In a small room in a converted apartment building in East Anchorage, it's story time.
Only, these tales aren't for kids.
The grown-ups in this grim circle survived childhoods filled with sexual abuse and violence and shame.
Silent for so long, here they unleash.
One by one, they tell near-strangers some of the worst things that ever happened to them. They talk about being molested, sodomized and beaten, their pleas ignored.
"The first story I remember being told was my mother didn't want me. But a little of my memories are gone. And it's because I was raised with pedophiles," a woman named Margo tells the group.
Some admit bad things they've done. Lost, drunk years. Children given or taken away. Cold, lonely marriages.
The group is part of the Family Wellness Warriors Initiative.
It's a training program that targets the ongoing epidemic of abuse, neglect and violence within Alaska Native families. It teaches how to build healthy relationships through techniques rooted in storytelling.
The effort is designed for people in professions such as counseling and health care, but also for the wounded themselves, or anyone who wants to learn how to help. It's for non-Natives as well as Natives and the twist is that it welcomes abusers.
The problem is huge. Alaska in general has alarmingly high rates of child sexual abuse, domestic violence and suicide, and the numbers are even worse among Alaska Native people.
When these storytellers were children, abusers got away with it in isolated villages with little law enforcement and no system of support for damaged families. Normal boundaries were torn away over generations of historical trauma: diseases that wiped out whole generations; culture crushed by misguided missionaries, teachers and bureaucrats; villages where all the children were sent to faraway boarding schools; roles and responsibilities confused by alcohol.
"It all kind of festers into devaluing human beings. Devaluing children. Devaluing yourselves. Devaluing who we are. It easily winds up into we're just things instead of people," said Katherine Gottlieb, who started the program as Southcentral Foundation president and CEO. The foundation is the health-care arm of Cook Inlet Region Inc.
"The damage started years ago," said Rick McCafferty, a training specialist with the program who grew up in Kotzebue, where it seemed as though just about every child he knew was being abused sexually or physically.
It has to stop, says Gottlieb. That means inoculating an entire population against this destructive behavior.
'DON'T EVER SPEAK OF THIS'
In Lisa Dolchok's family, dark stories are spilling out.
She's 69 years old, a great-grandmother, a traditional healer -- and a victim of childhood sexual abuse.
All of those named in this story agreed to speak publicly to shed light on a problem they say has been hidden for too long. They say they want others to get the help they need. Some are identified only by first name.
Dolchok, her husband, a son and a daughter-in-law have become anchors in the elder-led movement to heal families.
For more than 50 years, she felt inferior, dirty and different but always blamed the wrong thing: tuberculosis suffered as a teen; being half Yup'ik, half Filipino; lacking a college degree.
"I was always wanting to be in the background behind somebody else. I didn't want to be up front. And I learned why," Dolchok said. "It's the end path of what happened as a child. At 5 years old you shouldn't be introduced to that world."
A world of tricks and bribes, of lies and threats. Daily betrayal. Almost no one confronted the pedophiles who found easy prey in Alaska villages and hubs.
Forty-one percent of child sexual abuse victims in Alaska are Native, according to the state Office of Children's Services. That's high considering that only about 23 percent of Alaska children and teens are Native. Every set of statistics seems grimmer than the last. One university study found that Alaska Natives in Anchorage were six times more likely to be raped than whites.
"It's almost like a way of life. What an awful thing to say. That's what I hear from women today. It seemed to be an accepted -- not accepted, that's the wrong word. It's just that --," Dolchok said, at a loss for words that made sense. Girls were told that's the way it was and if they thought different, there was nowhere to turn.
As a girl, Dolchok remembers being molested at different times by three different men -- none of them Native -- in villages where she grew up near Dillingham and in the hub itself. The men are all dead now.
She's been part of the warriors initiative almost from its beginnings 10 years ago. She's learned to tell her story to her clients, who come to her as a traditional healer. Nearly every one of her clients has been sexually abused and most of them never talked about it before, she said. She uses talk and prayer and healing touch, whatever they are comfortable with.
One of her abusers, she said, was a friend of her father who assured her that other children, whom he named, let him do it too. Later, he took out his pocketknife and sliced into his hand. If she ever told, he said, "I'll skin your father alive, and I'll tell you where to find him."
Only once, she tried to tell her mother. "She slapped me and said don't ever speak of this again."
Years later as an adult, Dolchok asked her mother why she didn't step in to protect her. "She said she was afraid that my dad would kill this man. I was the oldest of nine living brothers and sisters. There was no welfare and food stamps in those days."
The child kept quiet until the Catholic church arrived in her village. At 12, Dolchok confessed to a priest, who told her it wasn't her sin and made sure she was safe.
Later, a pastor at Mt. Edgecumbe boarding school in Sitka made lewd comments around her, then masturbated in front of her.
"So that's when I thought I really had a mark here that a bad man or a woman could see, that they had the right to do what they did to me," Dolchok said.
A SON'S TURMOIL
Dolchok married at 19. Her husband, Max, came from a childhood of trauma too. He said he was physically and sexually abused at the now-shuttered Wrangell Institute boarding school.
She and Max had four children. The damage done as a child snaked into her new life. Dolchok describes herself in those child-rearing days as overweight, insecure, jealous and seething with misplaced rage -- "a screaming mother." More than once, she flung dishes off the table, relishing the sound of smashing glass.
"In a sense," she said, "that is abuse, to put such fear into my own kids."
Perhaps the worst of it was that, despite all they knew and all they had been through, the Dolchoks couldn't protect some of those closest to them. One son, Max Dolchok, came forward as an adult to reveal that he too had been molested as a child, by older kids.
Dolchok found out at a Wellness Warriors conference in Fairbanks when he asked her if it was OK to speak up. Don't hold back, she told her son.
"I didn't know. I thought, because of my own abuse, I was watchful. ... We never think of baby-sitters or family members or friends would do that."
Yet that's usually who abusers are. It's not the creepy stranger in the park.
Last year at a small training conference in Anchorage, the younger Max told the group how the sexual abuse shaped him. He became a passive "nice guy," the go-to fellow at work, the son who always helps his parents. Now he's learning to assert himself more, he said.
When he finished talking, his father hugged him close.
"For me, before I came here, that was wallowing. My whole life was based on what happened to me as a kid," Max, now 46, said during a break.
The family members now talk from the heart as a result of Wellness Warriors, said his father, who is 71. He used to be really quiet, but now he's a leader, an advocate with the program and chair of the committee that oversees it.
Some in the family never found their way. Some of the victims turned into abusers, the younger Max said.
Another of the Dolchoks' four kids who was molested as a boy suffered from mental illness, alcoholism and addiction as an adult. Family members say he also preyed sexually on children. He died last year from heart disease.
The family says they're working on forgiveness.
The agenda for that day's training was packed: sexual identity, how to relate to others, recovery.
After a bit, Max excused himself to return to his job as an electrical company foreman. He said he'd be back at 6.
"What's at 6?" someone asked.
"Redemption," he said.
BEER BOTTLES ALL AROUND
In front of her employees, other Native leaders and people she's never met, Katherine Gottlieb shares her own disturbing stories.
On the outside, Gottlieb is a highly successful Alaskan, the head of Southcentral Foundation, a mother of six, a grandmother many times over, happily married, winner of a coveted MacArthur Foundation so-called "genius award" for her creativity.
On the inside, she's a victim of childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence.
She tells about a sister who lay down in the snow and froze to death at age 19. A brother who killed himself. An alcoholic mother.
"There were times when we'd be standing outside of a bar because one of our brothers or sisters needed milk and we'd be holding the baby, trying to encourage her to come out, because we didn't have milk in the house," Gottlieb told one conference crowd.
She would come home from kindergarten to find her mother passed out, beer bottles all around. The fourth-oldest of 12 children, she became the mother in the house. She tidied up, scrounged for food. She remembers making macaroni but there was no cheese so she'd try to make a sauce from ketchup and water.
With her mother out of it, her father working, other adults would come and go as they pleased, Gottlieb said.
And, she said, they would do to the children what they pleased. "They were like friends and relatives. It was people we knew. In the family."
When she was about 5, she tried to tell her mother that people were bothering her, touching her in ways she didn't like. Her mother, who died when Gottlieb was 12, called her wicked and slapped her. It was the way the mother often related to her children -- angry, yelling, violent. "She would throw things and throw us around."
Gottlieb grew up thinking she must be bad like her mother said. She thought about becoming a nun, something good and pure. But she couldn't connect with her spiritual side in that way.
She married at 16. She says her husband was abusive, but also that they were both young and troubled. She escaped that marriage and then, in the mid-1990s, her second marriage crumbled too.
"I felt like I didn't want to live anymore. Instead of choosing a way out that I think a lot of people do -- our highest rates of suicide are here in Alaska -- I went to counseling."
'SWIM THROUGH THE PAST'
Soon after she took the Southcentral Foundation's top job in 1991, Gottlieb started looking for a way to address child abuse and domestic violence. One thing led to another. She told her story of childhood abuse at a small church. A missionary from Kodiak, Linda Ross, heard it and began talking to her about hosting a conference.
Then, at a social services meeting, she heard an elder tell her own abuse story. Talking about it tore up the woman. Audience members were emotional too. Gottlieb realized she needed to reach large numbers of damaged souls, people whose problems were too big for a single conference to repair. A committee scoured the country for ideas.
Ross led her to a Michigan-based, Christian group called Open Hearts Ministry and Gottlieb's group then tailored the approach for Alaska Native people.
Family Wellness Warriors Initiative stages various trainings, including five-day conferences around the state. Clinicians are on standby to help anyone in emotional crisis. They use Bible stories and songs to illustrate points, though most sessions aren't steeped in religion.
It's mainly about story, how to use storytelling as a way to clear out the shame and anger and learn to relate to others.
"Swim through the past and come through the other side," Gottlieb says.
Visit the worst of it, but don't linger there, Tanya Dolchok, the younger Max's wife, told a group of leaders in training. "It's dangerous to stay in the darkness too long without coming up for air."
Group leaders create a safe place for people to dig down to the depths of pain, to be totally open and vulnerable, said Bobbi Donadio, program administrator. "Even though we bring people to that difficult point, we also know how to bring them back up to healing and redemption."
Gottlieb said she realized at one conference how she had hurt her children when they were young by yelling about the littlest things. They now are grown with children of their own. She is making amends with them one by one, talking out the past.
She looks differently now at anyone who is angry or in a funk.
"There is a story behind someone's eyes. Don't jump to conclusions," Gottlieb said.
HELEN AND ALFRED
The topic this morning: sexual identity, through the eyes of a long-married couple from Seldovia, Helen and Alfred Quijance.
Helen told a group in training about being abused as a young girl. She didn't want anyone to notice her after that.
Alfred said his mother told him she could do with him what she wished, then molested him repeatedly. His grandmother, who raised him in his early years, beat him, sometimes until he bled or lost consciousness. He felt like nothing. Once, he put the cold barrel of a gun into his mouth.
They've been married for nearly 40 years but much of that time didn't really talk. Alfred always seemed angry, Helen said. Alfred said he wanted Helen silent. "I thought she would leave me if she ever found her voice," he said. He saw her as his mother, his granny, the women who had hurt him.
If they talked, it was about what's for dinner.
"Our home was a tomb where we ate, drank coffee and watched TV," Alfred said.
They became truly close only after opening up about the damage from long ago.
"Before, there would be no talking," Helen said. "He would get louder and I would get quieter."
They now are leaders in the program. Both are on the steering committee that oversees it. Alfred also is on staff as a part-time advocate. He and Helen hope to start their own branch of Wounded Warriors in Seldovia. They call it Quiet Place Ministry.
When Gottlieb first pitched the initiative to the Alaska Native Health Board as a way to combat child abuse and domestic violence, she said the men in the group weren't interested. So she crafted a new strategy and went back.
"I said, 'We are calling out the warriors, and we're calling out the men,' " Gottlieb recalled. " 'We need men out here that will stand in the front lines, that will protect their families, fight for us, even die for us, like you did in the old days.' "
She walked away with $350,000 in seed money.
The approach puts men and women into old-fashioned, traditional roles. Some criticize it as sexist.
"The men are doing the crime. They are doing the abuse. They are filling the prisons. The reason we are going after men is so we can help them turn it around, to use their strength to nurture, instead of their strength to harm," said Gene McConnell, training manager for the program.
He knows about transformation. He was sexually abused as a child and became a pornography and sex addict as an adult, which destroyed his marriage. He says he recovered and now can help others get past their childhood abuse and dysfunction.
The program has grown to 19 employees, an annual $1.1 million budget. And just this spring, they moved into a woodsy campus off Tudor Road.
More than 1,500 people have gone through the Wellness Warrior trainings. Nearly half are men. All sorts participate in this total-immersion, rapid-fire approach to healing: Russian Orthodox priests; inmates in the Palmer prison's faith-based unit; addicts at the Salvation Army's Clitheroe Center for substance abuse treatment.
That count doesn't include Southcentral Foundation employees who go through a shortened version.
Abusers are allowed, even encouraged, though not anyone who is still abusing others, Donadio said. If someone reveals recent sexual or physical abuse, program leaders will report it to authorities.
"I hope a lot of people who are harming show up to the conferences. I hope they are hearing," Gottlieb said. She wants them to know the damage. She wants it to stop.
One participant admitted at a conference that he had molested his little sister when he was a teenager. He was scared talking about it.
"I felt like I was a caged lion and very exposed. I was ready to fight anybody who said anything against me," Derek, who lives in the Glennallen area, said in an interview. But those who heard his story didn't lash out. Instead, they remarked that he seemed full of self-contempt, and needed help.
And gradually, he began to work through it. He says he's not looking for excuses but believes turmoil in his childhood may have made him desperate for control of someone weaker than he was.
At 44, he is married and has four young children, plus a good job with an auto repair shop. He's learning to talk things out with his wife.
"I used to fly off the handle with rage before this," he said.
There's evidence this approach is making a difference. Participants surveyed months after attending a conference indicated their families showed improvement in support for one another, the ability to deal with conflict, and the like. They now hope to study whether the approach can prevent child abuse.
And, the movement is spreading. Groups in the Interior and Kodiak have their own versions. Others are working on it.
"What I found was, you could help walk someone through some of the pain and the woundedness of their life and you didn't have to have a Ph.D.," said Linda Ross, the Kodiak missionary who helped bring it to Alaska.
What the experts say:
People with troubled childhoods often find it difficult to form normal bonds later on. The more mangled the childhood, the more likely the adult will become an abuser, according to Mark Erickson, a psychiatrist and medical director of behavioral health for Southcentral Foundation.
Alaska Natives have had more trauma and disruption than most cultures. Just look back 90 years to the influenza epidemic, he said. "Entire villages were wiped out and you had large numbers of people who were left as orphans," Erickson said. "That's a situation in which the early attachment experience is profoundly disrupted."
There's a measured health impact too, according to new research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Studies suggest the more chaotic the childhood home, the greater the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, suicide and other health problems later on, Erickson said. A child who was physically and sexually abused, in a home with domestic violence and alcohol abuse, has nearly double the chance of getting cancer as an adult as other people, some research shows.
By LISA DEMER