Released on the Broken to Bless project. Words & Music by Steve Siler
One morning in 1984 I went out to get the newspaper. At the time I was living in Los Angeles, California. There was a story in the paper that day about a young girl who had fled an abusive home in Kansas, hitchhiking all the way to southern California, eventually winding up in Hollywood. In a matter of weeks she’d found herself penniless and wound up being prostituted. It was a devastating story and it greatly upset me.
So I did what songwriters do. I went to the piano and wrote a song called Renee is Fourteen.
I grew up listening to the Beatles a lot and I’m doing my best Paul McCartney imitation on this one. It was then, and remains, one of my favorite melodies I’ve ever written. There was something about the young girl’s story that squeezed the melancholy out of me.
At the time I wouldn’t have known to call it a song about sex trafficking. That’s just part of Renee’s story but it is a predictable outcome for a young teenage girl – homeless, hungry, and with no means of support. Renee would be in forties now but unfortunately there are new Renees out there in huge numbers in cites and towns all across America and in countries around the world.
Renee was one of the very first songs I ever played in a church. My friend Rick Altizer recorded it in 2001. Then I recorded it again on the Broken to Bless project in 2016. In the interim a little demo version I’d created made the rounds and wound up getting some very interesting responses.
About a dozen years ago a high school teacher in Virginia played the song for a group of her students and then as an exercise had all of them write a letter to Renee. She had the letters mounted on a tri-fold cardboard display and sent it to me. To this day it is one of my most treasured possessions.
Nine years ago I sent my friend Christian author Shelly Beach a copy of the Renee Is Fourteen demo. A few weeks later she sent the song by e-mail to a lady named Wanda with whom she had done a radio interview. Shelly thought the song would be meaningful to Wanda because of her interest in inner-city missions.
After listening to the song Wanda called Shelly. When she answered the phone, Wanda immediately started screaming at her. “Why did you send me this song!?” she angrily demanded.
Shelly fumbled for an explanation, saying that she thought since Wanda had a heart for inner-city missions she must know some of the “Renees” in the world and probably had compassion for them.
Wanda responded by breaking into tears and saying, “I am Renee! This is my story. I ran away when I was fourteen. Everything that happened in that song happened to me.”
Shelly was taken aback. But even though Wanda remained defensive at first, Shelly kept talking and gradually learned more of the horrific story of abuse and pain that had led Wanda to the brink of suicide in recent days.
Remarkably, Wanda lives in victory today using the story of overcoming the trauma in her life to help others who are struggling to make peace with the trauma in their past. She and Shelly have written a wonderful book together and tour the country speaking to and blessing women in prisons, churches, and at conferences.
More recently in 2017 I was playing a conference in Wooster, Ohio entitled “What Would Jesus Say to the Sexually Wounded.” As part of the conference several survivors gave their testimonies. I played a song to go with each presenter.
One of the testimonies was by a female survivor I’ll call Cherie. At this point I should mention that I’d had the chance to read the text of the testimonies the survivors were to share in advance so that I could select a song that I felt would be most appropriate for that person’s story. I had chosen Renee is Fourteen for Cherie.
What I did NOT know when I selected that song was that Cherie had run away from home and went to…….Hollywood, California at the age of…….fourteen. What I also did not know was she had dissociated as a way to cope with her abuse. The name her therapist used to identify her primary dissociative personality was…….Renee.
Incredible doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Amongst the Christian songwriting community we talk about how we hope and trust that God will use our songs to make a difference in someone’s life even if we don’t know what it is on this side of heaven. In the case of Renee is Fourteen God has been extremely generous with me to share some of the impact that it has made.
I pray that the original “Renee” has found healing from her long ago experiences. And I trust that someday she too will know that her story has made a difference.
Listen to Renee is Fourteen