead, she makes it her mission to care for those in Durham who need her the most. Along with Dee, many people all over the world have experienced amazing journeys of their own. While only one story can be told at a time, it’s important to note the commonality of these hardships, and remember that the betterment of humanity still has a long way to go.
“Growing up, I only had a cardboard box with four pieces of clothes,” Dee said. “I get overwhelmed to have more than that, because I don’t feel like I deserve anything. For the longest time, I had no self-worth, no love, no support, no education; but now I’m finally learning how to love myself. God put me here for a reason, and this Duke bubble has become my whole life. I will overcome this. I’m going to survive.”
Author Jason Kaplan
Photographer Darbi Griffith
Editors Vivian Zhang, Raina Bisson-Orr, Emilie Padgett
Children in Photos Paris, Melvin, Quintin, Nyeimah, Saniya
Web Katherine M. Zhou