Books

Book review: A clear-eyed account of life inside the ‘Pilgrim’ family is both horrific and healing

“Out of the Wilderness: Escaping My Father’s Prison and My Journey to Forgiveness”

By Elishaba Doerksen with Mike Yorkey. The Core Media Group. Inc., 2022. 428 pages. $22.95.

Imagine being the eldest of 15 children, the first girl followed by five brothers and then a passel of more children. Imagine that you’re never allowed to play with toys or go to school but are ordered to do hard physical labor every day, often with food withheld. Your family lives in the mountains away from any society, and you’re not allowed to talk to or even look at people you may occasionally meet. Imagine that your father believes that only he knows the will of God and that it’s his right to “correct” anyone who fails to obey him. Imagine that that father abuses you physically, sexually and psychologically for the first 29 years of your life. Imagine that he also beats and abuses your siblings, including the babies, and that only by pleasing him can you hope to protect them.

This was the world of Elishaba Doerksen, the eldest daughter of Robert and Kurina Hale, in what became known as the “Pilgrim family.” Doerksen, who made a dramatic escape in 2005 from the family’s compound in the Wrangell Mountains, has now told the story of her life within the family cult and in the following years as she learned to trust, forgive, love and counsel others who face domestic abuse. Co-written with professional writer Mike Yorkey, her story is an exceptionally disturbing one and will be hard for many to read. It is, however, an important one, for unveiling the dynamics of abuse, the trauma that results, and the ability to not only survive but strengthen.

For years and years, the Pilgrim family, held under the strict control of “Papa,” presented the false front of their practiced act as a quaint, homespun, bluegrass-playing pioneer family. They charmed their way past the eyes and doubts of others, including those trained to look out for the welfare of children. It helped that Hale alienated anyone he had contact with, so that isolation and secrecy, along with his rantings against the godless world, were the norm. It wasn’t until one of the sons, finally challenging his father, was badly beaten and went to authorities that the charade ended.

Many readers will be familiar with the Pilgrim story from newspaper accounts and the best-selling “Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier” by journalist Tom Kizzia. Kizzia first encountered the family when reporting for the Anchorage Daily News about conflict with the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. The Hale family had been drawn to Alaska in 1998 by the glitter of 17 Permanent Fund dividend checks. After wearing out their welcome in Fairbanks and the Homer-Anchor Point area, they settled onto an inholder property in the park, 14 miles from the small town of McCarthy. Hale soon took care of the property’s lack of access by bulldozing a road through the park. Property rights advocates took up the Pilgrim cause, providing funds and material goods, and the conflict gained national attention.

The Alaska portion of Doerksen’s story doesn’t begin until halfway through the book, though. The first half tells the lesser-known story of Robert Hale’s beginnings and the years the family lived in isolation in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Hale, with a twin brother, was born to a well-to-do Texas family. As a teenager he impregnated the 15-year-old daughter of John Connally, soon to be elected governor of Texas. After the two teens eloped to Florida, the girl had second thoughts and wanted to return home. She then died from being shot in the head, a death eventually ruled “accidental.” In light of the rest of Hale’s life of controlling and abusing others, one has to wonder if something more sinister wasn’t involved.

Curiously, Doerksen tells this part of her story in great detail, with extensive dialogue between the two youths. It’s unclear whether the detail comes from what she was told by her father, from her imagination, or perhaps from court reports or a combination of sources, but she takes a position of sympathy toward her father. “Whenever my father spoke to me about K.K., he would start crying and become depressed. I could tell that losing K.K. at such a young age had a huge impact on him, which manifest itself throughout his life. Witnessing her death and losing a child in the womb was something he never got over.”

Hale later became a “hippie,” lived in a series of communes, and fathered multiple children. At one commune, he sighted the naked Kurina, 16 years old, and took up with her. “A cosmic voice from heaven spoke to him,” telling him she would be his wife and bear him many children. He was 33 years old.

The reader may see a pattern here — of a man with a large and irresponsible sexual appetite preying on girls and women — although Doerksen never draws that conclusion herself. She does, however, present ample evidence that she was groomed from birth to be her father’s sexual partner. She was “Daddy’s girl,” which involved considerable physical contact. For all her years with the family, she slept with her parents and the youngest of the continually-appearing siblings. Her father eventually declared her the new “queen,” even insisting that she raise Kurina’s youngest child — at the time — as her own.

Kurina, the mother, is a shadowy figure through the entire book. It’s clear that she did not protect any of her children from Hale’s abuse. She considered her daughter a rival and blamed Doerksen for taking her place. But she was also clearly a victim herself, with her own sense-of-self crushed early on by a violent, controlling man. Doerksen rationalized her subjugation to her father as necessary to protect the younger children; her mother was likely doing the same.

In the end, Robert Hale was sent to prison for his crimes. He died there in 2008, unrepentant. Today, Doerksen, who found support from a kind Christian family and the larger Christian community, is a wife, mother, inspirational speaker, and now author. Instead of fleeing from her memories, she has demonstrated remarkable courage and resilience in sharing her story and letting the world know that even the worst sorts of abuse can be overcome. Her faith in a loving God has played a large part in her ability to forgive and to know herself not as a victim but as a hope-giving listener and educator.

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."

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