As the adopted son of two cult leaders, Benjamin Risha was raised to someday assume a place of leadership in the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation with the Bible, and his parents’ interpretation of it, as his guide. He believed the prophecies of his adoptive mother and father, which included them being the two prophets foretold in the Book of Revelations as preceding the second coming of Jesus Christ, them raising from the dead when they died, and such dire warnings as the ground opening up to swallow non-believers into hell. He was sure that Susan Alamo could raise the dead as promised.
However, when none of it happened, and the foundation slid from bucolic communal lifestyle to insufferable criminality that included absolute obedience to the Alamos, and polygamous marriages with girls as young as eight years old, Benjamin knew he had to escape. If he was caught trying to escape he would be beaten nearly death, forced to go without food and water for his sins, and he would be shamed in the community. He embarked on a journey to locate his birth parents, discover the truth about a world he knew nothing about … and find himself.
In THE SON OF SEVEN MOTHERS, Benjamin Risha takes readers on a harrowing journey that few in the United States can imagine. And eventually he must choose between the life he knows, and was “chosen” to lead, and his freedom.
From The Book:
“Benji, Benji …wake up. Papa Tony has called the entire congregation to the chapel,” my stepdad Johannes told me while shaking me awake. I was fourteen years old and in the middle of a dream where the Docker sisters, three sisters who were all within one to three years of my age, and I were playing house. Their mother was Lebanese American, giving us a unique bond I did not have with any of the other children. We were playing house and I was the dad.
It was cold and dark on this Arkansas morning in October 1989. I would have much preferred to return to my dream of kissing the middle Docker sister, but it was unusual to be invited to a midnight sermon with the adults, so I hurriedly got dressed. It was common, though, for us kids to be woken up in the middle of night to report our transgressions to Papa Tony, which ranged from talking back to an adult, hitting each other, walking by ourselves, or something much more vile such as a boy and girl holding hands or kissing. They knew, we all knew, that we were all born in sin and shaped in iniquity because Papa Tony preached this to us all the time. Holding hands or kissing were the pinnacles of iniquity in my world.
Being “put on report” to Papa Tony meant standing in line confessing everything that might be a sin or anything we might have done or even thought that Papa Tony might decide was a sin. We all sweated in fear during this process, and some kids would even pee their pants. We would shiver in the distress of awaiting the unknown punishment, both physical and emotional, that would be meted out to us. The only sure thing we could expect was pain, the pain of consequence designed to drive our sins from our bodies and our souls. We weren’t punished merely for acting out; we were punished for our thoughts. We each believed Papa Tony knew what we were thinking at all times.
He claimed God told him these things, but I thought Papa Tony could read our minds as well. I can’t recall a single sermon in which he did not mention thought control or remind us that God judged every thought, no matter how seemingly trivial. We knew we would be judged for every one of them, either down here on earth or up in heaven on Judgment Day. Apparently God talked to Papa Tony all the time; he often spoke of how he heard the voice of God all day, every day, and he asserted that God told him everything we were thinking.
In 1981 there were a few hundred children living on The Ridge compound and that Christmas, the last Christmas Grandma Susie was alive, we children were required to sing the Christmas song, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, to Papa Tony and Grandma Susie. We replaced “Santa” with “Papa Tony and Grandma Susie” … they know what you’ve been thinking. They know when you’ve been good or bad so be good for goodness sake.
On the way to the chapel I wondered if Papa Tony knew about the dream I had been having. I feared that he would see it in my face. If he did, I would be punished, but if I lied, it would be even worse, so I would have to confess. When we arrived, I saw it was indeed a midnight service with a sermon that was taking place, not a confessional for us children. I relaxed a little bit, but when Papa Tony was angry with us, his sermons were just as scary.
The chapel used to be our grand living room, but after the IRS said they wanted to confirm we were a church and not a business, Papa Tony had our living room contents removed and hidden in secret storage locations. This evening, Papa Tony had been in hiding as well because the one-world government was trying to find him just for preaching the word of God, so tonight’s sermon looked as if it was going to be prerecorded and blared through the media system we had installed just for this purposes. Large, black speakers sat between the white columns on the pulpit ready to spread Papa Tony’s voice over the nervous congregation, most of who were in their pajamas. Would the sermon be a lashing of our sins or would we hear from the other Papa Tony, the one who could turn this room electric with energy?
Before Papa Tony went into hiding, his sermon voice rumbled through us and his pacing back and forth kept us on our toes. We would be yelling “Hallelujah” and other demands for God to do our bidding. We gyrated, clapped, sang, and prayed with enthusiasm because we knew God could see us and was judging us based on our actions and our thoughts. I hoped it would be that kind of sermon night.
Prerecorded Papa Tony preached about how the one-world government was after him. He proclaimed the evil Catholic Church, through the Pope, was pulling the strings like a master puppeteer, to persecute him and us, just because we loved God. Just because we preached against homosexuals, the government, and anyone else who was not part of our church. “The World,” as we called any place outside of our property, was an evil place.
I was falling asleep until his rebuke turned to us, his followers.
“You people make me sick. I am reading reports that you want onions and non-moldy bread. You’re tired of the moldy bread. Do you think the starving Hebrew slaves would have eaten moldy bread when they escaped Egypt? How pathetic.
“And, your socks have holes in them, and you want new socks. Boo hoo. I have reports here that your children are fighting at school. And what’s this I hear about a peeping Tom among you? Your children should be more like Benji.”
That woke me up completely. This was the third time this year he used me as an example of how the other kids should behave. But if he only knew how evil I was he wouldn’t have uplifted me like this.
“He’s a God-fearing young man. All of you should look to him as an example. I raised him to fear the Lord and to flee from evil. ‘Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.’ He’s not like your children. You should all be ashamed.
“The Bible says, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God like a little child shall no wise enter therein.’ You milk-toast people will not get into heaven! I might have to leave you to teach you all a lesson.”
Whenever Papa Tony threatened to leave us, the congregation lamented with each other that they would do better. Pray more, give more, ask for less.
I was Papa Tony’s favorite. Papa Tony said I would someday bring salvation through Jesus to those people fighting in the Middle East because I was from Jewish and Arab descent. I held my head up and straightened my back as I looked around and noticed the other children looking at me. I am a leader. I will lead these people someday.
That’s what Grandma Susie and Papa Tony told me quite often. “Benji,” one of them would say, “You must always do the right thing because the eyes of the world are on you. Someday, you will be required to lead many people to God.”
Lana, a girl my age, was sitting in the pew in front of me. Her breasts had matured sooner than most of the other girls my age. She turned around and looked directly at me before bending over in front of me, reaching for her hair clip which had fallen behind her pew. I looked right down her shirt looking at the things that mattered to me even more than Papa Tony’s sermon.
I started telling myself … you are evil. God sees you. The blood of Jesus is against you Satan. The blood of Jesus is against you Satan. The blood of Jesus … I feared that God would send me to hell for my thoughts. Even worse, God might tell Papa Tony, he would punish me, and I would fall from his graces. My sexual excitement subsided.