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

By Sabrina Völz

Saloma Miller FurlongSalo­ma Miller Fur­long is author of the ex-Amish ser­i­al mem­oirs, Why I Left the Amish (2011) and Bon­net Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds (2014). She has also been fea­tured on PBS Amer­i­can Expe­ri­ence doc­u­men­taries, The Amish and The Amish: Shunned. Furlong’s debut mem­oir opens with a med­i­ta­tion on death in Amish soci­ety as she strug­gles to come to terms with her own father’s pass­ing. Return­ing for the funer­al stirs up mem­o­ries of her child­hood, trou­bled teenage years, and abuse. The com­plex inter­play between age, class, gen­der, tra­di­tion, and her father’s men­tal ill­ness serve as obsta­cles to her recov­ery. After years of being pushed to the mar­gins of Amish soci­ety, the young woman hits rock bot­tom. Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, she takes charge of her life and makes the impos­si­ble deci­sion to put the Amish world behind her. Why I Left the Amish is an uncom­fort­able sto­ry, but – at the same time – one of empow­er­ment. In this first seg­ment of her inter­view, Fur­long dis­cuss­es the writ­ing process as well as the heal­ing pow­er of both nature and human dialogue. 

Sab­ri­na Völz: You have said else­where that you see your­self more as a sto­ry­teller than as a writer, and yet you have writ­ten and pub­lished not just one but two books. What is the dif­fer­ence between the two terms for you? Aren’t they com­ple­men­tary in some ways?

Salo­ma Miller Fur­long: Yes, I believe that being a writer and sto­ry­teller are com­ple­men­tary, but I also see a dif­fer­ence between the two. If all of the read­ers of the Amer­i­can Stud­ies Blog were sit­ting in front of me as an in-per­son audi­ence, I would be able to sense how cer­tain sto­ries res­onate with them. That ener­gy ‘feeds’ the sto­ries I tell. When I write, I can­not gauge who will read the sto­ries, nor can I gauge their recep­tiv­i­ty. How­ev­er, after pub­lish­ing two books, I now see myself as a writer more than I did before. I pre­fer telling sto­ries, but writ­ing gar­ners a larg­er audi­ence. I have been sur­prised at how many peo­ple have tak­en the time and ener­gy to write to me after read­ing one or both of my books. With­out these let­ters, I may not have the moti­va­tion to keep writing.

SV: In Why I Left the Amish, you tell about the great phys­i­cal, sex­u­al, and emo­tion­al abuse that you suf­fered at the hands of your father and broth­er and the anger you felt at hav­ing to ‘for­give and for­get’ as the Amish faith demands. Cer­tain­ly, you had to relive a num­ber of trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ences while writ­ing. Can you describe your writ­ing process and share with us how you mus­tered up the courage to not only tell your sto­ry but make it a mat­ter of pub­lic record?

SMF: As a point of clar­i­fi­ca­tion, I was phys­i­cal­ly abused by my father, and phys­i­cal­ly, sex­u­al­ly, and emo­tion­al­ly abused by my old­er broth­er. I spent many years in inten­sive ther­a­py after I left my com­mu­ni­ty for the final time. Before that, I was unable to write about the abuse because it would trig­ger the trau­ma all over again. This is why it took me so many years after leav­ing to write the book. And then it took anoth­er 17 years to get my first book pub­lished. I believe now that it hap­pened the way it was meant to – hav­ing my books pub­lished before my par­ents left this world would not have been a good thing.  Also, over the 17 years that I wait­ed to pub­lish my first book, I was evolv­ing, as was my story.

As for my writ­ing process, I have to fol­low my muse. There are days when sto­ries spill out of me, with hard­ly a break. And then there are months of ges­tat­ing thoughts and ideas before I have some­thing to say. Per­haps this process will be dif­fer­ent if I ever write fiction.

SV: As a result of return­ing home to attend your father’s funer­al, you por­tray a spir­it of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion not only with your broth­er – who seems to show true remorse – but also with your com­mu­ni­ty. Didn’t the pub­li­ca­tion of your mem­oir jeop­ar­dize that new­ly found under­stand­ing? In oth­er words, how was Why I Left the Amish received and was there a per­son­al cost that you had to pay for pub­lish­ing it?

SMF: There were def­i­nite­ly per­son­al costs to pub­lish­ing Why I Left the Amish. For two years, I lost all con­tact with my sib­lings and I didn’t know if they would ever talk to me again. But to be fair, I was not in touch with either of my broth­ers for two years before that. After my old­er sis­ter, Lizzie, died in 2009 fam­i­ly rela­tions were strained, and my broth­ers chose to stop com­mu­ni­cat­ing. It could be that pub­lish­ing my book pro­longed that silence, but it is hard to know.

I felt the loss of con­tact with my sis­ters more keen­ly. Even though they had all left the Amish, the con­tents of the book upset them. I am grad­u­al­ly recon­nect­ing with them now.

As for my orig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ty, I had no real ties to them once my par­ents were both gone. My moth­er died a lit­tle more than a year after my father, so my com­mu­ni­ty ties were already near­ly non-exis­tent. I don’t real­ly have a good read­ing on how my books were received by my Amish com­mu­ni­ty. I do know they read them because Amish peo­ple were sign­ing out all the copies of my books at the local libraries.

There were also per­son­al ben­e­fits to writ­ing Why I Left the Amish. Even though I had been in ther­a­py for years, I still had the need to tell my sto­ry to have my expe­ri­ences acknowl­edged and under­stood by oth­ers. No mat­ter how much I want­ed to talk about my expe­ri­ences with a fam­i­ly mem­ber, I kept being turned away because no one was in a place to hear about these expe­ri­ences or the issues result­ing from them. It has been grat­i­fy­ing to have my read­ers under­stand and empathize with my expe­ri­ences, which has allowed me to bring my heal­ing, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, and for­give­ness to anoth­er lev­el. I have also been able to acknowl­edge the sto­ries my read­ers have shared of abuse they endured as a child, how they left a repres­sive reli­gious sit­u­a­tion, how they nego­ti­at­ed a mar­riage when two peo­ple came from vast­ly dif­fer­ent cul­tures, or how they man­aged to earn a col­lege edu­ca­tion against all odds. Know­ing that the under­stand­ing goes both ways has been rewarding.

SV: In both your books, I got the impres­sion that from an ear­ly age on you knew that you didn’t fit in and that you per­ceived Amish life as extreme­ly con­fin­ing. Even as a sec­ond grad­er attend­ing East Clar­i­don Pub­lic School, you par­tic­i­pat­ed in school pho­tos, even though your teacher remind­ed you that Amish chil­dren shouldn’t have their pho­tos tak­en. Were you hap­py as a child? Do you have hap­py mem­o­ries of Amish life as a teen despite the abuse and Oth­er­ing you experienced?

SMF: Wow, this ques­tion real­ly makes me sit back and think. Cer­tain­ly I had hap­py moments as a child and some­times even hap­py days. I loved going to school, and I have hap­py mem­o­ries of being out in nature in the dif­fer­ent sea­sons: pick­ing the first flow­ers in the spring woods; feel­ing the grass under my bare feet in sum­mer; get­ting big swing rides or jump­ing rope with my sis­ters; catch­ing leaves falling from the tall trees around our house or bury­ing each oth­er in piles of leaves in autumn; and sled­ding down a long hill with my sib­lings in winter.

These mem­o­ries live in stark con­trast to those dark, win­ter nights of my child­hood when ten­sion lurked in the shad­ows, like crouch­ing ani­mals, ready to spring at any moment. I lived in fear at home most of the time, so school became my safe haven.

Then just a few months before my four­teenth birth­day, when I grad­u­at­ed from eighth grade, my school­ing end­ed abrupt­ly. After that, I remem­ber work­ing so hard for such lit­tle reward. I had no words for the feel­ings I had going through puber­ty (and I didn’t know there was such a thing), and I found the dat­ing rit­u­als so con­fus­ing. Even though I thought the only way out of my par­ents’ house was to find a boyfriend and get mar­ried, I was skep­ti­cal of mar­riage at the time. There was the con­stant feel­ing of Oth­er­ing you men­tion com­ing from the young peo­ple with whom I was asso­ci­at­ing. And worst of all, I lived in con­stant fear, not know­ing when my father’s vio­lence would erupt again.

To answer your ques­tions, I do have hap­py mem­o­ries of my child­hood, but I don’t know that I could say I was a hap­py child. And it is hard to recall many hap­py mem­o­ries as a teen.

Click here for part II of this interview!

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