Finding Strength In Shared Stories Of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Feb 23, 2018
Originally published on February 23, 2018 7:57 am

New Bethany Home for Girls in Arcadia, La., opened in the early 1970s as a religious reform school for, as its founder said, "the incorrigible, unwanted rejects" who "haven't been loved and haven't had a chance in life."

Over the next three decades, law enforcement officials repeatedly investigated claims of physical and psychological child abuse at the school.

Joanna Wright was 16 years old when she first arrived at New Bethany in the 1970s. She says she had been sexually abused as a child and hoped the school would be a refuge. But she says when she got there, she was raped by the man in charge of the school.

"I thought something was really wrong with me, that I must be a really bad person because this keeps happening to me in life," Joanna told Tara Cummings, who came to New Bethany when she was 12, in a StoryCorps interview. "I started to think, 'How could I dismember my body and spread the pieces around so that God couldn't find me and put me back together to punish me?' "

The two spoke in 2016 at Joanna's home in Cypress, Texas.

"I used to wish that I would come back as a cotton ball or a Coke can, completely inanimate so I could feel nothing," Tara said.

The women attended the school at different times, but they crossed paths when women began speaking up about the abuse they say they endured at New Bethany.

Several women who attended the school have come forward in recent years alleging abuse — including sexual, physical and psychological — by the same man.

Joanna, now 58, and Tara, now 47, were part of a group of women who in 2014 testified in front of a grand jury that the man who ran the school abused them. In January 2015, the grand jury did not indict him, The Times-Picayune reported at the time. He died the following month. NPR is not naming him because he cannot respond to the accusations. While he was alive, he repeatedly denied any kind of abuse at the school.

The school closed in 2001. Over the years, Joanna told people of the abuse, the first being her father. He made her take a lie detector test, she says.

"I always wondered, 'What do people see in me that makes them think it's OK to abuse me?' And that was something that I carried even into adulthood," Joanna said.

"It put a fear in me that I've never shaken. I don't know that I ever will. You know, I always thought, 'There has to be other girls, I can't be the only one.' And so I've always blabbed about it," she says.

Tara, on the other hand, kept quiet about the abuse.

"I was a really good liar. Always being the preacher's kid and putting on a perfect front. I think I was trying to move on. But to get out of the hiding was a game changer for me," she said.

Tara says Joanna helped her learn how to stop hiding.

"I know you don't believe in divine path," she told Joanna, "but I was at a fork in the road. And knowing you has changed my life."

Produced for Morning Edition by Liyna Anwar with Martha Perez-Sanz.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today - difficult memories from a religious reform school in Louisiana. It was called New Bethany Home for Girls. And during the 30 years that it was open, law enforcement a number of times investigated claims of child abuse at the school.

Joanna Wright arrived there at the age of 16. She says she was sexually assaulted as a child beginning at the age of 7. She hoped the school would be an escape for her. But when she got there, she says the man who ran the school raped her. She thought she was the only one until years later when she met others who also claimed they were physically and psychologically abused by the same man. Tara Cummings was one of them. They spoke at StoryCorps. Joanna begins.

JOANNA WRIGHT: I thought something was really wrong with me, that I must be a really bad person because this keeps happening to me in life. I started to think how could I dismember my body and spread the pieces around so that God couldn't find me and put me back together to punish me.

TARA CUMMINGS: I used to wish that I would come back as a cotton ball or a Coke can, completely inanimate so I could feel nothing. Who was the first person that you told?

WRIGHT: My father.

CUMMINGS: What did he do?

WRIGHT: Had me take a lie detector test. I always wondered, what do people see in me that makes them think it's OK to abuse me? And that was something that I carried even into adulthood. I wonder what I would have been like. I think I would have been a free spirit, but it put a fear in me that I I've never shaken. I don't know that I ever will. You know, I always thought there has to be other girls I can't be the only one. And so I've always blabbed about it, but you managed to keep it a secret. And I guess I wondered why.

CUMMINGS: I was a really good liar. Always being the preacher's kid and putting on a perfect front, I think I was trying to move on. But to get out of the hiding was a game changer for me, and I learned that from you. I know you don't believe in divine path, but I was at a fork in the road, and knowing you has changed my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Tara Cummings with Joanna Wright in Cypress, Texas. In 2014, a group of women, including Joanna and Tara, came forward to say the school's founder raped and abused them - a claim he denied. The next year, a grand jury did not indict him, and he died the following month. Joanna and Tara's story will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and featured on the StoryCorps podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.