The way I assessed my situation, I had only two options left. For too long, I’d lived in fear of my father’s violence that could be triggered by something as simple as the wrong tone of voice or silence when he wanted an answer. So I’d finally reported the abuse to a county social worker, but she needed permission to intervene from someone who was of legal age, and I was still eight months away from turning 21. Now I’d just heard from the social worker that my mother had said no a second time. After I hung up the phone, I collapsed on the bed that belonged to a fifteen-year-old girl who had died in a car accident five months earlier. I cried out to God in my mind, “Why her and not me?”
I closed my eyes and thought hard about what I was going to do now: commit suicide or leave the Amish. I thought I was headed for eternal damnation either way. Then I thought. “If I commit suicide, then I will go to hell, and right away. But if I leave the Amish, I will have at least a lifetime here on this earth before I go to hell.” Then for the first time in my life, I dared to wonder how the Amish preachers knew that leaving the Amish would lead to hell.
By the time I got up off the bed, I’d faced my worst fear, and I’d made a pact with myself that I’d leave.
Several weeks later, I took a night train out of Cleveland, Ohio. My destination was Burlington, Vermont. I didn’t know anyone there, but I loved the pictures I’d seen in my geography books at school. When I arrived on the steps of the YWCA, I carried a suitcase in each hand with my life savings of nearly $400 to start a whole new life. I reveled in my newfound freedom, established a social life, arranged to take college courses, and found my dream job — I became a waitress at Pizza Hut. I also began dating a young toymaker named David.
Then one Friday night the doorbell rang at the Y. I glanced at the clock and wondered if I should answer the door so late. I peeked down the hall and glimpsed an Amish dress to the left of the front door, and the shadowy figure of an Amish man to the right. Driven by instinct, I walked to the door, opened it, and let in my sister Sarah and my brother Joe. Behind them, I could see shadows of bonnets and hats in a van parked out by the road.
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My heart raced as I pretended a calm I did not feel. I asked Joe who else was in the van. When he named them, I knew they had me. As long as the community had been 600 miles away, I could be myself, but they had essentially brought my Amish world to confront my Vermont one with the intention of taking me back. I figured they’d either stick around and wear me down, or have Joe force me into the van. So I asked, “When are we going back?”
I switched immediately into my Amish self and did everything expected of me. I invited my sister and my friend, Ada, to stay at the Y overnight. When I showed them to the guest bedroom, where there was a single bed for each of them, Sarah asked pointedly, “Where are you going to sleep?”
“I’m not afraid of the dark, so I’ll be sleeping in my own room!” I retorted as I left the room.
I shivered with anger as I undressed and got into my four-poster bed at the Y for the last time. Sarah had been present time and again when our father had lost his temper and come after one of us like a wild bull. She’d been there when our mother said no to the intervention she’d been offered from the county social workers. She’d been there when Joe had brutalised all of us sisters. She’d been as tempted as I’d been to leave it all behind. Now I had, and she was helping to ensnare me.
This wasn’t the first time Sarah had betrayed my trust. Just weeks after I’d left, I called her at work to let her know I was alright. She begged to know where I was. I refused to tell her. She promised fervently that she wouldn’t divulge the information to anyone else. So I reluctantly gave her my address and phone number. Within 24 hours, the whole community knew where I was.
With a sinking feeling, I thought about everything I would be leaving behind. For four months I had enjoyed my hard-won freedom, and now it had to come to an end. Hardest of all would be leaving David. I decided to call him in the morning. That was going to be tricky because I didn’t want the Amish to know about my relationship with him, and Sarah and Ada would be listening in.
I never felt so torn in my life as I did the next morning when David tried taking me aside and asking me whether this was what I wanted to do. His question made me squirm. Of course I didn’t want to go back. I could not explain to David that for those of us who grow up Amish, there are certain things we are bound to do. Obedience is rubbed into the very fiber of our beings and we are often compelled to do things that are good for the community, even if it means going against what is good for the individual.
Before I could respond to David, Sarah came up on my left, Ada came up on my right, and the two of them stood with their arms folded across their chests. They were not about to allow David and me a private conversation. After a long tense moment, I turned away so I wouldn’t betray my true feelings. I left out a side door and headed for the bank, flanked by Ada and Sarah. A block up Church Street, I heard David calling my name, so I turned around. He said he wanted to give me his address and handed me a piece of paper. I thanked him, took it, and stuck it into my pocket. I could tell that he’d folded something into the paper. When I turned away, I didn’t know if I’d ever see David again. It felt like someone had reached in and torn my heart like a piece of fabric, right down the middle.
Hours later, on our way to Ohio, I was finally out of view of everyone when we took a break at a rest stop along Interstate 90. I tried to get away from Sarah in the restroom, but she chose an adjacent stall. I took out the paper David had given me and unfolded it as quietly as I could. Sure enough, he’d tucked a little brown mineral cross into the paper. I’d never seen anything like it before, but from somewhere down deep, I felt the significance of the gift. I saw David’s blue eyes clouded with sadness as he’d handed it to me. Here I was, halfway between my Vermont world and my Amish one, and I held in my hands the cross between my two worlds. I wanted to cry out my agony and have the whole world hear it.
Upon my return to my original community, I made attempts at “making myself Amish.” However the memories of the freedom I’d experienced in Vermont, along with my feelings for David eventually won out against the hold my community had on me. Nearly three years after my return, I left for the second and final time.
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