Writing About Amish

In order to be truly free, I eventually discovered, I needed to belong once again — but this time to a way of life I had chosen for myself, one that enabled me to find meaning and joy, in the here and now. ~ Galen Guengerich, Author of God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age.

It is six weeks since my last post. I’ve been thinking about my blog and how it feels to me like the contents of it have become too self-focused. When I started this blog I thought it was going to be About Amish. That was nearly ten years ago. All long-term bloggers eventually re-think their approach, and many will stop or slow down on their posts after careful consideration.

Over the past months, I’ve been experiencing some sort of writer’s block. My writing wasn’t completely blocked, but neither has it been flowing naturally. With the support of those in my writers’ groups, I am slowly making more time and space for my writing.

In the meantime, I’ve been crocheting one rug after another. My neighbors have bought several of my rugs, and there are several more on order. So they are not piling up at the rate of several a week, which is a good thing. I was having a hard time knowing where to put them.

While I’ve been doing all this crocheting, I’ve been thinking about how I might connect in a meaningful way with others who have journeyed out of an Amish community. Some years ago, I had a dream of founding a non-profit that would support those who were leaving. I have discovered I don’t see myself as a leader in that way. So I will go with my strength and help others tell their stories. In the future, I am hoping to post a series of interviews here on my blog that focus on individuals who have left their Amish community.

I have, for some years, believed that the study of the Amish culture should include the perspective of those of us who have left for a number of reasons:

  1. Being self-reflective is not encouraged in most Amish communities, and downright discouraged in others. Once we leave and begin reflecting on life within the Amish, we notice things we didn’t while living inside.
  2. We are no longer trying to please the elders of the church and other community members, so we feel we can be more honest about our experiences and the ways of life inside.
  3. For too many years, researchers have painted the Amish as if they are the model of a good society. To do so, the problems within the Amish had to stay out of the public eye. Those of us who leave see the differences between what we experienced and the rosy rendition painted by researchers and the media.
  4. Scholars have often stepped over the line from researching and observing the Amish culture to becoming their advocates. This stems from the unwritten social contract that the “subjects” will no longer speak to the researchers if they write anything that can be construed as negative. This inherent bias is removed when researching those who have left.
  5. Many Amish in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (and other places) run Amish tourist organizations that depend upon preserving this pristine view. Those of us who leave have no financial investment in how the Amish are depicted.

Ever since I did an internship with Dr. Donald Kraybill in 2006, I knew that including the perspective of those who’ve left was not part of the research plan. I also learned there are gatekeepers who control what is published. I felt like a lone voice and if I criticized, I would be written off as a bitter defector.

Now two voices have emerged that are taking on the established researchers. Torah Bontrager and Elam Zook have founded The Amish Heritage Foundation. The last weekend in September, they held a conference at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was a bold move. The resistance to this conference was strong from those in the Lancaster area, and in other places. I heard some of that criticism here in the Shenandoah Valley.

I decided to attend the conference. I’m glad I did. The constellation of speakers that Torah and Elam attracted to the conference were really good at provoking thoughts and naming issues.

The first two speakers, Elam Zook and Marci Hamilton, Marci Hamilton, law professor at University of Pennsylvania, both talked about the 1972 Wisconsin v. Yoder case in which the Amish were exempted from compulsory education. This is an issue that has been near and dear to my heart. In fact, I’ve written a series of five blog posts on the subject back in 2012 that starts here:

The Ramifications of Wisconsin v. Yoder, Part 1

So Elam Zook, a “non-compliant” Amish person and director of the Amish Heritage foundation, and Marci Hamilton both took on this issue first thing at the conference. It made me realize, once again, how much I wish we could reverse the Wisconsin v Yoder decision.

Micheal Billig, professor of anthropology at Franklin and Marshall, criticized the mainstream scholars of Amish culture for crossing the line from being interpreters of Amish culture to advocates. I loved this quote: “One’s informants will try to sway you toward the informants’ views of the situation. In fact, this is one of the reasons they volunteer to speak with you in the first place. One should make it crystal clear that one is there as a witness, not as an advocate.”

Mary Byler, who left an abusive situation in her Amish family and community in Wisconsin told her personal story about “What happens when an Amish person goes to trial.” Hers is a well-known case in which she testified against her brothers who raped her repeatedly over many years. I cannot even imagine how much courage that took.

Galen Guengerich, senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, told his personal story about leaving his Mennonite community in a talk titled “A Revised Understanding of God, Belonging, and Freedom.” You’ll find his quote at the top of this blog post. His talk resonated with me. Wow. If I were as articulate, I could have written that.

Sarah Haider, co-founder and executive director of “Ex-Muslims of America” talked about leaving the Muslim religion. I learned that leaving the Amish is a walk in the park compared to the struggle Sarah and others had to go through to leave their religion. At least those of us who leave the Amish don’t fear for our lives.

Unfortunately, I missed most of Joel Engelman’s talk. He left an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Brian Young, a member of the Navajo Nation, spoke about his experiences growing up on a reservation and then going to a prep school in his teens and on to college. He is a filmmaker and writer.

Barbra Graber, founder of The Mennonite Abuse Prevention List, talked about “why we name names.” She has been a survivor advocate for many years.. Creating the MAP list is gutsy, but so important. Silence always shrouds abuse, and breaking that silence is the first step towards prevention of further abuses.

I had to head down the highway towards home after Barbra’s talk and didn’t get to hear the panel of women entrepreneurs.

So Torah and Elam pulled together a credentialed and excellent group of speakers for the conference. I’m glad the focus was not exclusively on Amish issues. Bringing in speakers from other religions and cultures gave a sense of how similar the issues are across various backgrounds.

I would have done some things differently had I organized this event, but it wasn’t me who had the courage to do this… it was Torah and Elam. They should be commended for that.

If you are interested in more about the conference, you can read this article in Lancaster Online.

Today I noticed a clue that researchers of Amish culture might sit up and take notice. Erik Wesner, who blogs about Amish culture on Amish America wrote a piece about sexual abuse among the Amish today. Normally he writes about lighter issues and if he does write about abuse, he is right with the scholars in cautioning against painting the Amish with too broad of a brush. In today’s post, he didn’t caution against that. It seemed to me he is taking the issue of hiding sexual abuses in Amish communities a little more seriously.

Perhaps Torah and Elam will successfully “Reclaim our Amish Story and engage our silenced issues.”

I will continue to do my part through writing and engaging readers in these issues. Thank you for your patience during my long silence here on my blog.

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13 thoughts on “Writing About Amish”

  1. Thank you, Saloma. As you may recall when we met at the Tucson Festival of Books in 2018, I mentioned that my mission since 2010 has been to cast “light on the shadow of abuse” since publishing this article: http://www.raisingarizonakids.com/2010/04/casting-light-shadow-abuse/ As I’m being led to see through people (and writers) like you, good change is happening and more information is coming out about preventing and healing the trauma of all kinds of abuses. Please keep up your good work. I appreciate it and hope many people find your words of wisdom and hope on their own journeys.

    1. Mary, I remember you well. Thank you for your thoughts here, and for the good article about child abuse. Some of that is hard to read, but important all the same.

      I hope you come by again.

  2. Thank you, Saloma, for your wonderful update about the important conference that I was unable to attend. As a scholar and human, I am especially pleased to hear that more colleagues in academia are beginning to verbalize the realization that some researchers in Amish Studies “have often stepped over the line from researching and observing the Amish culture to becoming their advocates” (point 4 above).

    Especially now in the #Metoo era, no person or society can afford to perpetuate or ignore sexual abuse. Sexual abuse has consequences. Over the past year, we have seen many men’s careers ruined and abusers go to jail. For Amish scholars to turn a blind eye to abuse and their social responsibility does more harm than good. In the end, not only do individual victims of abuse in the Amish community suffer (and the group as a whole), the credibility of scholars and their reputations are also on the line. Everyone needs to understand that and do their part.

    1. Sabrina, very well put. You are perhaps the first academic who understands the value of Amish defectors’ perspective in forming public discourse and perceptions. You are doing your part, as per your last comment. Good for you! I’m hoping you’ll influence other academics, all the way from Germany.

      Thank you for your comments, Sabrina.

  3. I’m glad you posted about the conference. I hope you were able to hear the presentations you missed from recordings from the conference. I went to the conference website and was able to get more of a sense about the presentations. I was particularly concerned about Brian Young’s (Navajo Nation) presentation. Was he talking about leaving his identity and connections to the Navajo Nation? I couldn’t imagine Navajo people being in any way harsh about Navajo young people leaving Navajo community and culture. I learned he talked about the similarities between how Amish and Native are exploited in film and TV, as well as educational issues.

    I very much appreciated reading your posts about the Wisconsin v Yoder case. It made me wonder why Amish are so adamant about stopping schooling at eight grade when they could just extend their own schools. I look forward to your posting more thoughts on all the issues the conference raised.

    1. Johanna, thank you for pointing out about Brian Young. Yes, his talk was about straddling the two cultures, and about media depictions of his culture. He also talked about the oppression of this people and the schools that Native American children were forced into a few generations ago, such as the one in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His grandmother was one of them.

      I wish I knew why the Amish are so stubbornly adhering to the notion that their children’s education needs to stop at grade 8. That is why I was hoping to do that research on Anabaptist education in Europe before they began emigrating to the U.S. I’m curious whether the education limitations started there or in this country. But lo and behold, I didn’t get the Fulbright to conduct the research.

      Thank you for reading my posts about Wisconsin v Yoder. I have a lot to say on the issue, so it takes a while to read it all.

      Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful comments, Johanna.

  4. Saloma, I too have missed your writings but the wait has been worth it. This one is very meaty!

    Reading it brought a couple of thoughts came to my mind:
    You said; “Silence always shrouds abuse, and breaking that silence is the first step towards prevention of further abuses.”
    Elie Wiesel said
    “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

    You, Saloma, are the one who brought clarity to my mind regarding the 8th grade legal ruling. My first thought, years ago, was that it was good that the law respected the cultural rights of the Amish. That was a very shortsighted view. YOU are the one who made me sit up a few years ago and realize that it was a grievous injustice to the Amish child.

    I am mortified at my previous position, especially because the most damning issue to my mind is Amish ignorance, that they seem to prize it, that they scoff at “experts”, that they go out of their way to ‘protect’ their children from the ‘contamination’ of higher education. (Mind you, these opinions of mine date back to more than 50 years ago. They may well have changed their views.)

    Thank you for your wisdom, Saloma.

    1. Interesting quotes from Elie Wiesel. I think it depends what role you’re in whether neutrality is called for. I think one of the things the scholars of Amish culture are being criticized for is not being more neutral. By taking sides with the Amish and protecting them from the consequences of the problems in their midst, they help to perpetuate these problems.

      Helping the Amish keep the silence about these issues is problematic. For decades that has been happening. Most people do not want to be seen as picking on the Amish. So it’s not only the researchers, but those in other professions… including those designed to help the oppressed.

      I’m not surprised that you didn’t “think differently” than the perspective you grew up with about the Amish being exempt from compulsory education. It helps that David didn’t grow up Amish because he is able to ask questions that prompt me to think differently. One day we were discussing the tradition of ending schooling at the eighth grade, and he asked, “What rule in the Amish community disallows further education?” I thought back and for the first time I realized this: It is not a church rule! It is just a given that all families stay with this tradition. I also realized that if it’s not a rule in the church, then it’s not up for discussion. The bishop in every church district will go over all the church rules twice a year in Council Meeting, and then every church member is required to vote on them. This is their chance to disagree. Of course that is hardly ever done, but the opportunity is there. However, if the rule doesn’t exist, there is no debating it.

      The attitude you describe is very much what I grew up with too. People would say things like, “He’s getting too smart for his own britches.” “He’s too smart for his own good.” And of course they would try to keep people from becoming to prideful by calling them “gross-keppich” (arrogant or literally big-headed).

      My guess is that this attitude still prevails, or else someone would have challenged the tradition of limiting their children’s education, don’t you think? I believe this tradition and the attitude you describe go hand-in-hand.

      One the other hand, some people in the community are considered “really smart” and if they don’t go beyond the eighth grade and turn their intelligence into something creative within their community, it is considered okay, and even encouraged for these few individuals.

      I’ve missed you too, Elva. I always love your perspective. Thank you for giving it here. And also thank you for your kind words.

  5. Hi Saloma,
    I have been wondering if I missed some of your blogs. I love your writings. I thought of you frequently this past week when we were in Vermont (Georgia). We took a day trip to Barre and I thought of you and your son who lives there. The last time I was in Barre was 4 years ago for my mom’s funeral. The colors were spectacular this year!

  6. Welcome back Saloma, you have been missed!!!!! though I totally understand, we all need to step back and refocus on things we care about and or passionate about some times. One thing that stands out to me in this blog is that it seems the people of the Amish faith have become so big in main stream society that all that is bad and wrong about it is suppressed by those who make a profit from the Amish in one way or another, including perhaps by the Amish themselves. Things that are hidden in the dark will eventually come into the light. Some times this comes about because of brave people like you and others that you have written about. It seems to me its time. Sadly, there are evil things that go one in every society and religion. Keeping them hidden doesn’t make them go away it only keeps those dealing with it silent and I’m sure feeling alone in their pain and frustration. Also, my hope is that maybe some day the Amish people will see that allowing their children who wish to go on to high school (which I would think they could do within their own schools) can, without thinking that it will somehow keep them from wanting to remain Amish. So glad your back,I missed your writing, you write with such insight and depth of feeling. Blessings to you Saloma and to David as well.

  7. Thanks For your support, Saloma.
    I’m curious what the resistance to the conference was in Lancaster. Or anywhere.

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