My name is Alicia Hamilton. When I was sent to Hephzibah House (HH) in the fall of 1989, I had just recently turned 12 years old and my last name at that time was that of my stepfather, “Cornish”. When sent to HH, I was not in any trouble with the law; I had not yet had any boyfriends; I hadn’t done or even ever seen alcohol / drugs. My childhood “problems” only began after my mother married a man who began to physically and emotionally abuse me when I was 6-7 years old. Driving into the grounds of HH for the first time, I saw a simple but large white house with a church on the side and lots of fencing. My parents said little as we were quickly ushered to the upstairs room, the room where I would receive many beatings in the next 20 months to come. My memory begins to play tricks on me here, as there are some things that I VERY VIVIDLY recall about what happened to me during my stay at HH, and then other daily things that I have completely forgotten about. I do remember the initial trauma of my HH experience was being told that I would be there for 15 months (at least), and more importantly, I was told that I could not have contact with my grandparents (with whom I lived from birth to age 6 and were like parents to me).
Upon “orientation” Several of William’s family members went through my items with me and began marking them. I was told I could not have some of my belongings and I was stripped of the clothing I had, put into an itchy polyester outfit and the rules further explained to me, I remember saying “Oh my god!” and Heather, one of the Williams’ daughters, slapped my face and told me “we do not use the Lord’s name in vain here!” I was told that I will be learning to be a child of god and to become a Godly woman, and as such the dress code was explained to me among other rules. Much of my memory has repressed the details of daily life but I do remember being spanked “for being disrespectful” that very first night for questioning the food I was served (it was some kind of strange soup). On my first morning of HH, we were woken up very early, and of course after not sleeping most of the night I did not awaken easily. A staff lady ripped my sheets off me and later that day I was paddled again, this time for disobedience.
One of the more unusual things about HH’s rules is that as I learned upon my introduction to the living quarters, there were certain girls there that I was allowed to talk to and others that I could not even make eye contact with. This concept was incredibly strange, not being able to even LOOK at another girl. I was spanked many times for looking at girls I should not have looked at. Initially, I was limited to talking with a few girls, then they allowed me to talk to everyone…for a while….I will explain more about this later.
The most important thing that anyone should know about HH is that no girl has any privacy; even the one large bathroom was watched vigilantly by a staff member, and though we did have “stalls” for showers and the toilets, our time monitored closely (Just imagine, “Alicia you’ve been on the toilet for a while are you constipated?!” being loudly questioned in front of all the other girls in earshot), sanitary napkins were inspected and we were told to account on a public chart for what kind of bowel movement we had that day. We had a specific shower time, and we were herded into the shower stalls and given a short amount of time to get ready and then the timer was set: Three minutes to take a shower. Most of the time my shower was last and the water was cold so it wasn’t so bothersome, but I felt bad for the girls that had a lot of hair to wash and condition in such a short amount of time.
Fear was constant, most often it was the fear of intense pain and humiliation. The spankings I received were random (sometimes I’d be spanked 1 to 3 times in a week sometimes none for a week) so I was always on edge. The spankings were very ritualistic: I would be forced to lay down, a chair was placed over my head while either Ron Williams or his Wife Patty Williams, or in other situations I believe his son’s wife (Wanda?) would spank me. There were usually three staff members present to hold my feet and arms. After getting me on the floor and holding me down, whomever was going to do the spanking would pray for me, and then sometimes they would wait for what seemed like minutes before administering the punishment—I think it was to add to the fear I felt as I just wanted to get it over with. I personally felt they enjoyed being sadistic in the times they slowed the process down, to show us the power they had over us.
My first couple of spankings were 7 swats each time, and I cried in great pain, as they were very severe swats, and after the beatings I discovered severe bruising and sometimes welts with blood droppings oozing from the welts. Sometimes they missed my buttocks and hit my spine and this left very painful deep bruising. I had heard of a girl that had been there right before me that they deemed unable to help so I thought maybe if I was “too hard to help” that they would let me go early too. So, at my very insightful 12 years of age, I decided that if I didn’t cry during the spankings that they would think I was unable to be helped and that they would let me go. So when would get spanked I would try not to cry at first, biting my cheeks until they bled to fight the urge to scream, but I learned that this just led to more swats, usually 14 at which point I was certainly wimpering, but once I counted 21 and after that particular beating I was covered in welts and they were bleeding little droplets of blood, more blood than any other beating. I was so uncomfortable to sit or sleep that I was on very good behavior for the next week but I still somehow managed to get paddled again despite my best efforts to follow all the rules perfectly, and this time I cried immediately.
During the first few months at HH, I went to bed hungry many nights and fantasized about food and far away places. One of the ways that we were punished is to be denied dinner, which could be very difficult after several hours of performing vigorous chores, and for me that occurred at least 3 to 4 times a week; Instead of eating food, I was forced to drink a protein drink which was not mixed properly, and though some of the girls did not mind the drink, I had to gag it down. I dreaded these drinks. Dinner was taken away for just about any reason so it seemed, usually I did not pass my chores or do my “church notes” or memorize very long passages of bible verses well enough to earn my supper. And on the note of chores…The cleanliness standards that we were held to were above those of any 5 star hotel I’ve ever been to. When it came to work and doing the chores, I actually tried very hard to do them correctly (I hated that protein drink!) and would still fail. Again, I believe that this was yet another way for the leadership of HH to exert their power upon us and keep us insecure, afraid, and ready to embrace their extreme religious agenda.
Another note about the food, there were some very unusual meals that we had to eat along with many pills we had to take. Many of the “soups” they made were just a bunch of unmarked cans thrown into a pot together and the soups that arrived from this method were disgusting to say the least. I remember being unable to eat this soup a few times without throwing up, I could not eat it all at once. When at HH, if you did not eat all your food, it was served as your next meal. Cold. I had many cold, mystery soup breakfasts and dinners there. I lost a lot of weight and began to have irregular periods (I actually had my first period on my 12th birthday and was regular until a few months into HH). They gave us a lot of vitamins at HH as well, and I recall to this day an unusual reaction some of us had to the vitamins: the reaction was what we were told was a “B” reaction. I had over a dozen of these reactions and they always occurred after the mornings breakfast and during “devotional” time; what would happen to me is that the skin on my entire body would become red and burn for about 10-20 minutes then it would go away. Other girls could see if I was having a “B” reaction and I could see if they were as well as the skin would become very red and flushed. The staff explained that it was the body’s way of removing excess vitamin B from the system. It happened to some other girls as well and was random.
After about 4 months there at HH, I’d say around Feb of 1990, I was placed on “Shadow” status for about nine months, I remember this because I got off of it right before thanksgiving. Being shadowed was psychologically and emotional torture. Literally, I was not allowed to talk to any other human being or look them in the eye and I had to follow a staff member around 24/7 (including sleeping right next to one). Being “shadowed”, it was extremely humiliating, dehumanizing, and it served the purpose they wanted; they broke my spirit…I think I went a little crazy during this time, living in fantasy land, coming up with imaginary friends...If I was desperate enough to interact with another human being, I could ask for some “religious counseling” about some passage in the bible and get some conversation that way, but it really wasn’t what I wanted to talk about considering that all day and all night was religious indoctrination. Fortunately, I actually found some of the Old Testament gory and barbaric enough to be interesting, and I remember discussing with one of the staff ladies some of the stories and the meaning of why god wanted his armies to cut off the foreskins of his enemies, which often just got me into trouble (even though I was discussing scripture, I was not to “question it”). This, “do not question” rule I specifically learned when I questioned a staff member about Lot and how he basically murdered his daughter, and I was, in so many words told that “as you see this is gods way of showing us your role as a woman; women are not as important as a man and woman are flawed because of Eve’s sin this is the lot you bear; that you do not understand that by now is troubling” and I had to write some 500 sentences about my place under god and man. Sentence writing, by the way was another form of punishment. I probably wrote some ten thousand sentences over the course of my 20 months at HH and that is not an exaggeration.
So I learned to conform. I learned how to ask the right questions and how to appear submissive, weak, and without any will of my own. Sometimes I fear, that there were weeks that went by that I really was that way---they were stealing my soul and I was loosing any sense of individuality. We went to church at least three times a week. We had to sing in the choir, a choir in which we spent countless hours practicing and were ultimately recorded and tapes were made and sold with my / our voices on them. Since singing (and I have an awful voice) was the only time I could use my voice during my period of being shadowed, I sang with vigor. To become un-shadowed, I had to prove I was godly so I tried everything I could, I got baptized, I wrote profusely long church notes, I memorized extra bible verses, and so on and son on.
During my time of being shadowed, I became very sick. If one became sick with the flu or with the cold, no medicine was given, even though I remember a time when I was very sick with a high fever with vomiting. Even though I was throwing up, I was forced to drink the protein drink, I remember this vividly, I was nearing the end of the glass, then I gagged it all up, along with bile my stomach as I dry heaved into the into the bucket I was allowed to carry around with me. Ms. Saylor (Spelling?) made me drink my vomit out of the bucket, which took over an hour and I was very tearful. Later that night, with a high fever and still being very ill, I was paddled.
I was finally allowed to be off of being shadowed, and it was so strange to speak to another human being. I felt incredibly insecure, as if I didn’t know how to act anymore, what is the right thing to say or not? As I got more and more used to the routine and fast paced schedules of HH, the time began to go by faster, mostly because they kept us so busy.
Regarding some of the “chores” we had to do, I believe that I was exploited for labor, along with other girls. When staff discovered I had skill working with my hands and that I could crochet with fine thread and read / interpret complex stitching designs, I was given the task to make hundreds of these little figurines and cross stitch projects which were sold / traded for goods to benefit HH’s financials. I was 13 when I was making these things, and my curse was my speed and ability to do good work. Sometimes the demand was so high for these crafts that making the crafts was my only chore and I’d crochet for an entire Saturday or be told to do it during school hours. This was actually a job that girls wanted as it was more appealing than scrubbing the entire dorm floor on your hands and knees, but after doing it so much, my fingers and wrists would begin to really hurt. Also, though I never had to, I know other girls were sent upstairs to clean the Williams’ house. Near the end of my stay, when I was seen as “reformed” and “godly”, I was actually transported beyond the walls of HH, I was sent to a church “officials” home to clean and renovate, it was the Keagan’s (?) home I believe and my job was to remodel their kitchen and home. I used sanding paper and arm strength and worked for hours to sand off the old varnish and paint from their cabinets and then we stained and prepared the ‘new’ cabinets. We painted their home, we did their gardening….While at HH, I even had to “clean” a deer carcass killed by a car that the Williams family ate for many meals I imagine. I remember feeling misused but too afraid to do anything but the best of work and to do it with a smile on my face.
In short those are the most significant memories that come to light about my experience with this place. I indeed feel that HH abuses girls’ on a physical, psychological, emotional, religious and spiritual level. The isolation and fear tactics they use are powerful and the results, while short term may be successful, they leave a lasting impact.
As a disclaimer, I want it to be known that after “release” I was forced to write a “testimony” about how great HH was and how much it helped me. My stepfather sat down with me and pretty much wrote the testimony; After being there for 20 months and finally being “free” I was so afraid that if I did not do what they wanted me to do that I would be sent back, and my worst nightmare was having to stay there until I was 18. So whatever HH sent out as my “testimony” way back when…Those were not my words, they were forced.