Gray Matters

Oh, Closure, Where Art Thou? (Gray Matters, Part Six)

If a successful prosecution of a child molester is required for a victim to find closure, did the victims in the Bob Gray case miss out on closure?  Closure means different things for different people. Somebody would have to tell their story. Since most who were affected by Gray continue to remain silent, I’ll give you my story of personal closure.

The promise of a civil trial fizzled out.  Don’t ask me why!  I don’t know.  Jeri Massi held her second ‘Conference of the Lambs’ in Jacksonville, Florida. The main victim responsible for the victim/media meeting which led to Bob Gray’s arrest was shut out of the conference.  I volunteered to organize and videotape a press conference for survivors.  There were no less than three scandals occurring in Jacksonville at the time.  If we had a representatives from each one, it would show solidarity amongst victims. That never happened as I was also blocked from the conference.

In a bout of insanity, I decided to hold my own event at Fuels coffee shop in Jacksonville.  The only thing I had going for me was Bible Madness and an oddity called Don’t Go In The Church!  I drove cross country for this! Only five or so people showed up, but they were strong personalities from the saga of Bob Gray.  The media showed up. The coffee shop meeting was the  lead story on First Coast news the next night. Closure?  Not a chance! I drove home pretty angry about the fickle nature of people and swore I would never again defend those who refused to stand up for themselves.

It was a long drive back to California, so I allowed myself to fantasize.  There was only one group of people who had not been accounted for during this whole mess.  Those who had been sent to Roloff like homes to shut them up! One of the Bob Gray victims was sent to Roloff’s Bethesda Home.  A few years before this, I interviewed a survivor of New Bethany who, along with her brother, was sent to evade the authorities who were conducting an investigation into her father (an IFB preacher).

Once a victim is sent to a home, it’s easy to discredit them.  In fact, the person who told me about Leroy Robertson’s ‘vile stories’ mentioned a victim being sent to a home as a reason not to believe her. A deposition from the Gray ‘trial’ reveals that one pregnant victim was sent to Bethesda and her boyfriend sent to Liberty to get him out of the way.

Trinity Baptist Church supported the Victory Home for Girls (not related to VCA) as a separate ministry.  The girls from the home attended school with us.  At the end of the day, they went back to the home run by Mrs. Bell. A former resident of the Victory Home posted on the FFF that she was sorry for what the victims of Bob Gray went through, but please remember those who were also abused at the Victory Home.

What would happen if the survivors of all those homes got together?  It wouldn’t be in Jacksonville, that’s for sure! I wasn’t going back there.  Then again, I’m not going to try to get the survivors of all the homes together!  I certainly didn’t have the money to put into such an endeavor, but it’s a long drive through Texas, so let’s live in Fantasyland for awhile!  If such an event were to happen, I would want it close to home.  Maybe somewhere near 2nd Street in Long Beach, or, the Queen Mary?

Those thoughts left my brain when I arrived home.  One of the victim supporters called. She offered to speak with Jeri Massi on my behalf.  I was insulted.   “That was a once in a lifetime event for me. It’s not going to happen again!”

jeffwtnowcoverMy energies went into editing Wrestling Then and Now. Evan Ginzburg, the associate producer of The Wrestler, convinced me to go to New York back in 2002 to videotape independent wrestlers.  After The Wrestler came out in 2008, I contacted him and, since there had been innovations with editing software (Final Cut Pro), I re-edited the movie and a screening was held in Lancaster, CA.   The reason Lancaster was chosen was because that’s where Lancaster Baptist Church, an IFB congregation, practically rules the roost.  I actually wanted to screen Don’t Go In The Church, but the college gallery preferred wrestling. Can’t say I blame ’em!

A former student of Victory Christian Academy (Ramona) contacted me in early 2010.  She read some of the articles I posted concerning Victory Christian Academy during the ‘dead period’ of my blog (after the judge pushed the trial back for a year). Since there was little to write about concerning the Gray trial, I began writing about how the process began that resulted in Victory Christian Academy in Ramona getting shut down (see what happens when fundamentalists don’t get a quick and speedy trial?). We met and talked about the similarities between the two Victories (VCA in Ramona and the Victory Home supported by Trinity) and the way I was educated at Trinity Christian Academy.

“Have you ever been back to Victory?” I asked.

She had not.  We agreed to take a trip.  On April 24, 2010, I and four ex-VCA survivors drove to the property that once contained VCA.  The new owners were gracious enough to let us explore the grounds.  I videotaped the women’s reactions as they walked by the shower room.  There was a gasp of hesitancy.  These women, no longer teenagers, took a deep breath and stepped inside.   One girl, according to Michele Ulrikson’s book, Reform at Victory, tried to commit suicide in this room.  Suicide being one of the few valid methods of getting an early release.

One woman reflected that she had to strip off her clothes before being thrown into the GR. “They were afraid I’d hang myself with my bra.” She also spoke of ‘bus drills’.  Brother P (as founder Michael Palmer was called) had the girls rush out to busses in the middle of the night to be sent to other homes where they would be hidden from the authorities.

This act of hiding children from authorities seems to be a common thread in the children’s home experience. Mack Ford was said to have hidden children from New Bethany from investigators.  One of the women from the Victory Home in Florida revealed children were taken to the homes of various church members, including our pastor, Bob Gray, to hide them from state officials.

A reunion was held for the survivors of Victory Christian Academy on August 21, 2010. Seventeen women came to explore the property and remember.

“My son has never been to church.” a survivor told me, “I’m afraid he will be stained by the same experience I was.” This survivor was in the Get Right room when a stack of drywall fell on Carey Dunn.  “I heard the helicopters and thought, ‘They’re coming to save me. Not knowing that a young girl had been killed.”

Carey had been described as a ‘bundle of joy’ known for skipping through the halls. The case was remarkably settled out of court and Brother P thought he was in the clear. “She was killed while building a church in God’s name.” the woman said, revealing a fear of churches that continues to this day.

A ceremony was held later that afternoon.  A palo verde tree was planted on the VCA property in remembrance of Carey Dunn and others who had either been killed or abused at locked down teen facilities throughout the nation. This moving ceremony was captured on video (see below).  It drew the attention of survivors from similar homes throughout the country after it was posted on the internet.

The closure came as an unexpected gift.  It occurred during the ceremony honoring Carey Dunn and other victims of institutional abuse.  I was in the center of the circle videotaping and photographing the women.  Some holding hands.  Some not.  Some crying.  Some holding back. And that’s when it started to occur to me:

If it hadn’t been for videotaping the first survivor from VCA, it might not have closed down and this wouldn’t have happened.  Of course, in order for me to have even met that survivor, it would have been necessary to force me into an IFB environment.  I have a distinct memory of sitting in Americanism vs Communism at TCA and thinking, “If I’m going to be forced to attend this place, I’m taking notes!”

All that led to Bible Madness, which, after I was locked out of Jeri Massi’s Conference of the Lambs, was the only thing I had to justify a public meeting at Fuels.  It was the televised coverage of that event, along with the blog articles at Christian School Confidential, that brought us to this moment.  I always wondered, “What had became of those who were at VCA when it was shut down?”  Most likely, I would never know!  And now, I was hearing accounts of what life was like during the last days of VCA.

It was all coming together like a well made tapestry!  Now, at this point, a Christian or religionist might pop up and say, “See, there was a purpose to it all!”

None of that would have happened if I had passively accepted my fate.  If I gave in to the ‘get over its’ and ‘just accept your situation’ my picture would probably be appearing in Chuckles Travels as another IFB casualty.   I did read The Secret after I came back from Jacksonville. This book basically says if you want something bad enough, or daydream about something long enough, it will happen.  Well,  I did fantasize about such an event and then it happened (SIA, the non profit that sponsored the reunion, eventually had their convention at the Queen Mary). Does that vindicate The Secret?  Not by a long shot! The truth is: sometimes you get lucky. If other people weren’t also tuned in to this issue, none of this would have happened.

It made sense that I would be in the center of this circle holding a video camera.  Video is how all this came about in the first place!  And then I finally realized the definition of a closure I didn’t think I was seeking: Closure happens when you reach that moment when, after seeing the results of your actions finally coming together, you realize it wasn’t in vain.  It was all worth it!

Closure is a subtle creature.  There is personal closure and corporate closure.  Corporate closure, meaning closure for a group of people, would probably be a victory in court.  Or, at least, a firm decision. None of this was present in the Gray saga. Personal closure became infinitely more important.

Personal closure appears at unexpected moments.  Winning a court case, being on TV, publishing a book, even screening a movie in a theater can be dramatic milestones, but can they be considered ‘personal closure’? Emotional highs? Yes. Personal closure?  Not necessarily.  Closure can’t be forced. It must naturally happen.

Not everybody experiences closure in the same way.  It can be as soft as the realization that your son or daughter will never be abused because of the dramatic actions you took removing yourself from the center of the abuse (whether that be a church, group home, or family). Closure is  that moment when you can see the results and know exactly how the pieces (which you put into motion) fell into place.

The VCA reunion, like my experience in Jacksonville, was a once in a lifetime phenomena.  One that will rarely be duplicated.  Not everyone who goes to the scene of their abuse experiences closure.  Prior to this reunion, some women returned to New Bethany and did not receive the same welcome as the VCA survivors!

There was always a chance that the new owners of VCA wouldn’t have been as understanding.  It was a combination of the risk factor and the pleasant surprise that led to this emotional conclusion. War veterans know the experience of people rolling their eyes and saying, “Oh, God!  He’s talking about the war again!  Can’t you get over it?” It can be difficult when friends, family and society trivialize your past.  Personal closure is something we have to give ourselves.

Come back for the final wrap up:

Quo Vadis, Advocacy?

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