Book Review: “Pilgrims’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier” by Tom Kizzia – posted 8/27/2013
I suppose I have a fascination with crazy people who do things that are very out of the ordinary. This book, “Pilgrims’ Wilderness”, by Tom Kizzia has that but it veers in a very dark direction.
The book tells the story of Robert Hale, later known as Papa Pilgrim, and his wife and 15 children who move from New Mexico to Alaska in 2002. We are not talking a move to downtown Anchorage. They moved to McCarthy which is a boondocks town north and east of Anchorage. It is more than 300 miles from Anchorage to McCarthy.
When I lived in Alaska in 2010-11, I drove around some on the weekends. I bought a Honda Fit while I was up there. On one trip, I headed up to Matanuska Glacier to hike around on the glacier. You have to drive through Palmer and head east into some really spectacular country with 13,000 foot mountains in the background and fast running rivers along the road. McCarthy was quite a bit farther east than I ever went. The roads are remote and they get pretty bad from what I have heard. McCarthy is located in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Moving out there was not for the faint of heart.
I am a northeasterner, not a real Alaskan, so I would say McCarthy is a pretty extreme location. Pilgrim said that Alaska was the sweet name whispered by God as his firstborn came of age. That is how Pilgrim said he landed there. Kizzia says that Pilgrim searched around Alaska for 3 years before deciding to settle in Hillbilly Heaven aka McCarthy..
The story of Papa Pilgrim is fundamentally about domestic violence. The family presented to the outside world as hippie back-to-the-landers who were heavy duty Christians. Papa constantly quoted scripture. Country Rose, Papa’s wife, and the children were quiet, well-behaved in public, and quite subordinate There was no doubt Papa was the head of that household. The family played music together and entertained neighbors. The public did not see what was going on behind the scenes.
For a very long time, no one had a clue that Papa Pilgrim viciously beat Country Rose and the children, particularly his oldest daughter legally named Butterfly Sunstar and later called Elishaba. Papa had been secretly raping Elishaba and beating her repeatedly. He hid his actions for a long time but he also used verses of scripture as justification to his family. When his rape behavior became known to the family, he argued that Leviticus allowed father-daughter relationships. This was a guy who had a line of self-justification for everything he did. He actually had other family members refer to him as Lord.
The guy’s dark side included incest, multiple rapes, brutal physical assaults, kidnapping, emotional abuse and manipulation , child abuse, and theft. And all in the name of Jesus. He was finally brought down by the courageous actions of his own children who were able to step outside of Papa’s brainwashing. A criminal case put him away. Papa died in prison in 2008.
Part of Papa’s modus operandi was to isolate his family. He did not allow his children any education. Life was taken up with surviving in the very harsh, separated environment in which they had located.
Papa did work at creating conflict with the National Park Service by bulldozing a road and creating a path through National Park land to the place they settled. He never got a permit for the bulldozing. He would not talk to the National Park people at all and when they investigated, Papa and sons blocked their way. Papa had also posted signs on National Park land saying “No Trespassing NPS”. Coming after Ruby Ridge and Waco, the National Park rangers were very careful about provoking armed response. Ultimately Papa lost in federal court regarding the permit issue.
Papa was briefly a cause celebre for conservative property rights groups who hated the federal government. The Pacific Legal Foundation had taken his case. That was before he was exposed. Kizzia does a good job of pointing out the contradictions between hating the government and depending on the Alaska Permanent Fund to support the family. While Papa actively hated the government, he was happy to take the annual dividend awarded to Alaska residents that could range from $800-$2000 per person. For a family the size of Papa Pilgrim’s that was pretty good money.
Not surprisingly, Papa was a strict disciplinarian. He used a long leather bullwhip on his own family members when he believed they needed “correction”. As his children grew into their later teen years, he taught that lust was an abomination. Papa freaked out about their budding sexuality. There is a brutal description of how Papa turned a barrel on its side and whipped the boys who were made to lie on the barrel. Country Rose held the boys hands and stuffed hankerchiefs in their mouths when they screamed too loud. Papa blamed Country Rose for the boys’ sins. Among Papa’s corrections was the silent treatment. If a child was bad, they could not be spoken to. They might get no food except for bread and water. They could be made to sit out alone in the rain or snow. That treatment could go on for days.
Papa trained the children to report misbehavior and to listen for prideful or rebellious words. He closed the world off so his children had no escape from him.
Because he was a McCarthy neighbor (Kizzia and his wife owned a cabin there) Kizzia gained some degree of trust with Papa. I liked how Kizzia slowly evolved the story so that the abuse did not become apparent until later. I think the hidden aspect of domestic violence in the story is quite consistent with how domestic violence is discovered, if it is discovered. People never know what is going on next door or right down the road. Papa like many abusers was good at facade. He was very self-righteous in public.
I do have a hard time with the notion that Papa was some kind of counterculture figure. Really Papa’s values were loony and once you get past the hippie look, he was simply another deranged Christian lunatic who used biblical verses to justify all kinds of criminality. He was certainly not part of any 60’s style counterculture I would recognize. He was very much a fringe Christian. Unlike Christian homeschoolers who develop educational plans when they homeschool their children, Papa used the Bible to justify ignorance, male supremacy and violence. When you strip away the religious verbiage, he was about maintaining demagogic power and control over his family. Education threatened to expose him so he prevented it.
Papa’s “dream” had a romantic throwback quality that could appeal to those with superficial knowledge of the man. He appeared to be a rebel, living off the grid, defying the modern world. living a self-reliant, subsistence lifestyle, and raising his children by eternal Christian values. When he moved to McCarthy, he conned people into believing his family was something entirely different than what they were. Again, from a distance, his war with the National Park Service appeared to be the justified actions of a brave man striking back against an overreaching bureaucracy.
Things are often not what they seem. Up close, Papa was a nightmare. Behind the seeming god-fearing Christian was a sociopathic megalomaniac who twisted religion to justify his perverse whims. Papa did everything in the name of his religion. How often do we see this or things like it? Kizzia’s book is quite a cautionary tale. I am reminded of this quote from Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”
I am reprinting a piece written by Uri Avnery, a leader in the Israeli peace movement. Jon
I DIDN’T want to write this article, but I had to.
I love Egypt. I love the Egyptian people. I have spent some of the happiest days of my life there.
My heart bleeds when I think of Egypt. And these days I think about Egypt all the time.
I cannot remain silent when I see what is happening there, an hour’s flight from my home.
LET’S PUT on the table right from the beginning what’s happening there now.
Egypt has fallen into the hands of a brutal, merciless military dictatorship, pure and simple.
Not on the way to democracy. Not a temporary transition regime. Not anything like it.
Like the locusts of old, the military officers have fallen upon the land. They are not likely ever to give it up voluntarily.
Even before, the Egyptian military had enormous assets and privileges. They control vast corporations, are free of any oversight and live off the fat of a skinny land.
Now they control everything. Why should they give it up?
Those who believe that they will do so, of their own free will, should have their head examined.
IT IS enough to look at the pictures. What do they remind us of?
This row of over-decorated, beribboned, well-fed generals who have never fought a war, with their gold-braided, ostentatious peaked hats – where have we seen them before?
In the Greece of the colonels? The Chile of Pinochet? The Argentina of the torturers? Any of a dozen other South-American states? The Congo of Mobutu?
All these generals look the same. The frozen faces. The self-confidence. The total belief that they are the only guardians of the nation. The total belief that all their opponents are traitors who must be caught, imprisoned, tortured, killed.
HOW DID this come about? How did a glorious revolution turn into this disgusting spectacle?
How did the millions of happy people, who had liberated themselves from a brutal dictatorship, who had breathed the first heady whiffs of liberty, who had turned Liberation Square (that’s what Tahrir means) into a beacon of hope for all mankind, slide into this dismal situation?
In the beginning, it seemed that they did all the right things. It was easy to embrace the Arab Spring. They reached out to each other, secular and religious stood together and dared the forces of the aging dictator. The army seemed to support and protect them.
But the fatal faults were already obvious, as we pointed out at the time. Faults that were not particularly Egyptian. They were common to all the recent popular movements for democracy, liberty and social justice throughout the world, including Israel.
These are the faults of a generation brought up on the “social media”, the immediacy of the internet, the effortlessness of instant mass communication. These fostered a sense of empowerment without effort, of the ability to change things without the arduous process of mass-organization, political power-building, of ideology, of leadership, of parties. A happy and anarchistic attitude that, alas, cannot stand up against real power.
When democracy came for a glorious moment and fair elections were in the offing, this whole amorphous mass of young people were faced with a force that had all they themselves lacked: organization, discipline, ideology, leadership, experience, cohesion.
The Muslim Brotherhood.
THE BROTHERHOOD and its Islamist allies easily won the free, fair and
democratic elections against the motley anarchic field of secular and liberal groups and personalities. This has happened before in other Arab countries, such as Algeria and Palestine.
The Islamic Arab masses are not fanatical, but basically religious (as are the Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries.) Voting for the first time in free elections, they tend to vote for religious parties, though they are by no means fundamentalist.
The wise thing for the brotherhood to do was to reach out to other parties, including secular and liberal ones, and lay the foundation for a robust, inclusive democratic regime. This would have been to their own advantage in the long run.
At the beginning it seemed that Mohamed Morsi, the freely elected president, would do so. But he soon changed course, using his democratic powers to change the constitution, exclude everybody else and start to establish the sole domination of his movement.
That was unwise, but understandable. After many decades of suffering from state persecution, including imprisonment, systematic torture and even executions, the movement was thirsty for power. Once it got hold of it, it could not restrain itself. It tried to gobble up everything.
THAT WAS especially unwise, because the brotherhood regime was sitting next to a crocodile, which only seemed to be asleep, as crocodiles often do.
At the beginning of his reign, Morsi drove out the old generals, who had served under Hosni Mubarak. He was applauded. But this just replaced the old, tired crocodile with a young and very hungry one.
It is difficult to guess what was going on in the military mind at the time. The generals sacrificed Mubarak, who was one of them, in order to protect themselves. They became the darling of the people, especially the young, secular, liberal people. “The army and the people are one!” – How nice. How naïve. How utterly inane.
It is quite clear now that during the Morsi months, the generals were waiting for their opportunity. When Morsi made his fatal mistakes and announced that he was going to change the constitution – they pounced.
All military juntas like to pose, in the beginning, as the saviors of democracy.
Abd-al-Fatah al-Sisi does not have an exciting ideology, as did Gamal Abd-al-Nasser (pan-Arabism) when he carried out his bloodless coup in 1952. He has no vision like Anwar al-Sadat (peace), the dictator who inherited power. He was not the anointed heir of his predecessor, sworn to continue his vision, as was Hosni Mubarak. He is a military dictator, pure and simple (or rather, not so pure and not so simple).
ARE WE Israelis to blame? The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says so. It’s all the making of Israel. We engineered the Egyptian coup.
Very flattering, But, I’m afraid, slightly exaggerated.
True, the Israeli establishment is afraid of an Islamic Arab world. It detests the Muslim Brotherhood, the mother of Hamas and other Islamic movements which are committed to fighting Israel. It enjoys a cosy relationship with the Egyptian military.
If the Egyptian generals had asked their Israeli colleagues and friends for advice on the coup, the Israelis would have promised them their enthusiastic support. But there is nothing much they could have done about it.
Except one thing. It is Israel that has assured the Egyptian military for decades its annual big US aid package. Using its control of the US Congress, Israel has prevented the termination of this grant through all these years. At this moment, the huge Israeli power-machine in the US is busy ensuring the continuation of the 1.3 billion or so of US aid to the generals. But this is not crucial, since the Arab Gulf oligarchies are ready to finance the generals to the hilt.
What is crucial for the generals is American political and military support. There cannot be the slightest doubt that before acting, the generals asked for American permission, and that this support was readily given.
The US president does not really direct American policy. He can make beautiful speeches, elevating democracy to divine status, but he cannot do much about it. Policy is made by a political-economic-military complex, for which he is just the figurehead.
This complex does not care a damn for “American Values”. It serves American (and its own) interests. A military dictatorship in Egypt serves these interests – as it does the perceived interests of Israel.
DOES IT really serve them? Perhaps in the short run. But an enduring civil war – on the ground or under ground – will ruin Egypt’s shaky economy and drive away crucial investors and tourists. Military dictatorships are notably incompetent administrations. In a few months or years this dictatorship will crumble – as have all other military dictatorships in the world.
Until that day, I shall weep for Egypt.
Our Secular Heritage – Whitman had it right: ‘Argue not concerning God’ – published in the Concord Monitor 8/9/2013
When Judge John Lewis of Stratford County Superior Court ruled in June that the tax credit program for private religious schools was unconstitutional, he relied on Article 83 of the New Hampshire state constitution. That article plainly states, “no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of schools or institutions of any religious sect or denomination”.
On its face, that language seems clear. However, the case is being appealed to the state Supreme Court. Like so many other church/state issues, there are always two sides. Both sides appealed Judge Lewis’s ruling.
As Judge Lewis noted, the issue has deep historical roots. Really since the very beginning of the United States, separation of church and state, in multiple contexts, has been highly controversial. The threads of secularism and religion have been closely interwoven in American history. Judge Lewis’s decision is just the latest reflection of that tension.
People on the secular side of the divide have often been put on the defensive by religious fundamentalists and biblical literalists. They are derided and demonized as secular humanists, atheists, and elitists.
The fundamentalists have framed the church/state debate as between the believers (themselves) and the non-believers (the godless). Allegedly, they have values and secularists are value-free. I think this framing is grossly unfair to those of us on the secular side. While there certainly are hardcore atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, I would stake out a different position on the secular side. It is what I would call the Walt Whitman viewpoint. I actually think this viewpoint is more consistent with the views of many Founding Fathers who were Enlightenment thinkers.
In Leaves of Grass, Whitman famously wrote:
“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyranny, argue not concerning God…”
I think there is much wisdom in the advice “argue not concerning God”. Whitman argues for the acceptance and validity of the views of both believers and non-believers. In the face of ultimate mystery, he respects multiple perspectives. In a country as diverse as the United States, Whitman’s perspective makes much sense. Look only as far as Egypt to see the potential for bloodshed and divisiveness when one sectarian religion gains power and tries to consolidate its gains at the expense of others.
The name-calling against American secularists has obscured our secular tradition in America which is honorable and insufficiently appreciated. There is no single repository of this tradition which is part of the reason it is underappreciated.
I wanted to acknowledge some of the contributors to the American secular tradition whom I admire, including a couple who are relatively unknown now. All the secularists I highlight have fought theocracy and have struggled to make America a more egalitarian society. It has to start with Tom Paine. The outstanding propagandist of the American revolution, Paine agitated in both the American and French revolutions and always fought economic privilege. In 1805, John Adams wrote this about Paine:
“I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine.”
In the 19th century, secularists played a vital role in both the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. I would mention the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, who were Quakers but who were fiercely anti-clerical and anti-slavery. They publicly spoke out against slavery before interracial audiences of both sexes, a practice that shocked the public of that day.
I also wanted to mention Lucretia Mott and Ernestine Rose. Both have landed in the forgotten category but they also deserve recognition and appreciation. They fought for equal rights for women in a very tough climate. Mott helped found the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society and she also helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 which was the first public women’s rights meeting in the United States. Rose was the first Jewish immigrant to campaign aggressively for social reform in the United States. In her book, “Freethinkers”, Susan Jacoby describes Rose as “the Emma Goldman of the 1840’s and 1850’s”.
Robert Ingersoll also deserves special mention. Known as “the Great Agnostic”, Ingersoll may be the most famous man of his time who is unknown now. A lawyer and an eloquent orator, Ingersoll made fun of religion, supported the Bill of Rights, and opposed the death penalty. He has been described as the American Voltaire. He spoke widely around the country in the late 19th century and he had a gift for charming audiences by using humor to disarm opponents. Of the Founders, he wrote:
“They knew that to put God in the constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping, or in the keeping of her God, the sacred rights of man. They intended that all should have the right to worship, or not to worship; that our laws should make no distinction on account of creed. They intended to found and frame a government for man, and for man alone. They wished to preserve the individuality of all; to prevent the few from governing the many, and the many from persecuting and destroying the few.”
Moving into the 20th century, I will only mention two names – Clarence Darrow and Eugene V. Debs. I know others might question this choice. Darrow is certainly one of the most famous American lawyers of all time. In the Scopes monkey trial, Darrow represented a Tennessee high school biology teacher accused of teaching evolution. Debs, a labor leader who ran for President five times on the Socialist Party ticket, was extremely charismatic and inspirational. He was a die-hard supporter of working class Americans. Later in his career, he went to jail for opposing World War I and the military draft. At his sentencing hearing in November 1918 when he faced ten years in prison, he stated:
“Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
I wanted to put in a plug for Susan Jacoby’s book, Freethinkers, that I had mentioned earlier. Freethinkers is a very comprehensive history of American secularism. It is an entertaining read and it gives great background on a far wider range of characters than I acknowledged in this short piece.
Jacoby makes the point that maybe secular humanists should call themselves freethinkers. It might be harder to demonize that term. I think it is past time for freethinkers to be defensive about arguing for reason and science rather than faith in the supernatural. There is nothing wrong with bringing a rationalist approach to fundamental questions of earthly existence. It is really a matter of intellectual integrity.