Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Jennifer Gooch: Survivor!

I was taken to Hephzibah House (HH), on December 7,1993 at the age of 13 (nearly 14). Little did I know I was going to be locked in this home and would spend the next 21 months of my life there.

To be clear, I had never had sex, done drugs, drank, or really done much of anything at all. I had always been home schooled and was struggling through normal growing up years. My parents had recently started a new church, and the pastor had gave them the large amount of money needed to go to HH. They were very religious and feared I was going to leave home as my older sister had, so they thought HH seemed like a good place for me at the time. In retrospect, they know the place is not right and would not send any of my siblings there.

That is a key thing with HH, it is presented as a super ministry... In my personal opinion, based on my experience and observations, it is NOT!! As a mother of two daughters myself, I am so glad they will never have to experience this place. By sharing this story, hopefully other girls will also be spared the experience.

My first day there, as we sat in the room with the director, Ron Williams, he pulled a very large wooden paddle out of the closet and proceeded to explain how if they felt a girl needed it, they would have her lay down on the floor, put a chair over each end of her body, and with staff members present (as I recall to sit on the chairs and probably to also be witnesses), they would proceed to spank the girl.

I lived in fear when I was there and never wanted to do something which would lead to a spanking. From what I have heard, this was more of a beating. I remember one girl committing some transgression and being taken upstairs, when she came down, she was so shook up, they had her breathing into a brown paper bag. Things were not allowed to be questioned nor discussed among us. If a girl was taken home before her fifteen months were up, she would just disappear while we were in school or doing assignments. Immediately she was referred to as , "past student", and no discussion as to why or where she went was allowed.

I remember just sobbing the first night I was there, and telling the staff I needed to talk to my parents..I was not allowed to that night, nor for some time. Phone calls home were made once a month. A staff would come and get us once the connection had been established, we would take one seat in the closet room , she would take the seat right next to us as well as listen in on the other line and take notes as we spoke to our parents. Each call was strictly timed for 10 minutes, (15 was allowed for birthdays). There were rules about what we could and could not talk about, so, not wanting to lose the precious privilege, I would leave so much unsaid and try my best to sound happy and conformed. The same applied for visits, they were allowed once every three months for a certain amount of time. We were not informed of the visit until it was practically time to see our parents, then we would be taken up, and a staff would be present throughout the entire time and writing what was talked about. Again, I would try to appear happy and conformed, desperately hoping they would take me home, but not being allowed to mention such a thing.

Each month we had to read and initial the, "rule book", in it, amongst many things, were rules such as we were not allowed to talk about going home, why we got demerits, and so forth. They had a chart with who we could speak or not speak to. If we couldn't speak to a certain girl, than we could not make eye contact with her, nor look in the dorm or bathroom mirror with her unless a staff gave permission while they watched. I recall one night in particular, I had received permission to show another girl my pictures. The staff lady became very angry with us because she felt we were talking too quietly while looking at them, and for the rest of the evening, we were not allowed to talk to anyone but staff. This, "no talking", punishment was doled out liberally.

If a girl had too many mistakes in the writing out of her weekly memory verses, ( there were required weekly and an even larger monthly passage from different sections of the Bible assigned), she was not allowed to talk to any one but staff all week, had to write it out numerous times as she could find moments here and there to do so, and wear a uniform to public services. All the while, the next weeks verses had to be perfected as well.

The wearing the uniform, silence, and writing of many sentences also applied if too many demerits were received in a week. Demerits could be received for virtually anything and everything. Things such as wearing my hair pulled back on one side, or slouching rather than cuffing my socks were considered worldly and could be punished. I guess the wearing of the uniform to services was to shame us publicly. Which brings me to more memories...

We were not allowed to enter the church until they started the service, then, we would file in lined up in our assigned place and sit in assigned metal chairs, the door was guarded as we filed past. Then, we would take notes on all sermons that would later be checked by staff, and not be allowed to use the bathroom during the entire service. This could be especially hard during Sunday mornings when we were not allowed to do anything but stare ahead while everyone else in the Church had the break between services and got to stretch their legs and use the bathroom. (No talking to other church members.) Since a typical Sunday service lasted 3 hours or more, this could be uncomfortable at times.

The same applied to school, no getting up to go to the bathroom until they took us to go. I remember at least one girl wetting herself and having to wear depends diapers after that, I believe there were others as well. I know sometimes I would hold it so long in the morning, it would sometimes hurt and I would be so glad when the staff told us we could finally get up and get our stuff for the bathroom. Even then, we had to line up and wait for our assigned stall to be open. (They had three bathroom and three shower stalls).

Showers were taken when they said, usually during the afternoon's many work duties, they would let three of us get in, call out we were ready, and wait for the other girls to be, so we could be given permission to start the water. Showers were timed for 3 minutes. I am so glad I didn't have the long hair some of the girls did at the time!!

We didn't have much for free time at all, and if we did, I usually used it to clean, and re clean the small amount of things we were allowed there, (baskets my stuff was stored in, etc.), because we could be punished for things such as one too many hangers in our assigned areas, dust in our baskets, etc. Our assigned wardrobe or closet space was locked each and every night, and the staff would make sure our shoes were their before locking them. (I guess I had mentioned getting out early on, because they kept my shoes and made me wear slippers for some time).

The doors and windows were locked and/or alarmed anyway, and we were surrounded by a very tall solid fence, so chances of escape were slim to none although I did dream of it. I remember getting permission to go outside and dump a bucket or something, and smelling the fresh air, and hearing the sounds of life outside, and just imagining freedom. We were young girls, not hardened criminals, although we were not allowed to talk about why we were there either.

Our days basically consisted of rushing to keep up with the assigned schedule, which was mostly school, cleaning, and more cleaning. During work duties, we weren't supposed to talk either, ...a great deal of our time there was spent in silence. Work duties were assigned, and we had to get permission to go from point A to point B to even accomplish the task. Then, we had to get a staff lady to check it and pass it for us. I got to the point where I was afraid to say I was done until they told me it was good enough , lest I failed. This didn't always work though because jobs were of course expected to be done in a short time as well. One staff lady would literally shine a flashlight and there best not any dust show up in the beam under the beds.

I learned to keep my head down and mouth shut so to speak, the vast majority of my time there. I think I became as a puppet of sorts, dancing as I was told and showing no mind of my own. For this, I earned privileges, such as being allowed to eventually talk to all the girls, not having to perform the kitchen duties, etc. I was so afraid of using said privileges, that I think I just kept my mouth shut more and worked all the harder until they would tell me to take a break.

I honestly don't remember Patti, (the director's wife being around much, and when she did come around, it was terrifying, I would try to just blend in unnoticed. She would become very angry at us for things we didn't even know we had done wrong. She would also call down over the monitor angry at us, and all we dared say, was, "yes ma'am, or no ma'am." Her son Don, who was also part of the, "ministry", and the school principle when I was there, was kind to us, and would sometimes read to us in morning school.

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 had started my menstrual cycle the month or so before going to HH, I had one within my first couple weeks of being there, and then never again until some months after returning home. This would worry me, and when I would question it, they didn't give much for answers. This is strange, because it turns out many girls stopped menstruating while there and some of us have had reproductive/other issues later in life.

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). Their, "nurse", (also secretary..I'm not sure on her credentials), would answer any health questions we might have. If we said we were sick, (even if it was just a head cold or bad headache, etc. ), we got to go to bed for 24 hours, but of course this was spent in silence and no meals were allowed, just a can of ensure. There are some sicknesses that don't effect your appetite of course, and so it was as though we were punished for being sick as well.

There were times when I would get so hungry, esp. on Saturdays when after a larger than usual breakfast, we had to work the day away and not eat again until dinner. On Sundays, dinner was generally something like measured out peanut butter and jelly and some sprouts...for the most part, we were fed adequately, but it was measured and not always the most tasty fare. They could also use no meals as a form of punishment.

We were also allowed to send letters to our families once a week, (we couldn't write anyone unless our parents had specifically put them on the list, then a note could be included on the same paper as we wrote to our parents on). There was a limit on how much we could write, although there wasn't much to write anyway, because so many things were not allowed to be talked about. All ingoing and outgoing mail was read, and if they would not like something, they would black it out. Patti would threaten that our letters would not go out if our menus were missing something, (we had to write what we ate), or if she didn't like what we were writing. So, as you may well imagine, my letters home were glowing reports.

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, even with all the brainwashing of us being bad, and them being good. The staff ladies were scary people, and although there were moments of kindness, for me, it was constant fear and uncertainty.

I was one who wrote my , "testimony", for them after getting out, it basically read as all the other testimonies on their website., " I don't know where I would be if it hadn't been for HH", but that is the thing, ..they seemed to want and program us to think that. I have still struggled with speaking out against them, but I know that things were not right there, and again, hopefully some other girls will be spared the heartache.

To me, HH is like a cult, and it is horrifying that they are given total control behind closed doors with no unmonitored conversation between child and parent. I feel like I left there a shell of the girl I went in, and to this day, there are effects that are hard to shake. I have had dreams of being stuck back there and trying to get out to my babies. Essentially, the little good that may be learned there was far outweighed by the damaging effects!!!