Saloma Furlong is invited to speak to groups nationwide because Amish culture is so widely admired, these days. Americans were transfixed by the tragedy of the 2006 school shootings in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. We all were inspired by the noble way the Amish reconciled their entire community, including the non-Amish family of the gunman who took his own life at the end of his shooting spree. As we pointed out in Part 1 of our coverage of Saloma’s book, even the evangelist Shane Claiborne talks about Amish grace wherever he travels.
But Saloma’s work is valuable on many levels, not simply in offering a first-person education about growing up Amish. Saloma is an honest writer who also recognizes the flaws in Amish culture—including its sexism and its inability to act decisively to protect women and children from men who occasionally act out of character. Most importantly, she is honest about the ultimate cost of the Amish refusal to allow members to pursue education beyond the middle school years. In Saloma’s family, the rejection of outside aid made it possible for her father to suffer for years from untreated mental illness—creating a violence-prone household. This led to a brother acting out as an abusive predator, when they were young. And Amish culture led her mother to protect these men.
Is Saloma saying that the Amish are brutes? That’s certainly not Saloma’s message. But, the Amish are not universally saintly, either. And, she writes about the real costs paid in quashing individual hopes as adult members intentionally work to submit their lives to their shared religious order.
Is Saloma’s memoir sensationalist? No and scholarly endorsements of her work, including her book’s publication by a university press, underline the validity of her message.
Is it horrific to read about the abuse? Only to the extent that she honestly describes some heartbreaking challenges in her youth. That’s what makes any truly memorable book about growing up worth reading.
Today, we welcome Saloma Furlong for an interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH
SALOMA FURLONG ABOUT HER AMISH LIFE
SALOMA: The German term Bildungsroman describes a coming-of-age novel, usually telling about a fictional character who is sensitive and is looking for answers. That describes my book, even though mine is not a novel.
My book “Why I Left the Amish” is a coming-of-age story, too. I lost my innocence when I was abused by my family, which is part of what prompted me to leave. And, even more than that problem, I had a conflict with the Amish culture in which I was raised. When I left the Amish and journeyed to Vermont, I was on a quest for finding my true self and to gain life experience. Several months after I left, the Amish came to take me back to the community. And eventually I did go back for a while. I lived there for nearly three years before leaving again. Even after leaving the second time, I found my conflicts were not over. That is when I embarked on a healing journey, which included intensive therapy for several years. This was very difficult. When I read about the lives of people who went out into the wilderness for a time, I know what this means. For me, there was an emotional wilderness through which I had to wander alone. I often wished I could go around, rather than through, all that pain. Eventually, because I did work through it all, I came to a place of acceptance for what my childhood was, which is when I learned how to grow from my hardships.
LEAVING THE AMISH: BUT, WHERE CAN ONE GO?
DAVID: Leaving the Amish is incredibly difficult on a psychological and spiritual level, even without the lingering issues from abuse that you faced. But you came through this and you seem to have a strong faith. Can you describe your religious affiliation now?
SALOMA: My husband David and I continue to search for a spiritual community where we will feel at home. Over the years we’ve visited churches in many denominations—Amish, Mennonite, Roman Catholic, Quaker, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Church of Christ, Unitarian, Methodist, Congregational. If we could have aspects of these various communities all in one, we would choose the introspection of the Quakers we’ve known, the joyful singing of an Episcopal church we attended that had an interracial choir capable of raising the roof each Sunday, the contemplative quiet and music of the Unitarian Church, the sense of community of the Mennonites, and the humility of the Amish symbolized in the age-old ritual of foot-washing. But we cannot have it all, and so we visit various churches and continue on our shared spiritual quest.
DAVID: As a specialist in reporting on religion, I have interviewed many survivors of abuse. This seems to crop up in many families and organizations and churches. I think most churches now are safer than they once were, given the public attention to these problems. But I’m sure readers will want to know: Do you feel you are at peace with your family, now?
AMISH FORGIVENESS: IS IT ALWAYS POSSIBLE?
SALOMA: Dad died in 2004; Mom died in 2005; and my brother is still living. There’s a difference between Dad and my brother. Eventually, Dad got help. I can say without hesitation that I have fully forgiven him, because I don’t think he could have acted any differently than he did. He was mentally ill and when he eventually got medication, it helped him in his last years of life. For too many years, Dad literally was out of control and I think Dad hated that as much as anyone else. I came around to recognizing that truth and to feeling grateful that he was no longer violent in his later years. Eventually, I was able to include him in conversations when I would visit. I was able to write to him and my mother and they would write back to me. Without hesitation, I can say that I came around to forgiving my father. And, near the end, I could trust my father.
With my brother, it still feels treacherous to me to trust him again. In the Amish form of forgiveness, when someone makes a public confession, you are supposed to forgive and forget. You are supposed to wipe the slate clean. But that also means, each time someone does something bad, they’re doing it for the first time. That is what can make the cycle of abuse so difficult in an Amish community. I don’t feel I’ve fully forgiven my brother because I don’t think I should become a part of a shroud of silence about abuse.
DAVID: In their book Amish Grace, Steven Nolt and Donald Kraybill write about the Amish forgiveness and reconciliation after the Nickel Mines tragedy. From your perspective, was this as seamless and natural a process as it appears to have been from the outside?
SALOMA: First of all, there is little we can say about “The Amish,” because Amish are so diverse. Each community has its own culture. But, in my own home community there would be a different feeling expressed toward those people who show remorse and make a public confession than for those people who do something wrong but aren’t sorry for it. And there is a huge difference between the way people are treated who are born Amish—and those who are not. Those of us who were born Amish are held to a much higher standard than people outside of the community.
In that PBS film, The Amish, there is a really poignant moment when an Amish mother and father are talking about the process of forgiveness after their daughter was killed at Nickel Mines. The father says that, when he went to the funeral for the shooter Charley Roberts, he came back home thinking to himself: Wow, I am so glad that I do not have to pass judgment on Charley’s soul. And the mother also talks about what forgiveness meant to her. That was so poignant. As I was listening to them talk, I thought: These people really did go through the process of forgiveness. But, I also thought: I bet this interview would have been very different if it had been recorded a week after the shootings. In this case, the Amish announced that they were going to forgive. In expressing that intention, they knew that the action would follow their announcement. So, the Amish in this case were hoping that they could live up to the public promise they made to forgive.
My own personal process has been very different. For me, reconciliation is partly about going through a grieving process. There is a shock that a person I trusted could have done bad things. That comes with anger and all of these other steps in a long process. I don’t want to say that I have forgiven someone until I have forgiven them—until I can truly say that I have done it. For me, forgiveness is not something I can announce until I am sure that I have done it. That is very different than most other Amish people.
In The Amish film, Steven Nolt articulates it well: All their lives, the Amish are asked to give up certain things, so forgiveness doesn’t seem unnatural to them. I agree with that. As an Amish person, you are asked literally to give up yourself to be a part of the community—we are asked this twice a year at communion services.
I still remember my first communion service when I was 19 years old. The bishop started into this parable about bread—a story that was quite beautiful. He began with the seed that is sewn, then he talked about it growing in the fields. The farmer weeds it. Finally, the wheat ripens and it is threshed until the wheat and chaff are separated. Then, the wheat is ground on a grindstone. It passes through more hands until it is made into bread. Each grain gives up its individuality to become a part of that bread and so we must give up our own individuality to become a part of our community. I remember sitting there in that service and feeling scared. I wondered: Is anyone else upset about this kind of lesson? I wondered: How can I possibly give up myself? Yet, that is what is metaphorically asked of us in every Amish communion service. So, after many years of living in that kind of community, giving up your right to revenge may be hard but it’s not unnatural.
SALOMA FURLONG: STILL WRITING HER LIFE’S STORY
DAVID: Your real life has taken you much further than the story that appears in your first book. Your overall journey is absolutely fascinating. Are you writing sequels?
SALOMA: I am working on a second book that continues the story. The first book takes me to Vermont and the second book starts from there. When I arrived, I lived at a Y for four months and, during that time, Mom and a whole group of Amish women came and tried to take me back to the community. I found out that they were coming and I knew that I wasn’t strong enough to stand up to them all. So, I made sure I wasn’t there when they arrived. But, they surprised me the next time.
Meanwhile, David and I had met. Our romance was beginning and we had been dating for about seven weeks when the Amish showed up again March 3, 1978, at the front door of the Y. This time, it was the bishop and his wife and my uncle who is a minister and his wife, my older brother and my sister. And this time I went back with them. David had to stand by and watch me don my Amish clothing again and say goodbye to him. It was one of the hardest things either of us had ever done.
I lived with the community for another two years and eight months and David waited in the wings all that time. By the time I returned home, my father was getting some help and he no longer was violent. He was diagnosed with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. After that, and for the last 25 or so years of his life, medication helped him. So, I found that, yes, some things are better in our lives together, but I realized that I still didn’t fit into this community. Asking questions was something you just couldn’t do. People didn’t like the way I kept my hair. I wanted to jog to control my weight, but jogging was discouraged. And, David was still out there with an outstretched hand—and finally he came and picked me up. In my second book, I want to tell that whole story.
DAVID: You want to continue your studies, too. Is that right? You’d like to use your unique background and pursue some fresh research into Amish history.
SALOMA: Yes, I got a bachelor’s degree from Smith College, majoring in German studies and minoring in philosophy. Someday I would like to finish a master’s and a doctorate. I would like to return to Germany and work on the research into why the Amish disappeared from Europe, yet are thriving in the U.S. and Canada.
SALOMA FURLONG: ‘GRATITUDE & JOY ARE ONE IN THE SAME’
DAVID: You know that Don and Steven called their book, Amish Grace, and I want to convey to readers of this interview that your memoir—although it does have its painful moments—also is full of what I would call a remarkable grace. A moment ago, I asked about your religious affiliation and, clearly, that’s not an easy question for you to answer. So, let’s conclude by telling us more about your spiritual quest.
SALOMA: I have discovered that not all of my spiritual nurturing comes from being in church. There are times when I feel really close to God through nature, whether it was watching a male bluebird sidling up to his mate to feed her on one of the lower branches of the birch tree outside my window, or watching an eagle soar above the Connecticut River, or seeing the grandeur of the Swiss Alps.
One thing I want to follow up on is your question about whether I am at peace with some of the things that happened when I was a child. Yes, and, I now think these hardships helped shape me into who I am today. I am so grateful that I have been granted the grace to come to this place in my life. I often have to remind myself from whence I’ve come, which brings a wash of peace and gratitude for all the blessings in my life. And one of the things I’m learning is that gratitude and joy are one in the same.
Until my book was published, I often felt uncomfortable being asked about my spiritual beliefs by people I didn’t know very well. However, now that my book is out there, and I have done nearly 100 book talks, I’ve been asked this question many times. The answer is not a concise or clear one. But I do know that I am on a spiritual quest that I imagine will last the rest of my life.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.