- Saloma Furlong
- I am the author of the memoir "Why I Left the Amish." In February 2012, I was featured in the PBS documentary "The Amish" that aired on American Experience. I was born and raised in an Amish community in Ohio. Driven by my desire for freedom and more formal education, I broke away from my community –– not once, but twice. I graduated from Smith College in May 2007 with a major in German Studies and a minor in Philosophy. My education has included research on the Amish with Dr. Donald Kraybill and a semester abroad in Germany, where I studied at the University of Hamburg. During my thirty-year inner struggle of coming to terms with my Amish past, I have gleaned a better understanding of myself and my heritage. It is this perspective that I bring to my reflections about Amish.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
Yanina asked: "What are the Amish beliefs in modern medicine? For example, Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in blood transfusions. Do the Amish have similar beliefs? How about mental illness or an illness like ADHD?"
These are great questions. The Amish religion does not take a position against modern medicine. They allow blood transfusions, open heart surgery, chemotherapy, and any other treatments offered in modern medicine, though they tend to steer away from being put on life support systems. Just as in mainstream America, it often comes down to a personal decision. Some Amish tend to go to greater lengths than others to prolong their lives, also like in mainstream culture. I have often been surprised in this myself -- the Amish are usually ready to accept death as part of life, even when the lives of children could have been spared in some avoidable accident. It seems to me that part of that same belief would lead to them to decide not go to great lengths to keep themselves alive, yet some of them do exactly that. It often comes down to whether or not the family has the means to pay for open heart surgery or the like. Most Amish do not have medical insurance (this may have changed since I left 30 years ago, and it may also vary from one community to the next). When I lived there, it really did have to do with whether you had the means.
Having said all this, the Amish are also very susceptible to promises of "miracle cures," and may go to great lengths to go to a certain place or see a certain person who is reputed to have a miracle cure. Cancer patients are especially prone to fall for such empty promises. My theory about why the Amish are so prone to falling for miracle cures, is because they are already conditioned by the religion to follow the Amish ways unquestioningly. If I had been "properly" conditioned, I would have learned this better, but I would also have given away my ability to be discerning about other things. Many "successful" Amish have done exactly that.
The Amish do accept help for mental illness, but they are slow to recognize it. They seem to think that there are not too many maladies that cannot be combated with lots of hard work. This could part of the reason the suicide rate among the Amish is fairly high. If someone is truly suffering from mental illness and it is not recognized as such by the people around him, it could lead to feeling like there is no other way out. There are times when, as in my father's case, there is finally recognition of the mental illness and eventually he accepted and benefited from counseling and medication. The treatment he got for the last 25 years of his life was a Godsend -- it kept him from becoming violent.
As far as the Amish response to ADHD, I don't know the answer to this question, because this diagnoses has developed since I left the community.
Saturday, May 15, 2010
Anonymous asked: "What were your Amish teen years like?"
In a word -- tumultuous. Do teenagers go through adolescence, even though they don't know what it is? When I was in my teen years, I had no idea that it was "normal" to have such a difficult time getting along with my mother. I kept thinking there was something wrong with me that I couldn't refrain from talking back to her, even though it often resulted in a whipping.
When I was thirteen, my schooling came to and end. That was hard, because I loved school and learning. I knew I had to adjust to the rule of not being allowed to get more education, because that rule was not going to be adjusted for me, yet I had a really hard time accepting that.
When I was fifteen, a friend of mine died a mystery death. She was seemingly healthy, but one day, a month before her sixteenth birthday, she died in her sleep. It turned out she had a congenital heart defect. This happened when I was pondering all kinds of questions about dying and death. I had nightmares about her death for years afterward.
I had struggles with all the authority figures in my life, most notably my parents and my older brother. My brother assumed authority over me, and if I defied him the consequences were more dire than if I defied my mother or my father. Besides the everyday authorities, there were also the elders of the church I rebelled against, especially later in my teens.
I hated the Amish dating practices, so I never once actually enjoyed the dates I had. I used to wish someone would ask me out to dinner, so we could get to know one another over dinner and conversation. So that was another source of turmoil in my teens.
My father's violence, caused by his mental illness, had escalated by my late teens, which made my life unbearable. It was this cycle of violence that caused me to finally develop the gumption to leave.
This is a "sketch" of my tumultuous teen years. I am actually writing a book about this very subject, which I hope will be published. If so, you will be able to read about my teen years in much more detail.
Anonymous, thank you very much for your great questions. It has made for some interesting topics to write about. They caused me to think about my experiences in different ways than I had before.
I will be writing about Amish and health care in my next post.
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Anonymous asked: Are Amish dresses uncomfortable?
Simply put -- yes. At least the women's dresses are. They got more so when polyester fabrics became available. The Amish women couldn't resist the no-iron option, so polyester was in vogue when I was in my late teens. In the summertime, it was like being pinned into a plastic bag -- with straight pins. And then when I dressed up to go somewhere, such as church services, weddings, funerals, and other social gatherings, I had to wear the extra covering called a "halstuch." Now I had two layers of material pinned down my front. Getting stuck in the chest or the side (where the waistband is pinned) is never fun.
Young girls dresses are more comfortable. They button down the back, rather than being pinned down the front. While they can be cumbersome for outdoor games, they are not uncomfortable. Going from a girl's dress to a woman's dress is not an easy transition (at least it wasn't for me), which happens during adolescence.
Amish women do complain about the unfairness of having to wear dresses with pins when the men have buttons on their shirts, but they put up with it. If they didn't, they most likely wouldn't put up with other things unfair. Amish communities wouldn't exist if the women didn't play out their roles. The outward symbols of their submissiveness is their dresses and hair coverings, no matter how uncomfortable.
Saturday, May 1, 2010
Anonymous asked: Who do you think would have a harder time joining an Amish community an "English" woman or man?
First of all, it is not easy for an "English" person to join the Amish, whether you are a woman or a man. There are so many barriers. The language alone is a huge one, but that is not the hardest. To go from confined thinking to free-thinking is a whole lot easier than the other way around as would be the case if you were educated in the traditional sense. You would have to fold up all that "knowledge" and store it away to collect dust, for it will do you no good for integrating into an Amish community. Perhaps the hardest thing of all is to learn how to accept the Amish ways without question when you haven't been taught to do that as a young child. When things get rough, most people know that they have the option to leave the situation they find difficult or unworkable. So, growing up in the outside culture would make it a lot easier for you to say, "Good-bye" and walk away. It is not as easy as that when you are brought up in the Amish way of life. The Amish know all this, and that is why they are reticent to accept "English" people joining their fold.
Having said all this, I would say it is harder for women than men. For one thing, women have to "submit" to a lot more than men do, including deferring to the husband's authority. Of course this also depends on the nature of the person joining, but one basically cannot be resistant to "submission" of the Amish religion and way of life and still be accepted into the Amish community.
I know of two cases in which someone did join the Amish -- in fact both joined the very church district I left. The first involves a woman who joined, the second a man. The woman was married to someone who grew up Amish. They had met and fallen in love with one another when they were both working in a hospital -- he was working as an orderly during his years of volunteer service during the Vietnam War, when he claimed conscientious objector status -- and she was a nurse. They got married outside the Amish faith and had several children. He found he was pulled towards the Amish lifestyle, yet he and his wife were committed to staying together. She said she would do whatever it took to make him happy. They did join the Amish. This happened only a few years after I had left the Amish and married my husband. My mother kept telling me about this couple and how well they were doing (I found out later she had omitted the difficulties), as a way of inferring that David and I could do the same.
I am not privy to many of the details of the problems this couple has encountered, but I know that one day this woman made a linguistic mistake and was laughed at in a social situation. Her response was to refuse to speak in the Amish language after that. It is hard for me to imagine that the Amish accommodated her by speaking English to her in church services and other social situations, but they did indeed, even when they knew she understood their language and could speak it.
When the oldest daughter in this family started her "rum springa" years (dating period), her mother did not like the dating practices of bed courtship (see "Traditional Amish Dating Practices" of December 29, 2009) and so she told her daughter she may sit at the dining room table with her dates. The Amish women huddled together and said this is not the way it it's done, and fussed about how they better let the mother know this (as if she didn't already know it, and had perhaps made a decision to the contrary). it was a ). The women made as if this were a matter of letting her know, rather than accepting that this was a family decision that they shouldn't meddle in. They were not going to stand for something being done "differently" even though this was none of their business. This is so very typical of the way individuals are kept in line in the Amish community.
The man I mentioned above, joined the Amish and married a young woman from the community. From what I understand, he had a fairly easy time of integrating into the community, most likely because he had Amish in his heritage -- even his name is Amish-sounding. If I can get a sense of how he is presently doing, I will post it later.
Overall, joining the Amish as an outsider is a difficult thing because on the one hand, you cannot care too much whether or not you will be accepted or "one of them," while on the other hand, that is precisely why most people would want to join in the first place -- to be part of a tight-knit community. If you have a personality in which being a follower comes naturally, it can be done. You just have to be sure of why you are doing it (and then abandon all other "why" questions after you join).
Below are pictures of Amish people walking home from a church service. I am fairly certain that in the first photo the tall man on the right is one of my first cousins on my mother's side of the family. Doesn't he look like a character?
Photos by Sarah Weaver