Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Amy Bruce - Hobby: Survivor!

Hi, my name is Amy and I attended Hephzibah House from June of 92 through December of that same year.

The choice to go to HH was mine, a decision based in part on the lies I was given by pastor Williams, who was visiting our church at the time. I was shown pictures of girls braiding each other's hair or sitting around a bonfire singing. I was told that HH was a structured, but loving environment for teen girls. Based upon these lies, my pastor encouraged my mom to take me to HH.

I was desperate to get away from everything. I was fighting with my mom constantly and my father had moved back in with us, which didn’t help the situation at all. There were issues of abuse and emotional pain that I was unable to deal with. My mom tried to help, but was just as lost as I was. She simply didn’t know how to handle me and Pastor Williams played right into her emotional fears.

In June of 1992 we made the trip from South Carolina to Winona Lake, Indiana in two days. Upon arriving I was separated from my family and treated to a humiliating strip search and shower where every inch of me was inspected and scrubbed. I was wearing makeup at the time and I remember someone scrubbing my face until it was bright red and stinging. Everything I was wearing was taken away from me and I was given a navy blue jumpsuit and red shirt made from polyester. My hair was short at the time and I remember this woman telling me I would be growing it out, because harlots wear their hair short.

Later I was brought down into the dormitory and told to sit quietly and wait for dinner. I was not allowed to speak to anyone until I made a profession of faith. I told them repeatedly that I was saved, but it didn't matter. A couple days later a girl was taken upstairs and a few minutes later I heard her start crying and yelling. I looked around the room and was stunned to see the staff and all the girls sitting in silence through the noise of an obvious beating that went on and on. I’d never heard anything like it. The girls were sitting in silence yes, but it was the visible emotion in their eyes that made me really understand what was going on. The beating was a form of control the staff used to keep us all in line. They knew we could hear everything and they counted on our fears to make us conform to the outrageous rules.

HH used various forms of abuse to keep us in line, but the most damaging was the psychological attack on our minds. Staff members excelled in making life miserable for the girls who didn't follow the rules. These rules were not just 'keep your bed made' or 'be polite'. We had to curl our hair every night with sponge rollers and they had to be placed perfectly, or we were punished. We were not allowed to speak to just anyone, even when we were finally allowed to start talking. If we were caught talking to another girl who was not on our talking list, even if it was just 'excuse me' we were punished. Simple chores done wrong, such as dusting could ruin your entire day. My point is that these were not rules broken out of spite or disobedience. They were accidents or mistakes that anyone could have made, but the price we paid for even minor infractions was beyond high, they were ridiculous to the extreme.

One method of punishment was isolation and not in the traditional sense, though that was used as well. I am referring to the isolation of human contact in its most basic form. Imagine sitting in a room full of people, but being unable to communicate. I know this doesn't sound that bad, but imagine this occurring day after day, week after week, forever sitting in the silence of your own thoughts. Another method of punishment was humiliation. We were constantly assaulted mentally and physically from every direction. There was no reprieve or break from the abuse. The dead of night brought only partial relief, but it was a sense of relief that didn't quite follow into our dreams. We woke in the morning with a startled and fearful awareness of wondering what came next. The emotional toll of being in a constant state of fear began to affect us physically.

Some girls began 'adolescent bed wetting' …I will admit that I was one of those girls. The details of what happened next, is something I have never discussed with anyone…ever. The staff's response to wetting my bed was the most humiliating moment of my life. I was forced to wear a Depends, basically a diaper, which didn’t quite fit, because I was somewhat chunky. Periodically throughout the day, my diaper was ‘checked’ to see if I’d had an accident. I had to strip my sheets and get them cleaned before breakfast, which was impossible. As punishment for not getting this done in time my meals were taken away. My mattress was pulled out into the fenced in courtyard to air dry. Everyone knew the mattress was mine. I just wanted to die. I never slept a night through again while I was at HH. I would wake myself up terrified and shaking. Sometimes I would dream that I had wet my bed and wake up crying and soaked with sweat.

Another side affect of being in a constant state of terror was that I had almost no periods for six months.

Another method of punishment was starvation. Okay so they fed us protein drinks, but these were not the protein drinks you buy at the health store. These tasted awful, to the point of gagging, which was also punished by the way. It should also be noted that we were fed these shakes when we were too sick to do chores or school work. Well obviously death was preferred over these shakes. No one ever complained of being sick…even when we were. Starvation was used to punish a number of offenses, but for me, in the beginning, it was mostly used because I had trouble memorizing the huge amounts of scripture required each week.

There were just plain vindictive punishments given as well. I remember one time I forgot my rubber gloves to wash the dishes. Instead of letting me go get them, I was made to wash those dishes bare handed. The water was really, really hot and burned my hands to a bright angry red. My hands stayed bright red and burned for several hours' afterword, but it could have been worse. There was a girl there, I think her name was Marcy or Melody or something like that. Anyway every time Ms. Hoke walked away, she washed the dishes for me. I don't think I ever spoke a word to this girl the entire time I was at HH and yet she was willing to put herself on the line for me. There were a few brave girls who never conformed, no matter what the staff did to them, but I wasn't one of them. I am ashamed to admit that I

In order to survive my stay at HH; I sacrificed my identity and conformed to the rules. I conformed so well in fact that I was given a spot on the garden crew. This was good, because the garden crew almost always got to eat. The price of getting to eat was steep though. They worked us from sun up to sundown, doing back breaking labor. Many times we would shower and crawl into bed long after the other girls went to bed, only to awakened a few hours later. The upside was that I had little time to think about where I was.

I swore I would never forget who I was and that when I got out, I'd find the girl I left behind and get to know her again. This was not as easy as I once assumed it would be, as young teenage girl. The process of finding Amy took years, but I did get her back...eventually.

One thing I never fully got back was my belief in God. I am putting this in here, because I believe it needs to be said, as controversial as it may be. I came to Hephzibah House with a firm belief in God and Christianity and I left questioning everything I thought I knew. I have not been able to step foot inside a church since I left without having a panic attack. I will never allow anyone, not even God to have such control over me ever again.

Seventeen years later, the lessons I have taken from Hephzibah House are this...Even in the silence and the remembered humiliations I went through, I find myself remembering that girl who did the dishes for me, while never saying a word. I remember the looks of sympathy or the casual smiles passed in secret that helped me get through the day. I remember those girls, who were for a time, in hell right along with me and I wonder how they are. They broke us down and humiliated us at every turn, but they never managed to touch our souls…the very thing they wanted more than anything else. In the end we were stronger.

This was my story, but there are literally hundreds of others who have gone through the same if not worse, humiliating and abusive conditions at HH. Our pastors and our parents were lied to about these conditions. They were never told of the lack of proper medical care, or the horrible food that sometimes had bugs in it. They never knew of the days of starvation in punishment for simple ‘crimes’. They never knew of the countless times we were referred to as worthless or harlots, who lead men into the sin of lust.

Knowing nothing of these things, our parent were stunned when we came home as shells of ourselves, silent and fearful of everything, because now we believed we were worthless. Basic conversations were beyond us at first, so we said nothing. I personally have never spoken in any detail of my time at HH until now…not even to my husband of eleven years. Writing this was incredibly painful and brought back nightmares I hadn’t had in years. But after seventeen years…it was time.

Many of the girls who have come forward about the abuse at Hephzibah House have been slandered and told that things are not as bad as they are saying. So I am including an excerpt about Pastor Williams views on discipline…in his own words.

In this he discusses breaking the spirit of infants. Yes, spanking babies. You don’t believe me? Read it and then we’ll talk. He also discusses the ‘correction sessions’ some lasting several hours. For more information on Hephzibah House and to read other testimonials from survivors spanning thirty years visit the following links.