Some years ago, my mother gave me some advice when she found out that I was writing and hoping to get my work published. She wrote this to me in a letter, "Let me give you some advice about your writing. If you write only good things about the Amish, then your books will sell better."
Needless to say, I did not follow Mem's advice. This morning I read my own thoughts in an essay by Nikky Finney in Poets and Writers magazine when she wrote: "I too forgive, but I don't forget. In the forgetting we miss something important about the climb, the struggle, the loss of life, the loss of dreams. My responsibility as a poet, as an artist, is to not look away."
These are powerful words for me — I may not have been able to be so articulate in conveying this, but these are my sentiments exactly.
And this is why Plain and Simple by Sue Bender bugs me — because it does completely the opposite. I hadn't taken it off my shelf in ages, so when I just did, I was surprised that I wrote in the margins my reaction to some of what she herself deems "a cloyingly sweet, rosy-colored-glasses rendition of my personal fairy tale, with me cast as the frog princess… with my new friends, the gentle, pious, hardworking, unself-conscious Amish, cast as the heroes and heroines." (Page 82).
She also describes herself on page 4 as someone who "organized her life around a series of black-and-white judgments."
If someone is going to understand the Amish from the outside looking in, they cannot be seeing things in black and white, and they cannot be looking through rose-colored glasses. And, perhaps more importantly, they will not get a balanced or nuanced view of them by living with two different families a few weeks at a time.
How someone manages to put a culture up on a pedestal and condescend them at the same time, I don't know, but Sue Bender somehow manages that. Take, for example, on page 41 when she wrote about having met Eli: "After meeting his chubby wife, I thought he looked as if he had come from a more modern generation that knew being fat wasn't healthy."
And on page 46 she wrote: "To my horror, breakfast consisted of sugared cereal with a dollop of honey and a few teaspoons of sugar added for good measure…. I was living in white sugar heaven. I mostly watched and nibbled on white bread toast, not ready to give up my regime of freshly squeezed orange juice, granola, whole wheat bread, and nonfat milk."
And on page 57 she wrote: "'Pass the fat, pass the carbohydrates,' I imagine them saying. Each day we picked sweet, fresh strawberries, but before they reached the table, they'd been sabotaged by mounds of sugar." Bender was clearly judgmental about this Amish family's eating habits.
Bender goes on to criticize something that she completely missed as one of the few ways that Amish women get to express themselves — most of them love to own and display pretty dishes. On page 58 she wrote: "In their world they chose well, but when faced with a bewildering array of choices in the outside community, they often chose unwisely. In fact, before the 1850s, when they led a spartan and isolated life, their homes were bare, but handsome." [I have written in the margin here, “How do you know?] "Now with affluence, many homes had fussy china proudly displayed in living room cupboards."
Considering Bender is so judgmental about these issues, it is completely off-putting to me that the more hefty issues are glossed over. This is how she dealt with the Amish limiting education to the eighth grade on page 62: "The Amish leave school after the eighth grade because they fear further education might lead a person off the path of humility and toward a feeling of self-importance. Even so, every person I met spoke two languages, switching back and forth with ease, and understood high German that was used in the Sunday service, while I, with two master's degrees, remained mute in every foreign land I ever visited."
I have written in the margins, "By making this comparison, you make the issue of children leaving school so early simply disappear." In the next paragraph, Bender moves on to another subject, by asking Eli why the land is so beautiful.
I have written several posts and a paper on my website about this issue, which I happen to feel quite passionate about: Amish and Education, The Ramifications of Wisconsin vs. Yoder, and the full essay on my website.
On page 65 Bender remarked about how Amish people looked so similar to one another with their dress. And she wrote: "But they could determine in an instant where someone belonged in their structured society."
My remarks to these are: "This is not always a good thing; it doesn't leave room for that individuality so important to you, when you are assigned a role. Think of the "black sheep" family in the community. 'Belonging' no longer has the same meaning when you have been cemented into that role." For more on this, I have written a post, which you can read here.
Sue Bender was one of the first people to make the misinformed claim that the "running around" period is: "… the time for teenagers to make a choice. That was what it was about. Making a conscious choice." I have written in the margins, "No, no and NO!" I wrote quite a few posts about this here on my blog: To Leave or not to Leave, That Sticky Wicket, and Rumspringa Revisited.
To be fair, Bender did offer one sentence of commentary when she wrote: "I might have argued that the purpose of their early training was to indoctrinate them to make that crucial choice." Then she goes on to give statistics about how many Amish people leave and what their retention rates are. So, she basically left that issue dangling, by not going deeper.
She treats the issue of shunning in a similar fashion: "For me it seemed all or nothing. If you followed the rules, you belonged and reaped the benefits of a close-knit community. If you broke the rules, 'you were on ice at home and in hot water in the community.' If I had been able to talk to Eli about shunning, I could imagine him saying, 'Standards must be met. If you care about your community, then commitment to the rules is important. Otherwise we'd disappear and just melt into the English world that surrounds us.' For him it would be a crime not to support his principles."
In my estimation, when Bender changes to Eli's point of view, she completely avoids this weighty issue. She is willing to judge them for the food they eat and that they are "chubby," but not the far more fundamental issue of how they treat people who decide not to stay within the confines of the community in which they were raised. For my views on this issue, please see Shunning.
About the issue of the women's role in the community, she has to be in a hot air balloon to first mention it. She wrote on page 75: "When Gerry, the man who introduced me to the Yoders, invited me to join him and two Amish men in his hot-air balloon, I accepted. I was the first woman to go on the trip and was terrified every moment, but I went. From my perspective high up in the air, looking down at the patchwork of green fields, I thought it might be more fun to be an Amish man than an Amish woman."
I have written into the margin, "And you didn't realize this the first day?"
Bender goes on to ask these questions: "Was Emma jealous of my freedom? Did she think me brazen to be comfortable around men? Was I having such a good time at her expense? [ ] Did my presence in her home make her question her role or the strict rules that governed her life?" I have written in the margins, "By dangling these questions out there, you don't have to deal with the gender inequality among the Amish."
Bender then went on to describe Emma's lack of confidence in the outside world, and how her home was a sanctuary, and how she had a clear picture of "the right way to be." Then, in half a sentence, she finally hit on the real issue, "It is true she didn't get to choose it…" She then glossed over this by describing how Emma doesn't question and how she knew what she did mattered. Bender clearly had an aversion to grappling with the difficult issues.
Bender claimed she "heard voices" about visiting the Amish. After her first visit, she found another family in a different community who would allow her to visit them. She described the desire to belong, but then there is an abrupt shift when she wrote on page 119: "Suddenly, while churning butter one day, I knew part of this journey was over. There were no more questions I needed to ask. This seemingly irrational process that had propelled me first to Iowa, and then to Ohio, was finished. I knew it totally, in every cell."
Several paragraphs later, Bender described the voice she heard that told her to write down her story. I wrote this in the margin: "If this 'voice' is real, and not just a way of justifying this book, it still does not excuse you of the obligation of getting permission from the people you visited to write about them. As it is, you managed to both exploit these people and romanticize them at the same time."
Another aspect of this book that would have been more appropriate as an inner conflict, but was externalized — Bender was very concerned about keeping her options open, and not committing to anything. After her journey to the Amish, which she described as ordered, plain, and simple, [all the things she wished she was] this conflict intensified. She described this in her struggle about putting together a nine-patch quilt on page 136: "I worked without a plan — letting the Amish take over. Just as I was about to sew the individual nine pieces together, I saw that they didn't need sewing. Even that was too much control. If they were to succeed, they had to just be." On the next page she continued this conflict: "I'm not going to stitch them together. Nothing is fixed, and there is no right way for them to be."
I have written into the margin: "Your response?" Bender gave us none. Mine can be summed up in one word: Amen.
Sorry, Peter, to be negative about this book, too. I mentioned A Separate God yesterday… another book I can recommend, this one non-fiction is Strangers in the Home: Amish and Mennonite Women in History, which is an anthology that has several really good articles in it. And then there is always my book, which even has a Vermont connection.