From the Inside Out: Reflections of Amish Traditions and Patterns, Part 2

Photo by Saloma Miller Furlong


Continued from Amish Conference 2019: Health and Well-Being in Amish Society…

Perpetrators who are found out within an Amish community normally make a public confession and the church members are required to “forgive and forget,” which wipes the slate clean, as if the incident had never occurred. This opens up the possibility for the abuse to occur again and it completely ignores the needs of the abused, as if they are of no consequence.

The same is true for the physical abuses that happen. With so much emphasis on obedience and breaking a child’s will, Amish parents strive to make their children obey. Corporal punishment is common, and each parent is left to use their own discretion about how severely they punish their children. Those who had “strict” parents tend to be strict with their own children. In some cases this means that the parents were severely whipped as children. Culturally there are few ways for the abused to confront and heal the pain they carry, so there is only one direction for that pain to go — right down to the next generation.

I believe my mother carried such scars. As an adult, I tried relentlessly to get her to tell me stories of her childhood. But she managed to conceal her history and her pain to her death. However, Mem revealed her pain in the way she parented. When she whipped me, I felt a seething rage in her that went far beyond my transgression. Here is an excerpt of the book I’m writing:

One day Mem decided to use an idea she’d read about in a magazine because she felt we were not helping her willingly. She created a “Do-Bee” and “Don’t Bee” chart. Every night she marked the chart for each of us girls. I could be really good for almost a whole day, then make one complaint and all the good things didn’t count because she would walk up to the chart and write under my name, “Don’t-Bee a complainer.” Sylvia would get “Do-Bee a Helper.” That seemed to be the way of things: Sylvia the good helper, Lomie the bad complainer.

At the end of the week whoever got the most Do-Bees received a nickel. Sylvia almost invariably got it.

One night, Mem was washing dishes, and Sylvia and I were drying. The gas lantern hissed softly on a hook above our heads. I was determined to keep the “Do-Bee” status I had so far that week. I was ahead of Sylvia for the first time. We were running out of counter space and Sylvia and I were trying to get each other to put the dishes away. Mem looked over and said, “Sylvia, if you do it, I will change your Don’t-Bee from yesterday to a Do-Bee.” Right away Sylvia started putting them away. I asked, “If I do it will you change my last Don’t-Bee?”

“No, the offer is for Sylvia,” Mem said in her definite voice.

I felt such a rage rising in my chest that I couldn’t hold it in. I slammed a stainless steel bowl onto the counter and said, “That’s not fair!”

Mem just said in her solid voice, “That’s the way it is.”

I had never before felt such a pressure in my chest. The rage was so strong, I thought I was going to explode. I stomped my feet and said loudly, “But it doesn’t even have to do with who is the best helper! You just like Sylvia more than me, no matter what I do! I don’t care if I get all Don’t-Bees from now on!

I may have said more, but I noticed Mem was wiping her sudsy hands. Then she headed for the china cabinet with determined footsteps. When she didn’t threaten and walked as though she meant it, I knew there was no use begging. She grabbed the whip down off the top of the china cabinet and said in that voice that I did not dare disobey, “Lomie, come here!”

I don’t know why I bothered to beg, “Mem, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that, I take it back, please, I won’t say anything more…”

Mem had that hard, angry look in her face that she got when Lizzie disobeyed her. I imagined myself running out the door. I knew she could not catch me if I did, but she could send Joey after me. Then my whipping would be worse, so I had no choice. I walked towards her.

Mem grabbed me by the arm and whirled me around, lifted up my dress, and snapped that whip across my legs, bringing the stinging pain down on the backs of my thighs. The whip whistled as she brought it down, over and over, until I thought for sure I wouldn’t be able to stand that searing pain. I screamed and danced, wondering what would happen when it hurt so much I wouldn’t be able to bear it. I thought Mem would never stop. When she finally did, she gave me a push and said, “NOW let’s see if you talk back to me again!” as she put the whip back up on the china cabinet. I couldn’t stand to look at her mean, hard eyes. And then as if the whipping wasn’t enough, she said, “Do you think I like whipping you? It hurts me as much as it hurts you!” I knew this could not be true — she would not be able to bear it. And besides, it was her choice to take the whip off the china cabinet and use it to inflict that pain on me. I ran upstairs, shivering, and lay on my bed. I cried until the quilt under me was wet. I vowed I would never talk back to Mem because I never wanted to feel that horrible pain again. I felt the welts on the backs of my legs. They stayed hidden under my dress for days, until they gradually turned color, then faded away.

If I had stayed in my original community, married an Amish man, and had children, I am nearly certain I would have become part of the family cycle of abuse.

I had my hand in passing down abuse when I was teaching Amish school. Along with other teacher supplies, I inherited a leather strap hanging by the chalkboard. I wanted to be known as a teacher who could keep her pupils in line, so I used the strap for discipline. I had no gauge of the level of a “healthy spanking” if there is such a thing, and after the first whack, I found myself unleashing on the poor child I was so-called disciplining. Whenever I remember these incidents, I feel such a deep regret that I want to go back in time and change what I did. But we humans don’t get to do that. We can only learn from our mistakes and strive to do better. I realized even at the time that what I was doing was unhealthy. During my second year of teaching, I found other methods of discipline and left the strap hanging idly by the chalkboard.

I had to correct myself again as a parent. One day I found myself losing my temper when my older son was five years old and I spanked him hard. I turned away in the middle of it and sobbed. My husband came to me and asked, “Are you all right?” I said, “No I’m not. I need help. I do not want to do to my children what was done to me.”

Within a week I was sitting in front of a counselor, who I worked with for nearly four years of intensive therapy. Healing from this kind of trauma is a lifelong process, but the work I did back then helped me to refrain from passing down a chronic dose of abuse to the next generation.

I don’t remember who said that the less we know about our family patterns, the more bound we are to repeating them. I believe this. Without self-reflection and self-correction, I would have been powerless to change the unhealthy family patterns I inherited.

I don’t know what the solutions are for the Amish to deal with these unhealthy patterns being perpetuated from one generation to the next, but I know that ignoring these ills or attempting to hide them is the opposite of a solution. If they want to break the cycle of abuse, the Amish must be willing to seek help from trained mental health professionals for both the perpetrators and the abused.In my view, self-reflection is a healthy aspect of any society. Can the tradition-minded Amish culture accommodate their members becoming self-aware, an essential component of breaking unhealthy patterns? Or will the culture survive only as long as their members are unconscious of their family patterns, the origin of the cultural traditions they adhere to, or even of their own thoughts?

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17 thoughts on “From the Inside Out: Reflections of Amish Traditions and Patterns, Part 2”

    1. Thank you, Rachel for your comment. These are important issues, and I found myself a lone voice for so long. Now there are others, and I don’t feel so alone any longer.

  1. Saloma. It is difficult to imagine the pain you suffered physically and emotionally from this kind of very hard abuse. You have chosen a new path, although it has been hard work. May gentle love surround you.❤️

  2. Elva Bontrager

    Saloma, my hear breaks for that young girl and I totally understand. My one remaining brother and I were talking of this on the telephone just last night. The one ‘sin’ I can’t forgive the Amish for is their acceptance of ignorance. As we said last night, when you know only what your own experience tells you, you will repeat what you know. I remember what one of my brothers once told me. He was lashing out at one of his children and suddenly realized, to his horror, that he was doing to her what had been done to him.
    The last years of his life he and I explored the memories of our upbringing and finally came to fully know that when one understands the parent or whoever your adversary is, one can finally forgive. The only thing I have not yet fully forgiven is their forcing me out of school at age 13 and not allowing me to go to public libraries all the years I was home- they never explained their reasoning and in later years I never quite dared to bring it up. If I had not happened to be the bookish sort (which of course they had known, which hurt me doubly) and prized learning so that eventually I read hundreds -thousands? – of books and spent years taking courses in education and attending Community Colleges, I would have been lost indeed.

    Sheesh- sorry for the rant. But you touched something deep in my soul. Thank you for that.

    1. Elva, please do not apologize for writing such clear and passionate thoughts. I so understand what you wrote about being expelled from school at age 13 by the Amish traditions, and that you were denied your “soul food” of reading and developing your intellect. I’m so glad you were able to make up for that in the life you chose.

      I agree with your thinking that when we finally understand one’s adversary, we can forgive. For years I tried evoking stories of Mem’s childhood from her, but she would not relinquish them. I’m fairly certain she was also abused, and I intuitively knew that if I knew her story, it would help me understand her and have compassion for what she herself went through. But she took her history and her pain to the grave with her. I want to have compassion for her, but it’s hard to when I don’t know what happened to shape her into who she was as my mother.

      I so agree with you about the Amish commitment to ignorance. If only they could understand that ignorance is not humility. To me humility is accepting who I am by not wishing myself to be someone else. That includes not playing small by accepting my inherent gifts.

      In the Amish way of thinking, what I just wrote would be characterized as “Da gross Ich — “The big I,” which was a way to chastise me for being too proud, and let me know I “should be taken down a notch.”

      It’s hard to explain to the rest of the world the Amish mindset, isn’t it? And yet we keep trying…

  3. Denise Ann Shea

    {{Saloma}}. You knew deep down that what was done to you was wrong, that what you were doing was wrong, and you knew you needed help and got it. It is true that unheathly family patterns are continued on from generation to generation when they aren’t questioned. When people don’t know anything else, it is hard to change those patterns. There so much help available–parenting classes, counseling, education–is there any way that this help could be integrated into the Amish community? Would they accept help if it came from a member of the community?

    1. Denise, thank you for your comments and your excellent question.

      I don’t see how the forms of help you and I are familiar with can be integrated into an Amish community. The way I often put it is that the Amish have their own psychology, and it’s so different from modern psychology that I can’t imagine bringing the two of them together. The Amish is a collective culture, and the mainstream culture is individualistic. Modern psychology is predicated on higher education as part of the training process, whereas Amish psychology hangs its hat on an eighth-grade education.

      Perhaps proponents of the “culturally appropriate” mental health centers for Amish and Old Order Mennonites would wish us to believe the two are coming together in these centers, some of which have secular counselors. I would normally think this is a good thing. However, these counselors usually have to answer to the Board, which is made up of men from the Plain community. The question I have is this: When Amish psychology comes in conflict with modern psychology, which one yields to the other? I am fairly certain I know the answer, even though it’s not the one I would advocate for.

      If only the Amish were to allow education beyond the eighth grade, it could change so much. But limiting their education has become so ingrained in the culture that it’s unlikely this will happen.

  4. Pamela lakits

    Such powerful words Saloma, thank you for sharing from the conference and especially your forth coming book. My mother was emotionally distant with me and my four siblings, she could also be emotionally abusive, cold and I became afraid of her at a young age. I left home at eighteen because I could no longer stand living in the same house with her. Though my father came from a loving christian home and so was himself of that character, he was unable, for what ever reason, to stand up to my mother. Thankfully I was able to raise my sons in a loving matter, much like my father. Sadly my sisters were not. As for forgiving my mother, that truly came when I cared for her in her last two years of life and she aloud me glimpses into her difficult childhood. Tears would come to her eyes and I could see the pain that came with those memories. It was then that I could truly forgive, but the scars remain along with the memories. I hope that with more Amish and ex-Amish (like yourself) coming to the forefront and so bravely telling their stories that there can be hope for future generations.

    1. Pamela, your words bring tears to my eyes. How you describe you were able to forgive your mother… oh how I longed for Mem to tell her stories of her own pain. My process of forgiving her would be light years ahead of where they are. Did she share these stories during the years you were raising your sons? I would think this would have made a difference. Perhaps if your mother did not share her stories with your siblings, it is why they could not change the family pattern. And what a gift to your mother than you could hear her stories. I would venture to guess there was healing in that… for both of you.

      Stories are powerful. Thank you for telling a bit of your poignant one.

      1. Pamela lakits

        Saloma, my heart breaks for you. Wish I could give you a big hug!!!!! Sadly my mom didn’t have much to do with any of her grandchildren. My parents moved to Florida before my 21 birthday in hopes it would be better for my father who suffered horribly with arthritis. After my father passed away in the early nineties and my mom had a heart attack and bypass surgery we moved her back up here. My boys though older by then were still living at home and still she had little contact with them. One of my sister’s would often get upset over our moms disinterest in her grandchildren. I told her we cant expect her to be any different with her grandchildren then she was with us. Being more like my father I was able to escape the generational emotional abuse, but as I said not my sisters. My brother’s never had children of their own, but I know my twin brother has been good to his step children. We humans are such complicated creators. The baggage we create and fill through out our lives so often get passed on to our children for them to carry through theirs.

        1. Pamela, I’m so glad you were able to refrain from passing the poisonous patterns down to your children. It seems many of us are determined that the pattern ends with us. I’m sure there are remnants we pass on, but nothing like the chronic dose we inherited.

          Amazing how siblings can hang on to the idea that our mothers were blameless and could do no wrong… even though they themselves were harmed by these same patterns. Perhaps not so directly, but surely they were imprinted on their brains too.

          Thank you for your thoughts, Pamela.

  5. My step mother was a hard task master. She was often not-so-nice to me. I often wept tears of hurt…it was when I learned of her past, her home life, her teen years & her first marriage, it was then that I realized she only conveyed on to me the hurt she experienced in her own life. Hurt people hurt people….the last years of her life I feel she was able to work through & she was a changed person. She apologized many times over & I was happy to forgive. It was healing for both of us, as I had things to make right as well. i do know that her own children also had their own set of hurts, so why would a step daughter be exempt? May we by Gods help break this generational curse!

    1. Mary Ellen, thank you for your comments. I am so glad you were able to reconcile with your stepmother. It helps so much that she was willing to tell of her own pain and to verbalize her regrets.

      Mem kept on tamping it into her unconscious where it lurked in the shadows. It is right what you say about hurt people.

      Yes, to God helping us break the harmful generational patterns we inherited.

  6. Thanks for your story this time Salome. You have said what I would like to say but don’t know how. I too had a very different relationship with my mother. My father and mother had completely different personalities. My father was more easy going and he ended up getting completely snowed down by my mother who just wouldn’t let up. My mother was completely different the first 12 yrs of my life. We as a family lived on a rented farm. Then my parents bought a farm and we moved to it. From then on it became different. We had a bad start on that farm. The barn burned down, a parent of both my parents died and the land was very wet and the crops didn’t do well and what I remember is that my poor mother was unable to handle everything. She worked very hard and was very dilligent but I as the oldest child would catch it good and hard no matter what the reason and I just couldn’t do it right. My father became the worst farmer in the world and my world changed. I was unsure about everything. We had a stick in the kitchen behind the fridge and it would be used very frequently. I was never able to get anything talked out and I became seen in the family as being sassy and unable to just be nice. My brother who was a bit younger but a boy went thru this same treatment. My youngest brother who is 9 yrs younger still sees me as being a very difficult child and always aggravating my mother. My oldest brother who was a social worker and who had special training with people with personality problems was able to see things in a different way as the years went by. We saw this pattern of how my mother did in other relatives especially in the one line. We are so related to our relatives that it is a wonder we are as normal as we are. My brother and I were able to understand what we had experienced in a different way and we made peace with it. My mother passed away already in ’75 so we couldn’t really talk to her about this. I also have a younger sister who didn’t experience some of the stuff I did and only heard what she did and never got the stick. She treats me like my mother did. She has 2 personalities and when other people are around, she will be friendly but when we are by ourselves, she changes into being a nasty person. She won’t let me talk things over and insists that I have a big problem towards her that is of my own doing. I honestly think, she too has this inherited problem of being a controlling personality that gets more and more dominant as time goes on. I am now 76. I am so sorry that I could never get some of my grief and feelings taken care of with the right people but I have the peace of mind that I just have to be thankful for at least getting a bit of understanding why somethings happen as they do. This thing does happen not only in amish families but in lots of families and getting help will make it easier to deal with.

    1. Mary, thank you for your story. My heart goes out to you. How sad that one of the aspects of the family patterns is that long after the parents have left this world, there is still conflict among the siblings. How hurtful that you are still being blamed for this conflict, just as you were when you were a child growing up.

      I believe we all survive our childhood trauma differently, and we all cope with the trauma afterwards in our own way as well. Some insist that the best way to cope with it is “to put it all behind me.” Others live with open wounds. And still others seek treatment and at least allow the wounds to scab over. I don’t think anyone heals completely without at least scars to show for what they endured.

      Thank you for telling us a bit of your story. Thank goodness for the peace you have found in understanding. And I’m glad you have your brother who understands where you are coming from.

      Warm wishes to you, Mary.

  7. I and my brother and sister were all sexually abused very early in our lives. My brother and I are working to heal from the damage, but my sister denied all of it (including her siblings’ abuse) and perpetuated it with her two daughters, with severe emotional abuse and by turning her back on her daughter when it came to light that their father was sexually abusing her. I see very clearly how if you deny what happened, you repeat it. It was so hard to watch, because there wasn’t much I could do but try to be there for the two girls. I see the damage in both of them. The one who was the placater and pleaser for her emotionally explosive and abusive mother now cannot deal with anyone else’s strong emotions. She is most likely to repeat the pattern if she has kids. She can’t afford to see that her father sexually abused her because he is the stable supportive parent (who doesn’t do emotions, he leaves it to his wife.)

    I’m glad you’re writing about your mother. As you can see, you’ve opened the door to lots of stories!

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