New book from eldest Pilgrim daughter details escape from father’s abuse
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The oldest child of what many Alaskans may remember as the “Pilgrim family” has written a book detailing the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, as well as her long journey toward forgiveness.
Content Warning: This article contains information about sexual assault that might be difficult for some readers.
Elishaba Doerksen and her 14 siblings lived on private property inside the Wrangell St. Elias National Park, led by her father, the self-proclaimed Papa Pilgrim, who’s real name was Robert Hale. They gained notoriety when the family bulldozed an illegal road through the park, but eventually the elder Pilgrim would become known for something else.
Doerksen’s book “Out of the Wilderness” chronicles the years of extreme physical, sexual and mental abuse Hale inflicted on his family. Hale took control, she says, which started at a young age when he ordered his children to throw away their toys.
Doerksen read a paragraph from her book: “Tears came to my eyes. ‘Do we really have to do this daddy?’ ‘Yes, we do.’ His stern answer told me that his mind was made up.”
Doerksen said her father used the Bible to justify his actions, but the interpretation of scripture was always his own, and no one could go against him, even her mother. That included when Hale decided his oldest daughter should become his wife.
“There was 10 years of him raping me every day, like constant sexual abuse day and night,” Doerksen said. “I wasn’t even allowed to fall asleep unless I was sexually taking care of his needs.”
Doerksen said she was torn between wanting her father’s love, fearing for her family’s safety, and wishing she was dead. She learned to keep her mouth shut.
“I feared for my life every day, I came pretty close to dying many times,” she said.
When her father revealed a plan to impregnate her and hide her even further in the wilderness, Doerksen took a chance and made a daring escape. Hale was arrested and in 2006 pleaded no contest to charges of rape, assault, and incest, at the same time denying they had ever occurred.
“When I walked into that courtroom, I was so ready to hear my dad say he was sorry, like admit it,” Doerksen said. “And I think my life depended upon it in that moment.”
But that never happened. Hale died in prison two years later without ever admitting what he had done.
Doerksen has been able to get on with her life. She’s married a man she loves, and they have two children. She’s also written a book she hopes will let others know they don’t have to suffer alone. And finally, she’s been able to forgive her father, seven years after his death.
“Some people might be able to just forgive in the moment but like, for me it was a journey,” she said.
Doerksen visited her father’s grave in 2015 to tell him.
“It was powerful, kneeling on that grave and saying, ‘I forgive you Papa,’” she said.
She says writing the book has also helped to lighten her heart and let her secrets go.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, resources are available on the Standing Together Against Rape (STAR) website or by calling the statewide crisis hotline at 1-800-478-8999.
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