an insular, pious community that is at odds with the modern world.
So how will the Amish stop its younger generation from walking away?
Ariel Leve Reports.
Just off the county highway in Goshen, Indiana,
there is a cluster of modular homes built from a kit. It couldn't
be called a neighbourhood; it's just a paved road lined with identical
homes set several feet apart. It is early evening in late November
and loneliness pervades in spite of Christmas lights that blink
in the windows. A mud-splashed Camaro, the emblem of middle-class
teenage testosterone, is parked in the drive of one of the homes.
The front door is unlocked. Inside, the stench of staleness is
overpowering. All the curtains are drawn and the sitting room
is completely dark. A giant 52in flat-screen television dominates
the room and glows with a muted sitcom that nobody is watching.
There are three pieces of leather furniture on which three men
have passed out, fully clothed, in a deep sleep. It is 6pm. The
kitchen is brand new, shiny, unused. The ashtrays are full of
smoked butts and nobody stirs at the appearance of a stranger.
There is no sound, no urgency, no sense of time. This is where
Gerald Yutzy lives in limbo.
Gerald, 24, was raised as Amish. There is
a large Amish community in Goshen and the monochrome religious
world he was born into exists in a nonmechanised time warp. They
live side by side with the modern (or "English") world,
whose citizens greedily embrace material accessories and possessions
and see no sin in using a dishwasher or a computer: people like
There are stalls for the Amish horses and
buggies in the parking lot of the local Wal-Mart. Dressed in plain,
home-made clothes, the women in grey dresses and bonnets, the
men in black felt hats, braces and beards with no moustache, they
can be seen in the aisles. When an Amish man marries he grows
a beard - a moustache is too reminiscent of the military - and
it remains, increasing in length with each passing year. In America,
the Amish are still largely romanticised as gentle and private
people who carry the torch of an idealised past. They live a 19th-century
existence and adhere to simple, family-oriented values. They keep
to themselves, don't proselytise, and don't seek to be a part
of a culture where technological progress and prosperity breed
pride, power and status and lead to the breakdown of relationships.
The Amish, whose roots lie in the Anabaptist
movement, fled Germany for Pennsylvania in the 18th century. They
do not own cars, have electricity or telephones in the home. They
are polite to the "English" but inaccessible and unapproachable;
they don't take photographs and frown on others photographing
They believe their children should only
go to school until the eighth grade (age 14) to avoid becoming
"too proud". Their faith centres on humility and is
reinforced by church, family, community and a simple lifestyle
based on farming and woodwork. It is from this way of life that
Gerald has ostracised himself.
Each church district decides what it will
and won't accept; there is no single governing figure. Church
is held in the home. The old-order Amish are more orthodox than
the new order, where activities such as using a tractor are permitted.
But no matter what the district or order of Amish, there is an
unwavering principle that parents do not force their faith on
their children. Anabaptists believe that baptism should be a voluntary
decision made as an adult, and because of this, many Amish communities
practise a tradition known as rumspringa (Pennsylvania Dutch for
When Gerald turned 16 he was, like every
other Amish boy or girl, encouraged to explore the "English"
world before deciding whether or not to "join church".
It is expected that this will help them to make an informed decision.
During this time they can experience the freedoms of the modern
world - dating, parties, drinking, driving, wearing jeans - and
it usually lasts for a few years. Some remain at home but many
choose to flee the intense supervision of their parents and rent
a place of their own. Parents do not always approve of the decisions
their offspring make - especially when it comes to purchasing
cars and moving out - but they tolerate them. Gerald's new life
is a testament to his independence, but he is able to return home
any time he wishes. And when or if he is finally baptised, all
sins will be automatically cleansed and forgiven.
Most return after five years, usually when
they are ready to start a family. For Gerald it has already been
eight years. His reluctance to return is understandable. If he
returns, joins church and is baptised, then changes his mind and
relinquishes his Amish ways for that of the "English",
his actions will be met with a far worse reception. The Amish
practice of "shunning" - a harsh expulsion - is the
price he would pay. His family's door would be closed for ever.
The rate of return is high. About 90% reject
the modern world and all its inducements. But a small number,
like Gerald, are unwilling to give up their new-found freedom.
So just how well equipped are the young Amish to handle the journey
into a world they have neither the knowledge nor social skills
They begin this journey solvent, having
worked since the age of 14 and built up huge savings, but with
a limited education. From a young life consisting almost entirely
of chores, early bedtimes and Bible readings, cocooned by rigid
family rules, crossing the street into a world of sex, drugs and
gangsta rap can induce enormous stress. Is it really surprising
that so many flee the scary, empty world of the "English"
for the sanctuary of their Amish family?
Gerald, now awake in his house on the lonely
street off the highway with the Camaro parked in the drive, is
one of the estimated 10% who are neither baptised nor shunned.
"I haven't renounced being Amish,"
he says softly. "I just don't do it." He sits at a round
dining table, a large crack across it and a triangular section
of glass missing. He had been asleep in the bedroom and has emerged
fresh from a 45-minute shower smelling of shampoo and wearing
a hooded sweatshirt and baggy jeans.
He is still pressured by his parents to
return but, since he's not spending a great deal of time at home
any more, it's not something he considers a priority. His life
now is about working and sleeping in his tiny bedroom, which is
like a cave. It reveals a velvet Tupac poster, naked girls on
the computer screen, and clothes, a remote control and some marijuana
on the bed. The rest of the room is filled with an expensive entertainment
system. The bedroom next to his belongs to his friend Jonas, and
it has a manic spotlessness. Later, Jonas will say his girlfriend
Jonas has woken up now and chills out watching
TV. He has six sisters and two brothers and works at a factory
that makes recreational vehicles (RVs). He doesn't go to church
and won't give up his car because he likes the speed. He is 23
and says he knew at 17 he wouldn't go back. He was up at 6am this
morning to go hunting.
Gerald isn't a hunter. He is placid, sensitive
and appears reckless in a quiet way. All week he works on RVs
with his Amish father at the factory, 4.30am to noon, and the
rest of the day he sleeps. He speaks thoughtfully. Unlike most
Amish children, who attend a one-room schoolhouse, Gerald went
to a regular school but still only until he was 14. He also grew
up in a comparatively small family, with only one brother and
two sisters - most Amish families have 11 or 12 children. He has
a mobile phone and it rings several times. "It's my dad,"
he says and ignores it, explaining they've had a big argument
about him smoking marijuana.
There was not one particular moment when
he stopped thinking of himself as Amish. It was, he recalls, a
gradual thing. He doesn't think about it any more and asserts,
quite a few times and with conviction, that he doesn't miss it
at all. Yet he says he still believes in God and in heaven and
that the easiest way to get into it is to be Amish.
Last year he wanted to see The Passion of
the Christ but couldn't bring himself to watch it because he would
have felt too guilty. He has the freedom to do and think as he
pleases, but that thinking is still shaped by the piety of his
upbringing. This confusion is manifested when he talks about a
recent experience in which one of his friends was killed during
"When I was younger I'd never have
thought anyone would be capable of doing that. There is no sense
in that," he says. Amish children are taught to trust and
believe in the good in people. When bad things happen within the
Amish community itself - mental illness, drug abuse or incest,
allegations of which were recently publicised - their approach
is to keep it quiet, protect their own and deal with it themselves.
It is also rooted in the Amish notion of Gelassenheit, or submission.
Wives obey husbands, children obey parents, and the Amish believe
it is sinful to withhold forgiveness. Understanding something
such as a random act of violence is difficult for Gerald, because
of his cloistered upbringing. He sighs. "After a while, you
get to a point where it doesn't surprise you. Sometimes I don't
believe that good things happen to people any more."
It's hard to tell if his cynicism is the
result of living in the "English" world or if it's part
of the natural, organic process of growing up. He admits he was
never cynical before.
A few hours have passed and Gerald has agreed
to dinner. Going out to eat is not something he and his friends
do often. There aren't many options other than fast food, and
there are days when he will forget to eat. There is also not a
lot to do in Goshen. There is a pool hall in town and there are
movies and a bowling alley, but most nights he and Jonas stay
Jonas refuses to move from his chair. He
promises he'll come out the following night but Gerald is sure
it won't happen and he is right.
Gerald's manner is low-key, so when he reacts
with a jolt of emotion, it registers. We are seated now in a booth
in a faux Italian restaurant, and he sips a beer and picks at
the "never-ending" salad. He is surprised to hear that
90% choose to return and join church. "Ninety?" His
eyes roll. "It's much higher than that. I'd say it's 99.9."
Apathy and torpor imprison him; it might
be the marijuana or it might be the deadening boredom of small-town
America, or it might be that his childhood never prepared him
to think about independence, ambition and a life outside his family
and church. Now he occupies the space between those two worlds,
a holding pattern of drifting and sleeping.
"Nothing excites me. I'm a goal-less
person right now. And that's the thing. I need to have some goals
and get on track. I have no ambitions: I just go to work, come
home, go to work and sleep." He takes a sip of beer. "I
know I can't live like this for ever." He talks about a desire
to travel, but the interest is distant. He went to Florida and
saw the ocean. He's been to New York. Both were "all right".
"Sometimes it's better just to stay at home. You know what
And what about his parents? They find it
hard to accept the choice he seems to have made. They want him
to return, they want a reason why he doesn't. But he doesn't have
one. For Gerald, and for many young Amish, their way of life is
less about religion and more about lifestyle. So when I ask what
is better about his new life, he makes an important distinction:
"It ain't better. But I like it."
Yet he believes that the freedom he has
is not good and, curiously, despite the things it brings him,
he considers himself disadvantaged. The recognition that the life
he rejected is the advantaged life is surprising. "Being
Amish, you are connected to a community. They will do anything
to help you. Everybody chips in." He shrugs at his current
decision to reject it. "I don't get it myself," he confesses.
Perhaps part of it is that Gerald is a solitary
person and hates "contracts" of any kind, be they religious
or otherwise. Personal freedom means he can be left alone. He
had a serious girlfriend but she betrayed him (he won't talk about
this), and since then he's not been very interested in dating.
He could if he wanted to - though he doesn't notice the girls
who glance at him as he walks by - but he admits he has no libido
right now and doesn't see himself getting married.
A few years ago he was asked to be on Oprah,
but backed out at the last minute because he felt weird. Then
when he saw the show, he was disgusted because he believed she
portrayed the Amish as stone-age dwellers and Amish women as breeders.
When he talks about this, it's clear he still feels loyal, protective
and defensive about his former community. Does he doubt his current
decision to leave the church? He shakes his head. "I know
I haven't made a mistake, I know I wouldn't be happier being Amish
because I don't like being Amish, but at the same time it would
be so much easier and better for me."
There are billboards lining the highways
around Goshen showing emaciated torsos. The caption reads "Body
by: Crystal Meth".
Methamphetamine (more commonly known as
speed) is a popular drug in this part of the country and one of
its most insidious characteristics is that it gradually destroys
the part of the brain that governs the experience of pleasure.
The emotional memory and the ability to recall enjoyment are damaged.
This also makes it harder to enjoy life once one gets sober. Speed
is considered the most addictive drug because it boosts the brain's
production of dopamine, flooding it yet inexorably strangling
its wellspring until the brain no longer produces enough to maintain
a healthy emotional existence. It lessens the brain's ability
to re-create pleasure, and that's why relapse is so frequent -
recidivists take it to get back to a feeling of euphoria that
no longer exists.
It's hard not to surmise, harder still not
to speculate, that the lethargy, the uncharacteristic lack of
hormone-fuelled excitement, ambition, or just plain get-up-and-go
in Gerald's circle of young friends may be something to do with
the drug culture of this small community. The spotless room (obsessive
cleaning and tidying are sometimes a result of the speed-fuelled
rush), the excessive sleeping, the staleness of their existence,
are powerful circumstantial indicators.
Smoking methamphetamine results in an instant
dose of the drug reaching the brain; the rush is followed by an
ability to stay up for up to 36 hours at a time. Factory workers
get paid by the piece, so the longer they can stay up, the more
money they can make. Crank - the chalky form of methamphetamine
- is more accessible than crystal meth (otherwise known as ice),
and ingredients can be bought at a grocery store. It is easily
made. An addictions-treatment provider at the local recovery centre
says: "Anyone with an eighth-grade education can make it."
"Most of the people who are referred
here are referred by the courts. There are not a whole lot that
come who are intrinsically motivated." He guesses 8% to 10%
are Amish and, given the rigorous custodial nature of Amish life,
they must mostly be on their rumspringa break, since the Amish
community itself provides local law enforcement with few problems.
It is also not uncommon for the Amish who do become addicted to
drugs to return and join church as a form of rehab and recovery.
Julie Dijkstra, the chief deputy sheriff of Elkhart County, says
that the Amish deal with problems internally.
She says they are so closely supervised
that there is not much that is reported.
Lyndale Schmucker leans against his red
truck, which is parked outside Gerald and Jonas's house. He is
punching numbers into his mobile phone. It is the next night and
Gerald is inside, asleep in his bedroom, and the front door is
locked. Lyndale is waiting for Jonas, who hasn't come back yet.
Lyndale's rejection of the Amish world is deeper, more aggressive
than Gerald's, and he feels no loyalty to his roots. He digs his
hands deep into the pockets of his jeans and looks down at the
ground. His voice is low and, as he talks about not considering
himself Amish at all any more, an increasing animosity creeps
in. For him, the rejection is a reaction to hypocrisy. He still
goes to church and tells of the time he wore khakis instead of
Amish clothes. "I'm like, they're plain, they're dress clothes.
But they didn't like it. I'm just like, why do you look at a person's
clothes? We're all there for the same reason. Are we there for
our clothes? I don't understand." He cites a long list of
inconsistencies. For instance, the Amish won't allow a telephone
in the house, but they'll use a public phone.
"I just can't see why Amish people
don't allow a phone. You need a phone. Phones can save lives.
They can have one outside - five feet away - but not in the house?
And they don't want us to have vehicles because it's wrong - but
then they want us to take them everywhere.
"I told my mom I'm not joining church
until you can tell me what's the difference between a phone in
the house and one five feet outside the front door. She's like,
"Well, you won't use it as often as you would if it were
hanging on the wall.' But as soon as you need a phone, you're
gonna go out and use it." Lyndale is like one of the sturdier
characters in Beavis and Butt-Head. Nearly every sentence ends
with a shrug and an "I don't know. That's just me".
His mother thinks he'd be happier if he joined church, but he's
far from convinced. "If I sold my truck and everything I've
got, how could I be happier?"
He acknowledges that being Amish is less
complicated for one reason: "You don't spend money."
But, at 23, how can he be sure he'll never be Amish again? His
reason is, it doesn't make sense. When asked about the transition,
he admits it wasn't easy: "You go through a lot. You have
to fight. Going to buy your first truck - your parents don't want
you to do it. They're crying because it's wrong. They hold out
hope. It's hard for them to see their kids not obeying.
"Amish just makes your life harder.
You always have to bother someone to take you somewhere - or you
have to ride your bike somewhere to make a phone call if it's
not in your yard. If I want to go somewhere, I just jump in my
truck and I go." He looks off into the distance. "I
can't see giving up my truck, my phone, go to nothing."
It seems, for the most part, those who choose
not to return are torn but not confused.
They are not considering the psychological
impact or the spiritual consequences of their actions because
they are not ruminating about the choice between the Amish world
and the "English" world. They are simply asking themselves
the question that occupies any young mind: "What will make
me happier?" And they are not convinced Amish is the answer.
There's certainty and security versus adventure and adversity
- the known versus the unknown - or even God or no God. And for
the Amish who do not return and join church, it is often less
of a decisive action or a statement of belief than a realisation
that they just don't want what they had before. What they are
giving up is a lifestyle more than a religion. And owning a car
is a lot more appealing than a horse and buggy.
North of Goshen, Mary Mosley is waiting
at the McDonald's off the interstate. It is not just boys who
reject the Amish world. The girls do too, and for greater apparent
reason. Women are still very much subordinate to the men. Mary
made the brave decision to leave the Amish world and now lives
completely shunned. She has agreed to meet for coffee and is sitting
with both hands folded neatly in front of her resting on the table
top in front of a plastic tray with a box of fries. Her voice
is barely above a whisper, but she is eager to talk and several
hours go by as she tells her story.
Mary was raised as Amish in Nappanee County
and began working at the age of 18 making aeroplane-seat covers.
She still wore Amish dress, but knew she wouldn't join church.
She says she knew this around 15, when she was old enough to realise
that "they say these are the rules but they don't follow
It's true that it doesn't make sense. The
Amish won't own a car, but they will gladly ride in one. The Amish
point of view is that only the wealthy can afford to own a car,
therefore it creates inequality and separates the community. It
displays wealth and status, and is a divisive tool. But Mary is
unimpressed. She found hostility and snobbery among the Amish,
and believes that inequality isn't eradicated by banning car ownership.
In her case, the sense of inequality came because her family was
poor. "There is no community for poor people."
Growing up, she was ridiculed for the material
her dresses were made from. "If you didn't buy certain fabric,
you weren't in." It was difficult for her family. For instance,
while the Amish do not allow ownership of motorised vehicles,
a four-horse buggy denotes more wealth than a single horse. And
the breed of horse too. "There's huge competition with the
horses. Whose is stronger and all that. And why is it okay for
a boy to get a car but not a girl?" she asks. Tugging at
this question was one of the many threads that unravelled her
faith. The expectations of Amish women are non-negotiable. They
won't work once they have children. They do not have equality
with their husband. Mary was unsure about this early on.
But there were other contradictions too.
She explains how some women are allowed
to have mobile phones when they are pregnant and to keep them
in the house long after the birth. And some of the new-order Amish
will allow electrical appliances in the house (like a blender)
or keep power tools in the garage. She believes that in spite
of the dictum for equality, there is just as much competition
in the Amish world as there is outside it - they just don't talk
She lived at home until she was 21, becoming
increasingly disillusioned. "I'd see the Amish name used
in advertisements for bread and peanut butter." But she was
raised to believe that if she weren't Amish she wouldn't get into
heaven. She moved out, shared an apartment with a girlfriend who
was Amish, and worked as an electrician. Her family prayed she'd
come back. She did, and the slate was wiped clean. But shortly
after the baptism she felt she was living a lie. She didn't feel
comfortable and, more disturbing to her, she was discouraged from
thinking for herself.
Once she decided she was no longer going
to be Amish, she felt at peace. She stopped dressing in Amish
clothes and felt liberated. She lives with her "English"
husband and his son and stepdaughter now, and feels partnership
far more than she could expect from an Amish man. "He respects
me more, we do everything together. I don't think I'm stupid to
She no longer feels included in the family
but she says there is not much about being Amish that she misses.
"I miss driving the horse and the buggy on a cold winter
morning and hearing the wheels crunch in the snow. It was peaceful."
But that is just a momentary glimpse of
nostalgia. At 29, she has made a courageous change, which gives
her pride and comfort. She looks out of the window over the parking
lot and slides the tray of untouched fries away. "Simplicity
can be had anywhere."