Last Saturday I went to hear writer Saloma Furlong speak at a library on Cape Cod about her book on leaving the Amish, Two Lives in One--Inside and Outside the Amish. A tall woman of about 50, Furlong wore a conservative dress and had a very cheerful engaged manner.
The oldest of 7 children, she said she was devastated at 14 when she had to stay home and do housework and watch her siblings go off to school. Eighth grade is the end of schooling for the Amish, and Furlong said that the 90 percent plus retention rates for Amish children reflect the fact that many feel they cannot compete in the outside world, given their poor education.
Over the next few years she developed ideas that Amish call "unsifrida" (sp?)-- unsatisifed. The word generally refers to teenagers who date "English" people, travel long distances, take courses at a community college, or go to bars. Furlong wanted a much bigger life, but she believed that it would be "spiritual suicide" to leave the Amish. The Amish believe that "because they were born Amish, God wants them to stay Amish," and they would abandon the chance of salvation if they stopped being Amish.
Furlong had a war inside for several years about what that death would mean for her, but she decided to leave because of her troubled father. Her father was alienated and violent. He heard voices and had trouble leaving the house for the fields. He hurt his children. Furlong reached out to a county social worker. The second time that her mother turned down the social worker's offer to treat her father, that did it for the oldest girl.
An English family helped Furlong leave. When she put on a dress that stopped at her knees and took off her bonnet, she felt half-naked. The father of the family warned her that she must be very careful around men, they would try and take advantage of her. The next morning on the train platform he made a pass at her. She was getting on a train for the first time in her life-- fulfilling a dream. From the audience, a woman named Kolb who also left an Anabaptist community explained the terror of leaving such communities. "You don't know any of the rules. You look like them now, but you don't know how to act." Both women suggested that it takes years to overcome those fears.
After Furlong left, her mother accepted the social worker's offer. Her father went on medication, and for the last 25 years of his life, ending in 2004, "he ceased to be violent." The successful treatment of her father led many in her former community to trust doctors in the outside world.
By then Furlong and her English husband visited her Amish family often, though they were not allowed to accept gifts from her or eat with her. At her father's funeral, his widow and children surrounded his coffin in the courtyard of the church, and around them in a great circle were 400 members of a steadfast, rooted community.
"I just felt so supported by a community steeped in tradition, supporting us in our grief," Saloma Furlong said.
During the Q-and-A, I asked her what aspects of Amish life she thought were better than mainstream life. She said that the Amish have a greater awareness of death than we do. Life is provisional, they don't go nuts about safety (buggies) partly because they believe life can end when we least expect it. So they take each day as a gift from God, and try to enjoy it in the moment.
But she really likes having an indoor bathroom.