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?