The following is a statement written by Brittany Campbell. Brittany is a survivor of New Beginnings Girls Academy, LaRussell Missouri. Brittany graduated in 2004. Other survivors statements can be found here. A mothers statement here.
“What did I mean when I said “…brutally psychologically and physically abusive”?
Regarding these homes, it’s become a cop-out for fundamentalists to say stuff like, “We just have a different definition of abuse.” …implying that we’re just pissed off former troubled teens who are angry that we had strict Christian doctrine shoved down our throats.
Not so. For one, we’re adults now. We aren’t looking for extensive court battles, claiming damages for which we wish to receive settlements, etc. We’re blowing the whistle, simply so that no other kids have to experience it. Second, even most of the strictest parents I’ve ever met would consider NBGA to be abusive if they really knew what it was like there. Because they weren’t there themselves (obviously) and because NBGA claims to be IFB, they’ll defend whatever we say they did as “Biblical discipline.” Why? Because it’s easier than DEALING with it. It’s easier to say, “Well, she did [this atrocious act] before she was sent there” to try to justify why something so extreme was necessary for the children sent there. We’re here, admitting that YES, we were troubled teens, but NO it doesn’t mean that our abuse was justified. Some of us “troubled teens” were more extreme than others. It ranged from girls with misdemeanors on their minor records, girls who’d done stints in juvenile detention centers, to girls who had so much as kissed a boy or tried smoking a cigarette. Regardless of actions or youthful errors, no one received a trial or advocate of any kind and we found ourselves locked in a place that often treated us worse than convicted criminals. There were no rules for fair treatment, no outsiders that could check up on us, there was no way to call your parents and talk to them about what was wrong or even to write them a letter. All of our letters were read. Our calls came from our legal guardians only, once a month or every two weeks, and they were timed for 10-15 minutes and monitored by the staff.
I’ve been asked, “Why didn’t you tell someone?” My only answer for that is fear. The first couple phone calls, I cried through the whole 15 minutes. The first time I got in trouble, I screamed my head off and demanded to be allowed to call my family. I was told that if I kept it up, I wouldn’t be allowed phone calls at all. The first letter I wrote, I talked about what I felt was wrong with the Home. It was returned to me for rewriting and I had to rewrite it to their satisfaction. Any description of abuse or mistreatment was referred to as “Negativity.” I quickly realized that my family communicated with the McNamaras more than they communicated with me, and if I ever wanted out, I would have to play along. The program was supposed to last a year, and three months in the McNamaras still couldn’t stand me. I eventually realized that if I didn’t please them, then my family would never think that I was good enough to get out. Sooner or later, you zone out. You accept what’s happening. You forget how wrong it is, and you try to survive because there’s nothing that you can do about it. It’s like a battered woman in a fearful relationship. You start to feel that if your family doesn’t notice something wrong with the fact that you don’t even talk, walk, breathe, or look like the same person anymore, then they must not actually care what it took to get you that way so fast. My true identity was stifled, suppressed, and stomped at, suffocated all day every day. The new identity, the girl who sat up straight to avoid negative attention, who kept her lips sealed, who followed the rules and got few demerits, who dressed in the perfect modest IFB way, seemed to please everyone very much. For the first time in my life, the people I loved seemed to be proud of me. It was a nice change. I got high on that feeling.
The delusions didn’t start to slip away for a long time. It took a while to realize what they had done to me. I operated like a robot. I did what I was told, and I got patted on the back for it. My family back at home was happy to know that I was doing well, and I was happy to make them happy. I went in 2001, went home for a short stint in 2002, and went back in 2002 and stayed until 2005. It wasn’t until 2003 or 2004 that I really began to wake up from the weird survivalist trance I’d been in. Looking back, I remember so much sadness. I’d smile in church, mind my Ps and Qs whenever visiting back home, but when I’d hit my bunk at night and whenever I’d pray during Devotions, I’d fall into a million pieces. I felt like I was locked in this silence. I knew it was wrong, but the story was so intense and so long and so unbelievable, I didn’t know if I could tell anyone. I knew that if my story was rejected, I would just die. And how could I do it anyway? Where would I go? Even if I had places to go, I didn’t believe that I did. This was no accident. All that I knew how to do was to continue playing my part. I kept up a great façade when others were present. When I was alone, praying silently in the bathroom stall at night, I was in agony. I begged God to help me every single day.
The first time that I told someone what it was like, I couldn’t stop shaking. I couldn’t tell the whole story, but the person I told got the idea. After that, I had to let it slowly sink in that if I left, they couldn’t hurt me and God wouldn’t punish me. That process took about a year. Even after I left for good, I was unable to talk about it to most people who asked. I spent a couple months afterward agonizing over the idea that I HAD to call Child Protective Services to let them know what was going on at NBGA. Every time I thought about it, I had panic attacks and had to fight terrible nausea. Finally 5 or 6 months after I left, in 2005, I called them.
The response back then from IFB people I knew wasn’t much different than it is now. “I’m not saying it didn’t happen. I just think you’re going about it the wrong way.” “That all depends on what you call ‘abuse.’”
Just for clarification, I’d like to tell you why I call it “abuse.” Bear in mind, this is nowhere near the full spectrum of what it was really like; just a little piece.
At NBGA, we went on “Tour” every summer. We were carted from church to church doing singing/Bible recitation performances. The church members never saw what was behind all those performances. Every day of the year we’d spend 60-120 minutes a day working on memorizing Bible chapters and about an hour (additionally) a day doing singing practice.
Brother Mac would frequently appear during these sessions and would yell and scream and jump around like a rabid animal if he didn’t like something about the way we sounded… or if he didn’t feel like we were really “into it” …or if he felt like someone needed to be singled out. Essentially, if he walked in the room at any time and you weren’t sitting up straight-as-an-arrow with your ankles crossed and beaming a huge smile in his direction, you were fair game. If you weren’t silent as death all the time… if you weren’t robotic in everything you did: perfectly dressed, perfectly mannered, perfectly punctual, you were screwed. If you looked remotely ill or tired or remotely “down,” he would verbally attack you – telling you that your “countenance is down” and you obviously were hiding something and weren’t right with God. And it was always a struggle not to appear fake as a three dollar bill when you looked at him, because he’d call you out on that too. And you lived in fear of what he thought, what he would say, what he would do. Not just to one person specifically, because frequently the whole group would be punished for the actions (perceived or real) of one girl. So there wasn’t just pressure from him; it came from all angles. Whether you were “Junior Staff,” a 20-something year old woman (like Miss Heather,) or a regular girl – you dreaded him, his “preaching,” his threats, and everything about Bill McNamara.
The first lesson you must learn with a swiftness is that no one gives a damn how you feel, what you think, or what you want. No one inside or outside the walls where you’ll spend months on end in silence. At least, that’s what they want you to think. And whatever they want you to believe, you must believe. There is no choice, because you don’t matter. You learn very quickly that all they care about is how you ACT. Everything inside, any feeling you have, is irrelevant. And you adapt accordingly.
The first “preaching” session I remember him doing when I got to the Home, they walked us over to the church and we sat in pews wondering what the hell was going on this time. Brother Mac came in. He stood up four sisters in front of all of us. 2 were on Redshirt, and 2 were not. He said, “The Devil wants your family. He will do anything he can to get it.” And screamed his lungs out, telling us how the Devil would rip our families apart and even kill our family members (and God would permit this or even do it Himself) if we didn’t “Get right with God” at NBGA/Rebekah. This session covered the usual subjects (the ones he made sure to cover every other day): what he didn’t like about SPECIFIC girls, what so-and-so had done to get sent here, so-and-so is fat and gluttonous and disgusting, so-and-so is sloppy and smells like dirty vagina or “masturbation,” so-and-so wouldn’t get so many yeast infections if she’d stop “putting things up inside herself,” so-and-so is a whore and can’t wait to get home to have all the boys in the neighborhood [complete with descriptive gestures] “hammer away on her,” so-and-so has stomach aches and acne because she has the blackest sin in her heart and it’s trying to find a way to get out, so-and-so’s father died because she “worships Satan” and won’t “get right.”
Sometimes he’d talk about himself and his dark past. He’d rant about how he couldn’t even read a few short years ago, and look what God had given him. He’d talk about a time he spied on a guy at his house, planning to kill him, but luckily God intervened. He’d rattle on about all the drugs he used to love, naming things I (such a wayward teen) had never even heard of. He’d talk about how we shouldn’t look at boys from the boys’ home during church and should keep our eyes on the ground as the rules dictate, because those boys were bad and he knew why they’d been sent there (he said, for acts of bestiality and incest.) He’d pretend to shoot up heroin or carve out imaginary lines of coke and snort them to illustrate what so-and-so couldn’t wait to get home to do, even though the majority of the girls had no drug problems previously.
On this particular occasion, I was fresh meat, and he’d just read my file, so at one point he locks eyes with me and starts sprinting toward me like he doesn’t plan to stop. For whatever reason, I make like a statue. The few girls on the end of the pew in front of me cower out of the way at the last second, and he jumps onto the pew in front of me, bends at the waist until he’s in my face and my heart is banging on my chest like a jackhammer and he screams, “God can’t bless a BUNCH OF FAGGOTS.” He looks around at all the girls while he straightens himself, still standing on the pew, and then looks down at me to convey that this was meant for me and nods. “Amen?” he asks like it’s a question. I look around, dumbfounded, white knuckling the pew I’m standing behind and he’s standing on. The other girls shift their eyes away from me. I look back at Brother Mac who’s still waiting for an answer, and emit a choked, “Amen.”
On Tour, this is practically all we heard. If we screwed up a performance in any menial way, our hearts were not pure before God. We’d endure these “preaching” sessions for agonizing lengths of time. They packed us into and carted us around in vans, and we’d do between 1 and 3 performances most days for most of the summer, going back to the Home’s property to do yard work or sit around practicing singing or Bible Memo for only 2 or so weeks of the entire summer.
During the performances, anxiety was high. They never said this, but after a zillion times in trouble you learn what you’re supposed to do: they want you to sing your parts perfectly and don’t forget to be extra emotional. The ones who give more emotional and dramatic testimonies before the churches become quick favorites. No one gets really special treatment; they just get left alone a little more and Brother Mac doesn’t tell your parents that you need to stay until you’re 18.
Basically, we’d spend a good 30-45 minutes singing songs like Old Rejected Relic, emphasizing the misery in our lives and our sinfulness, and then Brother Mac would call on specific quiet, well-behaved girls to tell the church about what kind of trouble they’d gotten into before the Home and how NBGA was helping them.
”Just an old, rejected relic
On the auction block,
They decided to throw me away.
The auctioneer asked, ‘who will take her?’
The room was quiet and still
’Til Jesus stepped forward
And He said, ‘I will.’
If you had known me
Before I knew Him
You’d understand why I love Him
If you had known me
Before I knew Him
You’d understand my love.”
At the end of each service, the girls and the whole audience would be sobbing, and the offering plate was passed around for donations for the Home.
One summer, we were in Odem, TX at a church. We slept in the auditorium, and the Macs slept in a little guest room in a building behind the church. I was Junior Staff at the time, so I snuck up to the front to dink around with the instruments while the rest of the girls ironed for the next performance. The girls on Redshirt/Discipline were to stand on the wall during any down time we had, per orders of Brother Mac. I was playing with a bass guitar and looked up once in a while to see that nothing was out of the ordinary and everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing and not talking or communicating while doing it.
I noticed that Jamie (on Redshirt/Discipline) was sitting down. All the other Helpers and Junior Staff had noticed too and had started getting shifty. If Brother Mac came in and saw her, she would get in SERIOUS trouble and all of us who were not making her do what he said she was to do would be in SERIOUS trouble too. I remember a couple people telling her to stand up. I remember feeling anxious and telling her something to the effect of, “If you stand up, it will be easier on all of us. Please don’t make me go tell him.” She remained seated. I don’t remember which one of us did the dirty deed of telling Brother Mac that she wasn’t complying. Honestly, it could have been me. That’s how afraid we were.
Brother Mac and Mrs Mac ordered the Junior Staffers and Helpers to bring her back to their guest room. I remember the walk to the little building behind the church vividly – there were at least 5 of us surrounding Jamie while she walked, and she looked like she’d just had it. She didn’t care what the consequences were, so long as she could take her face off that wall for a few minutes.
We get into the room where they are and they start laying into 16-year-old Jamie about her personal flaws, her life “screw-ups,” warnings about God and how she should fear him more, and if she won’t “get right” she’ll be on that wall forever and they’ll never tell her parents that she’s ready to go home. Then they tell her she’ll need to bend over for her licks in front of all of us. Licks, typically done with a paddle, hurt like hell. Most girls resist, because they’re afraid of getting licks. Jamie does too. Except what she’s in for hurts a lot more.
She just says, “No.” No elaborate arguing, no attempts to hit anyone or run away. She just refuses to take her licks and claims that they’re unnecessary. Brother Mac turns into a squealing beast and calls her every name in the book. “Whore” seems to be his favorite. Mrs. Mac shifts her weight back and forth with her arms folded across her chest, with that (all too common) wild-eyed look of hers. Mrs. Mac turns and walks toward the window and grabs one of the rods off the blinds, rather than the usual paddle. My stomach sinks, Jamie starts screaming, and Brother Mac says, “Take her down, girls. Whatever you have to do. I said, PUT HER ON THE FLOOR! She’s a danger to herself and others. She’s got demons inside. Little devil thinks she can do what she wants. Let those demons OUT, Jamie.” Jamie struggles and thrashes about on the floor under the girls, screaming bloody murder, begging not to be hurt, but doesn’t hit any of us. Brother Mac chuckles. I stand there, frozen, while four or five girls wrestle her to the floor, slamming her face-down onto the hard, dirty floor, while Jamie screams, “No! Let me call my dad!” Mrs Mac raises her voice too, “Move your hands, girls!” and beats Jamie as hard as she can with this rod on the back, legs, and buttocks until she’s satisfied, breathing heavily, her forehead beads with sweat. After this, Jamie goes back to the wall. We go back to our business, trying to shake her cries from our minds. And the next day, we stand as a group in front of the church and testify about how God and New Beginnings have changed us completely.
And we’re changed alright. Changed forever.”