The eldest daughter of ‘Papa Pilgrim’ brings his abuse of her into the light

Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault that may be difficult for some readers.

LAZY MOUNTAIN — The eldest daughter of the man known as “Papa Pilgrim” chose to expose her darkest secrets to the world.

Elishaba Doerksen’s new book, “Out of the Wilderness,” reveals disturbing details of the physical and sexual abuse inflicted on her by her father, a man who made her call him “Lord” and raped her repeatedly, as Doerksen recounts. He also beat her and her siblings of her.

Robert Hale, who adopted the name Pilgrim, served as patriarch of 15 children he controlled with a combination of skewed Bible teachings, physical violence and the isolation of compounds first in New Mexico and then, starting in 2002, at a remote mining camp in Wrangell St Elias National Park.

Hale first made headlines with his fight against the federal government over a road leading to a homestead he nicknamed Hillbilly Heaven.

Then the darker revelations emerged. He was jailed in 2005 and later pleaded no contest to crimes including rape, assault and incest against his eldest daughter Elishaba.

Now it’s her turn to speak.

Her book allowed Doerksen to take the ugliness inflicted on her and bring it into the open so that she could heal and help others know they aren’t alone, she said in an interview this month.

[Book review: A clear-eyed account of life inside the ‘Pilgrim’ family is both horrific and healing]

The sometimes graphic details of her memoir were grueling to remember and relive. The book has caused a rift between Doerksen and her family of her. They are n’t happy she’s sharing her story about her.

She said she felt like she had no choice but to write it.

“It was hard. It was a hard decision to actually tell my story. And to be so vulnerable about it,” Doerksen said. “Because as soon as I wrote those things down, I knew the world was gonna know the things you don’t want anybody to know about.”

A painful past

At Hale’s sentencing, his children lashed out, finally given the chance to talk back to a man who took their toys and discouraged them from reading. The older sons cried over their failure to intervene and help their sister. Her mother, Kurina Rose Hale, said they were all “helplessly following him to hell.”

[The Hale children and their mother find peace after a controversial life in McCarthy as the Pilgrims]

The infirm 66-year-old Hale died, unrepentant, in jail before serving out a 14-year sentence.

His children and their mother found a new home outside Palmer with the Buckinghams, a Christian homesteading family who had nine children of their own. Martha Buckingham, the mother of the family, became the first person Doerksen trusted with her terrible revelations from her.

The story of the older children’s escape from the McCarthy homestead was the subject of “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” by Tom Kizzia, a former Daily News reporter who covered the criminal case against Hale and spoke extensively with Doerksen as part of his book research.

Kizzia wrote the foreword for “Out of the Wilderness” and praised her putting the horrors of her past into service counseling abuse victims.

Doerksen, in a note for her readers, says she hopes that by “being frank with the depths of evil that I grew up with, the reader will see more clearly the tangled mess of relationship dynamics surrounding abuse.”

After one particularly brutal attack left Doerksen’s face bruised and swollen, her father commanded her to wear a ski mask. He forced her to take pictures and videos of him molesting her. She had to satisfy him before she could sleep, all of it in the bed they shared with her mother and other siblings.

She mentors victims now, meeting with them in church, at conferences, or in her home.

Through the book, she wrote, she hopes to encourage others to speak out — “any of you who are holding in your heart a painful, broken story that you are afraid to share, I remind you that your story matters.”

‘Bring it to light’

Doerksen is now 46 and a parent herself, raising two children in a welcoming Lazy Mountain home with husband Matthew.

She home-schools 13-year-old Esther and 9-year-old Michael, who has Down syndrome. Matthew, 47, is a draftsman and trucker. The couple deliver and sell fruit in Alaska through a company they own.

Violins and guitars hang on one wall, part of a menagerie of musical instruments in the house. Signs illustrating the family’s Christian faith — one reads “Speak Softly/Love tenderly/Pray fervently” — decorate the kitchen and living room.

On a sunny March day, Doerksen read aloud to see himself from Ephesians. Her father de ella often cited a version of it when he ordered his daughter and her mother de ella not to tell anyone else about the abuse: “It is a shame to speak of things that are done in secret.”

Doerksen held a worn Bible with an EKG sticker inside the back cover. She put it there after her then-7-year-old son suffered a massive stroke about two years ago. He has since mostly recovered.

The actual verse has a totally different meaning from the command her father lifted from it, Doerksen said, reading aloud:

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But andverything exposed by the light becomes visible — and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.”

“So if you bring it to light, then it just dissipates, the shame dissipates, the shame dissipates and we’re literally speaking the truth,” she said. “This is what I’m doing.”

The process

Doerksen wrote her self-published memoir with Mike Yorkey, a prolific California-based author. His agent for him could never find the right fit at a publishing house, Yorkey said.

“I think it’s because the book was too Christian for a mainstream publisher and too graphic for a Christian publisher,” he said.

Doerksen started telling her story 11 years ago, dictating passages into a recorder or scribbling them down on paper. She completed a manuscript with Australian missionary Geoff Richards, who was ready to self-publish the memoir in 2016.

But she wasn’t ready to share her story, she said. Counseling helped her get to that point.

Doerksen and Yorkey have never met; he lives in San Diego. Instead, Yorkey taped their phone interviews and wrote up what Doerksen told him, he said. She also sent a written copy.

It was grievously reconstructing the details, Yorkey said. I have involved her therapist, Dr. Larry Severson, to help with the emotional trauma of some of the “tough” abuse chapters.

“We spent a great deal of time going back and forth on how graphic we could or should be,” he said. “We could have told a horrible abuse story in every chapter after Chapter 24 if we wanted.”

But the most difficult obstacle, Yorkey said, was the pressure from the Hale family to not publish the book unless they could review it beforehand, and only if they weren’t named.

The family reacts

The entire family, in writing, asked Doerksen not to use their names if any book was published, according to her brother Joshua Hale, who said family members have been brought to tears over its contents.

The ugly details of the family’s history told in such a graphic way feel like a new invasion of privacy 17 years after their father’s very public arrest, Hale said.

Hale made it clear he knows Doerksen was sexually abused and in no way excuses what his father did to anyone in the family. Their mother should have called the police, he said. He should have too. But their situation didn’t allow it.

Now, family members trying to live quietly are being thrust back into the spotlight, he said. “It’s all hitting the fan with all the hideous stuff she did with our dad. It’s not anybody else’s business how my dad beat me.”

As far as he remembers, Hale said, Elishaba was the one “holding the whip” to administer punishment with their father.

“I’m not trying to hurt her. I’m not trying to crash her book by her. I’m not trying to retaliate against her for the past,” he said. “To me, the past is gone. It’s a reality I don’t want to hold against anyone today. But what she’s doing today is very equal to what she did in the past.”

Other brothers, in social media posts criticizing the book, repeat a version of the verse their father misquoted so often: “The Bible says it is a shame to speak of the things which were done in secret.”

‘I’ve got to recognize what’s inside of me’

Doerksen, asked about the remarks, said she loves her siblings and the rift in the family is deeply painful.

She said her father set her brothers and sisters against her and that trauma continues to play out.

Many times, he told her if she didn’t administer a beating, “not only would I get beat up but they would be beat black and blue,” she said. “There were countless times where I wouldn’t and they suffered terribly. I always felt it was my fault my family suffered no matter what, even though I was trying to save them.”

Doerksen said she did eventually forgive her father, but it took years and came after she realized that she needed to face the ugliness inside her — something he never did.

She said she’s found redemption through little things like letting the children call their father “Papa” or naming their daughter Esther, a name her father used on her sometimes, a reference to the biblical story about a king who seeks a new wife.

“I’ve got to recognize what’s inside of me… before I can actually be a good mom and be a good person,” she said. “And so being able to recognize that yeah, I was really a damaged person. And if I ignored the damage, then I wouldn’t change.”

• • •

If you or someone you know needs help, here are some resources:

• Call 911 for immediate emergency assistance.

• Contact the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault at 907-586-3650 or at andvsa.org/find-help/member-programs.

• Call STAR Alaska’s 24-hour crisis line at 907-276-7273 or its toll-free crisis line at 800-478-8999.

• Find a local service program by Alaska region at the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault website: dps.alaska.gov/CDVSA/Services/VictimServices.

• Contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or at rainn.org/about-national-sexual-assault-telephone-hotline.

• Reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 800-799-SAFE (7233), texting START to 88788 or visiting thehotline.org.

• For additional information about reporting sexual assault and resources for survivors, visit on.adn.com/unheardresources.

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