If You Promise You Won’t Tell

This week I took a break from work for an at-home writing retreat with the aim of finishing my manuscript, developing a book proposal, and writing a query letter for my new book If You Promise You Won’t Tell. I was able to accomplish these, and now I’m in the process of looking at publishers who might be a good fit. I will be sending out query letters for the next while. Here is the preface of the book:

If You Promise You Won’t Tell replaces my first memoir, Why I Left the Amish. This revision contains mostly new material of my childhood years, although the ending chapters about my exodus from the community are similar to the final chapters in Why I Left the Amish.

It had been seventeen years since I’d begun writing for an audience by the time Why I Left the Amish was published. However, not many years after launching the book, I began wishing I could take it off the market. When my contract with the publisher ended in January, I did exactly that. My perspective has evolved and changed, which is reflected in this new telling of my story in If You Promise You Won’t Tell.         

  In Why I Left the Amish, I wrote about the abuse I endured at the hands of my paternal grandmother, my father, and my older brother. The summer after I published my second memoir, Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds, I began asking myself why I had omitted the abuse I endured at the hands Mem. I realized I was still under the spell of believing that she was a martyr and a saint — a martyr for putting up with my father as her marriage partner, and a saint for being the “good parent” to her children. She had promoted this view of herself for as long as I could remember. Nine years after her death, I was finally ready to take an honest look at what really happened. If You Promise You Won’t Tell is an unflinching portrayal of my childhood, including my memories of Mem.

Not only did Mem refuse to relinquish her stories, but she also made repeated requests that I “bury these things in the past and let them stay buried.” This chasm of difference in the way we approached our lives — Mem’s determination to bury her pain, and my need to voice mine, her attempts to silence me and my attempts to draw out her story — could well have been at the core of our longstanding battle of wills. This major difference was never to be resolved or reconciled and remains the chasm between my worldview and the one Mem retained to her death.Back in 2014 when I when I confronted my memories of Mem, I began writing a letter to her soul as a means of coming to terms with her and with the hope of eventually forgiving her. I often had to stop writing to allow myself a good cry when I came to another hard part. But I didn’t stop writing until my letter grew to one hundred and fifty pages long. This letter concluded naturally — at the point when I’d left home at twenty years old.

After writing to Mem, I decided to braid a rug for a young friend who was getting married. Braiding rugs was one of the homespun arts I had learned from Mem when I was growing up. After I finished this rug, I braided another…and then another. I kept braiding until I had braided seven rugs in the span of several months.

One day I was sitting in my attic room, braiding and looking out over the neighborhood with the bridge that spanned the Connecticut River in the background. I felt close to Mem as my hands folded in the edges of the three soft yielding strands of wool. At that moment, I realized that I was exactly the age Mem had been when I left home. I reflected on the two very different lives she and I had lived. I could have lived a life much like Mem’s, had I stayed and married someone I didn’t love, discovered he suffered from mental illness, and had to find the strength to raise a brood of children pretty much on my own.

On the flip side of that, Mem could have had a life of her own choosing had she mustered the courage to leave and strike out on her own. Instead, I often felt like Mem secretly coveted my life, even while condemning my choices to others in the community.

I wondered why I struggled with forgiving as I had been taught I should do. The Amish definition of forgiveness is to forgive and forget. It seemed to me that Mem wanted to skip the forgiveness part (which first requires an admission of committing a wrong) and go directly to the forgetting part, but I could not choose which of my experiences to remember and which ones to forget. Mem’s expectations mirrored those in the community. Amish women were expected to bear their struggles in silence. This expectation to be the “silent in the land” was handed down through the generations from mother to daughter as part of our cultural heritage. I often wished I could meet such expectations and be a good Amish child and young woman. Growing up in this context, I don’t understand where my compulsion came from to give voice to my experiences as a means of understanding my life and my world.

As I kept braiding in the attic room of my home, I longed to reach a point of understanding Mem’s life, forgiving her, and letting go of the past. Over and over I folded, right, then left, right then left while creating a braid of purple and gray. I thought of each strand representing three parts of forgiveness — honesty, humility, and compassion. By braiding these three together, I felt I was braiding my way towards forgiveness.

Then I realized that forgiveness does not include bearing the burden of silence as Mem had done. By remembering and writing my stories, I forgo or give up the guilt of revealing what happened. Instead of forgiving and forgetting, I am remembering and relinquishing.

In case you have been wanting to buy Why I Left the Amish and haven’t gotten around to it, you can still go to Amazon or order a signed copy directly from me. If you go to the purchase page of my website, you can click on either option.

I hope you’ll join me in hoping that I find the right publisher for If You Promise You Won’t Tell.

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10 thoughts on “If You Promise You Won’t Tell”

  1. Forgiveness is a tricky thing, often pushed on abuse survivors. I found that understanding and considerable distance was needed, as well as some healing, for me to forgive my abuser. You found your way to forgiveness, your own need for it, not as some external requirement. Getting an acknowledgement from the abuser is very helpful, but as with you and with me, that wasn’t possible. Mine had died before I even remembered any of the abuse.

    I wonder if the journey is harder if your abuser is your mother. For a long time I got a lot of denial from therapists and others writing about child sexual abuse that mothers could abuse. That certainly didn’t help. Fortunately I had a support group of women survivors, a number of whom had abuse from their mothers.

    I applaud your courage in writing the truth. I look forward to reading it.

    1. Johanna, I do think abuse from one’s mother is harder to come to terms with. The fact that it took me until nine years after her death to face it is evidence of that. No, it doesn’t help when there is denial… I have lots of that from family members. I know that the physical abuse happened to them to, for I saw it.

      There is another reason, I think, that it’s been harder to face the abuse from Mem. I grew up believing she was a good mother, and therefore the abuse was my fault. Once I faced the fact that she was abusive, I had to face the scary realization I had not adult advocates I could rely on. I often felt like I had two mothers… a caring and nurturing one and a harsh one. But I often had no one protecting me from harm, and that is a hard thing to come to terms with.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Johanna.

  2. Kathie Weaver Kurtz

    You have come an amazing distance in your life. I am continually impressed by the spirit in you that kept you pushing towards health and wholeness, even in times when you had very little support. That there was always at least one such person speaks to God’s presence through those sometimes lone persons, sometimes small groups that got you through. I look forward to seeing this new book in its completed form!

  3. Rev. Ann Barner

    Dear Saloma, I heard you once at my book club which I joined as I love the members, many from Park View Mennonite Church. My husband and I, retired Presbyterian pastors who now live at Sunnyside Retirement community, have attended Park View Menn. whenever we haven’t been preaching around the Harrisonburg/Staunton communities. I read constantly and am limping around from falling over a big bag of books on Thanksgiving. Park View members have helped with lending me books and bringing many meals. I just finished Bonnet Strings for the third time. And, just now found your blog. Thanks so much for sharing the hard as well as the good things from your Amish background. So happy you found your true love and you both lead such satisfying lives. Ann

  4. Saloma, I’m so glad you have finished your book. I will be praying you find the right publisher. As I reread what you wrote I am drawn to your statement about how you don’t know where your compulsion came from to give voice to your experiences. God created you exactly the way he wanted you to be. You were,as we all are, given a gift and a purpose. It takes some of us longer to find them, but they are there. I believe your gift was to question and to write. Your purpose, to share with others who cant speak about the their physical and emotional pain from what ever abuse they had and have been going through. You are their voice!!! They can read your book and realize, maybe for the first time, they are not alone. Someone out there understands their pain. You write from the heart, from the deep inner most parts of your soul and it comes out in your writing.Those who will have the privilege of reading your book will feel that and will be consoled by it. I know I for one will be looking forward to holding it in my hands and keep your words like a found treasure in my heart.

  5. Why, Pamela, I don’t think kinder words have ever been written to a writer. I hope you are right that readers will feel touched by my story. But I am also aware that some survivors may feel retraumitized by reading parts of my story.

    Rather than me being their voice for them, I am hoping readers will find their own voices. To quote Maya Angelou, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” But if I can give permission to others for telling their stories, rather than feeling shame for telling them as I have for most of my life, then it will be worth having written this book.

    I am so grateful for your readership, Pamela. I don’t think I could find a more appreciative reader than you. Thank you for your kind words!

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