(Photo: Stuck in Customs)
This is the final continuation of Part 1, where Torah Bontrager — who escaped the Old Order Amish culture to attend Columbia University — explained common misconceptions and myths about the Amish, as well as the pros and cons of being raised in this alternative American culture.
Here we chronicle the actual escape…
This two-part piece is not intended to generalize all Amish. It is a chronicle of one person’s experiences with the common constraints and abuses of the Old Order Amish, leading to escape. Please see Torah’s follow-up comments here for more important details.
How did you finally escape?
I had three paternal uncles who left when they were young. One of them lived in Montana. I’d only met him once, when I was eleven, but I just knew he would be the one to help me escape.
We were allowed to have phones in the barn (you’d go to hell with a phone in the house, but God was cool with it in the barn, apparently). One day, when I was fourteen, I sneaked into my dad’s desk, copied down my Montana uncle’s number, and called him collect. I knew that whatever long-distance number you dialed showed up on the phone bill unless you called collect.
For about a year, I’d wait until everyone in the house was fast asleep, then I’d sneak down the stairs. Believe me, I knew every creak and groan in the staircase and how to avoid them—I also sprayed WD-40 on the door hinges and the window. I’d crawl out the bathroom window after flushing the toilet to cover the sound and run outside to the barn. Then I’d call my uncle and we’d talk. Of course, he said I could stay with him.
There was still the problem of the law, though—my parents could just scoop me back up.
My dad got the daily paper, and my mom caught me reading it once. She beat me for what she deemed open signs of rebellion. Following that, I’d wait until my mom took her nap and then I’d read the paper from cover to cover.
One day, when I was fifteen, the front-page article covered the case of a sixteen-year-old boy who essentially divorced his parents. He was awarded limited emancipation because of having been abused by them. The article said that you could get emancipated based on physical, verbal or sexual abuse, educational deprivation, and a few other conditions as well. If you were emancipated, you had all the rights of an eighteen-year-old.
The instant I read it, I thought “Ah, ha! This is how I can leave before I’m eighteen and go to high school.” So I called my uncle. He hadn’t heard of the case, but he called his attorney and luckily, Montana was one of the handful of states where the new law was in effect. So I could leave Michigan to live in Montana to be a free person.
Then I just needed a plan.
How did it all come together?
One night, I was talking to one of my three uncles, who lived in Wisconsin, and I told him that I couldn’t stand being Amish anymore, that I’d had it, and that — if I could — I’d leave that night.
Then he said something I wasn’t expecting at all—“Well, if I drove over tonight to pick you up, would you go?”
I called my Montana uncle and told him I’d be leaving that night. I took my birth certificate, Social Security Number and vaccination record out of my dad’s safe (my Montana uncle had told me I’d need these for going to high school). I packed two small boxes to take with me, which contained all the worldly possessions dear to me.
You can’t imagine what an ordeal it was to go down those god-awful creaky stairs (even the wonders of WD-40 couldn’t save that old staircase), cross over the god-awful creaky dining room floor, slip through the god-awful creaky kitchen door, all the time doing everything I could to keep from just making a dash for the door.
Luckily, the fridge — yes, we were allowed to have fridges — kicked in just when I was trying to figure out how to cover the noise of the kitchen door. I had so much adrenaline rushing through my blood that I was losing control of myself. The only thing I could think of during those last few moments was that the other side of the door was freedom.
Outside. Freedom was so close, I could smell it. I tore across the yard, heading straight toward the road.
I ran about a quarter mile down the road until I reached the creek where my uncle was designated to wait for me. I stopped only once, for just a second, to look back. I debated whether I wanted to look back—I was afraid I’d jinx myself if I did—but then I thought: this is a huge moment in my life and I want to take just one more look at the homestead.
I paused, turned around and looked. Everything was quiet. No movement, no noise, no lights on in the house, nothing. I was safe. No one knew I wasn’t up in my room sound asleep. I took off again as fast as I could to where my uncle’s car was parked.
He wasn’t there! He must have come and gone without me! My heart almost stopped.
Then I saw a little light from the car door opening. He had parked off the road. I ran towards the car, jumped in the front passenger seat, and we were off.
It was about an 8-hour drive to Wisconsin where he and his family lived. I spent two days with them. My aunt took me shopping for clothes. I’ll never forget the first time I wore a pair of jeans. I couldn’t believe how comfortable they were. I also got my picture taken, the only photo I have of me in Amish clothes. On the second day, they put me on the train out to my Montana uncle.
In two days, I was in Montana.
I was free, and my new life began.
Why do you want people to know your story?
Because the general public is not properly educated about what goes on inside the Amish, which it makes it a million times harder for individuals (especially women and children) to receive the assistance they need, whether that’s before or after they leave.
What continues to make it even worse are people like me — someone who is Amish and has the resources and know-how available — who does nothing about it.
It’s bothered me ever since, so I’ve decided to speak up now and spread awareness about this issue.
Posted on: July 17, 2008.