Actual Trigger Warning: Child Abuse
One of the eerie events of my life in the past year has been reading about Hephzibah House.
My mom used to get the newsletter of Hephzibah House. I don’t know what she thought of it. I don’t know if she had mental reservations about it that she didn’t mention.
I say that as a disclaimer. I don’t remember her talking about it, one way or another.
However, as a child, I was under the impression that, if children were too problematic or too disobedient, they could be sent away to this place, which, even in the creepily cheerful newsletter, sounded terribly strict and unpleasant to me.
Or maybe ought to be sent away.
I also believed that this was a normal part of the right functioning of the universe. This was a Christian institution, and the Christian part of the universe was the properly operating part. The other segment of the universe was all broken and evil and unregenerate.
To explain further- I was a chicken.
I was the compliant child. I hated conflict (?) and would try to perform well enough to make all of everyone’s problems go away. My two sisters (close to me in age, and therefore peers instead of underlings like the younger set) sometimes called me a suck up. I, in return spent a lot of time sitting in a corner, reading.
When I grew up and moved away, I started watching Ninja Turtles for the first time- and I identified a lot with Leo, if that explains anything.
Sending us to public school was a threat my mom sometimes pulled out to make us behave. Public school was where the bad kids were. It was corrupt and Godless and they taught evolution. It was a frightening threat.
‘Sending us to public school’ was also an aspect of the mini emotional breakdown Mom would have late every summer as she contemplated trying to homeschool us another year. I can’t remember if I tried to calm her down during these times or if I just wished I could.
The thought of being sent to some home for troubled girls- the shame of having failed, at ? life? – having failed to my mom- being watched all the time and never being allowed to sit alone and read- this was the worst possible scenario.
My response, whenever I wasn’t zoned out in my books or teaching my brothers kindergarten, and the thought occurred to me, was something like this.
“The emperor is coming here? We’ll redouble our efforts!”
So this year, I’ve been reading about Hephzibah House from the other side. Not the creepily cheery official explanation that Hephzibah House gave of itself. The stories of girls who were actually sent there, lived through it, and have told their stories.
I had a pretty nice life, in many ways. My parents weren’t abusive like some people’s were.
I was always chicken. I was always scared.
But, as it turns out, that thing that scared me? Actually was something to be afraid of.
I remember that we had to write home every week and if they didn’t like what we said we got our letter back till they liked it and all my mail coming in was blacked out if they didn’t want me to see what was said. I couldn’t tell my parents what was going on there, they made sure of it. Our 10-minute monthly phone calls were monitored and we would be in big trouble if we tried to say anything “wrong”….
The Williams were out of town of course and Miss Emory and Miss Saylor took me up there and when I asked why I was getting the “spanking” Miss Emory said, “Oh, just the general attitude.”
I was told to lay on the floor and they put the chairs over my head and feet and then Heather I believe is the one who was hitting me. I didn’t cry so I got more. I didn’t count but I know I was in pain and by this time I was very thin so that made it worse. I tried to go to the bathroom to see my bruises but Emory wouldn’t let me. I still have back problems to this day…
The state of Indiana investigated while I was a student at Hephzibah House, but we were hidden in a dark church while they came through. A few girls who were coached and intimidated were allowed to stay and speak to the investigators.
I was beaten with a paddle until I was black and blue. My skirt was pulled up, and I was laid out on the floor. One adult sat on my back and tightly held my arms, while another sat on my legs. A third beat me. I was beaten nearly every day for the first three to four months I was there. After that, I was sufficiently broken and docile, only receiving two to three per month. These beatings were so severe that they left blisters, hurt my back and twice I fainted. I still smell that carpet and feel it against my face.
That brings me to the “talking list”. When you first get there you are told that you are only allowed to talk to a handful of girls (the ones who have the privilege of talking to everyone). If you are not allowed to talk to a girl you are not allowed to look at her or remotely in her direction let alone have any contact with her. Now imagine living, eating, sleeping and working with 29 other girls and you can’t talk to or look at maybe 25 of them.
On my first or second day at Hephzibah House, I underwent my most traumatic experience there. I was taken into a closet/dressing room in the dorm area, and I was forced to undergo a very personal female physical examination. There was a man in the room, but he was never introduced to me, and it was never explained to me what he was going to do. I remember very vividly how scared I was just laying there hoping it would be over soon, as I gritted my teeth and dug my nails into the palms of my hands.
…we were only allowed to talk to another girl if we had staff permission, and if every word of the conversation took place within earshot of a staff member. We had very specific talking lists which outlined exactly who was allowed to talk to whom.
There were girls there who seriously went months without speaking to a single should excerpt for staff. That was one of the scariest things that I felt loomed over my head…having any speaking and socialization privileges taken away. I knew it had to be extremely lonely to live that way.
All of us girls, shadowed or not, had to be escorted to the bathroom. We were only allowed to use the bathroom at assigned bathroom times, and that was it. If I had to go at any time other than a regularly scheduled bathroom time, I just had to hold it. There were girls who could not hold it, and they were forced to wear depends or diapers.
The thing is, even unintentional wrongdoings, things normal people would not consider as some horrible crime, were treated as such. Girls were publicly humiliated and made to feel terrible for small things. I recall one girl was chewed out in front of us all for not marking, “how much ” diarrhea she had on the chart. (Yes, we were required to mark each day how we had gone to the bathroom,..this was a public chart and demerits would be giving for failing to mark it)….
I never saw a doctor or dentist while there, ( with the exception of a forced and unexplained vaginal exam performed in their closet room by a man who I assume was a doctor).
That is one of the biggest things that saddens me about this place, the fear and isolation and no way out. Also, the fact that it is all done under the name of Christianity. Basically, we were made to feel inadequate and inferior and just over all as, “bad girls” in general. We were not allowed to keep any type of journal, diary, or calendars while there. So I am sure there are things that are forgotten. However, they can’t erase some of the memories…
Former staff tell these stories as well.
To Whom It May Concern: My name is Connie Staie White. I am the daughter of Pastor Byron Staie, Fundamental Independent Baptist. I am am also a former student of Ambassador Baptist College. Seventeen years ago, while attending ABC, I served a summer session at Hephzibah House in Indiana with Pastor Ron Williams . I was absolutely dumbfounded at what I discovered there. The day-to-day mode of operation within this facility reminded me very much of a what I would expect to find in a Nazi concentration camp. Never have I seen humiliation and psychological tactics so skillfully employed…
If the staff decided that a girl had an ”attitude,” she would be punished by not being allowed to make eye contact with any other girl. If the girls had ”misbehaved,” they were signified by what they wore to church. This way, the church members knew that they had been ”bad.” Interestingly, I never once saw a single girl misbehave the entire time that I was there. Yet still, they were routinely punished.
As you walked into the house, there was a huge bunch of eucalyptus hanging. Every time I smell eucalyptus I feel the oppression of feeling that nothing I did could ever be good enough. I spent a lot of time on that staircase because cleaning it was one of the chores of the work crew I was frequently assigned to.
Words cannot express what it felt like to be watched 24/7. Every word, deed, facial expression was critiqued. You never knew when something that you had done so many times before would suddenly not be good enough or be found offensive.
I had not been informed that I would have to eat and drink everything that was served to me. The first morning I was there we were served powdered milk for breakfast. It was really horrible and I did not finish it. My cup was brought back to me by Miss Saylor with the command to finish it…
All of the mail the girls received or sent was censored. Many of their letters were covered with black marker when they received them. These girls were desperate for outside contact. When they received it, it would be marked through. Very sad.
The girls were very sweet. A lot of them would write me notes to thank me for being there or for doing something special for them. I was told to give these notes to the Williams’ before leaving HH. I didn’t. They are in my scrapbook. Those letters were written to me and I did not think anyone had the right to take them from me.
You can see more survivor’s stories here-
It is possible that, in recent years, since these stories began to be made public, the ‘spankings’ have been phased out of Hephzibah House’s standard operating procedures. However, until there was a public outcry, it seems that they did in fact use this practice.
And if they have stopped the physical beatings, that is no guarantee that the psychological abuse has ended.
Hephzibah house has also been addressed by the group Under Much Grace
As previously discussed in several posts, survivors of Hephzibah House suffered many different varieties of abject abuse and torture, and their environment was highly sexually charged. Girls report that Ron Williams behaved inappropriately with them, seeming to flirt with them at times, all while he objectified (treating them as little more than objects because they were women and were viewed as impure as well). Many were sent to Hephzibah House because they had been sexually assaulted, and parents neither knew how to cope with these situations nor had resources to minister to their children. They had no idea that they were sending their children into a highly sexualized environment.
At Hephzibah House, the resident girls as well as the staff there learned quickly that they had no ability to protect or provide for themselves. The level of optimism and trust placed in the girls did not exist. They were treated like human garbage and were told directly that they were of limited worth and usefulness in life because of whatever qualified them to be residents there. They could not even decide how much toilet paper to take from the roll, because they had to request it before they entered the bathroom so it could be allotted to them. They could do nothing to escape their conditions or ease their suffering. The beatings would eventually come, regardless of their behavior. Some perceived attitude or illness would eventually interfere with their good standing or status. There was no escape.
Much has been written regarding the role of learned helplessness in child abuse. For the survivors of Hephzibah House or those who wish to understand why the effects of residency there was so life-altering for the girls who survived the experience, learned helplessness most definitely plays a role.
Some of the claims that Lucinda has made speak of the typical compulsion to repeat trauma (another ineffective coping mechanism) as evidenced by sensational sounding accounts of revictimization after leaving HH, and even claims that her church paddled her before the congregation at age 19 or 20 (the age varies between accounts). She also describes an unusually aggressive spanking sessionwhile at HH wherein she’s confined in a prone position on the floor, held by two people with a third person who paddled her, a chair on top of her back, and with some suggestion that a fourth party may have been required to sit on the chair to restrain her for what she insists were only for three mild swats. She describes the event as though it was a reasonable experience that was not out of the ordinary, all told in an inappropriately flat affect which one could interpret as highly suggestive of dissociation, or at the very least, a lack of reasonable and appropriate perspective.
…please consider that those who encourage and support Lucinda in her advocacy of Ron Williams and Hephzibah House only help to enable and deepen her trauma.
To those who cite Lucinda as evidence in support of Ron Williams, have you considered that you might be making sport of one of his most unfortunate victims and only reinforce the harm done to her by adding to the millstone of trauma that she already bears?
Some of the absolutely atrocious exegesis/teaching of Ron Williams, the current director of Hephzibah House is examined here. This teaching is presumably what allows him to do what he does.
In this sermon, Ron Williams states incorrectly that, Rachel is Dinah’s mother. In fact, Dinah’s mother was Leah. In his message on Dinah from the Old Testament, which Ron Williams teaches that the Bible says, Dinah was responsible for her own rape! The Bible does not teach this…
In his sermon “How to Raise a Strange Woman” by Ron Williams, he states that Dinah (who he imagines is a young teen between 14 and 15) is a “strange woman.” Not only that Williams preaches that Rachel was a strange woman as well who taught Dinah to be one. Nowhere is this taught in the Bible. The term “strange woman,” that Ron Williams used is taken completely out of context here.
How is all this possible?
“Presently, institutions such as Hephzibah House are not under any type of governmental regulation and have no accountability for their actions. They are virtually free to do as they wish as long as they can spin a convincing tale to parents and church supporters.”
Recently, my younger sister mentioned to me that she had been frightened by an episode of the Muppets Show. Earlier this week, I happened to see the episode. It was the Halloween special. Kermit interviews some cooks and a monster, who happens to be eating everything and everyone on stage. Kermit cheerfully continues the interview, oblivious to the Muppets being eating, right up until the monster eats him.
I had to agree with her. That was scary.
It’s scary when hideous things are treated as normal and unremarkable.