6 Things I Learned At A School Run By Fundamentalist Maniacs
When Darlene was a teenager, she took a walk with a friend and a bottle of Boone's. Ah, nostalgia: If it wasn't for good friends and cheap wine we never would've gone anywhere as teenagers. Darlene got caught, which is all part of the experience -- but instead of a stern talking-to and a gross hangover, she was sent to the Bethesda Home for Girls, a Baptist fundamentalist group home run by Reverend Bob and Betty Wills. It was closed in the '80s, while Darlene was a resident, in the wake of a lawsuit that exposed their practice of brutal beatings, brainwashing, and conditions one social worker compared to "concentration camps in Nazi Germany." Yeah, it's gonna be another one of those articles. Maybe you should crack open a bottle of Boone's before continuing ...
Hunger, Sleep Deprivation, And Shame Were Used To Break the Girls
Darlene explains the point of view of the staff:
"A person needs to be 'broken' before they can become susceptible to a message that is force fed to them in a captive situation." Starvation, sleep deprivation, and several hours a day of religious indoctrination (what lawyers would later call "brainwashing") were the main tactics used to control the girls. They were never allowed outside. She sounds like a hardened convict when she talks about it: "The counselors and trusted workers who were allowed to go outside and do chores REEKED of an odor we just referred to as 'the outside.'"
"We brought back a jar of it. If you're good, we'll let you have a sniff."
Darlene recalls a typical day at Bethesda:
"Every morning we were awoken at 4:50 a.m. and were expected to be sitting cross legged (yes, they even insisted on controlling how you sat for this) in the hallway outside of your dorm room, teeth brushed, face washed, Bible in hand for morning 'devotions.'" This wasn't an early to bed, early to rise situation, either: The Wills were accused of limiting students' sleep to as little as five hours a night, either to make the students more pliable, or because dreams are for heathens.
You know it's a quality establishment when "Dreams of a different life" present a serious concern.
Breakfast followed the 5 a.m. devotions and consisted of either "a single sticky scoop of plain oatmeal, one of those mini boxes of cereal, the individual serving size kind" or "two halves of a canned whole peach with an ice cream scoop of cottage cheese on top," plus "two graham crackers," and "one elementary school sized mini carton of low fat milk." Dinner was almost always the peach with cottage cheese again or "one of those tiny individual yogurt fruit cups."
If you want the recipe, try checking your cookbook under "Eventual Starvation."
We feed our fish better than that, and Laurence Fishburne isn't exactly chubby.
Mealtime also presented a fresh opportunity to berate the girls:
"If there was food left over after serving everyone, the workers in the cafeteria would yell out, 'Skinny girls!' and if you were considered horribly underweight (that would have been me) you were allowed to come up and get more food. If there was STILL food left over they would then yell out, 'Normal girls!'" The so-called normal-weight girls would go up for another serving. "Still more food left? ... 'FAT GIRLS!!!' ... And yes, there were at least 3 or 4 girls during my stay there who were heavy enough to be considered morbidly obese. The shame that they all felt as we watched them slowly rise and walk past table after table of judgment, heads down, cheeks flushed with embarrassment, was palatable. Just don't do this to kids, ok?"
"Take little bites; this needs to last you until Thursday."
Darlene was so hungry that even after she discovered she had some kind of sensitivity to the yogurt that made her "spew boiling brown lava from [her] asshole," she would still take it, if offered. The staff justified this deprivation as a spiritually enhancing "fast." Between meals there were several hours of "schooling," which consisted of sitting in a cubicle memorizing scripture and propaganda "until you can recite that shit with zero errors to a counselor." It was really, really important not to mess up -- for horrifying reasons that we'll get to way too soon.
Darlene says, "You were labeled a 'new girl' for a minimum of the first 90 days you spent there. As a new girl, you were required to remain within arms reach of your 'helper' (i.e., a Bethesda brainwash success story) at all times. Even when one of you had to take a shit. While one sat on the toilet, the other was to stand with their back to the bathroom door which was to remain cracked a full three inches. And yes, while you showered, too ... New girls were not allowed to speak to each other or look at each other or at another new girl's things (like her clothes hanging in the closet or a stuffed animal on her bed), nor could new girls comment on anything another new girl had been talking about at any given time ... Punishment for rule infractions was swift, and often severe."
Wow, throw in a maze and a love triangle and you've got yourself a hit YA sci-fi flick.
You Were Beaten For Anything And Everything
"At the end of each month," Darlene says, "for every point off a test you get below a score of 80, you'll earn yourself one good whack on your bottom by a heavy wooden paddle wielded by none other than Mr. Evangelical Nut Job Sermon Dude" -- that would be Reverend Wills -- "who we will force you to call 'Papa' for the duration of your stay. As an added bonus, these whacks will accumulate throughout the duration of each month and then be administered all at once in our closed office while you lean over our desk in your cute little skirt. Gosh! Sorry about that learning disability! I know! A monthly beating will totally solve that! And that's not all ... Mrs. Evangelical Doe-Eyed Psycho Woman, who we've insisted you refer to as 'Mama,' will also be there to watch. So, totally not creepy ... I watched the line for monthly beatings get shorter and shorter and girls wiping tears from their cheeks as they left the office one by one, shutting the door behind them. I was never so grateful for being good at school work."
Avoiding a board beating with disturbing sexual overtones does seem like a pretty good reason to hit the books.
Residents reported being "struck about 34 times on the buttocks and upper legs with a baseball bat" and "struck 19 times with a wooden board and 'put in a tub of hot water' to disguise scars and bruises" for the most trivial of infractions. Talked about your life on the outside? That's a beatin'. Talked to a new girl? That's a beatin'. Talked about pants? Beatin' time. ("Yes, you read that right," Darlene says. "Pants. Couldn't have them there, couldn't talk about them.")
Listen, we hate pants, too, and the tyranny they bring to our legs. But there's a line ...
Pictured: The fucking line.
Darlene's particular misery came from a vicious "counselor" named Lisa:
"I can only imagine that the home she came from must have been severely abusive," Darlene says. "This girl thrived on terrorizing those she deemed weaker than her ... I'll never forget the day I happened to say something that she considered a no-no. I had no idea she was even nearby, but apparently she was about to pass our dorm room doorway as I spoke. The sound of her spitting out my name made my body go cold ... I was shaking all over as she hissed, 'Come HERE.' The second I got into the hallway she snatched me up by my neck so fast it took my breath away. I was slammed backwards into the wall, her hand tightening around my throat. She put her face so close to mine that I could no longer focus my eyes on her. I can't even remember what she said to me ... As quickly as it began, it was over. One second she had me pinned against the wall, pushing upwards so that I was forced to stand on my tip toes or forfeit breathing, the next, she yanked her hand away, whipped around, and walked briskly away from me as if nothing ever happened."
We prefer our choke slams fake, and administered to beefy guys in spandex, thanks.
You Were Totally Isolated
The girls weren't allowed to have any contact with their families, presumably for healing purposes and not so that no one could hear them scream. After their "new girl" period was up, they weren't so much allowed to write home as forced:
"Once a week we were required to write a 'happy' letter home to our parents. You were not allowed to mention any of the many forbidden subjects (television, music, etc.) and you most certainly were not allowed to say you missed anything. Not home, not your friends, not your pets, nothing. As far as your parents were concerned you were happy happy happy right here where you were at."
Nothing puts mom and dad at ease like a letter with the tone of a P.O.W. condemning their government.
And yes, someone was hovering over you like a holy drone to make sure your letter was acceptable.
"When you finished writing your letter, you had to hand it over to a worker for approval. More than once during my stay, I had my efforts quite literally thrown back in my face by a hostile worker, admonishing me for whatever infractions I had committed in that letter home and ordered to start again from scratch."
"Ampersands are the devil's logogram! We write 'and' in God's house!"
Even the letters from home were bizarrely censored. "My first letter from home was two pages long, written front and back on the first page and part of one side of a second piece of notebook paper. I think I was allowed to read two or three half-paragraphs total. The rest had been completely obliterated by permanent black marker."
Your parents' love? REDACTED.
Having no way to communicate the hell she was experiencing, Darlene began a "secret smuggling ring" to help her classmates get their story out to parents "by sewing handwritten letters inside of stuffed animals, the lining of purses," and at one point included the home addresses for several other girls "in code in a Bible."
At least in the parts of her bible that hadn't been edited out for mentioning freedom or joy.
Darlene's escape attempt was noble and clever, but "it was all to be carried out by a girl who thought she had a way to leave because her mother promised her she'd get her out if she used a code phrase. Turns out, her mother merely told her that in order to trick her into willingly getting on that plane. Another girl who knew about the conspiracy was 'saved' and basically narc'd us all out."
It's kind of like The Shawshank Redemption, only if Andy Dufresne just got stuck in the pipe full of shit for a few months.
It Wasn't Over When It Was Over
Somehow a young woman known only as Candy H. managed to get a coded message to her parents, who contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center to help get her out. According to the contract they signed, Candy wasn't allowed to leave even if her parents wanted her to. Shortly thereafter, just days after the failure of Operation Fuzzy Bear, investigators came a-knockin'. But that wasn't the end of Darlene's adventures with fundamentalist reform schools.
"Believe it or not my mother actually shipped me directly to another reform school," she says, "which I was only at for about three weeks because, I shit you not, social services crawled all up in the 'transition home' they first stick you at in Wisconsin about a week after I had gotten there, asking questions about the wooden paddle hanging on the wall (that had some incriminating snappy saying about behaving or getting whooped written on it with permanent marker). Perhaps it was dumb luck [that this school was investigated at the same time] but I doubt it. There was some history there, these investigators had been there before. It was very obvious."
The "Reserved for Meddling Government Heathens" parking spot was kind of a tip-off.
That's when this new school went straight-up Taken on its students:
"The second all those official people with clipboards and judgey stares left -- and they made it clear they would be back, and soon -- the people in charge there lost their shit, told us to pack a single suitcase and loaded the nine or ten of us into a church van and basically kidnapped us and took us across state lines to the main school which was in Illinois ... It took us days to get to this school, sleeping in church basements and one night at some church member's home where there were a shit ton of other girls."
"You're the ones that said you wanted to go outside."
This school was actually less strict, meaning Darlene never saw anyone get beaten in the three weeks she was there. In fact, the staff used the threat of being sent to a "Roloff school" (a home that adheres to the teachings of this asshole named Lester Roloff, which included Bethesda) as a fear tactic. "One of the first things a kid whispered to me after I got to Wisconsin (I believe it was the first night I was there) while telling me the rules and common punishments for infractions, was that if you acted up too much you would be sent to a Roloff school ... [I told them] 'Big deal! I just got kicked OUT of a Roloff home!' Instant. Street. Cred."
We Escaped Using The Power Of Freddie Mercury
Even though this school was Disneyland compared to Bethesda, Darlene decided it still wasn't her scene and, along with the other girls, took a little cue from Steven McQueen.
"Two weeks after I arrived there, the girls get up to go eat and notice the boys tables are almost all empty. Word quickly gets whispered that a mass breakout occurred last night and a bunch of boys made a run for it in the middle of the night. So we decide we're going to do that, too ... We devised a plan, at lights out that night, when the counselors came through the dorm rooms telling us good night and shutting off lights ... we would start a commotion, any girls who found themselves able to get out the door during the confusion was to find help from anyone they could. Say whatever you had to in order to get us removed and sent home. Considering the home in Wisconsin was obviously under investigation, we thought it was the perfect plan."
All they needed was a cue, so they settled on clapping their hands and stomping their feet to the rhythm of "We Will Rock You" by Queen, because unjust imprisonment is no excuse not to be awesome.
Feel free to set the mood for the next few paragraphs.
"So when lights out comes the counselors all go into each room individually and say goodnight and start flipping off lights in the rooms and we're all just looking around at each other, frozen. Turns out nobody had the guts. Until somebody did. I have no clue who it was now but one lone girl began stomping and clapping out the rhythm. By the time she started the second round at least another half dozen girls had joined in. By round three, the entire dorm was enthusiastically stomping out this tune ... The counselors were scrambling around hollering at us to stop and becoming more and more frantic as they realized this was quickly growing out of control. I'm going to guess that the disaster that was waking up to find almost all of their male students had slipped out during the night right under their noses made them much more desperate to get this brewing situation under control before this potential PR nightmare became a reality.
Also, that beat gets pretty nerve wracking without any lyrics.
"After a serious physical altercation with the counselors, several of the girls in our dorm made it out the doors and/or windows (one girl actually went out the second floor window onto the porch roof, hung down and dropped the rest of the way) and several houses near the school were shocked when one or more hysterical girls with bloodied noses, bleeding scratches, and ripped clothing began beating on their door and screaming for help. Meanwhile, counselors from nearby dorms had joined the fray and trapped as many girls as they could. I was pinned under some 50-something-year-old counselor who was slapping my face as hard as she could, one cheek then the other as I kept repeating, 'Fuck you!' after every slap. An earring was torn from my ear. I had a bloodied nose, ripped clothes. By the time the cops got me out of there, I looked like they may have waterboarded me prior to sending me in a ring with a professional kickboxer who hated kids ... The county had to scramble for enough foster homes as they ended up yanking EVERYBODY out of that school that same night after that fiasco, and I have no idea how many available foster homes they had but I was in one with 16 or 20 other girls and watched them all leave one by one as parents made arrangements for them."
Darlene ended up staying with this foster family for quite some time and, well, we've already told you how that tends to go.
They Basically Got Away With It
When Bethesda closed down, Bob and Betty Wills skipped town and reopened under a different name. After the Christian Life Boarding Academy saw 117 of its residents taken into emergency custody by the Department of Public Welfare, they did it again. Mountain Park Baptist Church and Boarding School was the subject of still more lawsuits and even a death on the property, but they just kept moving around from state to state to escape the religious persecution that hounded them. Well, that's how their lawyer put it:
Plenty of fundamentalist schools go un-sued, but not all have a body count.
How could that possibly be legal? Darlene explains, "Once the threat of prison chased them out of Mississippi they just reopened in another state with their adult children listed as the school owners and directors for legal purposes." After Mountain Park closed in -- holy shit, 2004? These people were allowed to run teenage concentration camps for 30 freaking years after we first caught them? Are they bible-themed criminal masterminds, or is Chief Wiggum a legitimate representative of our law enforcement? We're not sure which is the more worrying prospect ...
The Wills have been lying low since 2004, but they still escaped justice. They were only ever convicted of contempt of court, after all. Darlene even ran into them recently, in a manner of speaking: "After joining that group [on Facebook, for 'Survivors of Bethesda Home'] I learned that Betty Wills was also on Facebook and approved any friend requests from girls who went to her schools. I guess it was out of morbid curiosity that I searched for her and friended her. She is still on my friends list until this damned day, and in August of this year, when my birthday rolled around, as I was scrolling through all the well wishes of my FB friends I stopped when I saw she had wished me a happy birthday. Totally unexpected. I am amazed at how powerful that feeling of dread and fear was after all of these years."
But at least she can take comfort in the fire gutted ruin that's all that remains of the Wills' 'School.'
Manna has a Twitter or whatever.
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