Being Told “The Child Will Not Die”: Heather Doney’s Story

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Heather Doney’s blog Becoming Worldly. It was originally published on November 19, 2012.

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Trigger warning for To Break Down a Child series: posts in this series may include detailed descriptions of corporal punishment and physical abuse and violence towards children.

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Recently my Mom told me something that shook me to my core. She said, “Your father said if you disciplined a child according to the bible, they would not die.” Then she told me she recognized the Pearls’ book “To Train Up A Child.”

It all got brought up because my 10 year old brother likes to give lots of hugs of his own accord, and my Mom and I were talking about how nice that is, how sweet of a boy he is, and she said she wished her older sons, now 25 and 22, were as loving and kind to her as her youngest. This started one heck of a conversation.

I reminded my Mom that her youngest had never been told to pull down his pants and bend over the bed, knowing he’d end up with welts on the behind. He had never known what it was like to get hit with a belt or a wooden stick by his own mother. Also, today she instructs him that if our father says or does anything mean during visitation, he is to tell her right away because that is not allowed.

But she used to tell us kids the opposite.

It was “wait until your father gets home,” then when he arrived, she’d run to the door with a verbal list of our transgressions, expecting him to beat us. I said the older boys likely felt differently about her not because they weren’t as nice, but because they were still responding to the environment and experiences she had helped create, the memories they had. It was the same case with me too, and that’s one reason us older kids have a rocky relationship with our mother.

We didn’t ever have as much trust or respect because of the abuse.

My Mom does not take as much responsibility for what took place as I would like, but she said she was glad that violence wasn’t going on in her home anymore. She regretted it had ever happened. She wished the older boys and I could move on past it now, “be more respectful,” and that I could work to overcome my bitterness.

I said that I thought she shouldn’t be so cavalier about us just getting over it, that she didn’t know what it was like to have to move on past such a thing. She’d only got one spanking in her life as a kid. She said I was right about that part, that she had not been familiar with corporal punishment until she married my father. Dad had told her that spankings were the right kind of discipline required by the bible. At the time she didn’t know anything about them. Then she told me the thing about Dad saying children would not die if they were disciplined by parents following the bible in their use of corporal punishment.

I understood what she meant as I stood there, numbly recalling the effects this perspective had had on my own childhood and on others I knew of in similar situations. The idea was you could beat a child until their will was broken, until they submitted, until they were bruised, bloody, and mentally and physically injured —

— and you could do so feeling confident that the child would not be at risk of dying from this because they were being beaten in a Christian way.

It was a spiritual thing, almost like a belief in miracles. The normal rules of the physical world were suspended. The kind of beating that might kill a child if it was administered by say, an atheist or a Muslim, would simply not have the same effect if done by a bible-believing Christian.

Yeah, unfathomable, right?

I could honestly have just gone and curled up in bed the rest of the afternoon after hearing this, but I said, “Mom, I want to show you something — an interview about a little girl that did die from this.” She said, “Really?” — like she still half-believed my father, or at least wanted to.  We sat down together and I pulled up the Anderson Cooper interview with Michael Pearl about little Lydia Schatz’s beating and murder. Even though watching this stuff with my Mom was so weird and so many more mixed emotions than I’d even expected, I was calm about it until the audio interview with one of the other Schatz daughters, Zariah, came up.

Zariah answered questions about where and how she was beaten in the clear, crisp, enunciated, submissive, and painstakingly polite way Quiverfull girls are generally taught to speak. After all, the beating that resulted in Lydia’s death had supposedly been for mispronouncing a word. The policeman seemed very kind and gentle with Lydia’s sister on each question he asked. The he requested her permission to bring her to the hospital.

She responded by apologetically asking if she could take a pot with her because she might need to throw up.

Her sister had just been beaten to death in her home, in front of her. She herself was covered in welts and marks from regular beatings, and she politely asked for one simple logical thing we all might need in such a situation – a bucket to puke in.

Right then I just started crying. I couldn’t help it, and my Mom started crying too when she saw me cry. She touched my hand and said how terrible it was for those poor girls. Then when the video switched to a close up of Mr. and Mrs. Schatz being found guilty of murder, my Mom caught her breath, kinda stopped short, and said “Oh, she looks like me.” She was talking about Mrs. Schatz, and there was a definite resemblance. Not particularly in the shape of their faces or anything, but the results of the lifestyle. Both are brunettes with kinda lackluster home-cut hair. No makeup. A tired, exhausted, almost empty look from years of stresses, disappointments, fears, frustrations, frugally going without necessities, and the visible emotional weight of internally and externally perceived failure.

Mrs. Schatz sat there, resigned at sentencing, showing no emotions but shame and resignation, possibly dissociation.

I said “Yeah, Mom. She lived like you.” My Mom seemed shocked, not really sure what to do with this, and then said something else that didn’t surprise me as much as I might have expected it would.

She said, “You know, when you asked me before if I’d read that book ‘To Train Up A Child,’ I said I didn’t remember it. Well I think I did read it actually. I remember seeing that picture on the front, the book cover with the carriage. I’d borrowed it from someone, I think.” Then she said that she didn’t really remember the contents of the book, or recall anything that bad in it, so the Schatz family must have just taken it too far. When I told her that there were other accounts of this book being the catalyst for children being abused and even killed, reminded her that the “spankings” in our home were also very bad, she responded that the book itself wasn’t the bible, so “maybe it wasn’t properly based off of the bible and was a misinterpretation or mistake, a perversion of God’s word. That happens more often than it should.”

I said, “Yeah, Mom. I think it was.”

So now my Mom has a scientific experiment in front of her, even though mainstream science has already determined hitting kids is bad for them, and that such so-called “Christian discipline” is unhealthy stuff. She can see from the differences among her own offspring that beating children generally results in fierce anger and mistrust and makes children more prone to lashing out, being sneaky, or making impulsive decisions that hurt other people and themselves. Hitting kids exacerbates “behavioral problems” rather than correcting them. She has seen from personal experience that explaining things and redirecting misbehaving children gently, never threatening violence, will result in a child not only being more likely to happily agree to do what you have asked of them, but a child that likes to hug you, spend time with you, and is comfortable with openly feeling and expressing love for you and closeness with you.

Sometimes I find myself surprised at how much love my younger siblings show my Mom because that simply wasn’t my world at that age.

I loathed her much of the time, even hated her sometimes. Once I hit my teens and got bigger and taller than her, I regularly called her all kinds of names and openly let her know just how much she disgusted me. The younger kids, most now young adults or teens, don’t do that and it doesn’t seem to even cross their minds that often. My relationship with my Mom now is the best it’s ever been and it still isn’t great. She still does a lot of things that I thoroughly disagree with, and it is very easy to find myself impatient or angry with her. But I do notice that she feels grateful to have a chance to be a mother without things being like how they were with us oldest ones.

I am glad that she has had this second chance and that my younger siblings have had a much different upbringing.

My Mom has experienced the pain of what it’s like to have her firstborn children fearing, hating, and despising her at a visible level, and the joy of having her lastborn children write her notes and cards with hearts on them, of their own accord. No wonder she’d dream of sharing that same bond with her older children and no wonder it has not happened to her liking.

Shame on Michael Pearl for calling his collection of books “No Greater Joy Ministries.”

If it was named accurately it would be “No Greater Pain and Fear Ministries.” I’m glad my mother finally saw the error of characterizing these abusive behaviors as “good Christian discipline” methods. I wish my father would too, for my half-brother’s sake. My Dad has supposedly “toned it down” but obviously this doesn’t leave me feeling comfortable or like my brother is safe. He deserves better than to be threatened with a belt or a stick, even if the “spankings” themselves are milder than what I got or perhaps never materialize at all.

I have a hard time believing my Dad really thought children couldn’t die from these things, but perhaps he did, and either way he bought into it on some level and told a horrible lie.

I do not have proof of this, but I am betting it was not his own lie, but a lie commonly passed around in Quiverfull/patriarchal/Christian fundamentalist circles. It just seems to fit in this puzzle too well. So I hope more people will become aware that some parents actually believe or profess to believe such nonsense, and that as the Schatz family case and Lydia’s death can starkly attest, children can and do die from sustained beatings by bible-believing Christian parents, and there are way too many stories eerily similar to hers.

Although my experiences seem like small potatoes compared to the treatment Lydia and the other Schatz siblings endured, I can say from personal experience that being hit and regularly threatened with beatings can and often does seriously injure you. I am fairly healthy overall, but I have a pinched nerve in my back and a knee that painfully pops out of place sometimes. Although this hasn’t been more than a minor inconvenience in my life, both issues have bothered me off and on since my teens. I never played sports as a kid or fell out of trees or got in a bad car accident, and I have trouble remembering the details of what happened during beatings, apparently due to dissociation. It took a friend recently putting two and two together to make me realize that the likely source of these injuries was the violence in my childhood home. I can say with certainty that being hit, and being ordered to submit or chased down and grabbed before the beating, generally leaves you with more emotional injuries than physical ones, forcing you to deal with certain types of self-esteem struggles and anger and aggression problems even if you go on to what looks like a normal or even better-than-average life.

My siblings and I are so lucky though.

Thankfully, even though us older kids lived through the experiences we did and still deal with the after-effects of being subject to this type of abusive and neglectful parenting during our formative years, we have all survived and are doing our best to overcome this. We are doing our best to enjoy our lives and function better as individual people and as a family.

Poor little Lydia Schatz and her family will never have that same chance.

She lost her life in an absolutely horrible and senseless way; her siblings were brutalized and her family torn apart. Her parents learned a little too late that children definitely can die from this stuff no matter how much you pray in between the beatings.

Hopefully the popular outcry against the Pearls’ books and perspective can educate Christian parents and stop this stuff from happening to other children.

Hana Williams Abuse and Murder Trial Ongoing

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Hana Williams.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on August 6, 2013.

Hana Williams died two years ago, in May 2011, of hypothermia after her mother banished her from the house as punishment for being “rebellious.” Hana was already overly-thin from starvation—her parents withheld food as punishment—and she had often been forced to sleep in the barn, use an outdoor port-a-potty, and shower outside.

Hana Williams had been adopted from Ethiopia in 2008 by a conservative Christian homeschooling couple who followed the child training methods of Michael and Debi Pearl.

Her trial is currently taking place, including testimony from some of the children’s seven biological children and Hana’s adopted Ethiopian brother.

I’m going to offer some excerpts from recent articles covering the trial. If you want to see video news reports, click through, as most of these articles include news footage. For what I’ve previously had to say about Hana Williams’ death, read this post from two years ago, written right after the news of Hana’s death surfaced.

Jurors See Before and After Photos of Starved Girl, August 1, 2013

For the first time, jurors saw what Hana Williams looked like as a healthy girl–and her shocking deterioration before her death.

Video taken in 2007 before she left Ethiopia shows Hana smiling as she looks at the camera.  A photo taken closer to her death in 2011 shows her thin teen and shaved head.

Hana’s adopted brother, Immanuel, who is deaf, testified she was always told to stay outside by her adoptive parents, Larry and Carri Williams.

“They didn’t let her into the house to warm up,” said 12-year-old Immanuel, through an interpreter.

Immanuel says he and Hana were treated very differently from the Williams’ own seven children.

Hana’s Adopted Brother Testifies about Abuse, August 1, 2013

During the third day of witness testimony yesterday in the trial of Larry and Carri Williams, a mental health therapist from Seattle Children’s Hospital testified that Hana’s 12-year-old brother suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the abuse he endured under the hands of his adoptive parents.

The mental health expert, Dr. Julia Petersen, said that the boy, who was also adopted from Ethiopia, started meeting with her last winter, when he had been in foster care for more than a year, local media reported. The couple have pleaded not guilty.

Per the Skagit Valley Herald: “Petersen said the boy fit the diagnostic criteria for PTSD based in part on his nightmares about being physically harmed and the fact he was constantly afraid of making mistakes or expressing himself lest he be “punished.” Discipline the boy experienced in the Williams home, plus seeing Hana in pain and dying, is traumatic enough to lead to PTSD, she said.”

Dr Petersen pointed out that the brother’s upbringing in Ethiopia or his stay at foster care in the U.S. do not appear to be the reason for the post-traumatic stress disorder. “Losing his parents caused the boy sadness and grief, but not the same kind of anxiety brought on by what he said happened in the Williams home,” Petersen said.

Latest from the Williams Trial, August 4, 2013

An expert on torture testified Friday in the homicide-by-abuse trial of Larry and Carri Williams who are accused of abusing their two adopted children from Ethiopia, Hana and Immanuel, and causing the death of Hana.

13-year-old Hana Alemu (Hana Williams) was found dead on May 12, 2011 in the family’s backyard in Sedro-Woolley, Washington. She died of hypothermia, which doctors say was hastened by malnutrition and a stomach condition.

“In my judgment, it’s not a close case,” said John Hutson, taking the witness stand on day-six of the trial. The law school professor and dean, who had previously testified before Congress about military prisoner abuse, added: “They both were unquestionably tortured.”

Kids Testify in Abuse and Murder Trial, August 5, 2013

Cara, one of Larry and Carri’s seven children, says Immanuel, a brother, and Hana ate outside and slept in a closet when they broke the rules in the gated, conservative Christian home.

The parents claim they cared for the adopted pair—like shaving Hana’s hair when she had lice. But Cara says Hana’s braids were shaved as punishment.

“Because she was clipping grass around the house and she was clipping it down to an inch instead of leaving a couple of inches,” said Cara.

The Williams could face life in prison and are charged with assaulting Immanuel and abusing Hana to death.

A witness told investigators the couple followed a controversial book called “Train Up A Child”. The author tells parents to use a switch, cold baths, withhold food and force children outside in cold weather as punishment. Cara says her father, a Boeing worker, and her stay-at-home mother hit all of the kids.

“In your family you call the swats and spanking “training” correct?” asked Larry’s attorney, Cassie Trueblood.

“Yes,” said Cara.

But Cara says the adopted children were the only ones who had to shower outside with a garden hose.

“Did you ever take a shower out there?” asked prosecutor Rich Weyrich.

“No,” said Cara.

Prosecutors want jurors to hear from the couple’s oldest sons. But a judge ruled the pair will not testify without immunity—because they are also accused with abusing their adopted siblings. Prosecutors say they are willing to give immunity from any future charges which should clear the way for the boys to testify this week.

It will be interesting to see where things go from here.