In Depth  |  

Finding forgiveness after being raped by her dad

A father sexually abused his eldest daughter for decades, until she escaped on a snowmobile in the middle of the Alaskan winter

She looks happy, maybe even joyful, when we sit and talk in the Southern Highlands of NSW. Behind her smile lies a story so harrowing and grim, I find it easy to wonder how she can smile at all, but Elishaba Doerksen knows the deep healing that God can bring.

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The darkness descends

As we sit in dappled sunlight, Elishaba tells me she is the eldest of 15 children – a fact I find overwhelming – and that she was born and raised in the remote mountains of California and New Mexico. In her early twenties, her father moved the family deep into the Wrangell Mountains in eastern Alaska to a place he called ‘Hillbilly Heaven’.

Elishaba with her father, Robert Hale, and three of her brothers

Elishaba with her father, Robert Hale, and three of her brothers Elishaba Doerksen

Her father, Robert (Bobby) Hale, converted to Christianity while Elishaba was young, but unsatisfied with the teachings of church leaders, he became something of a self-styled prophet within his own family.

At age seven, her father told her that as a baby he would hold her in the shower and get sexually aroused.

The abuse started when Elishaba was still young. Feeling rejected by her mother, Elishaba became what she describes as a “daddy’s girl”.

It was normal for her to have long baths snuggled up next to him, and sleep in his bed.

At age seven, her father told her that as a baby he would hold her in the shower and get sexually aroused. It was normal for her to have long baths snuggled up next to him, and sleep in his bed.

Elishaba sweeps the floor of the family cabin

Elishaba sweeps the floor of the family cabin Elishaba Doerksen

As Elishaba recounts the stories from her past, I feel myself start to cry at the blatant injustice meted out to her.

“I couldn’t understand how he could love me and hate me at the same time.”

By the time the next girl was born (after five brothers being born in between), her father had also rejected her – although he still required her to take baths with him and sleep in his bed. She says, “I couldn’t understand how he could love me and hate me at the same time.”

“I was basically his second wife, his concubine.”

Her father would lecture the whole family from the Bible, for hours on end, and Elishaba says that although she had no education and couldn’t read very well, she had basically the entire King James Bible memorised.

Even the slightest misstep would earn Elishaba (and the other children) a beating, and she still bears the scars of the whip.

Elishaba cradles one of her younger siblings

Elishaba cradles one of her younger siblings Elishaba Doerksen

He waited until Elishaba was 18 to begin raping her. At first, she resisted. But her father told her that if she slept with him he would stop beating her brothers, something that greatly distressed her. She believed him and went to bed with him. He didn’t keep his word.

“…[He] told her that the Bible said that God gives every man “one special daughter”.

For the next 11 years, he sexually abused her almost every night.

“I was basically his second wife, his concubine,” says Elishaba.

When she questioned what he was doing to her, he would beat her, and then tell her that the Bible said that God gives every man “one special daughter”. When she tried to search the Bible for the reference to the “special daughter” he confiscated the Bible and beat her.

A shard of light pierces the dark

“When I was seven years old I accepted Jesus as my friend and saviour,” Elishaba tells me.

“…[there was a difference between] the God that my dad was preaching to me and the Jesus I was experiencing.”

She experienced God’s presence in small but significant ways. One day her father sent her to the attic as punishment, and after a couple of days of beatings and being forced to lie still, her cat (who had been missing for several days) appeared and cuddled up to her. She knew in that moment that Jesus was with her.

“I actually experienced Jesus as being my friend, but [there was a difference between] the God that my dad was preaching to me and the Jesus I was experiencing.”

“I pictured God as this angry God who was going to throw me into hell at any moment … Honestly, I craved death.”

Even through the beatings and abuse Elishaba continued to experience Jesus as her friend.

Elishaba cuddles a younger sibling

Elishaba cuddles a younger sibling Elishaba Doerksen

“[But] I tended to believe what my dad said. I pictured God as this angry God who was going to throw me into hell at any moment. Anything I’d done wrong I had to pay for, and my dad had to beat the devil out of me in order for me to make it to heaven.

“Honestly, I craved death. I just wanted to die. But I was scared to take my own life – that would send me straight to hell.”

The escape from ‘Heaven’

Partly spurred on by her brothers’ departure (five of her brothers had left a few weeks prior), and partly growing in her conviction that it was wrong of her father to treat her as his second wife, shortly after her 29th birthday Elishaba made plans to leave the remote cabin.

“I was really scared of the world, and I was really scared of people, because I had grown to believe that everybody was evil and that we were the only light.”

But it wasn’t easy.

“My family was everything to me, it was all I had known,” Elishaba says.

“I was really scared of the world, and I was really scared of people, because I had grown to believe that everybody was evil and that we were the only light, even though it didn’t feel like it.”

…they realised that their father had sabotaged the snowmobile by removing the spark plugs.

Add to this that the cabin was located deep in the mountains, and to get to the nearest town you had to cross the river 16 times.

One of her younger sisters, Jerusalem, then 16 years old, insisted on coming with her. In -29 degree Celsius weather, they piled rice, cheese, raisins, tools, sleeping bags and two white sheets on to the snowmobile.

And then they realised that their father had sabotaged the snowmobile by removing the spark plugs. With panic rising, Jerusalem headed to the tool shed. There she found a spark plug! They inserted it into the snowmobile and headed off.

Elishaba and one of her sisters on a snow plough

Elishaba and one of her sisters on a snowmobile Elishaba Doerksen

A half-mile down the trail the engine belt broke. With panic rising, Jerusalem grabbed the plug, ran back to the other snowmobile, and filled it with fuel. They quickly transferred all their supplies to the second snowmobile, unaware that there was a pinhole leak in the fuel tank.

“If he caught me, he would’ve killed me.”

When they ran out of gas, halfway down the mountain, they saw the family’s last snowmobile, only a few metres away. It had been left there on a previous trip up the mountain.

“We felt the Lord was with us at that point.”

“We felt the Lord was with us at that point,” Elishaba says.

They pulled off the main trail, frightened that they would come face to face with their father. “If he caught me, he would’ve killed me,” says Elishaba.

A mere 15 minutes later they heard their father race past, heading up the mountain to the cabin. Once he was out of earshot, they started up the snowmobile and headed for the town of McCarthy.

The Hale family sing together

The Hale family sing together Elishaba Doerksen

Unable to find their brothers in town, they ended up hiding under a big tree for five days and nights, surviving on cheese and raisins.

They were eventually reunited with their brothers who took them to the home of a Christian family, the Buckinghams.

From shame to freedom

Not long after Elishaba escaped, her father was arrested and charged with multiple counts of incest and abuse, following an altercation with one of her younger siblings.

“I’ll never forget sitting on the porch, with Mama Buckingham, after getting word that my dad was caught.

“I believe the healing process started as soon as I was able to start being honest about the real truth.”

“I actually just dumped everything in my life, and shared with her the secrets of my life that I’d never told anyone. I was sure that when I was done talking to her, she would not love me anymore or have me around anymore.

‘The truth will set you free. You can’t go wrong with telling the truth.’ – Mama Buckingham

“When I was done, she almost physically lifted my head and brushed my hair back and expressed how much she loved me.

“She told me, really clearly, ‘the truth will set you free. You can’t go wrong with telling the truth.’

“I believe the healing process started as soon as I was able to start being honest about the real truth,” says Elishaba.

For a long time after she escaped, Elishaba tried to find the strength within to forgive her dad, forgive everybody, but she could never forgive herself.

Then one day, after spending ten days camped out in the woods, she cried out to God like never before.

“I just love God’s grace because whatever level I’m at is good enough until I’m ready for the next level.”

“I gave up trying. I gave up needing to have anything good inside me. I pictured myself naked before God, inside out. Everything I had was nothing but dirty rags and I could just hand it to God and say, ‘can you handle me? Can you handle this box of dirty rags?’

“Of course he can,” reflects Elishaba. “And he loved me just the same. And it was like I finally looked up and saw myself through the eyes of Jesus.

The Hale family in Alaska

The Hale family in Alaska Elishaba Doerksen

“Forgiveness for me has been a journey. It has taken time, step by step, and I just love God’s grace because whatever level I’m at is good enough until I’m ready for the next level.

“And I really don’t feel any shame for the level I was at a few years ago, I just thank God that I was able to reach that point, and now I’m at this point and I know there’s so much more.

“I can’t wait for what’s more, in [the journey of] forgiveness.”

Elishaba Doerksen has since married and had two children of her own. She lives in Alaska.

Elishaba Doerksen with husband Matt, and children Esther and Michael

Elishaba Doerksen with husband Matt, and children Esther and Michael Elishaba Doerksen

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Pray that God would continue to heal Elishaba, and all the Hale children, and that God would provide deep healing for all victims and survivors of domestic abuse.

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