I want to tell my story, but where do I even begin? How do I express, in a few short pages, the years of anguish and turmoil I now look back upon? I guess I will start at the very beginning, since that’s where every story starts. I was born into a Christian family. We attended North Sharon Baptist Church in Grass Lake, MI. My parents were very involved: my dad worked a bus route and was on the deacon board, and my mom was in charge of phoster club and involved in the music. Whenever there was anything going on at the church, we were there. The church is supposed to be a safe place – a place where you learn about God and how much he loves you, exemplified by the leaders in your life – but for me it was quite the opposite. For me, it was the place where I was introduced to just how deep human depravity can go.
When I was little, I didn’t go to daycare or preschool like some of my friends did. I was lucky; I got to stay home and spend every day with my mom – just the two of us. In those early years, I learned a lot from my mom. I learned how to wash dishes (those soap suds were so much fun to splash and play around in!). I learned how to make my bed (as long as the top cover looked smooth, who cared about the lumps and bumps underneath?). I learned how to dress myself, and how to pick up my toys. I learned that chocolate milk tastes best when you drink it out of the cup with the cowboy hat on it. I learned how to do puzzles, and I learned my ABCs. I learned how to brush my teeth and how to fold the washcloths when mommy did laundry. I learned how to do a somersault, and learned that hydrogen peroxide fizzes and bubbles when you put it on your scraped knee. I sang songs and colored pictures. I played outside and took naps cuddled up to my stuffed animals. My days were carefree and filled with wonder and happiness. But suddenly, that all changed. A new teacher entered my world unannounced, and I began to learn other, different things. This new teacher was our pastor, Bill Wininger, and the things I learned from him began the first time he sexually abused me.
He taught me what betrayal felt like. He taught me the meaning of deep, deep sorrow. He taught me a fear like I had never experienced before. He taught me what it was like to wish I could die, to long for the pain to stop but instead it just kept burning deeper inside of me, a fire that would not go out. Before I could tie my own shoes, he taught me the physical difference between a male and a female. When I was still riding tricycles, he showed me what happens when a man is sexually aroused. Before I could write my own name, he taught me that even though we have one body on the outside, there can be two different people hiding inside. He taught me of a terror that freezes the brain and makes you stop breathing. While I was still mastering the art of running, he taught me what it was like to flee a pursuer but never escape. He taught me that little girls never get away from the big, strong man. When I was still naïve to any darkness in the world, he taught me what evil was. Thanks to him, I learned what utter panic felt like. I learned that you could scream with everything inside of you, yet still make not a sound. I learned that your throat could turn raw when you hadn’t even whispered, and your eyes could burn when you hadn’t cried a tear. I learned that, when you get scared enough, everything goes white. I also learned that, although there were two of him, there were also two of me. He could hold down my weak body every time, but the other me would fly far, far away, into that sheet of white that surrounded me once everything else stood still.
From him, I learned that everything isn’t happy and lovely in the world. From him, I learned that “safe” is a place that is impossible to find…ever. From him, I learned that experiences from when I was a child would continue to haunt me, splinter me, and shatter me into a thousand pieces every day for the rest of my life. And now, looking back…I have learned that he changed me forever. I’ve learned that he reached into me and stole the position of utmost power in my life, warping the thinking of a young, developing mind, starting a battle I will fight for the rest of my life. And it’s too late to change that. And he will never be sorry. And he will probably never stop teaching. And the child in me weeps when I face this truth.
When I was three years old, the music groups my mom was a part of decided to start meeting at the church for some of their practices. This was convenient, since most of the people involved had their children in the Christian school. It was easy to just stay after dropping off their kids to run over some songs. There would generally around three to five people, including my mom, at these practices. My two older siblings were both in school, so I was the lucky lone child who got to tag along with mom. No one else at the practices had young children with them, so I would play by myself. (Once or twice a little boy around my age came with his dad, but he had to sit on the front pew and wait. His dad had no way of knowing what a wise decision that was.) Since the adults would practice in the auditorium, I convinced my mom to let me go play in the upstairs nursery. My mom is the most protective mother I have ever met, never one to let me out of her sight, but this time she agreed. After all, the nursery was just off the main foyer a little ways away, close enough for her to hear me if I called for her…she never considered that I might not be able to call. And what was there to worry about? There was no one else in the building at that time, except perhaps the secretary downstairs and the pastor. But that was the problem. The secretary’s office was downstairs, and the pastor’s office was upstairs – right across from the nursery. And that is how Bill Wininger found an opportunity to add another victim to his list.
I don’t know if the abuse started the first time I played alone in that nursery, or the second or third time, but I do know this – that nursery became a place of waiting and dread for me. I will never forget sitting against the back wall, watching the crack of light between the top and bottom nursery doors for movement, listening to my breathing and the clock going tick…tick…tick. My mom always told me to leave the nursery door open, but I couldn’t; I was too afraid. I would close it as soon as she left, and cringe when it creaked or slammed, freezing as I listened for his footsteps and hoped he hadn’t heard. The nursery also had bunk cribs with gates that lowered in the front, and I would crawl into the bottom crib that had the best view of the entire room, where I could see both doors. To feel safe, I would lower that gate so I was in my little box where nothing could get in without me seeing it coming. But those old crib gates were so difficult to lower; I would try to go as slowly and quietly as I could, but at the end I would always lose my grip and the gate would slam, invoking yet another episode of freezing with fear as my ears strained for sounds of him coming. Of all my memories in that nursery, I don’t remember doing much playing. I would just sit there with my little doll, holding her tight and telling her not to be afraid, because I would keep her safe. I told lies to make both of us feel better. But we soon learned that being brave doesn’t keep away the monsters; they come anyway. And come he did. And just like that, my innocence was stripped away at the hands of this man I once trusted.
I remember one music practice where I stayed in the auditorium. Whether it was by my mom’s instruction or by my choice, I do not know, but I remember hearing the creak of the floorboards in the back of the auditorium as someone entered, and seeing him standing there, a silhouette against the open door behind him that led out to the foyer. I froze and did not make eye contact with him, but watched out of the corner of my eye as he stood there with his right hand in his pocket, seeming to listen to the song being sung. But I knew better; I knew who he was there for. He was watching me. After what seemed like an eternity, he brought his hand out of his pocket to squirt his breath mint into his mouth, slipped it back into his pocket, then walked out the door, closing it behind him. And I started to breathe again. It seemed like it was all in slow motion. Whenever he was present or when the abuse was happening, time slowed down to a crawl. It felt like I would be stuck in that moment forever. Even now, sometimes I feel that way out of the blue – like I’m stuck in a moment that will not pass. There is a massive weight on my chest and it gets harder to breathe. I call it “monotony,” because it’s like never-ending time.
Even when we were not alone, I felt like he was always watching me from the shadows. Whenever I’d be in a room and he’d walk in, even if there were 100 other people there, my radar picked up exactly where he was and I just knew he was watching me. It was an eerie feeling. He had no power because other people were present, yet my heart still thudded a little harder in my chest. And it was a mix between pride in feeling like I was his favorite person in that whole room, and being afraid at the same time. You see, I thought I was so special to him. He called me his “little buddy.” My 3 &4 year old mind was so black and white; either someone was good, or they were bad. So I separated in my mind that there were two different sides of him: one was good, and one was bad. Although they were completely different, I knew one could not exist without the other, because they were in the same body. I so needed and craved the love, that I accepted the bad along with it as necessary. I knew that if the bad went away, I would lose all the good along with it. As in, if I told, I would lose every single person in my life who loved me. I truly believed that.
One of the things I have struggled with the most is that, despite all of the things he did to me, I continued to go to him. When the closing prayer was finished after a church service, I would make a beeline for the back door, wrapping my arms tight around his leg for a hug. He would always either lean down and hug me, or pick me up and hold me, which made me feel so special. I’ve asked myself, “How could I continue to go to the man who was hurting me? Why didn’t I run from him or avoid him?” But it’s because I saw him as two different people in the same body. I literally believed that he could change into someone else inside. When other people were around, he was the man who held the room captive, the man whom people looked to as a great “man of God.” But when everyone else disappeared and it was just him and me, he turned into “the other him.” Oh, how I feared and dreaded “the other him.” The other him was eerily calm and frighteningly cold. He was very matter-of-fact about everything he did. I can still hear his voice saying to me, “Now Bethany, I’m going to have to……” And I believed him. He had to do it. I was that bad; I had done something so horrible that his hand was forced, and he had to carry out this punishment.
There was no questioning him; he was never wrong. You did not tell him “no”…kids, adults, nobody. He had an anger that could send chills down your spine, whether it was the screaming from the pulpit or the intimidating words he could offer face-to-face. So when he told me that I was bad, I knew he was right. After all, in the IFB realm, the adults were always right. They held all the power and the kids held none. Parents were taught to always side with the authority, to never let their kids see adults be undermined. No one told me that this was different, that sometimes the adult could be wrong. So I knew from that fateful day forward that I was a very bad little girl. I tried for years to be good enough to erase the “bad” label, but it was never enough to make me feel good inside…not even close. I felt intensely ashamed and embarrassed about what happened when I was alone with him. It was as though I was a repentant child afterwards, asking his forgiveness. I was so relieved that he was benevolent enough to still love me after what I had supposedly done – I would do anything not to lose that love. When it was over with, there was just an overwhelming sense of relief that I had survived.
Why did I never tell on him? Why didn’t I go straight to my mom and tell her these confusing and extremely painful things that had happened to me? It was because he convinced me that I was the one who would be in trouble, not him. If anything, I was scared to death that he would tell my parents on me. I was also convinced that if I told, everyone would be taken away from me. This was reinforced when our church went through a massive ordeal and my dad spent a year in jail. For a 4 year old, a year is a very long time. I thought my dad was never coming back, and I knew the reason why. My dad was taken away from me because kids said that he had hurt them. It was just a given in our church that these kids were lying, which my mind translated into: All kids who say those things are lying. I had already lost my dad; there was no way I was about to become one of “those kids” who tell lies and get people taken away.
Another reason is that I didn’t even have a name for what he was doing to me. In my mind, I called it “killing people,” because I thought that’s what he was trying to do – kill me. I am still haunted by the panic that would hit the moment I would feel him grab me, his hand coming around from behind and closing over my face. In all my life, I have never experienced anything as frightening as that. My mind would start racing a thousand miles per minute, “It’s happening again; it’s happening again; oh-no it’s happening again. No, no, please no; just make it stop. I just want to die; please just let me die quick, just let me die…” And just like that, I would give in and resign myself, just pleading in my mind that it would happen fast. My body would just go limp. It felt like falling asleep instantaneously with no control over anything, only I was only half asleep. From somewhere far, far away my mind was still aware of what was happening, but my body was disconnected. I could still feel, but it’s like the message didn’t affect my brain. They were separated. The information was coming in, but my mind had no response for it. I felt the pressure on my chest as I fought to draw in a breath of air, but did not experience the panic that should have accompanied it. I felt my stomach churning as I thought I was going to throw up, but this did not worry me. I heard his breathing and felt his body, but it was as though I were a third-party observer. I was completely numb and resigned to my fate. And I thought I was dying…every.single.time.
Thankfully, BW left our church when I was six years old when he feared his cover was about to be blown (not with my abuse, but someone else). Obviously, I knew nothing of this at the time, but have learned it since. Since almost nobody either knew about what was going on, or didn’t believe it, or wasn’t talking about it, he got away completely free of consequences and went on to his next church in Georgia, leaving many people in Michigan to lick their wounds in silence. At the same time, many people wept and lamented losing this “wonderful pastor.” Quite a few families even followed him to Georgia – that is the kind of power he had over people. But thankfully, I was free of him. So I kept on growing up and doing all the normal little girl things. But something was still not right inside. I wanted to escape the emotions that I did not understand. But I did not know where the emotions were coming from, because I never let myself think about the abuse.
When I was 7 or 8 years old, I even concocted an elaborate story and tried to convince my family that I had actually been raised by an Indian tribe, not by them. I explained it this way…”When I was a little girl, about 2 years old, mommy was rocking me in the rocking chair. All of a sudden, time stopped, and the Indians came and got me. Since everybody else was frozen, they had no idea what had happened. Once I was gone with the Indians, time started up again for them, but they didn’t know that Bethany wasn’t there anymore. It was a robot instead. I know it looked just like me and sounded just like me, and could do everything a human being could do, but it wasn’t really me. I was far away, running through the woods and playing in the stream, learning all the Indian ways of life. I grew up there until now, when they brought me back to my real family.” I had names for every Indian in the tribe. I talked about all the things we would do every day. And I was furious and inconsolable if anyone acted like they didn’t believe me. It is so interesting to look back on now, and realize that it was yet another route of escape for me. If I wasn’t really there from age 2 to 7, then I didn’t really experience the things he did to me. I didn’t really feel them, so it didn’t bother me. This type of denial worked for a little while, until I got older and the story no longer was enough to make me feel safe.
As time passed, I learned that “numb” was almost the same as “safe;” at least, it felt the same. So I found ways to replicate the numb. As a four year old girl, I had begun to self-harm. At first it was just hitting and making bruises on my body, but as I got older it progressed to scratching and then cutting. It was my escape from the emotions that I did not understand. Because for a long time, I did not let myself consciously process my abuse. As in, I did not let myself think about it at all. It was absolutely terrifying. Every time a thought would cross my mind about the abuse, I would start saying in my mind over and over, “That never happened to me; that never happened to me.” I would repeat it until the fear subsided and I had shoved those thoughts down once again. But they would eventually come rising up again, and it took more and more effort to keep them at bay. Just like a person who builds tolerance to a drug and it stops having the same effect, my cutting got more extreme until it just wasn’t working enough anymore. Then I found another method that worked even better – I could starve those thoughts away. I had struggled with minor disordered eating for years, but I finally plunged completely into anorexia. Starving my body down to nothing made me feel safe, and safety is what I was always searching for. It was a vicious cycle of euphoria when the scale had gone down yet again and I felt that hollow, gnawing feeling in my stomach, and guilt when I saw the pain in the eyes of those who loved me. To avoid writing another book, I’ll just say it has been a long journey, but God has done some wonderful things in my life in that area. The struggle doesn’t ever go completely away, but it does get better.
After many years of treatment and counseling from all different places and people, I finally began to open up and talk to my family about what happened. They believed me, which blew me away because I was convinced that they would essentially disown me when they realized I was accusing this “great man” of abusing me. They have supported me all the way as I deal with these issues from the past.
I wonder sometimes if BW is tormented at night, while he sleeps. I know I am. I am blessed on the nights that I don’t remember my dreams, because they are almost never pleasant. I’ve had nightmares about him since I was little. I now refer to him as “the monster from my dreams,” because that’s exactly what he is – a monster. There was a day when I never would have said that about him, but only monsters prey on the vulnerable and rip their innocence from them to gratify their own sick appetites. Since I began to talk about this a couple years ago, I have found out that I am not the only victim of BW…far from it. He was not picky with who he went after or how many he went after at a time. I will never betray the privacy of those victims I know of, but let it suffice to say that he has a trail of victims behind him that has gone on for decades. He uses intimidation and manipulation to draw people in, and once they’re in they feel stuck. He has caused so much sorrow and heartbreak.
It’s interesting; I just realized the other day that I have something in common with my abuser. We both know what it’s like to want to die. Funny how that works out… We are haunted by the same things. I have no idea why he does what he does, nor do I care to know, but this much I will say: It is SO WRONG. He has worn his mask for long enough. I’m not going to play in his sick performance for one more day. I am jumping off the stage and announcing to the audience that he is just an actor and it’s all a hoax. He will not get one more moment of my time or one more benefit of my silence. Because do you know what? I am the happiest I have ever been now that I am free of him. I am married to the love of my life. Honestly, my life now is a good dream that has come true. And that is something BW will never have. He will never find that peace inside, at least not as long as he continues to play his games and tell his lies. In the end, the truth always comes out. My heart breaks for his family…my heart breaks for those who have suffered at his hands. I am so thankful we have a God who heals and brings comfort. He has been everything to me through this, and if nothing else, because of what I’ve gone through I now know God for who he truly is, and I’m more in love with him than ever. I have learned and finally believe that there is always hope. ❤
— Bethany Leonard