Life Interrupted

Trafficking into Forced Labor in the United States

Life Interrupted

Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: 18 photographs Published: March 2014

Author: Denise Brennan

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Sociology > Migration Studies

Life Interrupted introduces us to survivors of human trafficking who are struggling to get by and make homes for themselves in the United States. Having spent nearly a decade following the lives of formerly trafficked men and women, Denise Brennan recounts in close detail their flight from their abusers and their courageous efforts to rebuild their lives. At once scholarly and accessible, her book links these firsthand accounts to global economic inequities and under-regulated and unprotected workplaces that routinely exploit migrant laborers in the United States. Brennan contends that today's punitive immigration policies undermine efforts to fight trafficking. While many believe trafficking happens only in the sex trade, Brennan shows that across low-wage labor sectors—in fields, in factories, and on construction sites—widespread exploitation can lead to and conceal forced labor. Life Interrupted is a riveting account of life in and after trafficking and a forceful call for meaningful immigration and labor reform.

All royalties from this book will be donated to the nonprofit Survivor Leadership Training Fund administered through the Freedom Network.


"Whereas the term 'trafficking' is often assumed to mean sex trafficking, Brennan is concerned with the larger picture of trafficking into forced labor of all kinds—e.g., domestic, construction, agriculture or other low-wage jobs. She writes not of headline-making dramatic rescues but of the day-to-day lives of the formerly trafficked, those trying to rebuild their lives in the U.S. and make it their home. . . . A tough-to-read exposé of trafficking and its effects and an urgent call for changes in federal immigration policy and ineffectual labor laws." — Kirkus Reviews

“Steering clear of lurid depictions of sexual slavery, Brennan has written a serious yet readable account of trafficking in the United States.” — Karunesh Tuli, Foreword Reviews

Life Interrupted is a must-read for those seeking to understand why immigration policies, US and otherwise, can prolong human misery. Bluntly confronting the risks and dangers all immigrants face when they must leave their homes in search of better lives, this admirable book is a major contribution to productive ways to rethink global immigration.” — Lee Maril, Times Higher Education

"The very real people portrayed in Life Interrupted do shine brightly; their stories make it personal for us, the readers. We're reminded that these individuals are certainly not forgotten in the eyes of God, as much as we might long to stay unaware of them." — D.L. Mayfield, Books & Culture

“[A] concise yet comprehensive account of trafficking in the US. . . . Bluntly confronting the risks and dangers all immigrants face when they must leave their homes in search of better lives, this admirable book is a major contribution to productive ways to rethink global immigration. Whether it is Mexican agricultural workers risking their lives by crossing a desert to find work, or Egyptians and Pakistanis crossing the Mediterranean in fragile boats, their lives dependent on rescue at sea by the Italian navy, suffering is omnipresent. Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above.” — W. T. Howard, Choice

“This is an important work that should be tremendously useful to students, educators, policy makers, activists, and scholars. While Brennan notes how advocacy can be a form of participant observation, where scholars may occupy dual roles of researcher and activist, her book also demonstrates how participant observation, the foundational method of cultural and social anthropology, can be a form of advocacy.” — Edward Snajdr, Gender & Society

“This book should appeal to anyone who wants to learn more about the devastating and long-lasting impact of human trafficking at both the global and individual/familial level from those who lived it, as well as the effectiveness of current immigration policies. . . . It is particularly valuable to those who (like me) work in service-providing professions that may encounter this vulnerable, yet resilient, population. I recommend it highly.” — Stacie Dubay, Monthly Labor Review

“One of the most important sections of Brennan's book includes suggestions for action and ways to become involved in improving the lives of trafficked persons. . . . She demonstrates that a commitment to each individual is what it takes to help trafficked persons transcend poverty. These important findings are the result of studying real people who have left extreme situations, and assessing which factors made the difference between moving ahead or struggling forever.” — Melissa Ditmore, Women's Review of Books

Life Interrupted is a well-written and useful examination of the experiences of individuals who have gone through a situation of trafficking into forced labour. … The book shows the problems that economic insecurity pose to formerly trafficked people. It contains considered analysis of complex issues and will appeal both to academic and non-academic readers.” — Thomas Harré, International Journal of Refugee Law

“[B]ringing rich ethnographic detail and compelling stories from survivors of trafficking, case workers, advocates, and others. She eschews any grand theoretical gestures in favor of rigorous but readable prose and has crafted a book that is at once a major academic contribution for specialists and also a text that should be required reading for public health workers, policymakers, NGO administrators, and undergraduate or graduate students interested in the practical applications of anthropology.” — Gregory Mitchell, Medical Anthropology Quarterly

“Through extensive conversations over nearly ten years with formerly trafficked individuals, advocates, attorneys and social workers, Brennan brings a wealth of knowledge and insight into the daily struggles of immigrants who have been trafficked into forced labor. While many documents of human trafficking end with a rescue, Life Interrupted is unique in that the book continues the narrative by focusing on the rebuilding process of life beyond trafficking.” — Kimberley M. Pitts, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books

Life Interrupted is carefully written and commendably well researched. Although her moral and intellectual project is manifest throughout the book, Brennan often takes a back seat and allows her informants to do the talking. This allows her to relate insights from differently situated social informants, and brings to light the multiple differences and contradictions in perspectives of formerly trafficked people and those that work with them. Her inclination to give voice to her informants and to privilege clarity and accessibility speaks to her political intervention as an engaged anthropologist.” — Caroline Parker, Border Criminologies

Life Interrupted is an important book. Intensely researched and accessibly written, this ethnographically rich work is recommended for anyone concerned about human trafficking. Brennan masterfully connects the plight of victims of forced labor to larger questions about U.S. labor practices and immigration policies.” — Amy Farrell, American Journal of Sociology

"Introducing the reader to the complexities of forced labor in the United States while offering a straightforward and accessible account of the diversity of survivor trajectories, the book makes a significant contribution to the human trafficking literature….[It] will be of value to academics, advocates, service providers, and policymakers alike."
— Alicia Peters, Journal of Anthropological Research

"Life interrupted will be of interest to anyone who wants to understand how the dark side of globalization plays out in the United States.... It is a very readable, powerful, and important book that deserves widespread attention."  — Steve Striffler, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"Life Interrupted is a highly engaging book that will be of great interest to anyone interested in forced labor and human trafficking." — Sverre Molland, International Migration Review

"Denise Brennan’s in situ empirical study of a well-defined, accurately counted, richly engaged subset of the principals in the human trafficking drama is a welcome addition to a growing body of knowledge that uses rigorous research to study a population that has been wrongly identified as 'unresearchable.'" — Anthony Marcus, American Anthropologist

“Human trafficking and immigration scholars will find this well-researched book a useful addition to their libraries. Those interested in the effects of policy on efforts to assist trafficked persons and exploited workers, in post-trafficking experiences, or in post-trafficking service provision will find the book particularly valuable. This rich, compelling account of individuals rebuilding their lives after exploitation is affecting and succeeds in revealing a continuum of labor exploitation along which many workers in the U.S. fall.” — Sandra C. Arch, Work and Occupations

Life Interrupted will be of particular interest to those seeking an ethnographic perspective on the nuances and complexities of being officially classified as a victim of trafficking in the United States. ... Denise Brennan stages a powerful ethnographic critique of the idea that the anti-trafficking rubric and legal regime actually protect victims of trafficking.” — Svati P. Shah, New Labor Forum

"The sharpest analysis I have read about the problems with many do-good efforts on behalf of the working women in the sex sector. The author's position will generate debate. But that is good if it calls attention to the needs of the workers themselves rather than the moralities mobilized by well-intentioned rescuers. This book is a daring invitation to rethink easy charity."
— Saskia Sassen, author of Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy

"Denise Brennan's intimate conversations with survivors of forced labor in the US puts the human back into 'human trafficking.' Introducing us to the trafficking survivors next door, Brennan steers us away from the sensationalism of sex trafficking and toward the real—and much bigger—story of how the ordinary exploitation of all kinds of migrant workers leads to abuse, violence, and forced labor. Readable, personal, and authoritative, Life Interrupted takes us into the legal limbo where 'trafficked persons' linger after their escape from bondage. No one knows more about this urgent issue than Denise Brennan." — Cindy Hahamovitch, author of No Man's Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor

"Denise Brennan makes it crystal clear that forced labor isn't 'over there.' It is right here. One of the many strengths of this fine ethnography is its letting us see how those women and men who have managed to escape such acute exploitation go about rebuilding their lives, step-by-difficult-step." — Cynthia Enloe, author of Seriously! Investigating Crashes and Crises as if Women Mattered

"Life Interrupted is a wonderful synthesis of analysis and empathy. Based on extensive fieldwork, Denise Brennan's valuable book is part of a new wave of scholarship into the darkest side of the world's political economy, an important corrective to celebratory odes to 'globalization' and 'cosmopolitanism' that pass for critical thinking." — Greg Grandin, author of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

"Life Interrupted is a powerful investigation of the often invisible exploitation of migrants—whether on farms, in factories, or in domestic work. The first-hand accounts of trafficking paint a vivid and painful picture of the trauma and cruelty of forced labor and the struggle of these migrants to rebuild their lives afterward. These very personal histories shed light on lives in the shadows of our globalized economy. Life Interrupted is a must-read for anyone who cares about fairness and justice for workers." — Filmmaker, Activist Morgan Spurlock (Director of Super Size Me, Executive Producer/Host CNN’s Inside Man).


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Denise Brennan is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Georgetown University. She is the author of What's Love Got to Do with It? Transnational Desires and Sex Tourism in the Dominican Republic, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction. Starting Over 1

Part I. The Assault on Workers 35

1. Dangerous Labor: Migrant Workers and Sex Workers 37

2. Chains of Fear: The Subjectivity of Coercion 75

Part II. Life after Forced Labor 113

3. Imagining the Possible: Creating Home 115

4. Living the Possible: Settling into Home 145

5. Laboring after Forced Labor 163

Closing Comments 185

Appendix. Ideas and Resources for Action 193

Notes 199

References 243

Index 273
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