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
-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)
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.