Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Effects of Trauma and Abuse at Hephzibah House: Understanding Doctrine Over Person, Part X of X


In this conclusion of this series examining Lifton's thought reform criteria of Doctrine Over Person, we come back full circle to that which prompted the discussion.

Good vs Evil Pastors and Shepherds

Likening people to sheep and pastors to shepherds, the Bible warns us many times of the existence of those who fall beow the Bible's standard of love and care for those in leadership. A notable theme in the parables and teachings of Jesus who set the ultimate standard for the good shepherd, He warns followers to be aware of evil religious leaders. He talks of earnest people whom He likens to scattered sheep with absent shepherds, moved with compassion for them becaos of their hopelessness (Matt 9:35-38, Mark 6:33-34). In John, Chapter 10, Jesus also talks about hapless shepherds that the KJV calls hirelings who can apparently perform required tasks but lack the needed sense of care and compassion for sheep.

Other examples offered in the Bible note the undesirable pastors who exploit their power and position of authority (1 Peter 5:1-4). And there are the examples of the shepherds who treat their sheep like a commodity used for personal gain, as things to be used. And some exhibit terrible cruelty and deceit, just because they are wicked men who can get away with it (Zechariah 11, Jeremiah 5:26-31).  And one of the most obvious of these analogies is that of the wolf in sheep's clothing (Matt 7:15, Acts 20:29).    

In Ezekiel 34, the Prophet writes:
Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them. And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and upon every high hill: yea, my flock was scattered upon all the face of the earth, and none did search or seek after them.

The Business of Supporting Evil Shepherds

I have spent many hours reading the testimonies of former residents of Hephzibah House (HH), talking with them and corresponding with them. From all that I have gathered, at the very least, there is some cause to believe that Ron Williams (the proprietor of HH) has demonstrated all of these undesirable traits in the care of the wounded lambs, the girls, who were placed in his care. Jesus Himself devoted much attention to the topic of caring lovingly and selflessly for sheep (regardless of whether they were “good sheep”), never advocating cruelty or harsh treatment. He also demonstrated a very atypical, countercultural kindness and care towards women, setting an altogether different standard than the misogynous one we hear spoken of at HH.
(Note: On the subject of how Jesus treated women, please read Adele Hebert's lovely and scholarly work at the Overcoming Botkin Syndrome blog, and in an additional post found HERE. I'm very grateful for Adele's contributions; some of her writing is also featured in the Quivering Daughters book as well as at

Ten days ago, someone who thinks quite highly of Ron Willams posted a blog commentary in support which many found quite inflammatory, not only because of his staunch defense of Williams and HH, but because of his cruel manner and demeanor. Though I see his behavior as something that confirms the thesis of spiritual abuse and confirmation bias at work, the blogger's behavior does offend and discourage those women who have braved rejection and ridicule to come forward to bear witness to the abject cruelty and abuse that Ron Williams inflicted upon them, just like the shepherds who scatter, abuse, and use sheep with utter disregard.

But the discussion also brought attention to a more difficult issue concerning those who work to expose and stop the abuse of young women at Hephzibah House and the profiteering off of them. Lucinda Pennington was again offered up as evidence for Williams' virtue and as a testimony against other former HH residents.

The Case of Lucinda Pennington

Lucinda is a former resident of HH, known for her high esteem for Ron Williams (the proprietor), her denial that the conditions at HH constituted acceptable discipline for teens, and what some describe as an aggressive, non-empathetic attitude towards other survivors of HH who speak out about the abusive conditions there. As Lucinda discusses in various versions of her testimonies which appear and disappear on the internet and are apparently detailed in a book she has written (which I have not yet read), she suffered terrible experiences at the hands of various abusers within the foster system from the time of her infancy.  (Read an online testimony Here in Part I and Part II.)

In the process of looking for answers about conditions at HH, may people find it confusing that Lucinda's testimony differs so vastly from those of other former residents which form the majority of consistent, corroborating testimones that span some 30 years or more from the survivors, former staff members, and remorseful mothers. May of the sermons of Ron Williams also corroborate a motive for abuse, as his own poor opinions and prejudices are woven into his theology and ideology.

To those who trust Lucinda's testimony which denies abusive conditions at the home, I hope that they will consider the information presented here concerning Doctrine Over person, the trauma response, and why she may have latered her perceptions of experiences as a means of coping with her own abuse, both prior to and during her residence at HH. The possibility exists that Lucinda's treatment was exceptional while groomed by Williams as a HH “model citizen.” In closed groups, such exemplars are given preferential treatment for serving as examples of desired behavior. Remember also that spiritually abusive groups are consumed with an image consciousness, both to intensify control over members through example (or competition) within the group and to demonstrate the virtues of the group to those on the outside, proving that they are more special to God than everyone else.

Williams was reported to have sent Lucinda for a lie detector evaluation, but no other residents were required to undergo testing. As a master manipulator, Williams would have been especially adept at spotting the most malleable girls who could serve as ambassadors for HH. This grooming and double standard treatment, if it existed, could have well been perceived by Lucinda as validation from Williams, enhancing the bond of covert emotional influence and traumatic bond with him. Anderson Cooper mentions on AC360 that Williams offered her to them as a source for positive feedback about HH, so this positive reinforcement may be a continued and ongoing influence in Lucinda's life today. And there may be no specific reason why Williams may have treated Lucinda differently, as it is irrational to expect irrational people to behave in rational ways. There may be no express or obvious reason for a double standard that Lucinda may have enjoyed if it was not something she created in her mind through a Doctrine Over Person response.

Some of the claims that Lucinda has made speak of the typical compulsion to repeat trauma (another ineffective coping mechanism) as evidenced by sensational sounding accounts of revictimization after leaving HH, and even claims that her church paddled her before the congregation at age 19 or 20 (the age varies between accounts).   She also describes an unusually aggressive spanking session while at HH wherein she's confined in a prone position on the floor, held by two people with a third person who paddled her, a chair on top of her back, and with some suggestion that a fourth party may have been required to sit on the chair to restrain her for what she insists were only for three mild swats. She describes the event as though it was a reasonable experience that was not out of the ordinary, all told in an inappropriately flat affect which one could interpret as highly suggestive of dissociation, or at the very least, a lack of reasonable and appropriate perspective.

(Note: The common compulsion in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to repeat and reenact trauma combined with self-protection deficits which contribute significantly to revictimization will a be a theme in upcoming posts on this blog, specifically because it is a significant problem for young women after exiting HH, as Lucinda's own testimony attests.)

For Consideration

If any of these factors are remotely true concerning Doctrine Over Person in the example of Lucinda – and I think that given the matters explored in this series of posts that there is adequate reason to consider that they are true in Lucinda's case – please consider that  those who encourage and support Lucinda in her advocacy of Ron Williams and Hephzibah House only help to enable and deepen her trauma.

To those who cite Lucinda as evidence in support of Ron Williams, have you considered that you might be making sport of one of his most unfortunate victims and only reinforce the harm done to her by adding to the millstone of trauma that she already bears?