Revealing the Amish

For most of us, our familiarity with the Amish or Pennsylvania Dutch comes from passing buggies pulled by horses on country roads, or from movies such as Witness starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. The impression we have is of a people who live in a more innocent time. A closer look reveals that life in the community may not be quite so idyllic. From Wikipedia:

The Amish, sometimes referred to as Amish Mennonites, are a group of traditionalist Christian church fellowships that form a subgroup of the Mennonite churches. The Amish are known for simple living, plain dress, and reluctance to adopt many conveniences of modern technology. The history of the Amish church began with a schism in Switzerland within a group of Swiss and Alsatian Anabaptists in 1693 led by Jakob Ammann. Those who followed Ammann became known as Amish.

Amish Family Lancaster Penn. from Wikipedia

The Amish eschew many modern conveniences such electricity, gasoline engines, and rubber tires. They also refuse to serve in the military and on juries, and have very strict rules on behaviour and dress, especially for the women. Education is only permitted to approximately 8th grade level, and they ‘shun’ or banish anyone who breaks the rules.

TLC has a new ‘reality show’, Breaking Amish following the lives of four Amish people and one Mennonite who are experiencing New York for the first time. I haven’t seen it, and likely won’t. A discussion of the show on Ophelia Benson’s blog, Butterflies and Wheels on the program has brought out some commenters with personal tales to tell. She publishes a couple.

From isavaldyr:

I grew up in a very rural part of Ohio less than a mile from some Amish families. My parents, who were (and are) avid gardeners, had dealings with them related to seeds, produce and simple woodcraft–stakes for tomato plants, things like that. It’s not uncommon for the Amish to have small businesses. Sawmills (only gas-powered machines of course–being connected to an electrical grid is too worldly) and things like that. Less entrepreneurial Amish men often fall into the same niche that Mexican illegal immigrants do in many other places, providing cheap labor for things like home renovations, since Amish will work for less than an “English” roofer or sider and won’t sue you if they get hurt on the job.

Some Amish are fairly well-to-do and have pretty luxurious lives (by Amish standards–meaning they can afford battery-powered headlights and a plastic windscreen for their horse-drawn buggy), but the ones I grew up around lived in grinding poverty. Think subsistence agriculture. The father worked part-time picking fruit at an orchard, but no one else in the family had an income. And it was a BIG family. At least 12 kids–I wish I was exaggerating. Male children (often at really horrifyingly young ages) were expected to do the farm work, while female children did everything else. The family bathed once a week, all using the same tub of water and homemade soap made from animal tallow. The father and some of the older male children had shoes, but most of the family didn’t. A few years back, the mother died from cancer; she was younger than 50. A lot of Amish will go to chiropractors or veterinarians instead of medical doctors when they have health problems, or rely on folk remedies. I remember hearing about a man from another local Amish family who was badly burned in a workshop accident and rushed to the hospital by his English coworkers. He was bandaged and given instructions to come back for a follow-up appointment, but as soon as he got home he took his wound dressing off and went into the woods to gather herbs for a poultice. I wouldn’t believe that this kind of thing still went on in 21st century America if I hadn’t seen it myself.

Amish children go to special Amish schools whose curricula have little or no science and only go up to about 8th grade. They have inadequate nutrition, inadequate healthcare, and live in homes without running water or electricity, meaning no cooling in the summer and no heat in the winter that can’t be provided by a wood-burning stove. It’s hard for me to imagine what it’s like for the women, especially, who have to work outdoors in the brutal heat and humidity of the Ohio summer wearing heavy, black or dark blue-colored dresses and tight-fitting bonnets. They can’t even count on having a glass of ice water to cool down when they’re done–no freezer. (We’ve let this family use our freezer to store their meats more than once.) It’s just an awful, awful life of deprivation that “English” people, even poor ones, can scarcely imagine. It’s also worth noting that Amish parents very much believe in corporal punishment.

The thing that pisses me off is that the way Amish people live would be considered abusive to their children if “English” people did it. But because they believe it’s mandated by their religion, they get a free pass. People I know don’t understand why I get so worked up about the Amish, but I’ve lived around them, talked to them, seen where they live, and it’s awful. One thing I will always remember: when I was younger, we used to have a trampoline in our front yard, and whenever the Amish kids would come down to ask a favor of my parents or barter on behalf of their father, they got to jump on it, and they were more thrilled with it than I’ve ever seen anyone be about anything. They’d also stand outside and look in our livingroom window at the TV, standing utterly still and transfixed in complete wonder. It makes me sick to think of how many other amazing things they’ll never get to experience simply because they had the misfortune of being born into a religion that rejects the whole world.

And then Socio-gen:

I grew up in northeastern PA in an area that had a small Amish population (about 80 families — or 18-ish depending on whether one counted households or kin relationships). My experience was pretty similar to yours [isavaldyr's].

Most of the families were dairy farmers, with the poorer men working “outside” jobs in construction. The wives and daughters often ran roadside vegetable and baked good stands, in addition to all the housekeeping and child-rearing — all made more difficult and labor-intensive by their refusal to use modern technology. Few Amish women had any schooling past the 6th grade.

The amount of abuse that Amish women and girls experienced (then and now), and the degree to which it’s simply accepted by everyone in the Amish community as an expected, normal, day-to-day experience is sickening.

Trigger Warning for a description of abuse: I still remember seeing the girl who sold baked goods on the corner being whipped by her father (with a buggy whip) for failing to sell as much as he’d expected. I was crying and begging my grandmother to stop the car and help. . . I was only 7 or 8 and didn’t understand any of her explanation of why we couldn’t interfere. Someone is being hurt, what do you mean we can’t do anything?! I’m still brought to tears by that memory and the sick sense of horror and utter helplessness. And I remember how disillusioned I was, realizing that adults could not be counted on to act to protect someone in danger.

From that day on, my grandmother would go to the stand on Saturday evenings and buy whatever was left so that Dora would not be hurt. It was the only form of protection she could offer (and which Dora would accept).

The comments on all three posts have many more details about abuse with the Amish communities. They aren’t pleasant or idyllic.

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