Nearly every day, Lillian Williams, 42, sits by the window of her house in Southeast Washington, her head bowed, her eyes fixed on the pages of the well-worn Bible.
From time to time, she looks up, repeats a passage to a visitor or one of her 11 children and explains its meaning. It is her way of saying that since becoming a born-again Christian four years ago, she has left behind the first 38 years of her life -- years when she had a child at 17, years when she said she "ran from man to man, looking for love," years when she often hit and cursed her children, years she now regards as sinful and shameful.
Her face reflects her years of unhappiness and pain. The corner of each eye is lined, as if her worries have been etched there permanently. But when she smiles -- as she frequently does when discussing the Bible or as she often did when she teased me during our interviews -- her face lights up and her cheeks become prominent and shiny.
Her new life has given her a new mission: to prevent her sins from becoming her children's sins, to rise above the abuse and violence that have characterized her family since the early days of this century, to give her children the love that she says she never got and couldn't give before.
She acknowledges that she has failed so far: Two unmarried daughters became pregnant as teen-agers and now have two children each. Two unmarried sons have children who live with their mothers. A third daughter, 17, delivered a baby last month. They are imitating her behavior, she said, and that hurts most of all.
Yet her mission continues, a personal struggle against forces and attitudes that dominate the poorest sections of Anacostia, home to more teen-age mothers and fathers than any other area in Washington.
At the same time, Lillian wages another kind of war, a daily battle to feed and clothe her 11 children and five grandchildren. Six children are older than 18; none has finished high school or can afford to rent an apartment. Occasionally, two older sons stay with friends, but most of the time 17 people are crammed into two side-by-side row houses on Atlantic Avenue SE, part of the vast Highland Dwellings housing project owned by the D.C. government.
It is so crowded -- the 17 people share six bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and two bathrooms -- that a 3-year-old girl and a 2-year-old girl must sleep in their mothers' beds.
If the present is a struggle for Lillian, then the past is a burden. She looks at her 23-year-old daughter, who said she got pregnant to prove her womanhood, and sees herself as a teen-age mother. She thinks about how she used to hit her children, and she remembers the beatings she took from her own mother and grandmother.
But Lillian and her 57-year-old mother and 23-year-old daughter are bound together by more than that. As the three women tell their stories, a pattern unfolds -- a pattern of sexual abuse, violence, poverty and pregnancy that has repeated itself, a pattern that goes back to the early days of this century and the tobacco farms of Lenoir County, N.C. Remembering: 1940 and 1954
It happened in 1940, but even 45 years later, the memory comes into focus quickly. It stays and lingers, causing pain, hatred, fury. The memory belongs to Lillian Williams' mother, whose name is Lillian Waters:
The room is dark. She is lying in her bed in the small, two-story wooden farmhouse, exhausted from working all day on the farm. She can hear the breathing of her brothers and sisters, all asleep, in beds around her. A man comes in, no, not just a man, not just any man, but her stepfather, Isiah Hill. She remembers, "He come to my bed, he put his hand over my mouth . . . and he told me if I tell it, what he did, that he was gonna do something to my mother." But she told anyway, told her mother that Isiah had raped her, told again when the rapes continued. But her mother never believed her until, finally, the girl got pregnant. She was 11 years old.
Lillian knows now that her mother was raped. She learned about it later, much later. She knows where it happened and who did it. She even knows how it happened, because she has memories of her own:
It is 1954, on the same North Carolina farm, in the same wooden farmhouse. Lillian, too, is in bed, in a room with her aunts. She hears a sound, someone moving quietly on the wooden floorboards, then feels well-calloused hands reaching out for her, the hands of her step-grandfather, the same man who raped her mother, the man named Isiah Hill. Before anything else happens, Lillian screams. She, too, was 11 years old. The Years in North Carolina
Isiah Hill died in November in Kinston, N.C., at the age of 71. Several months earlier, he denied in an interview that he had raped or abused anyone. The farmhouse outside Kinston no longer exists. Corn now grows on the land where the house stood, where Lillian's family harvested and looped tobacco leaves, where Lillian lived before she came to Washington in 1954.
Just as the farmhouse has disappeared, it is difficult to find records of Lillian's ancestors. They lived within their own closed society, almost as outcasts of the world at large. They did not own the land they farmed. They kept no financial records. They sometimes forgot to fill out birth certificates. Most of them could not read or write, so they kept no diaries and wrote no letters. Much of this story, therefore, depends on the memories of Lillian and her relatives, interviewed separately at their homes in Washington, Kinston, Baltimore and Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Those memories, sometimes sharp, sometimes blurred by time, nearly always colored by emotion, begin in the early 1900s with Lillian's great-grandparents, Lettuce and Frank Harper.
The Harpers ruled over a large, extended family. Lettuce had two children as an unmarried teen-ager and then had 20 more after marrying Frank Harper. They ran their farm according to a well-established set of priorities that governed the family for more than four decades. The farm came first, the family came next and education came last. It was common for boys and girls to drop out of the nearby segregated school at an early age; girls were not expected to finish school, but rather to bear children who could eventually be put to work on the farm.
Early on, patterns began to emerge. Teen-age pregnancy was one, abandonment another. When Lillian's grandmother married Isiah Hill in the early 1930s and moved to a nearby farm, she left behind Lillian's mother, then 4. Years later, Lillian's mother repeated the pattern, three times walking out on her young children.
Throughout the 1930s, Lillian's mother lived with Lettuce and Frank Harper. When Frank Harper died in 1939, Lillian's mother asked to be reunited with her mother. At the age of 11, she went to live with Eva and Isiah Hill on their farm.
It was there, she said, that Isiah Hill repeatedly raped her. He often followed her home from the fields -- she left early because it was her job to cook dinner -- and trapped her in the kitchen alone. (The rapes are part of the family's lore. Two other family members, both men, discussed the attacks during interviews.)
As she talks about the rapes, her face becomes drawn, her eyes turn sad, a tear starts to form. She was born a Harper but her name is Waters now, and she lives in Baltimore, in a room that she rents in a two-story row house. She rarely sees her family, visiting Lillian two or three times a year.
Waters is a plump woman, with a round face and dark brown eyes that are clear and steady until she starts talking about the rapes. Then she looks down, her eyes filling with tears as she remembers how her mother refused to believe her. "I sits down and think about it, you know. Even today. I sits down and cry about it. It hurts real bad. I talk to my children about it." The rapes produced a child, a boy. Waters was still only 12 years old when she went into labor on March 10, 1941, and delivered the baby in a room at the farmhouse. A year later she married a 22-year-old sharecropper she had met only three weeks before -- not a marriage of love but an escape from her mother, from Isiah Hill and from the rapes.
She and her new husband moved away, abandoning her year-old son. By her 17th birthday, she had had two more children, including Lillian, born in August 1943.
However, the marriage broke apart soon after the second child was born. Waters said her husband beat her; she left him and the children, including Lillian, and went back to her mother's farm. Unskilled, uneducated, penniless, she had no place else to go.
But her husband couldn't handle the children alone, so a few months later, a relative brought them to Waters on the farm. At the age of 16, Waters found herself caring for three children and working in the tobacco fields again. It was not where she wanted to be. Remembering: 1953
Waters sits in her living room in Baltimore, remembers the incident, and gets angry all over again:
It is fall, 1953. She is 25. She is using thread to loop tobacco leaves onto sticks so they can be hung and dried. The thread keeps breaking, so she doubles it for more strength. Her mother tells her to stop, that there isn't enough thread, but Waters ignores her. Her mother picks up a tobacco stick and breaks it across Waters' back. "I kept right on looping," she says. "She was fixing to hit me again so I snatched it out her hand," threw the stick down, went to her room, packed her clothes and abandoned her children once more.
Lillian remembers the day, too. She still isn't sure what happened; she only knows that the pattern was repeated again, that her mother left, walked away from her without saying a word:
She was 10, standing on a corner of the porch at the wooden farmhouse. Suddenly she heard her grandmother loudly cursing her mother, who came down the porch steps, suitcase in hand, and got into a car. Lillian said she remembers thinking, "She isn't coming back." The Years in Washington
Following the path of thousands of other sharecroppers, Waters went to Washington. Once again, she left without taking her children -- she had five by this time, the last two the result of brief affairs in 1947 and 1953 -- and depended on friends and family to look after them. Months later, a family friend knocked on her door and told her some shocking news: Isiah Hill had tried to molest 11-year-old Lillian.
Waters said the friend told her: "You know what happened to you and didn't no one believe you. You go get your child before it be too late."
Waters headed for North Carolina, where she confronted Hill. She said they had this conversation:
Waters: "I hear you went to my daughter's bed and tried to bother her? Have sex with her?"
Hill: "You know I ain't done nothing like that."
Waters: "You did me the same way."
Hill: "Well, that was a mistake."
That was enough for Waters. She took Lillian and went back to Washington. She made no effort to retrieve her other four children. One of them, 4-year-old Cherry, did come to live with Waters and Lillian a few years later; the others grew up without knowing their mother.
Inside a basement apartment near the Howard University campus, Lillian and her mother developed an uneasy relationship. Lillian had been glad to leave North Carolina, where she had to endure periodic beatings from her grandmother, Eva. But she quickly learned that her mother could be just like her grandmother -- quick-tempered, profane, ready to beat Lillian for small things.
Lillian said she grew up feeling unloved and unwanted, never forgetting that her mother had once abandoned her. So, at an early age, she began looking elsewhere for comfort. "I used to run from man to man, looking for love. When I was young, I didn't get that love. I didn't get that attention. I didn't get no love at all," she said.
When Lillian was 14, in 1957, she fell in love with a man in his twenties, and decided to have a baby. It did not occur to her, she said, that 14 was too young to have a baby. Her mother and her three aunts all had had children as teen-agers; if they regretted it, they never talked about it around Lillian.
As soon as Lillian showed an interest in boys, her mother told her: "Be careful. You know if you have sex now, you know what's going to happen." Lillian says now that she did not know what would happen, but that she didn't ask.
Periodically, her mother would ask: "When's the last time you seen your monthly?" and threaten to evict her if she got pregnant. Her mother seemed to accept that Lillian would have sex, telling her only that she should make sure that her boyfriend used "protection." But Lillian ignored the advice about contraception for reasons that some teen-agers in Washington Highlands do today: "I didn't like birth control . It wasn't natural."
One day, when Waters asked about Lillian's "monthly," Lillian said it was two months late.
Waters was furious. Using a concoction of powdered mustard, she made her daughter have an abortion. Lillian said she has never forgiven her: "I felt abortion was wrong. That's murder. I still feel the same way today." Recently, when one of her daughters considered having an abortion, Lillian talked her out of it.
Soon after the abortion, Lillian dropped out of school. She had her first child at 17 and decided to marry the child's father, a farmer named Charlie Williams who she had met in Kinston during a visit in the summer of 1961.
Charlie came to Washington and worked construction. By his own description, he gambled too much, drank too much and had a nasty temper. "I'm still the same way," he said recently.
There was a lot of violence in the Williams house, according to those interviewed. Once, Charlie went after Lillian with a knife; he was stopped by a family member who stabbed him in the throat, chipping a bone in Charlie's neck. Another time, Waters knocked Charlie to the floor with a right-hand punch to the jaw. And Charlie once shot a gun at one of Lillian's brothers, the bullet grazing the man's forehead.
In 1966, after five years of marriage and six children, Charlie and Lillian split up, and Charlie left for good. They accuse each other of ruining the relationship. Lillian said recently, "My husband cut out on me first. And I said, 'Two can play at this game.' I was running around, not realizing I was hurting myself."
Lillian had a brief romance, which resulted in her seventh child. Then, in 1969, she met Fred Williams. He became her common-law husband and the father of three of her last four children. Although the relationship lasted 13 years, Lillian said her desperate need for love led her to "run around." She had a secret affair for two years that resulted in her 10th child, born in 1972. She told Fred the baby was his, but he did not believe her.
"I was a nagging woman," Lillian said of herself during these years. "I was afraid to receive love from Fred because I had been tricked so many times." She was so suspicious that she accused Fred of "running around with other women, even though he said he wasn't doing anything."
The relationship continued, but in 1982, after Lillian became a born-again Christian, she decided the relationship was sinful and asked him to leave the house.
"It didn't look right for him to be living here and us not being married," she said. 'You'll Never Be Nothing'
Throughout these years, there was never enough money. Lillian's older children remember standing silently around their mother, watching her cry because she did not have enough food for them. They said they resent their father for not supporting them better.
Lillian has received welfare and food stamps ever since she split up with her husband in 1966. When her daughters became pregnant, they too became eligible for assistance but refused to apply because, they said, they saw it as an embarrassment. They finally registered after Lillian badgered them about it for months. Theresa, 23, took herself off the rolls after six months because she found a job; Boochie, 19, received payments for a few months, was cut off for giving incomplete information and then refused for 21 months to reapply.
Wesley, 21, said he was taunted in elementary school because his family was poor. The other kids would point to the holes in his snow-wet sneakers and whisper to each other, "They can't afford any shoes."
Wesley said, "I used to hate that. I used to sit in the back in my little corner of the classroom and cry. I just wanted to walk out of the class and never come back."
Lillian, too, has bitter memories of these years. She said she frequently hit her children, often without reason. She beat her daughter, Janice, only because "Janice is red light skinned and I didn't like red people." When she thinks about it now, she cringes. "My own child. I was sick. I knew something had to change because I was terrible."
She said she saw her world as hopeless and passed that view on to her children. She told them, "You'll never be nothing." Helping them with their school work was out of the question -- Lillian had dropped out in the seventh grade, and Fred was illiterate.
One of her children, Charlie, 22, is still furious because of an incident that took place when he was 12. Charlie said he had just learned that he had passed the sixth grade and rushed home from school to tell his mother. But his sister, Theresa, had learned the same day that she had failed the sixth grade for the second time, and Charlie had to wait patiently while his mother consoled Theresa, who was in tears.
Instead of praising him, though, his mother said to Theresa, "Don't worry, Theresa. Charlie will fail, too."
Charlie's voice still shakes with anger as he tells the story. "[A mother] supposed to treat her children the same. Don't put your son down. Your son got emotionals just like the daughter got emotionals."
Charlie said the incident killed his interest in school. He failed the seventh and eighth grades and dropped out of school when he was 16. The Patterns, Again
Lillian Williams' 11 children are the heirs to the family's history. Some of them see the pattern of that history as destructive; others don't see a pattern at all.
There is, for example, Theresa, 23, mother of two children, who decided to have her first baby to end years of taunting from her peers about her virginity.
There is Boochie, 19, also a mother of two, who stopped taking birth control pills days after seeing Lillian's happy reaction to the birth of Theresa's first child.
There is Ronnie, 20, whose girlfriend had an abortion at 13 and then, a year later, gave birth to their son.
There is Charlie, 22, who has one child. There is Wesley, 21, who says he has a child, although his mother said he makes the claim to keep pace with his brothers.
There is Melissa, 17, who said she ignored her boyfriend's insistence that she use birth control and quickly became pregnant. Her baby girl was born Dec. 8.
In interviews with the Williams children during the past year, one theme came through: The pregnancies were not accidents. The Williams children knew the consequences of sexual activity, and they knew about birth control, but they wanted children for a variety of reasons -- to achieve something, to prove something to their peers, to be considered an adult.
It was not always easy for them to talk about their reasons. At delicate points in the interviews, several of them watched closely for a reaction, looking for any hint of disapproval. Once convinced that they were not being judged, three spoke candidly.
Theresa, the most candid, still found it difficult to talk about her reasons. Theresa had been tagged, labeled, marked in her early teens as a girl who did not like sex or boys. Even her older brother Earl teased her. When one of Earl's friends tried to "get fresh" with her one afternoon, Earl laughed and said, "Don't mess with her, she's a virgin."
Theresa said she was embarrassed. "God, he was loud. The whole block could have heard him. I ain't want nobody to know all that stuff. It was nobody's business."
When girls got together and talked about their sex lives, which they often did in explicit detail, Theresa hung back. "I'd be the only one sitting there listening, not a thing to say," she said.
When she was 18, she sometimes found herself listening to much younger girls. At one of these sessions, a 14-year-old cousin said to her -- in front of several boys and girls -- "Girl, you look like a virgin. I can tell you are." A 16-year-old cousin joined in, baiting her by saying that she obviously couldn't have children because she had none.
Theresa remembers how she felt. "They looked at a virgin as being something shameful . . . . They were the type of people who would always tell what happened if they made it out with a boy or a boy made it out with them. I was the only one they never heard from. They would say, 'You don't know what you're missing.' The more they talked, the more curious I got."
Theresa did not tell them why she was still a virgin. She did not tell them that she was hiding something, that she had a deep-seated fear of men that grew out of several episodes of sexual abuse. Remembering: 1974-1976
Theresa remembers the incidents clearly, and there are more of them than she wants to remember. When she was 8, a great-uncle forcibly touched her genitals. When she was 10, five neighborhood boys grabbed her one day outside her apartment building and touched her genitals; she broke free, got a knife and attacked the boys, cutting three of them.
But the most vivid memory is this:
It started when she was 12. The man was a friend of her mother, someone who stayed in the house, someone who touched her body when her mother wasn't around. Theresa was frightened, but she couldn't tell anyone and couldn't make him stop. She avoided him, but he persisted. She became withdrawn, edgy, but still hid the problem. Finally, one day, when Theresa was 15, her mother came into the apartment and noticed the man standing close to Theresa, so close that her mother suddenly understood -- from her own experience -- and began asking questions that brought an end to the abuse. Healing the Wounds
Theresa does not trust men. She is afraid of them, sees them as violent, cruel, unreliable, bossy and unfaithful. She said she isn't interested in marriage; the man who fathered both her children has asked her several times, and she has always turned him down.
She is more interested in the church than in men. At her mother's urging, she has been attending her mother's church, the Christian Power Center at 3920 South Capitol Street SE.
Of Lillian's adult children, only Theresa says she is "saved" and is a born-again Christian. Yet Lillian is undeterred. She sees the church as the only salvation, the only way to break the patterns, the only way to heal the wounds left by the abuse and the violence. She requires her five youngest children -- the oldest is 17, the youngest is 11 -- to come with her to services at the Christian Power Center.
But she realizes that the church has not changed her children's attitudes, that they will continue to be sexually active and risk having more children rather than waiting for marriage to have sex. She was crestfallen when she discovered in July that Melissa, then 16, was four months pregnant -- after Melissa had told her that she wanted to finish school and wait to have any children.
She does not believe birth control is an answer. She has an emotional aversion to it, both religious and cultural, that is shared by her children and by other teen-agers interviewed for this series.
So she retreats to her Bible, spending part of each day by the window, underlining passages that she uses in preaching to her children, rising occasionally to sing a gospel song, as she did on one recent day.
Her eyes closed, her cheeks shining, she rocked back and forth, singing, "In Times Like These We Need a Savior." For now, she said afterward, she has put her faith "totally in God."
NEXT: Two Couples and Their Attitudes