Song of hope

‘Rachel Rising’ gives voice to journey from abuse to healing

Rebekkah Hilgraves

Rebekkah Hilgraves

When Rebekkah Hilgraves lifts her voice in song on Oct. 2, “Rachel” will cry out a story of abuse, hope and redemption.

It has taken a decade for the story of the physical and emotional torture of a young woman to be heard, and Rebekkah isn’t wasting a note. The stage is set for a world premiere of “Rachel Rising.” The beneficiary of the benefit concert is fitting, with funds raised going to Haven House. And the performance can boast both an accomplished singer and conductor and a live orchestra.

The singer will put her heart and soul into the evening because the music coming from Rebekkah’s lips is based on a work she knows by heart.

It is her story.

Rebekkah Hilgraves fell into a trap set by a man she met through the Internet when she was a 29 year old struggling opera singer, trying to make a name for herself in San Francisco.

“I was trying to break into the music scene, and I was approached via email by a man who claimed to be famous audio producer and who promised me all the success I had been dreaming of,” Rebekkah said. The classically-trained singer, who now lives in Maryville and owns SheTech and Company said, “He basically got me where my ambition lived. I turned off the nonsense meter. I wanted it so badly. I was hungry.”

Hilgraves said that within 48 hours this man entangled her in a weird web of lies and began cutting her off from anyone who would see through him.

“I think now, how on Earth could I have gotten involved in something like that,” she said. “He quickly isolated me from family and friends. He scared the bejesus out of me with threats of violence. He claimed to be member of the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. He was of Japanese descent, but born in Hawaii. He threatened my family if I didn’t do what he told me, and told me that I was only safe under his protection.”

Over the next year, Hilgraves was psychologically and physically abused by this man, even to the point to where she could no longer sing.

“He quickly took that away from me. He came at me through the music,” Hilgraves said.

Hilgraves said she knows that many who hear the story for the first time will find it strange that someone could control an individual as he controlled her. “People reading this will say, ‘How, in 48 hours, could you come to believe something like that?’ My response is that you have no way of knowing how you’re going to respond to a situation until you’re in it.”

In the year she was with him, “he routinely beat me, starved me. I went from 150 pounds to less than 130 pounds because I would go days without food. I would go 5 days at a time without sleep,” she said. “I was young and naive, and didn’t know how to get out.”

The man allowed Hilgraves to keep her third-shift job at a radio station, monitoring the time it took her to drive back and forth to work. The late-night job also meant she had limited contact with others.

Her tormentor’s mistake came when he began to have money problems and brought another woman into their lives. The woman was a friend of Hilgraves, and she got caught up in the persona he portrayed. Soon she was living with them, and he began controlling her life as well.

“She was in sales, and he came at her through her looks. He’d make her do a skin care regiment that was supposed to help her skin but actually made her complexion worse. He claimed it helped, but it didn’t. That damages the ego, to be walking around with a face full of blemishes. She began to feel less and less capable and less like herself. He stripped her of her public face,” Hilgraves said.

But as each woman worked to provide him the money he needed, their schedules threw them together more and more without him to monitor them. One day they stopped at a record store to buy a gift, and they began to look through the CD bins for his “credits” on all the famous recordings he claimed to be a part of.

“We started checking through bins to see if his name was on any of the CDs, thinking ‘wouldn’t it be cool to see his name in print?’” she said. “We discovered his name was no where to be found. We began to ask each other, ‘If he can lie about this, what else is he lying about?’ When one part of the story no longer held together, none of it did.

“We slowly pulled apart his lies,” she said. “It all fell apart. It was a house of cards.”

Hilgraves said she went to work that night and, for the first time in a year, she called her mother. She and her mother had had a close relationship, but Hilgraves had made it clear when she first got involved with this man that she wanted her mother to leave her alone.

“I called her and told her what happened. She was furious with him. She had been in an abusive situation herself, so she understood how I got caught up in it,” Hilgraves said. “She said, ‘Get out.’ I wanted to wait two more weeks for another paycheck, but she said ‘You leave now.’ “

Hilgraves happened to be working a dayshift at the radio station the next day, and she called her friend and said, “I’m leaving the station and coming to get you. We’re leaving.”

They hid for three days, not going back for personal items or answering his constant pages. “We buried ourselves for three days. I dyed my hair and cut it short. We didn’t go back until we had a police escort.”

They filed police reports and got an escort back to the apartment, but the officers said there wasn’t any more they could do for them.

“They thought we were nuts,” she said. Hilgraves said her physical scars at that point had healed. “Because I didn’t come in bleeding and bruised, they said they couldn’t help me. I never got any justice from the legal system. The DA’s office rejected the case, claiming a ‘lack of preponderance of physical evidence,’ “ she said.

Recovery began then, and the road was long and varied, Hilgraves said.

She was 30 when she got away from her captor, and she left the San Francisco area and stayed with her father in Los Angeles. A short time later she moved to Seattle. “I loved Seattle, and I hid out and recovered,” she said.

Later she was then approached by a National Public Radio station in Buffalo where she had worked before so she returned there for six months and then went back to Seattle.

She moved several times, working, healing, getting back in touch with family and friends and, finally, beginning to sing again.

Hilgraves had already earned a degree from Northern Illinois University where she studied classical opera. But during her year in virtual captivity, she never sang and once she got out, Hilgraves learned her voice was damaged.

“The only sound that came out was the sound of an unhappy goose. My voice had been so damaged because he smoked heavily and got me smoking,” she said. “I didn’t sing at all that year. I was heartbroken and thought that was the end of it. I stopped singing for a long time.”

The man, she learned, moved to Hawaii where he runs a sexual fantasy website. “Once he realized we had poked holes in his story, he had nothing else,” she said.

But she did. One evening she had a dream, and, when she awoke, the inspiration for the poetry that would become “Rachel Rising” just began to flow from her.

“It isn’t mine,” she said. “It’s my story, but the poetry came from God.”

“I woke up after a dream, and the dream was that a choir was singing the Agnus Dei, ‘The Lamb of God.’ I woke up and started writing and 12 of 15 poems came out that night. It was this spew of creativity. It wasn’t my work. It was my hand holding the pen but that was all there was. It’s God’s work, not mine.”

Hilgraves said the poetry cycle is an allegory of her journey. “It goes through a cycle of redemption, from light into darkness and back again. It starts with music which gets taken away, then we travel into a very dark place, a pit of darkness, and then very cautiously come out the other side. It’s a classic allegorical journey of the spirit,” she said. “There are lot of references to God and a lot of references to redemption but it’s not a religious work. It’s a spiritual journey, and it is definitely my story,” she said.

Hilgraves said once she was finished writing the poems and she realized what she had, she began contacting friends who were composers to set the poetry to music. As her voice healed, Rebekkah kept working to get the poetry set to music. Several were interested, but the time to do the work never seemed to materialize. People loved the work, but working on something on a volunteer basis always got pushed to the back burner, Rebekkah said.

When Rebekkah and her mother moved to Blount County, a place the family had vacationed when she was a child, she set up SheTech and Company, a small consultancy specializing in web design, content development, internet marketing, internet public relations and multimedia development. She also became active in the Blount County Chamber of Commerce. It was at a Chamber mixer that she met the new director of Haven House, an emergency shelter for domestic violence victims in Blount and Monroe counties.

“We shook hands and I said, ‘We have some things in common.’ “

Hilgraves began to volunteer with Haven House, taking on their website and getting more involved in their planning. She had been wanting to do a recital and decided she would do a benefit for Haven House.

She contacted Dr. Rob Deemer, a composer friend who had been interested in the poetry but hadn’t had time to pursue it and said, “Now is the time.” Deemer, who heads the composition department at SUNY/Fredonia, will come to conduct the work he set to music.

The concert has grown into a celebration of women in the arts and an acknowledgment of October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month. “Rachel Rising: A Celebration of Women in the Arts” is an open event featuring paintings, photography, sculptures, stained glass and metalwork by women artists from throughout the region. The event culminates with the world premiere of “Rachel Rising,” with Hilgraves singing, Deemer conducting and a small chamber orchestra made up of players from the Knoxville Symphony and Knoxville Opera.

The performance and art display takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2 at Fairview United Methodist Church, 2508 Old Niles Ferry Road.

The art exhibit will open at 6 p.m., and a reception following the concert will offer concertgoers the opportunity to view and purchase the artworks at leisure. There is no charge for the concert, but a minimum donation of $25 will be gratefully accepted.

Other artists scheduled to participate in the event include photographer Theresa Saxon of Images Coterie, graphic artist and painter Dana Rimback, stained glass artist Catherine Frye of Southern Studios, and others.

“We start rehearsal next week,” Rebekkah said. “This is tremendously exciting. It’s been over a decade I’ve had this work and have been wanting to express it.”

Why Rachel and not Rebekkah?

“Rachel is actually me. It was the name my parents would have called me if they had not chosen Rebekkah. People often call me Rachel when they can’t remember my name,” she said with a laugh. “I consider Rachel the name God game me. That’s part of the story.”

Along with the personal healing that will come from finally getting to perform the poetry, Rebekkah said the concert is also about getting the message about domestic violence.

“Our point for doing this is that it can happen to anyone. The stereotypes you hear about do not apply. It can happen to anybody. It can be your sister, your daughter. It can be you at any level of income, level of education,” she said. “It’s pervasive and if you try to relegate it to lower classes and tuck it away where you can safely ignore it, you’re ignoring a serious problem right beside you.”

“Rachel Rising” will be held at Fairview United Methodist Church on Old Niles Ferry Road. Doors will open at 6 p.m. Oct. 2 with the performance beginning at 7 p.m. and the reception following at about 8 p.m.

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