Saturday, April 5, 2008

Gabriella Fleury: Survivor!

My name is Gabriella Fleury, and I am a former Hephzibah House student. I was at Hephzibah from August 1989-November 1990, and I was there for the entire 15 month program.

Upon my arrival at Hephzibah House, I was strip searched by one of Ron Williams' daughters. It was humiliating to me to have a girl who was only a few years older than me watching me take my clothes off and then checking me to see if I had anything with me.

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.

During my stay at Hephzibah House, I managed to keep myself out of trouble, and I quickly became one of the "garden girls." I was fortunate enough to be on an outside work crew, so I was spared many of the daily activities inside the house. However, being on an outside crew, I was worked like a dog. I would literally miss days of school in order to help with some building or cleaning project that was going on. I would also get back to the dorm in the evenings after the other girls were in bed for the night.

I would be awakened in the middle of the night to help clean road kill that was donated to our facility. I would help to clean and process many deer that had been hit by cars; however, none of us girls ever got to eat one bite of that venison. I always viewed the food and meals at Hephzibah as a form of reward and also punishment.

I often had severe headaches while I was at Hephzibah House, and the first time I had one, I "complained" to the staff nurse that I needed to take something to help my headache. The solution then was to make me stay in bed all day with no meals. I was forced to drink a broth-like substance for all three of my meals that day. In addition, I missed a day of school and also was not allowed to speak to anyone for the entire day.

I had several occasions in my first months at Hephzibah where I had a chore that did not pass the white glove inspection. Since I failed a chore, I also had my evening meal withheld as punishment. Once I earned a spot on the garden crew, I never had to miss a meal again for a failed chore, but I did have to eat my meal during an allotted time. I had a few occasions where I just could not eat all of my meal in the specified amount of time, and the food from that dinner was saved and then re-served to me for breakfast the next morning. It was served on the same plate, cold, and hardened from a night in the fridge. I had to finish that meal and then quickly eat the regular breakfast meal as well, in order to avoid having my leftover breakfast served to me along with my lunch.

I was 17 years old when I arrived at Hephzibah, and up to that point I had been menstruating regularly. After the first month at Hephzibah I never had another monthly cycle for the remainder of the 15 months. I thought it was odd that I had completely stopped having my period, but I was afraid to voice my concerns to anyone, especially our staff nurse. I was afraid that I would get in some sort of trouble, or be forced to eat or take some sort of herbal supplement or vitamin, as was common practice for anyone who had an ailment. The same can be said for the "BM chart" that we were forced to mark daily. I knew anyone who did not mark that they had gone regularly would be forced to take flax seed and cod liver oil.

I turned 18 after about 7 months at Hephzibah House. I requested to talk to Ron Williams to tell him that I wanted to go home. He did speak with me, but he told me that I was not ready to go home. I was forced during my entire stay at Hephzibah to write letters to my parents, pastor, and to Hephzibah board members saying that I was happy and that I was thriving spiritually. Each of these letters was read for content before being sent out, and all incoming letters were read as well and only passed on to me if they met the requirements, and often the letters I received had large portions blacked out with a permanent marker. I never had an unmonitored phone conversation with my parents the entire stay, and I only had one 10 minute phone call per month to speak with my parents.

The worst thing I remember from my time at Hephzibah is the humiliation and isolation of each of us girls. We were almost "played" against each other because we were all striving for, and would have done anything for, staff approval. We had to earn every little right or privilege that we had, but we knew it could be taken away with no explanation whatsoever. We were forbidden from talking about our lives before Hephzibah House, and 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. I saw girls who were shadowed for months on end. I was shadowed once personally, but it didn't last very long. I'm sure they missed me on the work crew, so that's why they decided to drop that punishment. While being shadowed, I was not allowed to face any other girls but had to face the wall instead. Of course, I could not speak to anyone except the staff member who was shadowing me.

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 staff took every opportunity to humiliate them in front of the rest of us girls for their laziness and rebellion because of their lack of bladder control. There was a girl who was there with me, who would frequently wet the bed. Every morning the staff ladies made a big production of checking to see if she had wet the bed or not. Then she would have to hurry and strip her bed and wash her sheets while still getting ready for school in the allotted amount of time. None of us girls was allowed to help her get her bed stripped, washed, and remade.

Sometimes during the night I was allowed to get up out of bed and wake the staff lady who was guarding the door near the bathroom to get permission to use the facilities. If the staff felt like too many girls were getting up for potty breaks during the night, then they would change the rule to only using the bathroom during specified breaks in the middle of the night. If you didn't go during one of those breaks, then you didn't get to go at all. The rule for potty breaks overnight fluctuated between those two policies while I was there.

I mentioned the one time that I got shadowed. That is also the one time that I got spanked while I was at Hephzibah House. There was a student who was at Hephzibah with me, and she stayed on after she had completed the program and became a sort of staff member. I had been working on the outside crew with her for several months, so I felt like I knew her (to the best of my ability as we were closely monitored). Ron Williams had a son who also worked closely on the outside crew with us. This student and the Williams boy started secretly "dating" each other. Now, bear in mind that they never once left the premises together, they never kissed, and they never even so much as held hands. But the Williams family believes in arranged marriages, so this secret "dating", which was nothing more than a crush, was strictly forbidden.

Their relationship came to light somehow, and it also came to light that I had known of it. I was awakened in the middle of the night and brought into the closet where all of my belongings had been strewn onto the floor, and all my drawers had been emptied. I was questioned over and over as to what I knew about this relationship. I honestly didn't know much except that the two "liked each other." I was told that I was lying, and that I was being rebellious and deceitful in allowing this relationship to continue. After being questioned by several staff ladies I was allowed to go back downstairs and join the other girls. But from the moment I went back downstairs I was shadowed. I thought that was the end of my punishment, and I was upset about not being able to work outside or to talk to any other girls at any time.

A day or so later I was called back upstairs into Ron Williams' office. I was scared to death. When I had originally been questioned, Ron Williams was on the road, so I didn't have to face him. But this time he was in the room waiting for me. He sat down with me and begin asking me the same type of questions over and over again. I didn't have anything new to tell him. Apparently I was not giving him the answers that he wanted to hear. I remember 2 other staff ladies coming into the room, and I knew in that instant what was about to happen to me. Even though I instinctively knew, Ron Williams explained it to me anyways. He explained how the rod of correction cleanses away the evil from the soul, and he quoted a bunch of Bible verses.

I was forced face down onto the floor of that office, and my arms were straight above my head. One staff lady knelt on and held my arms while another staff lady held my legs. At this point Patti Williams was in the room, and she spanked me while Ron stood by and watched. I don’t recall how many times she hit me, but I remember that she was talking during the whole ordeal. She was very angry, and I could feel her anger each time she hit me. I was crying because of the pain and embarrassment, so I guess it was assumed that I was sufficiently broken, so she stopped hitting me.

After the whole ordeal was over, I had to immediately sit down with Ron Williams while he talked to me again and told me how that was God's will that I be punished to rid my soul of its wicked ways. I was very sore, and it hurt to sit down and talk with Ron. I hurt for days after that. I was still being shadowed, so I was not working outside; in fact, I would have had a hard time doing the heavy labor we were required to do outside after I had just received such a brutal beating. After a few weeks, I was no longer shadowed, and I was put back on the outside crew.

The rest of my time at Hephzibah House was pretty much uneventful. Of course, there were all the days being surrounded by uncaring and uncompassionate staff members.