Art meets Life: An Interview with Ex-Amish Author Saloma Miller Furlong – Part II

By Sabrina Völz

bonnet stringsIn the sec­ond half of the inter­view, we turn our atten­tion to Salo­ma Miller Furlong’s Bon­net Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two World (2014), the suc­ceed­ing install­ment to her ex-Amish mem­oir Why I Left the Amish (2011). Both books depict and reflect on the strug­gles to put the past behind and embrace an unknown future. In Bon­net Strings, how­ev­er, before being able to seize the chance to find true hap­pi­ness and love in the world beyond the Amish, Fur­long feels com­pelled to return to her for­mer com­mu­ni­ty after com­ing face-to-face with a van­load of rel­a­tives and Amish com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers in Ver­mont. Once in her old sur­round­ings, she tries yet again to “wear Amish” and rec­on­cile her rebel­lious nature with the Amish mindset.

In con­trast to the auto­bi­og­ra­phy and its ‘one shot’ at a self-ref­er­en­tial non-fic­tion­al nar­ra­tive, ser­i­al mem­oir affords the writer the oppor­tu­ni­ty to revis­it some of the same mem­o­ries or reflec­tions dis­cussed in an ear­ly work from a lat­er per­spec­tive or expe­ri­ence. Bon­net Strings opens with just such commentary.

SV: In the intro­duc­tion to Bon­net Strings, you share your real­iza­tion that you “could have been kinder to her [your sis­ter Sarah] and oth­ers in Why I Left the Amish” (15). You also tell your read­ers that you have changed some char­ac­ters’ names in your new book to pro­tect their pri­va­cy which – I am assum­ing – you did not do in Why I Le ft the Amish. These state­ments express a healthy and self-crit­i­cal reflec­tion on your own writ­ing. Hav­ing become a more expe­ri­enced writer and hav­ing lis­tened to the ques­tions and com­ments of hun­dreds of peo­ple at your var­i­ous talks and read­ings, is there any­thing else in ret­ro­spect that you would have changed about your first mem­oir in light of what you know now?

SMF: My moti­va­tion for how I went about writ­ing Bon­net Strings was very dif­fer­ent than Why I Left the Amish. I just described my need to have my sto­ry told last week. Part of what ‘I know now’ comes from ‘telling all’ in Why I Left the Amish. If it were pos­si­ble to go back and apply what I learned from that expe­ri­ence to improve the book, I would have changed some of the names, been more sen­si­tive in writ­ing the ‘pro­files’ of each of my fam­i­ly mem­bers, and improved the struc­ture of the sto­ry, either by elim­i­nat­ing the tran­si­tions between past and present or writ­ing them more effectively.

When I was writ­ing Bon­net Strings, I had the ben­e­fit of hav­ing learned from pub­lish­ing my first book. My read­ers had been clam­or­ing to know how I adapt­ed to my new world in Ver­mont and to gen­er­al­ly know more of my sto­ry. I was no longer writ­ing about the ‘stuck’ place of my child­hood when I could not yet advo­cate for myself, but now I was writ­ing about that time in my young adult­hood when I was learn­ing the feel­ing of empow­er­ment as a result of mak­ing my own deci­sions. I was also telling of that time when I was dis­cov­er­ing what it was like to love some­one and to have the desire to spend my life with him. In oth­er words, the hard work was done in my first book, open­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty to tell of that time in my life when I was dis­cov­er­ing my ‘self’ and choos­ing my life path.

SV: In Bon­net Strings, you are quite open about your strug­gle with bulim­ia and your con­cern about gain­ing much weight after stop­ping the purg­ing but con­tin­u­ing to binge. Luck­i­ly, you got some coun­sel­ing. How were you final­ly able to over­come this eat­ing disorder?

SMF: When I left the Amish the sec­ond time, I was still strug­gling with bulim­ia. As I adjust­ed to the free­dom I was redis­cov­er­ing, that awful addic­tion began to lose its grip. As David and I made plans for our wed­ding, I made a pact with myself that I would nev­er again purge after our wed­ding day. I had been taper­ing off in the months and weeks lead­ing up to that day, so I was able to keep that pact. By then I was no longer bing­ing as much, so I did not gain a lot of weight. After giv­ing birth to my two sons, my metab­o­lism seemed to change, and I lost the strug­gle against weight gain.

The issue of body image is ongo­ing. I have to real­ize that some of what I strug­gle with is genet­ic. I come from farm stock. All but a few women and men on Mem’s side of the fam­i­ly deal with this strug­gle in one way or anoth­er. My cousin, Martha, who is one of the few who does not have to deal with weight issues, tells a great sto­ry of how she walked into my mother’s liv­ing room one day when our aunts were vis­it­ing. She said that they were all spilling out of their hick­o­ry rock­ers and chairs when one of them looked up at Martha and said, “How do you stay so thin?” Then one of them remarked that she would like to lose weight, but she wouldn’t want to be that thin. One after the oth­er, the aunts joined in and said they wouldn’t want to be that thin either. Mem was qui­et until they had all giv­en their opin­ion, and then she wist­ful­ly said, “Well, I would.”

SV: Con­sid­er­ing your lengthy dis­cus­sion of gen­der roles, sex­u­al abuse, eat­ing dis­or­ders, body size and so on in your mem­oirs, would you con­sid­er your­self a feminist?

SMF: I don’t know if I would char­ac­ter­ize myself as a fem­i­nist, nor do I know if my friends would. I am cer­tain­ly grate­ful for the per­son­al free­dom I gained when I left the Amish and began mak­ing my own deci­sions. How­ev­er, I may have felt the same way had I been a man com­ing out of that cul­ture. Cer­tain­ly, the men among the Amish enjoy more free­dom than the women do, but they also car­ry more respon­si­bil­i­ties for the fam­i­ly and for the com­mu­ni­ty. I real­ized this in a new way when I read Ira Wagler’s book, Grow­ing up Amish.

I am an advo­cate for peo­ple in gen­er­al to feel empow­ered to choose their path in life. If some­one wants to label me a fem­i­nist for these sen­ti­ments, then be my guest.

SV: The hard­est scene for most read­ers to under­stand is prob­a­bly the one in Bon­net Strings in which a van­load of peo­ple – includ­ing your Amish community’s bish­op, broth­er, and a close friend – come to pick you up in Ver­mont for the sec­ond time. And you go with them will­ing­ly with­out putting up any real strug­gle. You men­tion the immense pres­sure tac­tics used by the Amish to force peo­ple into sub­mis­sion as well as the fear of you being phys­i­cal­ly forced by your broth­er into the van, but could you also have been – on some uncon­scious lev­el – run­ning away from the ‘Yan­kee’ world, know­ing that you were some­how caught between a rela­tion­ship with two men and feel­ing smoth­ered by David, your future husband?

SMF: “And you go with them will­ing­ly with­out putting up any real strug­gle.” I would cor­rect this sen­tence to read “with­out putting up any exter­nal strug­gle.” The inter­nal strug­gle was epic and very real. Part of me want­ed to get up in the mid­dle of the night and run as far away as I could, just to get relief from that long, dark night of my soul. It’s true that I was already feel­ing torn between my orig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ty and my free­dom in Ver­mont before that van­load of Amish peo­ple arrived, but once they arrived on my doorstep, any oppor­tu­ni­ty to make this deci­sion of my own accord had vanished.

The uncon­scious lev­el of our minds is a mys­te­ri­ous thing, but I can say on a con­scious lev­el, I would have cho­sen my strug­gle of being caught between two men in Ver­mont far and above that of the one I was sud­den­ly con­front­ed with. Per­haps if David and I had part­ed on good terms that night, I would have called him for help. In this way, the ten­sion between us might have entered into my deci­sion to go back.

This strug­gle was the same one I faced, except in reverse, when David arrived at the reser­voir that Sat­ur­day after­noon some months lat­er. I am so glad these strug­gles are behind me and that I sur­vived them!

SV: After hav­ing writ­ten two ser­i­al mem­oirs, will you write a third? If so, can you give us a hint about what the top­ic will be? If not, have you con­sid­ered writ­ing fiction?

SMF: I have sev­er­al book ideas. I believe I have one more mem­oir in me, which will focus on my rela­tion­ship with my moth­er. And I also have an idea for writ­ing an his­tor­i­cal nov­el based on a fam­i­ly in my ances­tral back­ground that emi­grat­ed from Switzer­land. And final­ly, I hope to con­duct research of for­mer Amish peo­ple that focus­es on their edu­ca­tion and occu­pa­tion. I hope to write a book about the find­ings of this research.

SV: Well, it sounds as if you are def­i­nite­ly going places. Thank you for your time and won­der­ful insights.


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