Escaping the Amish – Part 1

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In February, I received an e-mail from a reader using a Columbia University address — Torah Bontrager — that ended curiously:

“…and if you ever want to hear how I escaped the Amish, let me know.”

Those peace-loving bearded folks from Witness? I called Torah, and after just a few minutes, I knew this post had to be written.

For those of you who feel trapped because of a job or self-imposed obligations as an entrepreneur, this will put things in perspective.

How do you escape your environment if you’re unable to control it? If almost no one on the outside realizes what’s happening?

I’ll let Torah tell us in her own words…

Torah Bontrager after escaping the Amish at age 15.

To start, tell us a little about your background.

I’m twenty-seven and graduated from Columbia University in 2007. I was born in Iowa. We moved to Wisconsin when I was three and to Michigan when I was ten, and I lived with my family in traditional Amish communities this whole time. I escaped from my family and the Amish when I was fifteen. I’m the oldest of eleven children. Four of my siblings were born after I escaped.

What are the most common misconceptions or myths about the Amish?

Here are some of the most common false beliefs about the Amish:

-The Amish speak English (Fact: They speak Amish, which some people claim is its own language, while others say it is a dialect of German. Most people don’t know that Amish was only a spoken language until the Bible got translated and printed into the vernacular about 12 years ago.)

-Amish teens have a choice whether they want to remain practicing the religion. (False)

-Amish is only a religion (Fact: It’s a religion, culture, and language, etc.)

-Amish kids go to public school, or are taught similar courses (e.g., science) as public school kids

-The Amish are Mormons (False)

-The Amish have arranged marriages (False)

-Amish men have more than one wife (False)

-The Amish put all their income in the same pot, like a communist or socialist banking system (False)

-Cameras and music/musical instruments are allowed (False)

-The Amish are “peaceful gentle folk” (False)

What were the positives of growing up Amish?

-Growing up bilingual (Though I didn’t become fluent in English until after I escaped and I was always very self-conscious about my command of the English language)

-The emphasis on the solidarity of the extended family unit

-The emphasis on being hospitable to strangers, helping those in need, whether Amish or “English” (anyone who’s not Amish is “English,” no matter what language or culture he/she represents)

-Building your own houses, growing your own food, sewing your own clothes

These experiences taught me self-reliance, self-preservation, and gave me the ability to relate to non-American familial cultures much better than I might otherwise.

The biggest negatives?

-The rape, incest and other sexual abuse that run rampant in the community

-Rudimentary education

-Physical and verbal abuse in the name of discipline

-Women (and children) have no rights

-Religion–and all its associated fear and brainwashing–as a means of control (and an extremely effective means at that)

-Animal abuse

I consider these negatives as personal positives in a somewhat perverted or distorted way. Without having experienced what I did, I wouldn’t be the person I am today, shaped by the experiences I’ve had since. I always tell people that I’m thankful for having grown up Amish but that I’d never wish it upon anyone else.

What had you want to escape?

For as long as I can remember, I had always envisioned a life such that wouldn’t be compatible with the Amish religion and lifestyle.

I loved learning, and cried when I couldn’t go back to school the fall after graduating from Amish 8th grade. The Amish do not send their children to formal schooling past 8th grade. A Supreme Court case prevented forcing Amish children into high school on grounds of religious freedom. I knew that, by US law, I wasn’t considered an adult until eighteen. I didn’t want to wait until then to go to high school.

For four years, I tried to come up with a way that I could leave before turning eighteen without my parents being able to take me back, so I could go to school.

People generally have a peaceful image of the Amish. Can you explain the physical abuse?

The Amish take the Bible verse “spare the rod and spoil the child” in a literal sense. Parents routinely beat their children with anything from fly swatters, to leather straps (the most typical weapon), to whips (those are the most excruciating of), to pieces of wood.

When I was a little girl, my mom used to make me run down to the cellar to retrieve a piece of wood to get beaten with. I’d choose the thinner ones because I thought they’d hurt less.

One day I couldn’t find a thin piece and I had to get a thicker one. Luckily, I discovered that the thick ones hurt less. So every time after that, I’d get a thick one. It made her feel like she was hurting me more, and I’d scream harder just to make sure she didn’t catch on that it actually hurt less.

One of my acquaintances stuttered when he was little and his dad would make him put his toe under the rocking chair, and then his dad would sit in the chair and rock over the toe and tell him that’s what he gets for stuttering.

Even little babies get abused for crying too much during church or otherwise “misbehaving.” I’ve heard women beat their babies — under a year old — so much that I cringed in pain.

How did this all culminate for you prior to the escape?

My dad was a hunter and taught me to shoot. One evening after eighth grade, when I was fourteen, I came back from target practice in our field. The sun was just setting and I paused for a moment on a little knoll just below the house to enjoy the view. I had just gotten done with a good practice shooting, and I remember that the thought suddenly struck me: today would be a good day to die.

I hadn’t gotten beaten by my mom that day, and we hadn’t had any significant arguments over anything. I thought that if I died, I wanted to die without being mad at my mom. So I thought, I might as well take the opportunity to do so before I got back to the house—at which point who knows whether there would be another fight or a beating.

I put a bullet in the chamber and raised the rifle up. The closer it got to my head, the faster my heart beat. I was taught that whoever committed suicide would go to hell. But I was so miserable in the Amish culture that I believed God would understand that my motives were good.

In the end, I didn’t have the guts to point the barrel straight at my head. Okay, I thought, I’ll just put the gun next to my cheek to see what it feels like.

The instant I felt that cold hard steel, I suddenly realized that I wanted to live.

I had never had that thought before in my life. I had always thought I wanted to die. I don’t know where the idea came from that I wanted to live, but it completely changed my outlook on life.

Just remembering the feel of that cold steel still makes me shudder.

It was an instant flash of revelation—one that appeared and disappeared just as quickly. But in that moment, I realized that I truly wanted to be alive, that someday I’d be happy, and that I must be destined for something better in life—or surely I wouldn’t have gotten a crazy thought like wanting to live.

I branded that thought and feeling into my head. I told myself never to forget it, that no matter how depressed or how much I might want to kill myself in the future, even if I don’t have that same feeling again about wanting to live, I still shouldn’t kill myself because there was a better life in store for me.

At that point, I knew I had to escape.

[Continued in Part 2]

Postscript: This post is not intended to generalize all Amish. Rather, it is one person’s experience with the common constraints of the Old Order Amish. Please see Torah’s further explanations in the comments below.

Posted on: July 15, 2008.

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204 comments on “Escaping the Amish – Part 1

  1. Is this how you want us to respond to tweets?

    On the tinea tweet: I have a very bad case of eczema and have attributed it to food allergies, specifically nuts. I avoid them and it has cleared up. They are not the same disease but the symptoms are almost identical. Hope this helps! For any further help I would recommend Dr. James Privitera in Covina, CA.

    Like

  2. Tim,
    This chilling story is not uncommon. I’ve met a bunch of kids and adults from a couple of different groups whose stories are remarkable similar. Glad you’re blogging about it. The stuff with punishing the babies, beating the kids and relegating the girls and women to slave status. Ugh. All too common. Fundamentalist cult. Can be as big as the Amish, or as small as a family.
    Steve

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    • I am glad this is being told. I grew up with Amish neighbors most of my life. There are good families and sects and bad. Some around me were bad, they stole, lied, cheated, and one neighbor is in prison for 18 counts of molestation and rape. Everyone romantizes them and it needs to stop. As I said, there are other families that are good, just like any english.

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  3. wow, this story about escaping the Amish is a lesson in courage. I loved learning as a kid and i wonder what i would have had to go through if my interests had not been supported and cultivated and suppressed instead…

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  4. FYI… “spare the rod, spoil the child” is NOWHERE in the bible. Its a line by poet Samuel Butler, in Hudibras (1664).

    Butler’s line is a perversion of several psalms and proverbs, the proper meaning being that if you do not properly discipline your child, you are a bad parent.

    http://www.helium.com/items/274817-spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child-explained

    Its often quoted by “religious” types who enjoy beating children.

    Glad to hear you’re free, Torah!

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    • “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is a paraphrase of a biblical verse (Proverbs 13: 24 (KJV)):

      “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”

      To say it is “NOWHERE” in the Bible is rather like saying that “separation of church and state” is nowhere in the constitution. True, the exact prhaseology doesn’t exist, but the concept is clearly alluded to.

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  5. Thank you Torah for having the courage to share your very personal life experience, which has shaped you as a strong woman, determined to grow through education and life experience, allowing you to now make ‘ choices ‘ not forced upon you. This story surely should remind us all that there are always so many less fortunate than ourselves and that feeble illusionary excuses we create in our minds should be abandoned in exchange for chasing our dreams and fulfillment. Once again we see that the first step is always the hardest, but once taken you’ll never look back. Paul,Australia.

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  6. I really wanted to read the FISA post, but it seems to have disappeared.
    It’s unlike you to succumb to pressure. a bit disappointed.

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  7. Cool story, when does part II become released? Why did you wait so long to post this story? I recall the pic from a while ago and you stating you were going to post it someday. Did you personally meet this girl?

    Cheers

    Jose

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  8. Wow. This is an amazing story.

    We don’t realize how powerfully entrapped we are by our own minds until we manage to break out. From experience I can say that is extremely hard to break out of that mind that was formed by our childhood — but such an amazing healing process when we do, if we had less than mediocre parents.

    What is the FISA post?

    Like

  9. For the past month I’ve been somewhat suicidal..

    I’ve realized how badly I needed to get out.. and when my parents wouldn’t sign my lease paper.. I lost it.

    But I just find it crazy how you always seem to have a story or blog post that’s somewhat relevant.

    Thanks,
    No name (but my real email)

    PS Now get part 2 out ;)

    Like

  10. Just wanted to point bex in the right direction: “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly (early).” (Proverbs 13:24)

    An inhuman doctrine, but one that exists in the Bible nonetheless.

    To Torah, my well wishes.

    Like

  11. Tim,
    This is insane. I have been through Amish towns and communities and thought they were a peaceful people, but somehow this story does nt come as much as a surprise.
    It is unfortunate and sad that someone would have to go through this.
    I’m interested in part 2.
    Brandon

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  12. The language spoken by the Amish is not called “Amish”. It is an Americanized corruption of a dialect (Palatinate German) spoken in Germany. The regular Amish don’t call their language Amish. Maybe the “Low Amish” do but they are a breed all their own.

    Anyways, interesting piece. I see Ms. Bontrager isn’t a very tolerant person but she most likely learned that right at home so I don’t condemn her for that.

    Is it as hard to leave the Amish as she lets on? You better believe it. In reality, it is hard enough but not nearly as hard as it seems. But you never know that from the inside. When a kid makes the choice to leave the Amish they are literally giving up their very life in the hopes of a better life. And all that in spite of a constant barrage of stern warnings about how horrible a life outside the Amish religion is.

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    • I live in central PA, on the edge of “Dutch Country”. The language is referred to as Pannsilfaani Deitsch, misunderstood as “Pennsylvania Dutch”. In fact it has been a written language since at least the 19th century. The Boonastiel stories are in Deitsch. The spelling was erratic until a Penn State German Professor and his colleague systematized the spelling. This spelling, Buffington-Barba, is based on German letter sounds. Another spelling is, I believe, the Ohio spelling, based on English letter sounds. Es Nei Teshtament, the New Testament, is available with Ohio Deitsch in the middle, and King James English on the far sides.

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  13. While I am no expert on the Amish, I have family that lives in northern and central Pennsylvania, so we have spoken to, met on the street and even talked to former Amish who left their community but wanted to stay close.

    I will say that I believe you are incorrect in your statement that children may choose to stay in the religion is false. first baptism does not take place until adulthood, so technically they can not remain since they do not yet belong.

    I think what you are referring to is what is sometimes called Rumspringa. it is true that not all sects allow Rumspringa, this is a time for teenagers to decide if they want to be baptized into the faith. in many cases this is a time for personal reflection, but in some cases some teens are allowed to leave their community to explore their options without fear of retribution. it is up to the elders to decided how broad teens involved in Rumspringa can go.

    I am some what surprised that you would take one account and place a judgment over an entire religion. this would be the same as saying all Muslims want to blow-up Americans as a part of their Jihad. as many people who take the time to study know jihad is the struggle in faith, self, word and actions. violence is not the main focus, but largely it is interpreted as some sort of war on western society.

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    • I’m a little surprised to hear you say this…. Coming from the same background I can say that what Torah has shared is all true. Though some groups are more extreme than others….

      Just a thought… but, looking at them through rose glasses is distressing to some people who have left because of knowing the inside story, and left because of the severe abuse…. they say that young people have a chioce, but it is only words. The teaching does not get that idea across.

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    • I did not grow up amish but grew up in the amish community and what Torah is saying is very true of the amish religion as a whole. I went to school with the amish and mennonites in the community I grew up in and my parents treated me the same as the amish when I left there church with the shunning, etc. It is very ingrained in the children to follow the rules set forth by the church or you are going to hell as she said. I was always told to “let your conscience be your guide” and not let your bible be your guide. So it becomes very ingrained in your mind that if you think differently you are wrong. You literally have to make a choice to leave family and friends behind if you choose to live the normal life style. It truly amazes me how people on this site who have no clue about the inner workings of the amish religion make statements about things presented being false. Just amazing!

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