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New Bethany Home for Girls: The Dogma that Followed Me Home

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I first published this post by my dear friend Cat Givens years ago. Edited for spelling, grammar, and readability.

When I was growing up in northeast Ohio, my family attended a Baptist church. It was one of those places where you’d meet every Sunday morning and then again Sunday evening. Bible study on Wednesday night. Soul-winning every Tuesday evening. Thursdays were youth group nights, and on Friday or Saturday we may have some other activity and then back again on Sunday.

We learned about heaven and hell. They preached a lot about hell.

I can remember being taught as a young child to tell everybody I came in contact with about Jesus and how to be saved. If I neglected to tell someone, then on Judgment Day this would happen: the person I did not tell would be led before the Lord God. I would be sitting behind God with the rest of the saved people. God would turn the person I neglected away, saying he did not know them. As they were led away, they would see me behind God and scream, “WHY? Oh, WHY didn’t you tell me?” And as they were led away to be cast into eternal fire, damned for all eternity, their blood would be dripping from my hands. Pretty heavy stuff for a kid, huh?

I was a bit of a rebel in my teens, and I’d run away when I got the chance rather than face the consequences at home for my actions. Finally, when I was almost fifteen, my parents were at their wit’s end. I was in the Detention Home for running away yet again, and they sought out help from the “experts”. A nice lady at the United Way told my parents that doctors were having success with rebellious children by hospitalizing them and giving them intense psychotherapy.

My parents met with the doctors, then the doctors met with me. “Yes, they could help me,” they assured my folks. They told Mom and Dad I could be transformed into a willing obedient child and would change my “criminalistic way of thinking”.

I was sent to a local hospital’s psych ward, housed with mostly adults (this was 1974, and there were no children’s wards at that time here). I was locked up with a bunch of strangers. I was shot full of “behavior modifying” drugs which made my physical movement robotic. I also received electroshock therapy treatments. Thanks a lot, Dr. Vallaba! Some of the men abused me while I was in there. I thought I fell in love with a man who said he and Bob Dylan shared a soul.

After the doctors had used up all my parents’ insurance money, they wanted to send me to another hospital in Connecticut. However, Mom and Dad had been talking to the preachers. They had another idea. Off to a girl’s home in Louisiana for me: New Bethany Home for Wayward Girls. I would remain there for a year.

Surely, this would save my soul and make me a compliant teenager, my parents and preachers thought. Unfortunately, at New Bethany, the same type of hellfire and brimstone attitude prevailed. I was not allowed to wear pants, as that was considered a sin. I couldn’t listen to any music besides Southern Gospel, as that was also a sin. I couldn’t talk about my past, as I had no past. I had to be called by my first and middle name because I was to become a new person.

There was an Evangelical preacher who ran the place, Rev. Mack Ford — an acolyte of Lester Roloff. He and his wife, Thelma, founded the home, taking in rebellious teens from all over the country. They also took in the unwanted girls whose parents abandoned them there. We were required to comply with every rule. Not doing so resulted in us getting whipped with a belt. That was the easy punishment. If a girl acted out, often she would be forced, after lights out, to stand in the hallway on her tiptoes with eggs or tomatoes under her heels. If she slipped and squished one, she’d get a whipping with a belt or hit with the switch. Runaways from the home were usually caught, and then, after a sound whipping with a belt from Bro. Mack would be handcuffed to their beds, and a ‘trusted girl” would be given the key. Their meals were served at their beds. These rebellious girls were only uncuffed for bathroom and shower breaks. Once Bro. Mack determined they had sufficiently repented, the cuffs were removed.

Everything we did was strictly controlled. We were told not to trust our conscience, as the Devil could be in there, so only trust the Bible. And trust Bro Mack.

Every day after chores, we would have chapel. There we would learn about hell, how the love of God brought us to this place, and how we must repent of our evil ways and change. Then we had breakfast. After more chores, off to school — a trailer down the street with one teacher and learning packets. It was an ACE school . . . Accelerated Christian Education. (Please see My Life in an ACE School.) After school, it was time for chapel again, and then lunch. Then chores and free time, and then chapel and supper. Even our bathroom breaks were timed, and we actually had to count the toilet paper sheets, begging for more through the bathroom door if we needed it. We were often awakened in the middle of the night. Sleep deprivation — what Brother Mack called “breaking down the will” — was the norm. I could go on and on, but I think the picture is clear. This was a brainwashing Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) cult, and we were the subjects.

After nearly a year, I got to come home. And yes, I was changed. I was a good little obedient Baptist teenager who addressed her parents and all adults as “sir” and “ma’am.”

At my new Christian high school, I was more conservative than most of the staff! We would only have chapel once a week at this school, unless it was “spiritual emphasis week.” During “emphasis” week, we would have chapel every day. Chapel was where we were told about how the devil tries to get every teen to be worldly and do evil. We were ripe for the danger of hellfire! We must be saved. We must repent if we do anything displeasing to god. I recall Mr. Russell, the gym teacher, leading us in prayer, asking God to kill us rather than let us live to set a bad example!

Throughout high school, I loosened up quite a bit. I still believed the dogma, but wasn’t quite so hung up on the rules. I began to read the Bible for myself. It didn’t read the same on my own as it did with a preacher interpreting it for me.

After graduation, I began to think more for myself.  I sought out a therapist who helped me overcome the guilt and confusion.  Gradually, I was losing the dogma and forming my own spirituality. I found god in nature and other human beings. I read about other religions and philosophies, realizing there are many paths to enlightenment. I enjoyed comparing the teachings of my youth to the myths and stories from other cultures and religions. I saw beauty and truth in many forms and rejected the hellfire and brimstone from my upbringing. Or so I thought.

I recently found a movie that was shown to us “wayward girls” at New Bethany. It was about the communist takeover of the United States. I really wanted to see this film again as an adult without expecting a great revelation and insight. The movie, along with another about hell, arrived the other day and I watched them. The acting was way over the top, and the subject matter was absurd. There on the screen, a little boy had a bamboo stick driven through his ears so he could no longer hear the gospel. Communists on horseback terrorized citizens, and the blood and guts spilled! Demons tormented people in hell, and worms ate at the burning flesh of the damned.

What happened next is what shocked me the most. As the choir sang “Just As I Am” and the preacher pleaded with the congregation to come to the altar and get right with God, I felt uneasy and a little sick. Fear and dread took hold, and then the panic! What if it was true? Would my children go to hell and be tormented for all eternity because I chose to raise them as free thinkers?

Mind you, this is NOT how I believe, yet here it was, all this dread and fear and worry. I felt horrible and confused. It was as if a great wave had pummeled me, and I was breathless! I contacted a woman raised similarly and found that she, too, suffered from this occasionally. First, we discussed brainwashing and conditioned response, and then I began to examine more carefully what had happened to me (and others).

It was twenty-plus years of dogmatic teachings that took my emotions and spilled them out in front of me like many dice. I realized that this memory’s emotional effect needed to be changed. I found discussing these reactions with my therapist to be helpful, as were his words of encouragement.  I reminded myself that it was out of love for my children I chose to NOT subject them to this stifling negative dogma. And I’m glad of it, as I would never want them to feel the way I did right then!

What good is spirituality if it does not lift one up? I examined what I actually do believe, and did some reading from some positive authors. I watched the movies again with my husband, and we laughed and shook our heads. The effect was more benign but not gone away completely, so I shall work on these memories some more, bringing in more humor and love. Still, I am amazed this dogma has followed me for so many years.

Has anything like this ever happened to you?

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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19 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Brian

    Thank-you for this, Cat. I’m crying now and feeling kind of sick. I don’t remember everything but some of it comes back over time. I don’t understand how people can be so mean-hearted, so lacking in basic human love. How can they terrorize a child and tell themselves it is love? Bad behaviour? Jeeebus. And the physical abuse, the not owning your own body because they can do anything to you and say, GOD; they can be GOD. I hate the fucker-figment who harmed me and who goes on and on like this. I hate the parentals who pass on their pain and suffering because they have not been able to be human enough to own it and deal with it. How is that we child-victims are able to fucking crawl to therapists for help and they couldn’t? I have never hit my children. I know how damaged I am because of religious abuse and I know that religion is just a tool, a sheep’s coat for emotionally destroyed people who torture children. Fuck religion.
    I am so sorry to hear how you have suffered. You did not deserve one bit of it, not one bit. Hey, in school, The Big Shithead bullied me till I went nuts and tried to punch him to death and then he began to choose other victims. I think his name was God, Godhead. Fucking bastard knew that he had to really murder me or go elsewhere to hurt and the coward went elsewhere.
    I wish you a Now of fullness of life, full freedom to be. Never forget. When the shithead Godheads tell me you should forgive all your trespassers, that Jesus could take all that pain away, I tell them to fuck off. If I forgive some day, then it will be because I feel like it and it is time. Denial of my pain and anger is more abuse heaped on me. Take me JUST AS I AM. Let me be. Don’t tell me that some figment loves me as I am when you can’t begin to love me, when you demand I be as you want me to be. Cat, I am 63 years old. What was done is there as it has always been. But I talk back now. I say no. I say it was and is wrong. I say there is no evangelical fundyism that is not wicked at its heart.

    • Avatar
      Kittybrat

      Brian, you keep speaking up and saying NO! This has to stop. It is still happening. Speak up whenever and wherever you see this going on, and I will, too. At 56 years old, it’s always going to be a part of us, this abuse, but we can and WILL use our experiences to fight for other children.

      • Avatar
        Brian

        Kittybrat, Ever since I chose to be honest with myself regarding faith, admit that I really do not believe, (many years back) I have been active in supporting young people suffering religio-virus. After reading Alice Miller’s work supporting abused people, I felt confirmed in my view that much of evangelical teaching is used abusively and harms innocence. So does a drinking, smoking parent! but my focus is on religion because it claims to offer exactly what it strips away from a person, basic freedom to be, integrity of body and spirit. Where else can you see such a lack of healthy boundaries than in a fundagelical congregation…. What are you thinking! Look at your choice of dress, of conversation! Don’t you want to be better than you ARE!? Such rude hearts in pretty suits and dresses. Real holy shit.
        My very best wishes, Kittybrat. I appreciate your voice whenever I come by it on the interwebs!

  2. Avatar
    Angiep

    Cat, my heart breaks for you. What you endured was torture inflicted upon a minor. It should be illegal. I sense that you have overcome the mistreatment to a large extent, and I am sending you all my good thoughts and emotions that you will continue to rise up out of that horrible pit that is called religion. Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. Avatar
    Carmen

    My heart goes out to both you and Brian, Cat. I am so sorry that these things happened to you; things that should not have happened and things that the adults in your lives should have known enough to prevent. I grieve for you and all those who were hurt by such mean-spirited dogma.

    You are brave and strong, to be able to share these stories with others – I truly believe it’s the only way to combat the harm that is still being perpetrated upon innocent lives. Although it’s got to be difficult to re-live your memories, I thank you for doing so – your ‘witnessing’ is important. All the very best to you, Brian, and all the others. What you are doing is nothing short of heroic.

    • Avatar
      Brian

      Thank-you, Carmen. My experience never included anything involving incarceration. Nor was I physically corrected much. My mom used to chase me with kitchen utensils in an ongoing exasperation. My terror as a kid was of Hellfire, the just reward for children who did not obey or follow correctly. We lived the torture-template but what Cat and others have survived makes my experience pale in comparison. When I hear stories like the ones told by Cat and The New Bethany survivors, I am aware that my spirit would have been utterly crushed and I am sure I would have been wanting and planning how to kill myself. That this practice still exists and actively, horrifies and disgusts me. That it is condoned and supported financially by some churches, demonstrates to me the folly of Christianity. You can get saved and be so blind to harm done, to self and others. Some time ago, one of the fundy maniacs for Christ was selling a paddle on the web to be used for correction. I wrote against the guy and protested but I really wanted to hurt him, to harm him, thank-you Jeebus! Religion is an ideal template for child abusers, for damaged people to codify and live out their harm on others. “This is going to hurt me far more than it hurts you,” is an old saying used by fathers particularly when forced to beat their children to correct them. Lovingly beat them just as they are told the Bible teaches. The irony of course is that the saying is utterly true. Every time you disrespect a child, you harm yourself in a most essential way. You reduce your own humanity and crush that of your child. And you do it for Christ. How fucked up can we be?
      I am not denying the terror I lived as a child, the terror that is a normal part of evangelical fundy upbringing, though curiously, many kids, (my older brother too) said it never really bothered them. But when parents are so demented and out of touch that they commit harm as Cat has documented, give their children over to bootcamps and religious torture centres, well, that is gulag, and we have to make a noise about it.

  4. Avatar
    Ian

    It is a shame that your experience was not unique. I have known several girls who went through both Roloff’s home and the Hepzebah House. No lasting results, but many stories of mistreatment. I’m glad you were able to beat the demons that place put into you.

    On another note, what were the names of the films you watched. Many times they are on YouTube. I watched some of the Rus Doughten Tribulation movies on there.

    • Avatar
      Kittybrat

      Ah, Ian. The lasting results are there, but come out in insidious ways. Hepzebah House (still running) and Roloff Homes (some still open) leave scars upon the psyche. So, the lasting damage may not be in the forefront, but is there in ways that remain unseen.

      The movie I watched at New Bethany, and the movie that the girls watched after I was gone both were on the DVD. Both are on YouTube.

      Here are links to both:

      What I had to watch… If Footmen Tire You What Will Horses Do?
      https://youtu.be/k5o_LwqX77I

      Shown after I left… The Burning Hell:
      https://youtu.be/hR8VkciG1jo

      • Avatar
        Ian

        By saying lasting results, I meant that the girls didn’t stay with the Christianity that was forced in to them. None of them remained true to the teachings for any length of time.

        in beating the demons, you have not allowed the abuse you suffered to totally paralyze you. Admitting what happened and moving forward is a victory over those horrible times. Unfortunately, some people have been trapped by that abuse and are never able to truly move ahead with their lives.

        I wonder how those abusive men would do if they were suddenly plucked up and thrown into a “training home”? I’m thinking that they wouldn’t do do well. Bullies never like to be bullied.

  5. Avatar
    Brian

    No lasting results that you are capable of discerning, Ian. We do not harm others and suffer harm without lasting effects. Some kids are more resilient, sure, and some people claim that the army life saves them from themselves, the harm they would do. They say they need to be ordered around and controlled, not left to their own devices. But that is not normal experience. That talk is more typical of the harmed.
    And your comment about demons…. what do you mean by that? Do you believe in demons, magic ones other than Mac Ford and other men who love to harm others for profit? The sooner we stop talking about demons and angels, the sooner we can be responsible people who speak against hateful torture practices against youngsters who need love, not punishment.

    • Avatar
      Ian

      When I wrote lasting results, I actually meant that all of the girls returned to their “evil ways” after a period of time. Neither place was able to beat Jesus into them.

      As for demons, I meant that as a metaphor for the dark thoughts and actions a person has. Not the demons of Hell.

  6. Avatar
    Avril

    Thank you for sharing this Cat. I’m glad that over time you were able to overcome the fear that is forced on folks by the religious zealots. I can’t imagine what you went through, I have heard about that Lester Roloff home & it sounded horrible. I just wanted to thank you for sharing. I’m sure it will help others, just as Bruce does. Take CARE

  7. Avatar
    Sage

    All of these posts and comments tonight are just absolutely crushing. They hit extremely deep and I really just don’t have words. It’s a very dark thing, and ..yeah. I had to stop reading comments

    And anyone who defends these vile abusive creatures are horrid, repugnant clods who I loathe beyond words.

    Ugh

  8. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    I just marvel at the madnesses that bred these Tenn homes and those who ran them, and still do !! I never got their mentality, like how could any SANE person go for such tripe– much less thinking that God is in board with all their daily horrors they’re only too happy to dish out ! And culturally,the South is different. It explains why the authorities were so reluctant to close the homes and cite/ prosecute the operators. They see themselves in THEM, especially the men ! Ugh is right !!

  9. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Car, I read this for the first time last week. It’s taken me this long to respond because what you suffered is so terrible that I felt whatever I could say about it would be trite and superfluous.

    Except for this: You are extraordinary. Telling your story as you did is itself a testament to your honesty, courage and self-awareness.

    Brian, I could say the same for you: That you chose to raise your children in a way totally different from your upbringing speaks volumes!

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Bruce Gerencser