Book Review: Growing Up Amish

If you are like me, the only time you have ever met an Amish person is when you have stopped off to look at the sturdy furniture they make.  You are fascinated and mystified at their 1800s lifestyle (no electricity, cars or phones, or even indoor plumbing) but don’t know a whole lot more about them.

If you are like me then, you’d be fascinated by “Growing Up Amish”.  It’s about one man’s experience of trying multiple times to leave the Amish church, and finally succeeding.  I’m usually not a big fan of autobiographies or memoirs, but I found this quite interesting.

There are, of course, the glimpses you get on everyday life in Amishland – on their dating customs, their religious customs and so on.  Even though these reminiscences are more than two decades old, I suspect that most things are the same way even now.

You get a fascinating male perspective to what it is to be Amish, and more importantly, the thought process that goes on.  I’ve always wondered why anyone would voluntarily choose to abandon every creature comfort and live an ascetic’s life.  It’s one thing when the poor do it when they have no choice, but why would someone who can afford a car drive a horse-drawn buggy, and why would someone reject electricity and indoor plumbing?

Part of the answer to this, I suspect, lies in the fact that women have little to no say in Amish life, and they do all the housework.  If men had to wash clothes by hand everyday or cook on a smoke-filled wood-burning stove, I suspect they would very quickly bring in electricity and indoor plumbing.

I do wish I could get more insight on how it would be to be a woman in Amishland.  One imagines a lifetime of toiling all day – cooking, canning, cleaning, dressmaking and sewing, laundry, childcare etc.  Big family sizes are very common, so the woman is also likely frequently pregnant while doing all this. Yet it looks like joint families are rare, so there’s little help.

A search on Amazon tells me there are several memoirs by people who have left the Amish, some by women.  I should probably read this book, for instance, to get a woman’s perspective.

Interestingly, it looks like cars and telephones are not verboten under all circumstances.  They do use the car of their “English” (non-Amish) neighbors for needs like say, medical emergencies (or if the grocery store is really far away).  There seems to be no prohibition about riding in a car  every now and then. Phones too, are used occasionally, it is only  having a phone or car in one’s own house that is forbidden.  So while I’m glad that pregnant women in labor aren’t driven to the hospital in horse drawn buggies, it only makes me wonder why there is such a rule in the first place, and why  anyone would listen to such a rule.

You can see why, after reading this book.  It’s fascinating to read about the conditioning, and the kind of brainwashing that the Amish go through.  We are the chosen ones, we are special. Our way is the only way of life to live.  Things should be this way because they have always been this way.  We cannot use telephones because we have never used telephones.   Changing our way of life would mean succumbing to the Devil’s temptations.

This kind of reasoning may seem silly to us, but the fact is that for thousands of Amish people, this makes complete sense.  It’s revealing how much this author struggles with life outside the Amish code.  It may be okay for people who were not born Amish, he reasons, to use phones or electricity or any of the other myriad modern things, but for someone born Amish, living the “English” way would mean a straight ticket to Hell.

The strange thing is that here the debate is not about the basic tenets of religion, the “English” and the Amish are both Christians, but it is about a way of life.  It’s not that there is even anything unusual about the Amish logic.  This-is-the-way-we-should-do-things-because-that’s-what-our-ancestors-did is a reasoning that’s common to every culture in the world.

But most cultures don’t shun change, they adapt to the changing times by incorporating the new mores into their customs.  The Amish seem to be trying to make time stand still in the 1800s.  It’s not surprising that would be a losing cause, what’s fascinating is the extent to which they have succeeded.


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