A bit of hell in Paradise

The town is called Paradise, and there’s more than a little unintended irony in the name. There’s really nothing particularly paradisiacal about the place. It sits atop a ridge that looks down on the northern stretch of California’s Central Valley.

There are lots of towns like it up and down the Sierra, towns where lots of marginal people go to live in the margins these mountains provide, places where things are a little cheaper, a little less daunting and where illicit activities like meth labs and child abuse are easy to shield from view. Cults take refuge in places like this, and more and more, the inter-mountain American West has come to resemble the Deep South of the 1940s, where redneck ignorance holds sway, where bigotry can go to find its comfort zone and where more than a few nut jobs can find like-minded company.

I live on this ridge, and one of those nut jobs may have been among our neighbors, though they didn’t live next door long enough for me to find out for sure. One night, soon after we moved in, I awoke to hysterical screaming coming from that house, from two very young children and their mother.

“Jesus hates kids like you,” the mom shrieked. My younger daughter was visiting, sleeping in the guest room nearest the property line. As the commotion escalated, she said, “We should call the cops, Dad.”

I thought that might be a good idea, especially after I heard a little boy crying, “No, mama, no.”

But I didn’t call the Sheriff’s Department that night. The children grew quiet at last, and we all went back to bed, seeking sleep that proved elusive. Within a few weeks, those neighbors moved away, but not before we heard more episodes in which those children were threatened with the wrath of God.

What was going on seemed like abuse, but I could not be sure, though it wouldn’t take a shrink to know that some kind of trauma was being inflicted on that little boy and his sister.

I wish I could say that my reluctance to act was simply a matter of not wanting to intrude my child-rearing attitudes on people who obviously did not share them. I wish I could say that I merely was acting out of respect for the biblical mantra I heard so often when I was growing up, that notion about “sparing the rod and spoiling the child.”

After all, in my own family, there were more than a few times when my siblings and I were disciplined with my dad’s belt, and we all feared my mother when her patience was exhausted.

But we were never menaced with the threat of God, never made to believe that Jesus would approve the punishment we took and hate us for our childish misdeeds.

Because property is a little cheaper in Paradise, there are lots of poor people, many of whom find their way into some of the ubiquitous churches that dot the landscape. Certain kinds of ministries have always preyed on the poor and the ignorant, providing ready-made answers for those who seek absolutes in a world where certainties can be hard to come by.

Earlier this month a couple in Paradise were charged with beating one of their three adopted kids to death, a child from Liberia. The girl was named Lydia, and she didn’t make it to her 8th birthday. The parents, Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz, also have been charged with torturing their 11-year-old adopted daughter and with a misdemeanor count of cruelty for signs of bruising on their 10-year-old son (one of their six biological children).

The Schatzes allegedly beat Lydia and her sister with a piece of plumbing tubing. The Butte County district attorney told writer Lynn Harris, in an article on the online site Salon, that the couple allegedly were following the guiding principles of a ministry called No Greater Joy. The organization is headed by Michael and Debi Pearl, and their manual on child-rearing has sold more than 1 million copies worldwide. A 2001 article by Michael Pearl recommends disciplining a child with “a section of 1/4 inch plumber’s supply line . . . it will fit in your purse or hang around your neck.”

After the Schatzes’ arrest, Michael Pearl wrote the local newspaper that “we teach parents how to train their children, which sometimes requires the limited and controlled application of a spanking instrument,” but that his ministry does not advocate punishment to the point of serious injury.

The beating Lydia sustained caused such trauma to her system that it shut down entirely. She was punished, according to media reports, because she had mispronounced a word.

By all accounts from those who know them, the Schatzes didn’t look or act like monsters, but people who can torture children for mispronouncing a word can hardly be called anything else.

Which brings me back to that incident I overheard coming from my neighbors’ house. It has been five years since those people moved away. I’ll never know for sure if I might have averted something bad happening to those kids, something even worse than what they were already enduring. It’s sometimes hard to know when to butt in and when to mind one’s own business, hard to know just when religious belief is veering off into insanity sanctioned by a grotesque misreading of faith.

But I’m haunted by the suspicion that I hesitated to call the cops merely because I didn’t want to create a tense relationship with neighbors who lived so close and seemed none too rational. I can’t entirely acquit myself of the thought that I didn’t call because of the cowardice that encourages so many of us to avoid getting involved just when getting involved is what is required of us.

But, with so much insanity afoot, it becomes even more imperative that those of us who suspect abuse of children pick up the phone and seek help for those who are utterly helpless.

Jaime O’Neill is a writer in Northern California.