Meanwhile, given such past us-vs.-them debacles as Ruby Ridge and Waco, the government and the National Park Service had no desire to risk a similar firestorm, even in the face of repeated violations and provocations. Still, government investigators and Tom Kizzia—as the reporter assigned by his paper to make sense of what was going on with Papa Pilgrim—were starting to uncover the truth behind Pilgrim’s charade. His real name was Robert Hale, born in Texas in 1941, to an FBI agent who was friends with J. Edgar Hoover. It’s unclear if that connection helped clear him, in 1959, of being charged for murder in the death of his 16-year-old pregnant wife of 44 days (and daughter of soon-to-be Texas governor John Connally) from an “accidental” shotgun discharge, but the pattern of suspicious behavior was set. Over the next few years, Hale dabbled in drugs, robbery, religious gurus, and women, before marrying another 16-year-old girl and decamping to a primitive lean-to in New Mexico. There, he experienced a religious conversion, began calling himself Preacher Bob, and started erecting a series of giant crosses with the help of his growing—and growing number of—sons and daughters. Still, his self-serving tale of their departure to Alaska as the Pilgrim Family was less the function of a supposed religious call to seek the wilderness and more of a response to the growing number of accusations from neighbors that they were freeloaders who survived by poaching on their lands and burglarizing their homes.
By then, Hale had started sexually abusing his oldest daughter—it was the Lord’s will, he assured her—and had long since made a practice of brutal physical punishment of his wife and other children, terrorizing them into silence lest the Lord punish them with eternal damnation. He regularly “disciplined” his wife and children, beating them bloody, forcing them to sleep outside in subzero temperatures, or locking them in a crawl space. But through his mastery of secrecy, isolation, and family terror (including playing one against the others, harming the mother or other children if a child didn’t give in to him), Hale ensured that no hard evidence or confession of anything untoward existed. All suspicious outsiders could point to were bizarre-sounding household rules (the children were forbidden to see a naked body, not even their own while bathing), a noticeable absence in their home not just of television, but of all printed matter other than a copy of the Bible and John Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress (it later emerged that Hale kept almost all his children illiterate to ensure their dependence on him), and some stray observations about how odd it was that not one family member seemed to have a single friend or acquaintance outside their home.
The turning point—the moment, that is, when the children and their mother at last found the strength to turn against this unholy Papa—came only when too many such observations by outsiders had piled up to ignore. By then, the children had grown old enough to begin to question their father’s behavior, and had met the Buckinghams, a sympathetic family in the area who shared their Christian faith but modeled for them an entirely different lifestyle, one based on positive values of understanding, flexibility, and connection. With the Buckinghams’ help, the Hale children began to find their way out of what Kizzia describes as “the shadow of their father’s megalomania.” With the testimony of the oldest children, Papa Pilgrim was finally charged and arrested in 2005 on multiple accounts of rape, assault, and kidnapping. He was tried and convicted in 2007, and died in prison in 2008. In the aftermath, the two oldest siblings have married, two others have received high school degrees, and the Buckingham family continues to care for those still of school age. They all—including the mother, Country Rose, who was viewed as a victim and not charged—continue to grapple with the legacy of terror, brainwashing, and abuse.
What Kizzia conveys in unsettling detail is that, for the Pilgrim children, complying with their father’s demands and avoiding his wrath was not just a matter of survival. What’s so soul-stealing and psychologically corrosive in abusive families is the confounding way that love, helplessness, and terror—along with a pervasive sense of transgression—all intermingle. Even in the police-state atmosphere of the Pilgrim household, the need for nurturance and approval both colored and distorted the children’s experience of being used and exploited. The result was a toxic vortex of secretiveness, self-blame, and shame, which too often leaves abused children deeply divided against themselves at the core of their being. As the oldest Pilgrim daughter wrote in her diary, “How can my daddy love me and do this to me at the same time?”