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Love and Terror: Penetrating the Heart of Evil

By Diane Cole

Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier
By Tom Kizzia
Crown. 309 pp.
ISBN: 9780307587824
Purchase this book on Amazon

Real-life horror stories of children subjected to repeated physical and sexual abuse and brutality inevitably raise a chorus of public shock, with differing but predictable refrains. First, there’s the dismay of stunned neighbors who claim never to have suspected what was going on behind the doors they walked past day after day. There are some less surprised locals who admit that they always thought something was a bit off about the now-exposed abusers next door, but stayed silent, either out of respect for other people’s privacy or just not wanting to get involved. Then there are some who blame the victims themselves by asking why, if the situation was so terrible, they didn’t find a way out sooner. Almost always left for last are the deepest sociological questions: what factors blind us to what’s really going on, and what can we do to be more alert to them?

As chronicled by journalist Tom Kizzia in Pilgrim’s Wildneress: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier, the long-term physical, sexual, and psychological abuse perpetrated by a father against his family provides a tale so harrowing that it could serve as a textbook case to expand on all these issues. Kizzia’s detailed reporting—he covered the story over the course of several years as a staff member of the Anchorage Daily News—provides an inside look at the psychology of community denial and individual responsibility, and his sensitivity to family dynamics lends nuance to his exploration of the terror of the abused. His account is a chilling reminder of what a potent mix narcissistic grandiosity and the sociopathic gift for manipulation can be, especially when hidden behind the seemingly benign mask of religious faith. Finally, Pilgrim’s Wilderness happens to be a tale so suspenseful that you’ll have difficulty putting it down and getting it out of your mind.

When the members of the Pilgrim family—patriarch “Papa” Pilgrim; his wife, Country Rose; and their 15 children—first appeared in the tiny, isolated town of McCarthy, Alaska, in 2002, they won over the residents of this remote mountainous area with their aura of having come from an old-time American frontier fairy tale. Their homemade clothes had the plain, conservative look of Little House on the Prairie, and the well-behaved, home-schooled children respectfully obeyed their heavily bearded, Bible-quoting father without question. He wove a plausible tale of having left New Mexico, where they’d lived for several years but had ultimately found too tame, in search of the wilderness and freedom of the less settled areas of Alaska. Wanting only “a place to live our old-time way and be left in peace,” he said, they’d traveled north and west as a wagon train of heavily loaded vehicles, alighting at last at McCarthy, which, because of the complexities of Alaska law and history, was actually located within the territory of Wrangell–St. Elias National Park.

Even to McCarthy residents who loved their isolation and privacy, these newcomers seemed over the top in their vigilance against outsiders (Papa Pilgrim severely limited visitors to his ramshackle home, refused to send the kids to school, trained them to never speak to strangers, and made sure they always did errands or worked in teams to keep them “honest” in their reports back to him) and belligerence toward authority (they ruined parkland by illegally bulldozing a road, hunted endangered wildlife without permits, and trashed a park ranger’s yard). But Papa Pilgrim and his neighbors shared a common bond in a deep distrust of government, one that bordered on paranoid hatred, and found in each other convenient political allies against any proposed government regulations. At least for a time, that was reason enough to look the other way, even as questions began to surface about local livestock and other possessions that would mysteriously go missing around the same time as the sighting of one or more of the cherub-faced Pilgrim children riding their horses in the area.

But Papa Pilgrim had a talent for dissipating doubts. He had an uncanny ability to twist Bible passages to fit any rationalization, reinterpreting “God’s judgment” to justify behavior, from abusing public parklands to beating family members. Another talent was his concerted effort to charm neighbors by entertaining them with spirited, accomplished musical performances of old-time tunes and gospel hymns of the family’s own composition. Thus, Kizzia writes, “If something was a little strange about Papa Pilgrim’s rustic charm, no one in McCarthy was inclined to press the matter.”

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