Hephzibah House Journal

Hephzibah House Journal
Susan Grotte's journal from her experience as a student at Hephzibah House, told in short-story form.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Cindy Giovannetti

Ron Williams frequently discredits his past students’ accusations as bitterness, piling on, forever unreliable due to teenage misdemeanors, or simply inaccurate.  I mean, who can really say what happened so long ago?
I was at Hephzibah House the summer of 1981. 
I was not there for being what Ron Williams considered a “wayward girl.”  In fact, I was “good enough” that he hired me as a summer staff member.
I was not abused at Hephzibah House.  Indeed, Ron was actually quite kind to me.  He was charming and charismatic.  He made me feel like an important part of the ministry that summer.  I loved him as a pastor and believed in the work he was doing. 
I left at the end of the summer in good standing.  I had no reason to be bitter against him and have never spoken against him in bitterness.
However, I will speak out against him. 
While Ron Williams didn’t abuse me, he did abuse the students, and he convinced us all that he had a special word from God to do so. 
I was so stunned by the harshness that I wrote about it in letters home to my then-boyfriend, now-husband.  I will share excerpts from these letters below.  
But first, I need to say something about collaboration. 
In 1981, we dared not speak of our dissatisfaction.  For example, we did not discuss the fact that we were hungry.  Never.  Not a word, not an eye roll, not a sigh.  No girl would have dared express discontent about anything. 
In fact, because all the other girls smiled pleasantly through all the trials, I sometimes wondered if I was the only one shocked by the situation.  
So, no, no one collaborated with me when I wrote down these observations. 
Nearly 30 years later when I reconnected with my former students, they told me they kept smiling only because they feared allowing any other emotion to cross their faces.  Virtually all of them were harmed by their experience at Hephzibah House.  I'm talking about permanent scars, both physical and emotional.
When someone encounters a true Christian ministry, they don’t walk away scarred.  If they walk away scarred, it wasn’t a Christian ministry they encountered.
So, here’s some of what I wrote home:
Observations of paddlings
“The other night Maria, my sweet girl, got in trouble.  The spanking was horrible!  She got eight licks!  Eight!  Eight licks! 
And I promise you, Sharon hit her as hard as she could!  It was like she thought she could beat the badness out of her.  It was like she was not hitting a human being at all.  
And this didn’t bother Sharon at all.  She did not have any spirit of sorrow.  No “this hurts me more than it hurts you.”  She just picked up that huge paddle and beat Maria with all the strength in her body, whack, whack, whack, whack, whack, whack, whack, whack, like it was nothing. 
I would pass out if somebody hit me that hard.  It is not like a normal spanking.  It is truly horrifying!”
“The girls are paddled constantly, but I’ll never get used to it.  It makes me feel sick.  They get anywhere from 7-10 licks for all sorts of minor offenses—for biting their fingernails, for not being feminine, for pride, for being homesick, for crying. 
And Pastor Williams beats them hard!  I’ve had my share of spankings, but nobody has ever hit me that way.  I’d pass out.  I don’t know how they stand it day after day, night after night.” 
 “The absolute worst thing that they do here is the nightly spankings.  We tuck the girls in bed.  We kiss them goodnight.  Then, presumably, they begin to fall asleep hoping to be left to sleep until morning.  
But then Miss Emery begins calling names over the intercom for them to get out of bed, go down the stairs, and be paddled. 
I lie on my mattress (in the floor) [staff members slept in the floor across the doorway] dreading to hear the next name she calls out, even though I know she won’t be calling mine!  I cringe and cry a little with every name I hear.  I can’t even imagine how terrified the girls must be.” 
“We have this system for punishments.  When a girl does something wrong, we assign work duties, which are like demerits, except you have to work them off.  It takes an hour to work off a work duty.  If you get over 35, you get paddled every night until you’re down under 35.”
“And poor little Cherie is so little.  She gets paddled every night because she has more than 35 work duties.  She is not allowed to speak to anybody but staff.  She is really not doing well.  I mean physically.  She looks just awful.  Her skin is all broken out in a terrible rash.  It’s all over her body.  She’s so thin, and she looks terrible.  She must be miserable.  It just breaks my heart.”
About the food
“I could not eat the first meal they served me.   We had a huge plate of leaves with no salad dressing.  Do not picture the kind of lettuce that comes in a head from the grocery store.  This plant comes out of a garden.  It has the texture of canvas and the taste of grass.  And no dressing!  Also we had a large Cool Whip tub full of beans (no seasoning).  Each.  I ate about a third of each.  It was awful!  Oh, and we had water to drink.
“The next morning for breakfast we had a fried egg and powdered milk.  It tasted awful!  The milk wasn’t even cold.  But no one dared say a word.  I ate.  I drank.”
“I dread each meal.”
“For supper last night we had huge bowls of spinach with sardines.  Then, for breakfast we had a bowl of bran.  Not Bran Flakes.  Not Raisin Bran.  Just the stuff that looks like dust like you would buy at a health food store, soaked in water.  It has no flavor.  It has the texture of wet sawdust.  It is very hard to swallow.  I feel like I’m a missionary to Africa.”
“The food here doesn’t taste a bit better.  I can barely force myself to swallow it – but I do.  It’s important for the girls that I eat it.  I’m famished, but I don’t want any more!
My main problem is the lettuce/grass and the huge bowls of greens.  Sometimes it’s gritty with dirt.  And we have it almost every day.  Huge bowls of it.  Which must be consumed, grit and all.  Last night for supper we had a bowl of beans.  The night before that, it was boiled chicken wings.  (Don’t even imagine any tasty sauce.)  This morning we had plain bran again.  We are hungry all the time.”
“The atmosphere around our dinner table is nothing short of oppressive.  The girls are afraid to say the wrong thing, to look at the wrong person, to grimace at the taste of the food.  Miss Emery snaps at every mistake.  The girls who aren’t allowed to eat sit in hungry silence.”
“The girls have to work off three “work duties” a day (and five on Saturday) in order to be allowed supper each night.  Supper is the biggest meal of the day, so to miss supper means missing most of the day’s food (especially on Saturdays when we only get two meals.)  It is truly pitiful to see the girls who aren’t allowed to eat sitting on the couch with nothing to do but watch us eat.” 
“Meanwhile, the girls are hungry, and I mean seriously hungry.  Their stomachs growl constantly.  The ones who have been here a long time are painfully thin.  Renee looks like she’s about to starve to death."
About the work
“I wish you could understand the work here.  I could never describe it so that you would get a good mental picture of it.  The girls do hard manual labor every moment that they’re not in school.  Some of it is regular cleaning and scrubbing.  But some of it is heavy outdoor labor like a man would do.  They are just exhausted all the time.  Some of them are so thin!”
“We do so much work in that dang garden!  Saturdays we work in the garden all day, without even a break for lunch.  It’s hard, hard work, and the time drags unbearably.  Sometimes we can chat, and that makes it so much sweeter.  Other times, though, either the girls aren’t allowed to talk or we’re too far apart. 
Saturday nights, after working all day in the blazing sun, my arms are lobster red with sunburn, and I’m covered with bug bites.  I’m just exhausted.  We all are.”
About the isolation
“We just got two new girls Dawn and Cheri.  Pray for them.  It’s a very lonely time.  They aren’t allowed to talk to each other or the other girls.  They have no contact with their family or former friends.  It’s a terrible adjustment.”
“They are allowed one phone call every three weeks after they’ve been here one month.  But they only get to make the call if they have less than 9 work duties and at least an 87% on scripture memory (not an easy task).  Naturally, that means a lot of the girls miss their phone calls. 
And, when they make their call home, a staff member is on the line with them so they can’t complain or beg their parents to come get them.  They’re not even allowed to cry.  If they start crying, the staff member will cut off the call immediately.”
Just plain meanness
“Miss Emry and Sharon snap at the girls, talk down to them, and criticize them constantly.  Like at breakfast today, Miss Emry said, “Karen, your hair looks terrible!  Remind me to give you a work duty.”  (Remember, after 35 work duties, each one translates into a paddling, so essentially, Karen was going to be spanked for her hair being messy.)” 
“You would not believe the room checks!  We don’t have daily room checks.  We have spot checks.  It includes everything:  inside drawers, inside closets, shelves, beds, etc.  Whatever doesn’t check gets stripped and dumped all over the floor!  You’ve never seen such a mess in all your life!  It’s like a crime scene.  I can’t tell you how shocked I was the first time I saw this.”
No love
“I guess what I like least about it here is that this is not a place of happiness.  Someone is always in trouble, or scared, or crying, getting paddled, or being criticized.”
“If anybody is loving these girls, I don’t see it.  They are regarded, spoken to, and treated very harshly.”
“I just wish the girls could be loved.  They do not feel loved -- not by the Williams, not by the staff, not by their families, not by God.  Pastor Williams says I’m na├»ve about this.”
“I wanted to tell her [Mrs. Williams] how much the girls are starved for love.  How lonely, confused, and discouraged they are.  How severely they are punished.  How afraid they are.  Surely she wouldn’t want her own children to be treated like that, would she?”
Because I was only there three months, I wasn’t privy to everything that ever happened.  For instance, I don’t remember any diapers or other toileting issues.   I don’t doubt this happened, based on so many testimonies; but I don’t remember it going on the summer of 1981. 
I also wasn’t aware of the pelvic exams.  I don’t doubt this happened either, based on so many testimonies, but I can’t vouch for it personally.  
I can vouch that Ron Williams preached to them daily about the utter importance of their purity and modesty.  It is beyond me how he thought they could reconcile the constant deification of purity with his authorizing their violation.
I can also verify the lack of menstruation.  None of the girls menstruated the summer of 1981.  I have no explanation for why this was, but it can’t be anything good.  And no staff member was unaware of it as it was charted and posted publicly.
But maybe Ron Williams has changed since then 1981!
If he, indeed, had instruction from God on how to manage girls (as he claimed often in recorded sermons and published literature), he can’t have changed much because God’s word hasn’t changed.  But if his methodology was not from God, and thus he was free to change it, then he owes the girls from 1981 an apology for the harm he did to them.

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