Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Andrianna McCree: Survivor!

My name is Andrianne McCree and I attended Hephzibah House from 2001 to 2004.

Upon entrance of the home, was asked if I’d like a tour. Before the tour, I noticed a very large tree branch that had the engraving, "Rod of God" on it in the large room that was painted blue. This rod was often referenced as being used to discipline girls who were disobedient.

Instead of receiving a tour of the facilities and being returned to my Grandfather as I assumed, I was brought to the shower area and told to strip in front of two staff members. Being shocked and disoriented that I was being told to bare my body in front of women I had never met, I exclaimed, "Oh my god!" As the last word escaped my lips, I was slapped across the face by a staff member. Little did I know that being smacked across the face was going to be a common occurrence if I did not keep my opinions to myself and my head low. I was devastated that I was unable to say good-bye to my Grandfather and that for all I knew, he had already left. I immediately wanted to leave but also knew that I needed to "Fake it till I made it."

Soon after my arrival, I was made to have a vaginal exam in the school closet by a man who was never introduced to me. This supposed doctor never asked my permission to touch very private parts of my body nor did he speak a single word to me. I felt degraded, defiled and humiliated. When the exam was completed, I had to have blood drawn. I easily become faint at the mere sight of blood and told this to the "nurse" who was accompanying me. She laughed at me, told me to grow up and continued to poke for a vein while the supposed doctor looked on. I fainted and remember almost throwing up as soon as I awoke. I was told that I was pathetic and felt even more humiliated. For several days after the exam, I was in pain and discomfort in my vaginal area besides feeling traumatized by the invasion of my privacy.

About a month after my arrival, I received my period for the first and last time while I stayed at Hephzibah House for three years. Many of the girls who attended Hephzibah House also report that they did not experience a monthly cycle during their stay. I have since spoken with a gynecologist and been advised that if a teenage girl goes without her cycle for such an extended period of time, she should be seen by a doctor immediately. I was told by Staff members that the lack of my period was due to stress. Was I under such stress for three years?

During my stay there, a girl arrived who played the piano beautifully – had for ten years. Because of our rigid supervised bathroom break schedule and exorbitant amount of water we were required to drink, she accidently relieved on herself. She was put into diapers almost immediately and humiliated in front of all of us girls by staff. She was only one of several girls made to wear diapers while I was there because staff members were unavailable to accompany them to the rest room when they needed to use it. Another girl in particular I remember having to wear diapers was thirteen when she arrived and was soon also put into diapers. How humiliating for such a young, impressionable girl to have to be put into diapers. I remember feeling so badly for her.

Talking lists were a part of the norm at Hephzibah House and a form of control by the staff. You had certain girls you were able to speak with and others with whom you weren’t allowed to even make eye contact. Upon my arrival, I was only allowed to speak with a certain list of girls. These girls were considered "trusted" girls. If I had demerits, I was not allowed to speak to these girls for the entire week. If I didn’t complete my extensive Scripture writing (another consequence of demerits), I was unable to speak with these girls until it was also completed. Eventually, I became a trusted girl and was able to speak with everyone who was not on demerits (a.k.a. Sentences).

One of the ways girls were able to depart from Hephzibah House in good graces with Patti and Ron Williams was to graduate from school. I worked very hard to accomplish my graduation in a short period of time. Unfortunately, school was not made a first priority by staff and I did not have very much time to complete my school work. Most afternoons, I would be called out of school to help a staff member do any myriad of chores including clean cars, garden, clean a staff members’ home, haul rock, scrub floors, rake, etc. I did not complete my school work during my time at Hephzibah House even though I was previously a very accomplished student that was ahead of my grade. Being that Hephzibah House is supposed to be a school, I would think that academics would be top priority.

Some other things I experienced during my stay including being forced to eat worms on lettuce from the garden because "We were responsible for picking off the worms and if we weren’t able to perform that small duty, we would be made to eat them". We were also force fed a very large amount of food at dinner time during a thirty minute interval. I often had to have extra water to swallow the last bites before I was called for my next and seemingly unending work duty. If I was unable to finish the amount of food allotted to me during that thirty minute period, I would be served that food the next morning, cold and in addition to whatever the next meal was. We were often fed expired Dole lettuce with expired salad dressing, rotten and bitter squash or other garden vegetable, milt with rocks in it, burnt oatmeal, hard bean soup with rocks, dog food (yes, Alpo to be exact), broth or a nasty powder milkshake when you were sick and a myriad of other things that weren’t particularly palatable or eatable.

Another way of humiliating us was having us write our bowel movements for the day and ending and starting dates of our menstrual cycle on a large, public paper in our dorm room. At the end of each month, this list was sent to Ron and Patti Williams. I often put down fake dates for my period because I was nervous of what may happen to me if I did not have a period. If a girl failed to have a bowel movement for a certain amount of time, she was forced to drink a green liquid of magnesium citrate. It has been stated in medical journals that this type of laxative should not be used often as they can damage the kidneys but I remember a particular girl named Mindy who often had to drink the green liquid. These girls were also put on a psyllium drinking schedule in addition to a treatment of magnesium citrate whenever deemed needed by staff.

Humiliation and mind control were continuous tactics of Hephzibah House. Early in my stay, Patti asked me to take out some frozen meat and put it on a tray. My logic was to put it back into the fridge so it would not spoil sitting out on the counter. After I had finished my chores in the kitchen, I went to another area of the grounds and soon received a phone call. On the other end of the phone, Patti was screaming at me and asking me where the meat was. When I returned back to school and we were served dinner, Patti told all of the girls that it was my fault we did not have meat with our dinner and they could complain to me. She also forced me to stand up and apologize to everyone.

I was so uptight after that event whenever I worked with Patti. I felt as if I had to repeat her instructions several times over to make sure I knew what she was saying and not to experience that embarrassment ever again. When Patti would fly into these fits of rage, she would often slap us across the face, tell us that you were worthless and that was a reason we were there; our parents didn’t love or care about us and sent us because no one could deal or stand us, that even God had forsaken us and that we were ultimately failures and would end up addicted to drugs, whores, having children out of wedlock and any other terrible sin she could think of.

Speaking of Patti’s anger, I have a vivid memory of Patti coming down into the dorm, grabbing girls belongings and strewing them all across the lawn in the fenced in backyard. Another memory is of Patti being very angry with a girl who obviously had learning disabilities and was very slow. She took her by the neck and collar and throwing her up against the brick wall. The girl’s face was one of panic. All of us girls were ushered out of the area immediately and were ordered not to speak of the event.

Another time we were escorted out of an area was when we would hear a girl called upstairs during the meal. Her screams would be audible from the area we were occupying and we would be ushered into a different area. I never had the "Rod of God" used on me but I remember a particularly quiet afternoon when a few girls were called out of the school and were gone for a long period of time. Each girl returned with tears streaming down her face. One girl in particular sat next to me during the lunch hour and was unable to sit down without wincing and made no effort to hide her pain and discomfort. Staff told her that she was being overly dramatic and had to stop.

She also wore diapers. During the bathroom break, each girl who wore a diaper was required to show their diaper to staff so staff could ensure she had not used her diaper (if she did, she received extensive demerits). I remember this girl telling staff she could not take them off because they were sticking to her bottom. All of us were ushered out of the bathroom while staff checked her diaper. I assume because she had blood on her diaper from her recent beating.

We were often told not to speak about certain events. In the rule book, we were told if we spoke of certain things during our once a month monitored phone calls home, our phone calls would be immediately terminated. We were never told what these "certain" things referred to but we knew. This rule also applied to our visits from home. Each of my visits, my grandparents and my mother would come. My mother is deaf and communicates using sign language. She has difficulty lip reading at particular times. During my first visit, I began communicating with my mother in sign language and was ordered to stop and never use it again. I was pulled aside by the staff member who was monitoring my visit and told if I ever used sign language again my visit would be terminated. These visits were very hard and emotional for each family member present but I believe it was even harder for my mother and I as we were never able to fully communicate.

In addition to monitored visits and phone calls with our parents, we were allowed to receive letters from our Pastor’s (the only male other than our fathers who were allowed to correspond with us), phone calls and visits. My pastor did not approve of me being sent to Hephzibah House and I believe Hephzibah House knew this. Whenever my pastor would write (which he said was almost weekly), I would receive the letters with much of the writing blacked out. My Pastor also got several of his letters returned. Whenever my Pastor called to speak with me (he was told he was allowed to call at ANY time), he was told I was busy or unavailable and to call back at a specific time. He would call back at the specific time and be told again that I was unavailable. After three years you can imagine how disheartening this was for him.

I turned 18 in January of 2004. Turning 18 was another way of being able to leave Hephzibah House; but usually without the good graces of Ron and Patti Williams. Upon my turning of age, Ron sat me down and said that I had turned 18 and had a choice to stay at Hephzibah House or return home. He also told me that my mom and grandparents thought it best if I stayed at Hephzibah House and reminded me that if I was to stay in God’s favor I needed to obey my mother and grandparents. I had also heard many stories of girls who left Hephzibah House upon their 18th birthday; it was usually insinuated that they were disdained by God for doing so. Later, my mother told me she had been fighting with Hephzibah House for an entire year to release me. Ron and Patti refused to communicate with my mother because (they said) she was deaf; instead, they chose to communicate with my grandparents who were concerned that I continue my stay at Hephzibah House until my education was complete. Again this was against my mother’s desires.

Hephzibah House taught me that the man was the head of the house. Never to be questioned and his authority never challenged. This carried over into my life after Hephzibah House and, I became involved in a very verbally and often physically abusive relationship for almost three years.

As I continue to reflect on my stay at Hephzibah House and how it has continued to affect me to this day, it is hard to know exactly but I find new and different things everyday that trigger memories and reasons for some of my inhibitions such as being very conscious about getting undressed in front of other people; despising my yearly exam; having endometriosis that my doctor has said could be related to my lack of a menstrual cycle during my stay at Hephzibah House; being continually reminded by close friends that I am not worthless and my opinion and thoughts do count and should be voiced; Feeling that the education I received through the PACE system at Hephzibah House was inadequate and therefore I do not have the skills to pursue my educational goals in life; knowing that it is okay to stand up for myself; issues with my privacy being invaded by others without my permission; feeling lazy whenever I am resting; cleaning constantly and get very irritable and frustrated when things are messy or unclean; having strained family relations; and so much more.

My goal in writing this statement is to first warn parents who may be considering sending their child to a reformatory school to do extensive research but secondly and most importantly to change laws with regard to religious schools like Hephzibah House and to require some kind of accountability to an outside source.

I can’t change the past but I’d like to change the laws for girls who are currently there and for those who may attend in the future.