Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith in Madness on the Alaska Frontier
by Tom Kizzia
Crown. 292 pages.
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.”
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?”
For therapists, one of the few consolations of reading about the darkness at the heart of the Pilgrim family is recognizing that over the last several decades, the horrible secrets of such families have increasingly been exposed to the light of day. Along with advances in our understanding of trauma and abuse have come not only an understanding of what goes on in such families, but also a fuller picture of human resilience and the pathways to healing. As we’ve drawn back the curtain on family abuse, we’ve developed a far more grounded knowledge of what we can do as mental health professionals to make it less likely that the legacy of secretiveness, exploitation, and suffering in such families will extend to the next generation.
Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.