Saloma Miller Furlong was raised Amish in Ohio. Why I Left the Amish is the story of her childhood and adolescence, and eventual departure from Amish society.
I enjoyed meeting Saloma for the first time this summer while in PA, and have always appreciated her comments here on the blog. I just recently had a chance to read Why I Left the Amish and found her story to be filled with tough moments but quite a page-turner (maybe for that very reason).
Saloma’s story is not a rose-colored version of Amish life but a real look at one person’s experience growing up in difficult circumstances. Saloma has kindly answered a few questions today about her Amish experience and book.
Why I Left the Amish book giveaway
Saloma has also offered a copy of Why I Left the Amish for a lucky winner. To enter this book giveaway contest, just leave a comment or question in the comments section.
For an extra entry, share this interview on Facebook (just email email@example.com letting know you did). We’ll draw and announce the winner next Thursday, Feb. 2.
Saloma Miller Furlong interview
Amish America: Can you share a bit about yourself and your Amish background, and also how this book came about?
Saloma Miller Furlong: I grew up in Geauga County, Ohio, in a family of seven children. My family was a dysfunctional one (mentally ill father, a mother who did not protect us, and an abusive older brother). I often felt that my life was unbearable, and yet I thought there was no help for my family because the people in the community were not inclined (nor were they equipped) to deal with our family problems.
Then I found out that there was indeed help for our family, but we had to reach into the outside world to get it. My mother refused to allow an intervention, which is when I escaped at twenty years old. My book concludes with the first time I left.
The first time I thought about writing a book about my life experiences was the second time I was leaving. The Amish had hired a van driver to bring the bishop and his wife, my uncle, who was also a minister, and his wife, my brother, sister, and a friend to go to Vermont to escort me back to the community. I did not think I had a choice, so I returned and stayed nearly three more years before I left a second and final time. So when I was leaving the second time, an “English” friend urged me to write my story and soon, so that I would remember the details. She was the first, but she was not the last to say, “You need to write your story.”
What I didn’t know when I left the second time is that I could not just turn my back and walk away from my past. There came a time when I had to reckon with the abuse from my past, which led me to therapy. During this healing process, journaling became important. When I finally felt I had come through the hardest part of my healing, I had the urge to write for others. I began that process 17 years before my book made it into print.
How typical or atypical was your experience growing up Amish?
Saloma: I have often been asked this question at my book talks, and I always say, I simply do not know. Wherever there is abuse, there is also a cloak of secrecy. I believe the first step in breaking the cycle of abuse is to break the silence that shrouds it. Because of the insular nature of the Amish community, that cloak is thicker and more impenetrable than ever, which makes it nearly impossible to find out how much abuse exists in their communities.
I believe there are well-adjusted Amish families, from what I saw while I was teaching school for two years. I just have no idea what percentage.
In your book you describe the abuse that you and your sisters experienced, the difficult relationships with your parents and older brother. But what are your happiest memories from your time at home?
Saloma: I loved what I call “homemade fun.” I remember we used to take a blanket and fold it in half. A small person would lay down on it, and then two bigger people would hold two corners each, making a swinging hammock. We’d swing the child back and forth, and then “land” him or her on the couch.
I loved jumping rope. And I used to love to swing on the rope swing hanging from a tall branch of an oak tree next to the woodshed. My sisters and I played “house” for many hours in the woodshed or the corncrib. In the fall we used to rake together freshly fallen leaves into a big pile, and bury one another. Sometimes our pile was big enough to bury three or four children at once. We also used to try to catch the falling leaves, which were as elusive as butterflies.
Your detail the tribulations of dating in an important section of the book. How does dating work in your community?
Saloma: Erik, you would have to ask me that. I’m always embarrassed to answer this question. My home community practiced “bed courtship.” It is believed that this practice derived from “bundling” in which a board was placed between the man and the woman during the time our ancestors were being persecuted back in Europe. This allowed young people to hide from the authorities in upstairs bedrooms, which were often cold.
Bundling allowed both people to stay warm under the bedcovers, while ‘visiting.’ Many generations ago, the board disappeared, leaving the bed courtship rituals. Even the Amish who still practice bed courtship (and most communities no longer do) are embarrassed to talk about this practice, because it is hard to explain to outsiders that they are not encouraging their young people to have sex, even though they allow them to go to bed together.
There’s much more about this in my book.
How many youth do you think join church the way you describe your own baptism–uncertain and reluctant?
Saloma: I have no idea. Most people’s feelings were well-guarded, so I would not have been privy to how they felt about their baptism. These kinds of things were just not talked about. I sure could not share with anyone Amish how I felt about my own.
What are the good and bad sides of life as an Amish female?
Saloma: This is a very general question. I wouldn’t begin to try to answer this for anyone else. A positive for me was that I didn’t like doing farm work. Though I had to do some, if I had been a male, much more would have fallen on my shoulders. I enjoyed the women’s gatherings, such as quiltings or getting together for the day to take on some project. I think I’ve already mentioned the feeling of having no power, especially as a young girl. This was the down side for me — especially having so few directions that my life path could possibly take if I stayed Amish.
What ties do you still have to your home community?
Saloma: My ties to the community are dwindling. My parents are both deceased, and one family I used to visit when I went back to Ohio, moved to Kentucky. All my sisters have left the community. When my parents were still alive, we visited them regularly, and we attended both of their funerals.
Had you grown up in a healthier family situation, would you still be Amish today?
Saloma: I have often been asked this question at my talks and it’s one I cannot give a definitive answer to. For one thing, I’d have to have been endowed with a different nature — one that does not have fundamental questions boiling up from within. And that begs the “nature versus nurture” question — was it my circumstances that gave me that insatiable desire to ask questions, or was it inherent in me when I was born — who knows?
But this I do know. Even if I’d had a good Amish childhood, I imagine that I’d still have yearned for more education. And that alone may have been enough for me to face the loss of community that comes of leaving the Amish. Maybe. This is a question I simply cannot answer.
Why I Left the Amish ends when you arrive in Burlington, Vermont, having finally taken the step of leaving home. Will you continue the story?
Saloma: Yes. I am co-writing the second book with my husband, David. He and I had met during my first stay in Vermont, which was only four months. We had been dating for about seven weeks when the Amish came to take me back. David had to watch this happen, knowing it was not my choice, and also knowing there was nothing he could do about it. He visited me in Ohio (the second time resulting in a thorough rejection) and he kept in touch with me via letters.
Finally, two years after I rejected him, I wrote to him, which started the four-month process of the two of us renewing our relationship. We married a year and a half after I left the second time. David’s voice is important in this story, because he has a perspective of many events that I don’t — I had no idea at the time that I had turned off all my feelings like a faucet at the kitchen sink turns off the flow of water when the Amish came to fetch me back to the community. He claims there was no light in my eyes and no feeling in my voice.
For an excerpt of our book (about our first date), you can visit my blog.
Where can readers buy your book, and find you online?
Saloma: The book can be bought at the following locations:
1. A signed copy directly from me online (Or come to one of my book talks: See my schedule of events.
2. Your local bookstore — most bookstores are happy to order the book if they don’t already carry it.
3. on Amazon
4. On Barnes and Noble
You can visit my blog and website. Also, I will be telling my story in a documentary called “The Amish” that will air on American Experience on February 28, 2012. After that, this documentary can be seen on their website. (They have chapter one of the film available now).
Photo credit: 1st Saloma Miller Furlong photo by Kerstin Martin