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Open to interpretation

Author of "Pilgrim's Wilderness" talks about the influence of perspectives

Posted: February 13, 2014 - 12:00am
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Top row, from left: Papa Pilgrim, David, Country Rose, Jonathan, Hosanna, Elishaba, Jerusalem;  middle row: Moses, Job, Noah, Abraham, Israel; lower row: Joseph, Bethlehem, Lamb, Psalms, Joshua.   Photo courtesy of Tom Kizzia
Photo courtesy of Tom Kizzia
Top row, from left: Papa Pilgrim, David, Country Rose, Jonathan, Hosanna, Elishaba, Jerusalem; middle row: Moses, Job, Noah, Abraham, Israel; lower row: Joseph, Bethlehem, Lamb, Psalms, Joshua.

“I want to talk about fear.”

That was how Homer author Tom Kizzia opened his Sound and Motion presentation on Friday, Feb. 7, at the University of Alaska Southeast. The Egan Lecture Hall was packed for Kizzia’s talk, likely due to the extraordinary and sensational story of the popularly known Pilgrim Family — the focus of Kizzia’s book, “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” — but there was also a residue of solidarity in the air.

The majority of the story of the 15-child family of Robert Hale, or “Papa Pilgrim” and his wife, Country Rose occurred around McCarthy, a town of just over 40 residents at the base of the Wrangell mountains. The story is bursting with page-turning drama of isolation and controversy. But Juneau residents seemed to gravitate more towards the aura and mystique of Pilgrim family life, like an analogy for their own intrigue and personal relationship with the state they call home.

Rather than detail a biographical and chronological description of the family and its story in his talk, titled “Transcendentalists, Puritans and Pilgrims in Alaska,” Kizzia spoke about more inclusive and large-scale issues in our state which naturally surfaced as he began to research and write about the Hale family. He spoke about land-use controversies and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the irony of an environment and landscape that’s alluring yet deadly, and weaved in this year’s 50th anniversary of the federal Wilderness Act.

Fear, Kizzia explained, is one perspective of nature, the idea that the natural environment is indifferent to our presence. He also presented the view of nature as Church; that it can provide a sense of spiritual oneness, an attachment to something bigger. The third perspective Kizzia gave is nature as the nation’s source of hope, that there is empty land which spells out opportunity: oil to drill, minerals to extract, trees to cut, cabins to build. It’s a view with which Kizzia has personally identified as he built a cabin, (coincidentally, in McCarthy, years before the Hales arrived). The last viewpoint of a lens through which to view nature that Kizzia talked about is one of home, that wilderness doesn’t exist as something to transform or conquer; it is part of us.

“The classic American westward march looked on the land that lay ahead as there for the taking and ignored that it was someone’s home,” he said. “We have to be more thoughtful of that in Alaska. It’s the advantage of being the last to go through that process.”

But to fear wilderness, Kizzia said, is an unfortunately unfashionable viewpoint and the least likely perspective that Papa Pilgrim embraced.

Kizzia’s book was ranked number five on Amazon’s 2013 Best Sellers list, and won top awards from Outside magazine and Mother Jones. But throughout his presentation, Kizzia portrayed a research and literary effort that ignored the story’s potential for such accolades. He made a concerted effort to downplay the sensationalist quality of the Pilgrim Family, illuminating differences of belief perceptions and formation.

Kizzia began his Alaskan journalism career in Homer, in 1975, as the editor of the Homer News. He moved to Anchorage in 1982 and worked as reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. Kizzia returned to Homer in 1989, still with the ADN, but in a position to cover stories in the more rural parts of the state. In this post Kizzia befriended and began reporting on the Pilgrim Family.

“I am always interested in the stories that frame questions about where we are in Alaskan history,” Kizzia said, explaining why the Pilgrim Family was a fascinating lure for him as a reporter. “The pioneering myth and the nostalgia for the frontier, butting up against the realization that we’ve almost run out of wilderness.”

Robert Hale and his twin brother were born in 1941 in Fort Worth, Texas. His father was an FBI agent; his mother grew up with Lee Harvey Oswald. When Hale was 18, he eloped with and married Kathleen Connally, the pregnant 16-year-old daughter of a future Texas governor, John Connally. After 44 days of marriage Kathleen was killed by an accidental gunshot.

At the age of 33, Hale met 16-year-old Kurina Rose Bresler, also known as Country Rose, in California. The couple started a family and moved to New Mexico, where they lived until their move to Alaska, in 1998. They wandered through Fairbanks, Kenai, Homer and Anchor Point, and settled on McCarthy in 2002.

Hale, Kizzia explained, composed his personal and family bylaws from the King James Bible.

“He stitched together various rules,” Kizzia said. “He seemed to be the only one who’d made the connection between this passage and that passage, therefore something was OK in his view, but not OK in the view of the rest of the world. He was such a shape shifter, spinning myths.”

In Jan. 2002, the family bought an old copper mine 13 miles outside of the town. Like most previous receptions, McCarthy’s population was initially welcoming and friendly, in part due to Hale’s magnetism.

Hale began making the news as well as dividing the town when he bulldozed a historic and overgrown road that lay on National Park Service land to gain access to the family’s 410-acre property. Supporters were upset at the Park Service’s response and assisted the family, dropping off supplies for them via planes. Opponents were irritated Hale so flippantly disregarded the current laws and he increasingly frustrated local residents.

The Hales maintained a camp in town, a big sprawling mess comprised of stacks of lumber, horses, sheets, colorful bits of Appalachian style belongings. The family did not own the land and were told to leave. They relocated to a right-of-way. The charisma Hale initially charmed local residents with “curdled” to use Kizzia’s language.

“He had a great persecution or crucifixion complex,” Kizzia said.

Hale used the deterioration of his relationships within the McCarthy community to bolster a framework for his growing family of isolation and warped biblical practices, Kizzia said.

“He was always building enemies because that was the way he could keep his family on a war-time footing,” Kizzia explained to the audience. “When you have eternal enemies there can be no dissent within the household; you’re helping enemies if you say anything bad so it’s useful to have external enemies.”

And so the Hale children matured as a solitary unit. They were removed from society, ignorant to practices of social etiquette or education. The first children were homeschooled.

“It was decided later that the kids would be better not exposed to outside information that would throw them off the straight and narrow path to salvation,” Kizzia said.

The children’s only education was that delivered by the mouth of their leader, their father Papa Pilgrim. The trouble that eventually ended Hale’s familial reign was the authority he delivered not just by mouth, but physically. He began to have sexual intercourse with his eldest daughter, Kizzia said, telling her that the Bible allowed him one “special” daughter. He massaged biblical passages and interpreted visions he said he received from God in his dreams to fit his desires.

The eldest daughter could read, a residual hallmark from the home-school days. Confused or hungry for an answer, she went through the Bible one day to find the passage that allowed her father to have sex with her. She was caught and beaten, Kizzia said.

“Papa was such a charismatic figure, so able to control everyone else’s perceptions of him,” he told the audience at UAS.

“I asked him, the one night I spent there, if the kids could ever leave,” Kizzia said. “The room fell silent, and he responded that people could join him, to marry his children. He was like Noah; they were going to make it to the Promised Land and people had to come on board to join them to escape.”

Photos of a gorgeous family, seemingly free-spirited, atop horses, picking greens, sporting straw hats and wearing a vivid assortment of plaids, boots and grins sporadically flashed on the wall behind Kizzia as he spoke.

Short on supplies like hay for the horses, the family went to Palmer for a period around the holidays in 2004. They visited a church, and were befriended by another large Christian family. The Hale family spent weeks with this other family. The Palmer family shared some of the values Hale had instilled in his family, but as they were more connected to society, the Hale children were able to contrast their lifestyles with those of their new friends, which had the inevitable consequences of relative enlightenment.

“If they had come to my house they wouldn’t have responded the same way,” Kizzia said. “They would have understood their father better.”

Simultaneously, Papa Pilgrim grew privy to the consequences of his children’s awakening and pulled them back, retreated, as Kizzia said, to “his most crazed period.”

Kizzia seemed amused when he explained how he wasn’t Christian, didn’t expect he would ever write about a large Christian family in a hero’s light, yet that’s just what happened.

The experience with the other Christian family was influential enough that a couple of the children fled. Authorities were alerted and a two week manhunt led to the capture of Robert Hale.

The Hale children had a chance to speak back in court. They spoke of grace and forgiveness as well as the terrors he put them through. Understanding the story from the children’s perspective made Kizzia realize he could write a book. The trial ended with a plea agreement: guilty to 27 charges of rape, coercion and incest. Papa Pilgrim died in jail in 2008.

The Palmer family helped the Hale children deal with what had happened to them, building new lives, Kizzia said. The youngest of the children, almost teenagers now, currently live with this family and are being homeschooled. Six of them are married. The children have kept their Christian faith.

Regarding their reception of Kizzia’s book, he explained that it is hard for the Hale children to read it critically, how their story is being portrayed and how it could have been portrayed.

“When you learn to read at 30, that’s a hard task,” he said.

Some of the children harbor resentment towards their mother, he said. Is she to blame, a fully functional adult witnessing emotional and physical abuse from the sidelines, or was she so psychologically manipulated that she too was a victim? Both? Kizzia leaves that answer up to his readers.

Kizzia refrains from imposing his own voice or judgment into the content of the book.

“Show, don’t tell,” he said. “The hardest thing was trying to find a voice to talk about abuse without causing readers to throw the book on floor. Finding the language without being overly dramatic.”

A few of the eldest children trusted him with the story, understood he could and would be able to portray some elements from their point of view. This, he said, gave him strength to keep writing. While it wasn’t a “happy-ever-after” tale, he said, it culminated with hope.

“I don’t think I could have written it if it had been a story of going down the drain of Papa Pilgrim,” Kizzia said.

At the close of the presentation Kizzia returned to his definitions of wilderness.

“As the rest of the nation plans to celebrate the Wilderness Act anniversary, our state is trying to open Wood-Tikchik State Park (near Dillingham and Bristol Bay) to see if it would be suited for power lines and a damn. This isn’t a great way to show the nation that we can be trusted. We’ve lost our respect of what nature can do to us. We seem to have no fear of nature anymore; this may be our problem.”

For more information on Tom Kizzia, visit www.tomkizzia.com, including more photos of the Hale family as well as links to various interviews, reviews, and information on his first book, “The Wake of the Unseen Object.”

Amanda Compton is a freelance writer and editor based in Juneau. She can be reached at atkcompton@gmail.com.

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