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Pegi Bearden




Jim Handley

  
Pegi Bearden:

There's a poem called "Footsteps In the Sand" and it talks about a person having a real rocky life. And he's following the footsteps in the sand. And at one point there are two sets of footprints and at another point there's only one set of footprints. And he asks God why at one point in his life there was only one set of footprints and God says: "Well those were the times that I was carrying you. You weren't able to walk on your own, so I carried you." And when I read that poem for the first time, I looked back on my life and I thought: "Wow, that's exactly what happened to me!"

Music
 
 
Dwight Nelson:

The extraordinary story of Pegi Bearden makes it clear that the power of love can overcome even the most horrific childhood. In order to tell this story, we must include some graphic details that are not suitable for children. We don't tell the story because of how it begins, but because of how it ends. This is a story of radical transformation. Hilary Carr reports.

Hilary Carr:

Pegi Bearden grew up during the depression in a house much like this one in the small lumber town of Springville, California. One of her earliest memories was the sound of singing coming from the church next door.

Pegi Bearden:

They were singing "Jesus Loves Me" and "Amazing Grace." And I always wondered: "Who this man was that they called Jesus?" And I was also always asking the people: "Is your name Jesus?" And they would look and they would say: "Why no. Why?" "Well, I'm looking for that man that I hear them sing about named Jesus. Which one is Jesus?"

Hilary Carr:

PEGI didn't have a lot of time to wonder about the church next door. Finding enough food to eat was the primary concern. While other kids were learning their ABCs, PEGI and her five younger siblings were learning to steal enough food to survive. And it didn't much matter who or what they stole it from.

Pegi Bearden:

I learned to steal early in life as a way of feeding my siblings. I stole from the local markets. Later I stole from people's hen houses. I stole their eggs and their chickens. I soon found out that the chickens were far too noisy, so I started stealing the rabbits. They were easier to steal.

Penny Farris:

We had no running water, no electricity, very few clothes. Never enough to eat. And it is true that I looked down on Pegi Bearden. And for me to look down on Pegi - when I was so very poor myself and so very needy myself - did mean that she was a very, I hate to use the word "pitiful," but a very pitiful child.

Rosie Luce:

And I remember Pegi always standing back, never mingling with the other kids. Just standing back, thin, dirty, dirty, dirty, dirty. And the kids would make fun of her and she would fight.

 

Pegi Bearden:

At school I was always in trouble and the teachers locked me in the cloakroom. And I loved to be locked in the cloakroom because that's the only place I could eat. And I would eat everybody's lunches. First I would go through and eat what I liked the best. And if I were still hungry I'd go and eat like what I liked next to the best.

Rosie Luce:

I can remember that she wouldn't take my whole lunch; my whole lunch would never be gone. But bits and pieces of my lunch would be gone. And I can remember that. But I never knew until later that she was the one who was doing it. But I guess I do know that my lunch had been taken many, many times.

Pegi Bearden:

Eventually I learned that I wasn't supposed to eat the lunches. And I would try real hard to not eat those lunches. I would even knock on the door telling the teacher she must let me out because I wanted to eat the lunches. And she would just leave me in there. I never could understand why it was ok for them to eat and not for me.

Hilary Carr:

Pegi's father, Melvin, was repeatedly hospitalized for tuberculosis. Pegi's mother, Winnie, had six children and limited options to support them.

Pegi Bearden:

In those days if there was a man in the home you could not get welfare. And I know that my mother did not have welfare. So, as a way of support for herself and the children, she was prostituting. I saw her. I saw her on many occasions. My father, when he found out about it, was just up in arms over it. And he would walk away from the hospital to come home and be with her. And through the process of him sitting in the bars, waiting for my mother, drinking and gambling, he came to drinking and gambling and waiting for her to come home from wherever she was. Early every morning, our house came alive with screaming sounds from my mother. But this one particular night, the screams just were different for some reason. So I got out of bed and I just, I don't know, I just followed her screams and I stood at the door. There was a light on. And I watched my mother in the bed in excruciating pain. She was alone. My dad was back in the hospital. She was alone. And she was on her hands and knees hanging on to the foot of the iron bed.

Hilary Carr:

Pegi watched her mother as she gave birth. She watched her mother take the baby into the kitchen. She watched her mother wrap the baby in paper and run water into the sink. Then her mother turned and noticed Pegi.

Pegi Bearden:

And she stopped and called me into the kitchen and said: "How long have you been watching?" And I said: "I've been watching for a long, long time. Your cries awakened me." Anyway, by this time, the baby was dead. A few days later, she came and it was at night. And she got me out of bed and told me that there was a bundle out by the gate and she wanted me to take it into the grape vineyard and bury it. And I took the baby out into the grape vineyard and I buried it.

Music
 
 
Pegi Bearden:

I really feel that if God hadn't been with me that my dad would have killed each and every one of us kids right before our mother's eyes, all six of us, and then killed her. And then perhaps killed himself.

Dwight Nelson:

The transformation of a life can begin in a moment. But then take years to fully reveal itself. In Pegi Bearden's case, things had to get a lot worse before they started to get better.

Hilary Carr:

For eleven years Pegi watched her father beat her mother. One night Pegi defended her mother by firmly punching her father in the face. They fought - and she held her own, embarrassing him in front of his sons. Days later, he gave her the first gift he had ever given her.

Pegi Bearden:

My dad called me in one afternoon and he said, come here, sissy, I have a present for you. My dad never had a present for me. My dad never had a present for anybody. We just didn't have presents. But he had a present for me and I was very excited. And he held up this jacket and he said: "It's a coat." "Oh, that's wonderful! A coat! I've never had a coat." And I heard my mother in the background go: "Oh, Melvin, please..." And I thought, something clicked, you know? But I just went right straight for that jacket and he was holding it up. He said: "Here Sissy, put your arms in it." And I just put my arms in it and all of a sudden he just threw me around. I just went spinning and I was just locked in this thing. And he buckled me up and tied me up and he dragged me to the backyard and hung me in a tree, a fig tree. Hung me in the tree, my legs couldn't even touch the ground. And I was there for about three days. My dog patches came and got under my feet to give me support. But my dad came out everyday and beat me with an old hose, old piece of a hose, he beat my legs.

Hilary Carr:

The straight jacket hung in the tree for years. Nobody ever bothered to take it down. It was a constant reminder to Pegi of the terror that lived in that house, a terror that kept coming back in increasingly familiar ways. One night, Pegi again watched her mother run water into the kitchen sink…

Pegi Bearden:

One night my mother found me standing at the kitchen door again, watching her. And she came over and got me and brought me into the kitchen and she explained to me what was going on. That she wasn't able to feed the children that she had. She didn't know what else she could do. She didn't have any other choice. So she was going to show me how to do this. And the kitchen sink was already filled with water and there was this little bundle in the kitchen sink wrapped in paper. And she wanted me to hold it under the water. And I'm just a child, so I started kind of playing in the water and the paper started washing off. And pretty soon, before I knew it, I saw a couple of little pink legs sticking out and a bunch of little toes and they started moving and before you knew it, I could see that I had a little sister. I'd never had a sister. I had three mean brothers that I had to fight with and I had wanted to have a sister so badly. And I took that baby out of that water and I grabbed her and I ran out that door screaming: "She's mine! She's mine! You can't have her! We're not going to kill her! She's my baby. And I'll keep her." And I took the baby and carried her all over town with me.

 

Hilary Carr:

Pegi showed the baby to all of the neighbors so they would see it. And so her mother couldn't drown it. She raised the baby, carrying for her until they were sent to different foster homes and forced apart. Pegi didn't see her sister again for another ten years. At the age of 17, the courts returned Pegi to her mother. A few months later she married the man next door.

Pegi Bearden:

I was so excited about getting married the first time because I was going to have a mother. For the first time, I was going to have a mother who was going to be there for me. And I just knew that she was going to love me. She had something like nine children. It was a large family. And I was marrying her youngest son. But she ended up not liking me because I was a thief.

 

Hilary Carr:

After three failed marriages, Pegi began to fight the greatest battle of her life: alcoholism.

Pegi Bearden:

I said all my life that I wouldn't do to my children what was done to me. I said I would never become what my parents were. And at the age of about 27 or 28 I fell to the awful disease of alcoholism. And I wasn't just my mother or just my father, I was both of them in one.

Hilary Carr:

By this time Pegi was up to her sixth husband. She was being arrested daily for drunk driving and afraid of losing her two little boys. It was then the first really good thing happened in her life.

Pegi Bearden:

So I went to Alcoholics Anonymous. I'd had a friend who had been able to quit drinking and I called him to find out how he quit. And he sent a couple of women from AA over to talk with me. They carried me around to a couple of meetings for a couple of days until I got my thinking clear. I would take my little boy with me who was about five in a sleeping bag. And he'd sleep while I was a in meetings and after the meetings, I just rolled him up and we'd go home. Alcoholics Anonymous was wonderful for me. And it helped me tremendously. But one of the things that happened with me was that I got all my thinking back and this criminal thinking was so embedded in my mind that it also made me a better criminal.

Hilary Carr:

And a better criminal is what she became. She did what she knew. She followed her mother's footsteps into the oldest profession in the world.

Pegi Bearden:

And I became a Madame. I was talking a class at Fresno State College and I heard some girls talking about working for an escort service. So I scooted my chair closer and started listening to them. And all these bells started ringing and my criminal mind just started spinning. The girls made fantastic money. I made fantastic money. I had a wonderful clientele. I had professional people from all over and I ended with making lots and lots of money.

Hilary Carr:

But in late 1982, Pegi made a big mistake. She put an ad in the Fresno Yellow Pages and that ad led to her arrest.

Pegi Bearden:

I was sentenced to six years in prison. I was sent to the California Institution for Women in Fontera, California, where I did three years. I was just terrified the first night they took me into prison.

Hilary Carr:

While in prison Pegi couldn't get away from the screams of the other inmates. She needed to find peace. And she found it in the one place she was never allowed to go as a child: church.

Pegi Bearden:

As a little girl, I couldn't go to church. They wouldn't allow me to go to church. I didn't know what God was. And here I go to prison and I find that the only place that I can find peace is in the church. So I went to church. I was only in church a couple of times. They had a black choir and I loved the jazzy music. We had a black chaplain and I loved his preaching. And I wanted to join the choir. So, I showed up one day for choir practice with all the black girls and they just had a fit. They didn't want this white face in their choir. And they went to the chaplain and told him that they didn't want me in the choir. But the chaplain liked me, and he talked to them, and before you know it, I was singing in the all-black choir.

Hilary Carr:

Pegi sang in the all black choir every week. The songs she learned, songs of slavery and freedom, struck a powerful chord with her. One song in particular she grew to love.

Pegi Bearden:

(singing) …and saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind but now I see…

Dwight Nelson:

Pegi took a long journey from a hellish upbringing to grace. We'll find out just how that amazing grace gave her a new life and we'll meet the man who became her husband, after this.

Music  
Pegi Bearden:

I was just terrified the first night they took me into prison. The terrible noises, the awful, awful screams that never, never stopped.

Dwight Nelson: After Pegi was released from prison, she met and married Jim Handley. Here you both are. Welcome to The Evidence.
Pegi Bearden: Thank you.
Dwight Nelson: Glad to have you.
Pegi Bearden: Thank you.
Dwight Nelson:

By the way, how long were you in prison?

Pegi Bearden: I did three years.
Dwight Nelson:

Three years. You come to the last day. They wish you well.

Pegi Bearden:

No, they just opened the gate.

Dwight Nelson:

They open the gate, and this man, this man is suddenly is in the story. I mean, I say suddenly, he's here today.

Pegi Bearden: Right.
Dwight Nelson:

How in the world did you meet Jim?

Pegi Bearden:

We met through a mutual friend. I'm in AA. Jim is.

Dwight Nelson:

AA, Alcoholics Anonymous.

Pegi Bearden:

Alcoholics Anonymous. Jim's first wife who had passed away was a recovering Alcoholic. And then we had a mutual recovery and Alcoholic friend who introduced us.

Dwight Nelson:

Now, Jim, are you a recovering alcoholic?

Jim Handley: No.
Dwight Nelson:

You were married to one, your first wife?

Jim Handley: That's right.
Dwight Nelson:

So you meet Pegi. Do you know Pegi is an Alcoholic when you meet her?

Jim Handley: Oh yes I do.
Dwight Nelson: Ok
Jim Handley:

As a matter of fact, one of my qualifications in finding another mate. That they have a recovery in the program.

Dwight Nelson:

Your next life partner would be an alcoholic?

Jim Handley: That's right.
Dwight Nelson: A recovering Alcoholic.
Jim Handley: That's right.
Dwight Nelson:

Jim, I'm just intrigued with this. It's almost as if you sensed it was a life calling for you to remarry, as you did with Pegi, another recovering alcoholic.

Jim Handley:

I heard in ALANON, way early, some lady said, boy I'm grateful that God put an alcoholic in my life. And I thought, boy, that's the craziest thing that anybody could say.

Dwight Nelson: Yeah.
Jim Handley:

But today I'll tell you, it is the most wonderful thing God ever did to me.

Dwight Nelson:

Because it's done something to you.

Jim Handley: Oh yes.
Dwight Nelson: What's it done?
Jim Handley:

Well, it has made me not to be a nuisance to other people. See, religion has kind of a double- edged sword. You can be a religious person and just be a nuisance about it. Or your religion can be effective in changing people's lives. And I believe God needed to change me.

Dwight Nelson:

The sub-plot to your own life story is that through your partnership with recovering alcoholics something was transforming, not only happening in their lives, but transformation is happening in your life.

Jim Handley: Oh yes. It...
Dwight Nelson:

Almost as if it's God. Are you suggesting God's mission for all lives is to experience transformation.?

Jim Handley:

Oh yes. I think that is absolutely true. God has a very earnest desire for every one to find him.

Dwight Nelson:

So Pegi, was it easy to believe in God originally? You started out, I mean that just came naturally for you?

Pegi Bearden:

Oh, my heavens, no. No.

Dwight Nelson:

Well, how did you come to believe then?

Pegi Bearden:

It was very difficult. You know, AA is a spiritual background.

Dwight Nelson: that's true.
Pegi Bearden:

And I was told when I first went to AA to fake it until I made it. And I just kept thinking…

Dwight Nelson:

Your life story, does it strike you as unfair?

Pegi Bearden:

No, no, not really. For many years I thought it was. But today I think I was given that life. I was given that life to see what I would do with it.

Dwight Nelson:

So you don't blame God?

Pegi Bearden:

I don't blame God about it at all. No.

Dwight Nelson:

Do you blame your parents?

Pegi Bearden: No, no.
Dwight Nelson:

Blame your childhood?

Pegi Bearden: No.
Dwight Nelson: No.
Pegi Bearden:

You know, I couldn't recover. I couldn't recover. I couldn't be a child of God if I had any blame for all those people.

Dwight Nelson:

So Pegi, here you are. Experiencing transformation now in your life journey. If you could go back and talk with the little Pegi Bearden, what would you say to her?

Pegi Bearden:

I would take little Pegi by the hand and I would say, come and go with me. I would love to go back to that little church in that little town.

Dwight Nelson: Would you?
Pegi Bearden:

And take that little girl and really go into that church and go to the altar with that little girl and pray with her. You see, Dwight, I was always looking for God somewhere else. I was looking for him out there. I was looking for him in a man form. Because that's who I thought He was. I didn't know that He was a Spirit that lived within myself. And I had to find him within my own soul. And today I know that.

Dwight Nelson:

Pegi, thanks so much for sharing your story with us.

Pegi Bearden: Thank you Dwight.
Dwight Nelson: God bless you both. Jim,
Jim Handley: Thank you.
Dwight Nelson:

Glad you came. If you want to know more about Pegi's story you can check our story out on our website: theevidence, that's one word, theevidence.org. We'll be right back after this.

Music  
Dwight Nelson:

Pegi Handley had the kind of childhood that dooms most people to a life of dysfunction if not outright criminal behavior. That's what most sociologists would say her environment pointed her toward. And in fact, Pegi did have her run-ins with the law. But something remarkable happened to her in prison. Something happened that helped her in a sense to turn her tragic childhood upside down. Where before she was haunted by the utter absence of love, now she felt overwhelmed by it. Pegi points to an encounter with God as a source of her transformation. His love proved constant and genuine and deep. It's this unconditional love that enables her to make very different choices today. She's no longer compelled to play out her life as a victim of the destructive forces of her environment. She's no longer trapped by abuse and neglect. She's found something that gives her the leverage to overturn all that went before. I believe Pegi shows us concrete evidence of just how real God's love is. Her story makes it harder to assume that his compassion and concern are just something people imagine to get them through the night. The horrors of Pegi's childhood weren't something she imagined. The chaos of her life wasn't something she made up. All that was all too real. Even so, God's love had to be just as real in order to move her beyond it. If his love had been any less real Pegi couldn't have overcome her childhood. She couldn't have turned a viscous cycle of abuse into a positive and productive existence. The ugliest colors and the darkest corners of life in this world sometimes make God's love shine the brightest. That's what I think. I'm Dwight Nelson. Join us next time for more of The Evidence.

 







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