‘Out of the Wilderness’ chronicles Papa Pilgrim’s abuse, his daughter’s escape and her journey to forgiveness

A woman poses for a photo in the mountains
Elishaba Doerksen, oldest of 15 Pilgrim Family siblings, has written a book about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, Robert Hale, known as Papa Pilgrim. (Elishaba Doerksen)

Editor’s note: This interview contains accounts of sexual violence and childhood sexual abuse. If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual abuse, confidential resources are available through the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or rainn.org.

The stories of Robert Hale’s crimes, his religiosity and his family’s way of life still reverberate in Alaska and elsewhere nearly 14 years after his death in an Anchorage jail, having been convicted of rape and incest.

Those stories now include a book by the oldest of the 15 Pilgrim family siblings, Elishaba Doerksen. Doerksen’s book, “Out of the Wilderness,” details her father’s abuse and explains how she escaped from him despite being shuttered away in the wilderness near McCarthy.

Doerksen says it’s all been a long, difficult journey.

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Elishaba Doerksen: Growing up was definitely normal for me in the mountains. It was at 9,000 feet in the mountains of New Mexico. And I think probably the best way of describing the view from my little girl’s heart was, this was normal life and surviving off the land. Every day, we worked really hard to live. And the world outside, from my father’s view, or through his eyes, was that it was really evil and wicked and dark out there. And pretty much I felt like a wild animal — that if someone showed up, we would run and jump in a hole, and I knew how to disappear and hide. And then, in the year of 2000, we moved to Alaska. We were pretty much stuck in town and in like garages, and squatting in little cabins, until we found the mountains, way out in the Wrangell mountains up past McCarthy, and definitely a different type of surviving, because we had really, really cold winters. But it really wasn’t that different because we knew how to survive a lot of harsh type of wilderness life. That was what was normal.

Casey Grove: Was there a point point that you realized growing up that your family was a little bit different than the outside world? And I don’t mean that in a bad way, I just mean that quite a few people grew up different than you did. Was there ever a time where you realized that was different?

ED: I think I knew it from pretty young age, because when we went to town, when we did go, and we would go far away, we would be in an old truck, an old ’41 Chevy truck with a barn on the back of it. And I remember looking out the windows and through the cracks of the barn that we had built in the back of it and just watching people walk around. And like the vehicles and the life out there was just so foreign and so different than us, like, we really were different. And then there was times where we would all get to go into the store with my father and my mom, and we would all be barefooted. And we got ran out of the stores by the managers. So in my mind, people just really hated us, like we were really not liked by the world, in my mind. So I could see through the cracks, what it was like. And then when I did experience the world, it was definitely really different. People would say a lot of things like, “Wow!” and think we’re crazy, amazing looking and always want to get pictures of us. And that was when we were actually in a public setting.

CG: What was life like when you were out living in the wilderness? How did you guys get by? I mean, how did you, you know, get food and all that kind of thing?

ED: So we had animals. We gathered animals over the years. We had all sorts of animals that we lived off of and meat. And most of the time, I spent my time just working really hard, like my brothers and I, we worked our bones into the ground every day, taking care of life and hauling water. And it seems like most of time I remember starving. I cried so many tears being so hungry. We’d be out in the mountains with the sheep and with just a little bit of food in my pack that would last all day long, like one little tortilla with beans in it, and I’d just cry because I was so hungry. And many times I would just run into the house and grind up — we had hand grinder — and grind up the corn or some wheat out of the barn bin and make up patties. And I was, you know, I think I was just so controlling as a big sister trying to keep everybody from starving. To this day, I have nightmares of not having enough food to feed my whole entire family, because it’s like, I would do everything I could to make sure everybody got the same amount and we would be starving after working all day. But then, as the years went by, we actually ended up getting rid of most of our animals and we started just poaching and hunting for food. But between that traveling, we started digging in trash cans and and even my father would take us far away and have us like beg off the streets and try to get food and money. And he would send me out with a baby in my arms. And I just looked like this poor pitiful mother with a child in my arms, and people would just yell at me. I’d go back into this little mini bus we had. This is just a stage of our life in between going from New Mexico to Alaska. And I would go back into this little mini bus with my father and I was just, “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.” And he would just turn on me and threaten pretty harsh beatings if I didn’t get out there and do what I needed. He would also accuse me of being like this man pleaser. I said, “I’m just so scared. It’s horrible. I can’t lie. This is awful.”

CG: I don’t know what to say, other than I’m sorry that you had to go through that. Let’s talk about the abuse. Because I understand that’s a big part of the reason why you wanted to write this book. What can you tell me about that, I guess that you feel comfortable sharing?

ED: Yeah. So when I was born, my father was already molesting girls. But of course, I didn’t realize that then, and I was just a baby. In later years, he boasted about how he took me into the shower and got a sexual drive over my little naked body, which is really sick. But for me, from my side, in my heart, I just had this deep longing to be loved, like everyone does. And I would literally crawl to my dad, even though he would beat me and push me back. And I’d keep crying and keep going toward him. Because he did give me affection. And over the years, I was sort of deemed as daddy’s girl. But he told me that my job was to keep him happy. Because he could just scream and yell and just make the mountain shake with his anger. And I would just hold my siblings in the corner and shake, like just terrified for what was going to happen next. And I would watch my parents fight, and my mom scream.

And then, when I was even around seven, what I was experiencing was, he would make me his little girl, and I’d be sleep with him at night, and I be on his good side. And then the next moment, within just a flash of a second, I could be thrown out and be a servant to the family, where I’m hauling wood, and I’m hauling water, and I’m not allowed to eat. And I’m just crying and getting whippings all throughout the day. And I would watch my own siblings go through the same thing. Where, like, the whole feeling was, well, we got to make Papa happy. And if we don’t make him happy, we’re in trouble. So throughout life, and the dynamics of the abuse that we were going through, which was really normal for us, we would be pitted against each other. And when I turned about 12, 13, up into that point, because my father preached the Bible and that’s all we heard was the Bible, and we didn’t have education, but we heard the King James Bible, and we would even listen to it on tape every night. We weren’t allowed to do anything, but listen to that. So I had this conscience before God, I guess. I thought then it was, but it really it was before my Father, that I had to confess to him every sin I had, like, even if it was a bad thought. And so I would confess to him.

And when I turned into a little lady, that’s when things really switched for me, because I remember going to my mom, actually, and I tried to tell her about some sexual struggles I was having. And she told me, “Well, you’re gonna have to talk to Papa about that.” And when I went to my father, I was sat in front of him and just interrogated for all of my thoughts. And he told me that I was this harlot and this prostitute and sent me out of the house. And so during that time of punishment, I was so confused about, “What am I? What kind of young lady am I? And does God love me? Does my father love me? How could this life be even good?” And I was already longing for death, so my father would finally forgive us is how we he put it, which is not true forgiveness, but he would say we were forgiven. And after, I think it was about a month at that point, where I had been starved and sent out of the house, his way of drawing me back in was, “OK, you’re going to get in the bath with me now. And we’re going to have a special time and we’re going to talk.” And he took me on this little trip and told me that he wanted to talk to me. And he asked me what I wanted to know. And I said, “I don’t want to know anything!” And he was so angry, that I didn’t want to hear it from him, about sex, that, at that point on, I kind of was put in prison where I was supposed to be at his feet, not allowed to have fun. And either I was at his feet or in the bath with him, in bed with him at night, or I was kicked out of the house working really hard. And when I was 19, he just went all the way and started sexually assaulting me and raping me and physically assaulting me. I would be beat up. So after a lot of violence, he would end it with with sexual abuse. And this happened day and night. All the time.

CG: You don’t need me to tell you this, but that that’s terrible. And again, I’m really sorry that that you had to go through all that. How did you actually get away? Can you describe actually escaping?

ED: Yes. So one morning, I woke up beside my father, and he started pounding his elbow right into my chest and told me, “Get up right now.” And I sat up, and he said, “I want to know why you’re going against me.” And this happened hundreds of times. But this time, I literally sat up with, like confidence in my heart. And I said, “Because I’ve never ever, ever wanted you to touch me the way you touched me. I never ever wanted this. And I just don’t love you.” And he went white. And there’s just curtains, only thing between my father and me and my family was these curtains. I come out of the curtains, and I just saw my mother and all my brothers, everybody sitting there on the couches, I guess quietly hearing this. He told me to go get the whip. And I just went and got that whip and brought it right back to my father. And that whipping almost felt good, because it was like I had spoke the truth, and I was ready to do what it took to prove to him that it was wrong. And I didn’t care how much I suffered. But it still took me two and a half months to get out. And my brothers had finally disappeared, the older brothers. They all told me, “You better get out of here, you have to leave.”

And my father decided that he was going to go into the little town and McCarthy and get some fuel. Normally I wasn’t allowed out of his sight like seriously not allowed out of his sight. But this time he left me at home because he didn’t want me to be seen by my brothers. And once he disappeared I threw a whole bunch of food and supplies onto the snowmachine, but it wouldn’t start. He has sabotaged all the snowmachines before he left. So with my sister’s help we got one snowmachine going and we headed out and got down onto the riverbed, and the thing just fell apart. It was like one of those bad dreams where you’re like, “OK I am so dead right now.” I looked up into the mountains both ways, and I stepped off the trail. The snow was up past my waist and it’s 20 below zero. I knew my father was just at the other end and getting ready to turn around and come back up. So I only had a window of time. So I look up and my sister- she ran back to see if they couldn’t get the other snowmachine going. And, meanwhile, I’m literally trying to sew the belt together with baling wire. And I did, I got it sewed together and got about 10 feet and the whole thing fell apart again. I was just desperate. But I look up, and she came back down the hill with a snowmachine, another one, and we just piled onto that snowmachine and headed out again. Got off that hill and up against a snowbank, covered up with white sheets, and within 10 to 15 minutes, no longer than 20 minutes, here came my father, and I could see him through the trees with my brothers pulling the big tank of gas. And it was really scary because in that moment, I knew he’d get to the top of that one hill and know that I had left. The snowmachine was missing. And so we just soon as he passed, headed up the hill, we took off and went about, I don’t know, so many miles an hour that I just about ran into trees and just kept going, because it was a trail. And then missed the rendezvous with my brothers. And I just couldn’t wait, I had to hide. I had to get out of sight before my father came back down the hill to find me. And we ended up making it to underneath a tree. We just stayed underneath this one tree, right outside of McCarthy along the road. For five days, I wouldn’t move. And my father taught us well how to hide, like I knew how to hide and not be found. And so that was a pretty narrow escape. It wasn’t till like, five days later that we made our way to a phone and called my brothers. And they came in the night and took me out. So, yeah, and then it took me three weeks before I would even go around anybody. I still just had to stay in the woods. I was scared.

CG: Wow. That’s incredible. It sounds like it must have taken a long time to come to grips with any of this. It’s probably something you’re still working on. But you wrote this book about it, and I wonder, how did you get to the point where you can talk about all this and write about it?

ED: Well, thanks for asking. That has been a journey. A big journey. It’s been one that I chose to take, because I could see that all the things done to me was one thing, but what had happened inside of me was another. And the way I would react to, even true love, or why I would react to the loss, when I faced the fact that, here I was 30 years old, I had my first birthday party. And just that by itself showed me when I didn’t have all my life. And I didn’t have schooling, I couldn’t just go get a career. And I didn’t even know how to date guys. I didn’t get to do that. And so I also was just like, the truth of what I didn’t have was so painful that it sent me into such anger. I was just the opposite of forgiveness. I wanted my father to pay. I wanted anybody to pay. I wanted my mom to pay for not doing something about it. I was angry. And it was a process where I finally reached a point in my heart where I was done. I was ready to take my life. There wasn’t any reason to go on. My father was in jail. In my mind, I saved my family now, and that was how I saw it like, “OK, he’s locked up, nobody’s gonna get hurt. There’s no reason for me to live anymore.” You know, spiritual abuse is really rough, because you don’t know anymore, what is God about? Except for what I was experiencing throughout my life.

I had actually ran off. I was out in the mountains for 10 days, and I couldn’t accept anything. There was just no answer for me to change. And I called it the invisible chain my father still had on me, even though he was locked up. He still had a grip on me. I was done. And then it was at that point where I just reached out and I just cried out to God. I said, “Is there any hope, like if there’s even a small amount of hope, I don’t feel worth anything.” And it’s that moment where I experienced just choosing that God loved me. And he gave me worth, not because of everything I was or anything I had done or not done. I was actually worth everything to him and to others. And so I came off that mountain just ready to accept my own choices in life and how I was even causing damage around me because I couldn’t accept love. I couldn’t accept forgiveness. I couldn’t accept it. I really was OK. That sounds weird. But after that I ended up pretty soon falling in love with my husband, Matthew, and we got married in ’07. We still hadn’t gone to court with my father. It had been just drawn out the way court is. And so, on our honeymoon, we went back to the places where I had been so abused by my father, just to walk into those places was like he was gonna reach out and grab me and pull me down again. And my husband put his arms around me and just loved me, and we cried together, and we built new memories and walked away with redemption and just a new experience. So then after that, I faced my father in court. And I was like, you know, I can forgive him, I just want to put it all behind and move forward, if only he could just admit he was wrong, that will sure be nice. But I think I was actually really depending on him saying and admitting it all in court. But when I stood there, and read to him a nine-page letter, to me, that was a big step, because I didn’t think I could ever look at him. I mean, he could control me with his eyes, even in the courtroom, he was controlling me and abusing me.

So I walked out of that courtroom that day just devastated because he not only denied it all, but he tried to call me to repentance, and even call my husband to repentance and all sorts of just using the Bible and God, and I was so devastated. Because I really hadn’t found what true forgiveness was. But the problem is forgiveness in everybody’s minds, or even in my own mind was, OK, that means you have to be in a relationship again with this person, or, you know, forget it all. And that wasn’t happening. So it made me even more angry and devastated. And so it was I think about that time I started writing my book. I just started writing. But I didn’t want to talk about him sexually abusing me. It was just I wanted that to be forgotten in my life. It wasn’t till I had finally reached a point where I wrote this whole book, actually, I realized that I needed to start working through the layers of my heart and see the real truth of what had happened. And so I actually walked into this conference where people work together on hearing each other stories in a safe place, called Hearts Going Towards Wellness. And I heard a topic done on forgiveness. And it was all about forgiveness as a journey in walking and seeing the layers of where the debt is. And that was one thing I thought was kind of wrong to go back, you know, and accuse my father or whatever it was, but realizing that I could only figure out how to forgive by knowing what the debt was to forgive. And so that really began a journey of understanding the difference between what had happened to me and what had happened in my own heart. The healing I got from that was just huge. And to the point where now I walk journeys with others and carefully walk through like, what did you experience and what did you own that wasn’t yours to own. And I was finally able to kneel down on my father’s grave and name the things that he had done and the losses in being his daughter and say the words, “I forgive you Papa,” was powerful, because I truly have. I’ve truly forgiven the past. At the same time, I say every day I have to work on it when it comes up, and I can’t just go get like a GED or something, because I have to work really hard to get my schooling done. And that was stolen from me, or anything in life. That’s reminded me of it. It’s a process.

Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.

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