Life

10 Questions for an Ex-Amish Person

"I was even scared by the hairdryer, because it made so much noise. I felt very overwhelmed for about six months."
April 7, 2020, 2:38am
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Image: pixabay

Misty Griffin, 37, is a nursing graduate and self-published author from Pasadena, California. She is also a former member of the Amish, which she left at 22 after the bishop she lived with allegedly sexually assaulted her. This is her personal experience of living among the Old Order Amish, the largest group of rural Amish settlements descended from the Amish Mennonites. VICE: Hi Misty, let's start with a brief overview of your background. What was your family situation?
Misty: I was raised as Amish by my mother and stepfather from about six years old—they were incredibly abusive and isolated my sister and me on a remote mountain ranch in Northern Washington State. I think our extreme religious appearance led to people leaving us alone, which benefited my mother and stepfather. At 19 I tried to escape the ranch, but my sister and I were taken to a strict Amish community and informally adopted by two separate families. We became baptised church members. My sister and I believed 100 percent that we had to be Amish or we'd go to hell. When I left the Amish years later, I had to leave her behind, as she didn’t want to go. Today she's married with three children, and we write a few times a year. I have no contact with my mother or stepfather.

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Misty as a teenager with her stepfather and younger sister, middle and right. Image supplied.

How and why did you finally leave?
After about three years of living in the Amish community, I moved from the family I’d been placed with and instead became a live-in maid for the bishop—the head of the church and a leader in the community—and his family. The bishop and his wife had seven children under 12 years old. As soon as I moved in with the bishop, he started sexually assaulting me. I was quiet about it; I would have shouldered some of the blame if I’d come forward. But after about six months, I became suspicious the bishop was molesting his 12-year-old daughter too, after catching him hastily buttoning her dress back up one day. So I decided to go to the police. Among [many Amish communities], going to the police is severely frowned upon. Sexual predators are often shunned for just six weeks, then taken back into the church, and children are not taken out of their homes. So I knew I had to report him to the police. But the police told me I didn’t have enough evidence for them to charge him, and a month later he moved to Canada with his whole family. The detective told me there was nothing more we could do, as there was no paper trail.

I left the Amish, and for the next seven years worked on building my new life. But I had a nagging sense of guilt that I’d failed the bishop's children. Finally, after seven years, I started to write my memoir to raise awareness of child and sexual abuse in strict religious communities. Two years after it was published, the bishop came back into the US, and his oldest daughters reported him for child abuse in an attempt to save their youngest sister. The detective that was called in [happened to be] reading my memoir at the time. I was put in contact with the children, and the bishop was sentenced to 10 years in prison for child sexual abuse.

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What were some of the biggest hurdles when it came to leaving?
Trying to block out the idea I'd go to hell. The Amish believe that if you’re baptised into their church and then leave, you will 100 percent go to hell. When you have believed something your whole life, you can't just get over it in a few days. So even though I felt I was doing the right thing, there were moments when I was afraid and questioned myself.

The biggest physical challenge was that I didn’t know how to survive or act in the outside world. I didn’t know how to get a job. I had only a third-grade education. It felt like being teleported from the 19th century into the 21st—I put on a brave face, but in reality I was terrified.

What confused you about outside world, and what was a pleasant surprise?
Almost everything on the outside seemed strange. For example, I had to learn to use deodorant. I found it very strange to brush something under my arms; I'd seen it before but hadn't understood what it was; I thought it was a form of solid perfume. I also found it exhausting to pick out clothes to wear every day. In strict Amish communities like where I'm from, you have only two work dresses, then a few church dresses in different colours. Everything felt loud and scary. The electric lights hurt my eyes, and I was constantly turning them off. I was even scared of the hairdryer at first, because it made so much noise. I felt very overwhelmed for about six months.

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One of the best things was not feeling like I was constantly being watched anymore—like people were looking for me to make a mistake so they could tell the minister. Everyone on the outside was kind; they encouraged me to embrace my talents and be myself, unlike in the Amish community, where you're pressured to conform. I also really enjoyed going to different restaurants and trying different foods. But probably the most amazing thing about the outside world was running water, hot and cold. I still marvel at this sometimes. I no longer had to heat water on top of the wood stove.

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How much did you know about the world before you left?
I knew almost nothing. In a lot of respects I knew even less than your average young Amish person, because I'd been isolated most of my life by my mother and stepfather. My sister and I weren't allowed to have friends or go to school. My only contact with the outside world [then] was when I went to get supplies for the ranch or sell goods with them. I only could learn what I could see about the outside world on these trips, and it wasn't much. The isolation started when I was six years old, so there wasn't much I could remember before that, either.

What did the day you left look like for you?
I didn't say goodbye to anyone. I left early one morning—a non-Amish couple drove me to Seattle. When leaving the Amish, no one usually says goodbye. You'll just be met with more lectures on going to hell. But I actually saw the bishop and his wife watching from the window. No one physically tries to stop you when you leave the Amish, but they don't help you either. You leave with nothing.

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I went to live near Seattle, Washington. My stepfather's older sister took me in and gave me a job at her furniture store. She was nothing like her brother, she was a very kind and gracious woman. She helped me enter modern society and got me on my feet.

What specific things did the community tell you about the outside world?
That it was dangerous; that everyone was looking to kidnap you, take advantage of you and use you for their own personal gain.

Is there anything at all you missed, or miss still, about the community?
I always enjoyed the children. They would flock around me, trying to help me or just climbing in my lap for a hug. I loved each and every one of them, and I felt very sad and lonely when I no longer had their sweet chubby faces smiling up at me. Also, like with any closed group or church, there is a sense of belonging and identity. I was part of a large extended family of sorts. When I left, I kind of felt like I no longer knew who I was.

I also missed my familiar work—familiar things are comforting. I loved gardening, cooking and baking. Most of all I loved quilting for the Amish lady who sold quilts in her shop. I was considered one of the best quilters because I was fast and my stitches were small and even. When I entered the outside world, I realised I'd need to learn a whole different set of skills. No one was looking to hire a quilter or a noodle maker.

Did anyone ever talk about wanting to leave? Were they curious about the outside world?
The main ones that leave are usually young unmarried men, although many end up coming back after a couple years. In strict Amish communities like I belonged to teenagers are usually required to be baptised at 17 years old, the same age they start dating and going to youth signings. If they don't obey the church rules they can be shunned. If they're shunned, they won't be allowed to date or attend youth social gatherings, and that is a big deal for a teenager. So they would usually try to avoid getting shunned.

No young women in my community ever talked about leaving the Amish. In the stricter Amish churches, young Amish women are held to a higher standard of behaviour than young men. Some of the teenage girls used to wonder about makeup though, and tried to imagine what they would look like wearing it. That's about as far as it went among the girls in my church.

Do some parents keep seeing their non-Amish kids regardless of shunning "policies"?
In my church there were two families who'd had a child leave. I only ever heard about them a couple of times. Surprisingly, both were women. One seemed to have sort of just run away, and no one knew what had become of her. The other was married when she left. She and her husband and their children joined an Amish-Mennonite church called New Order Amish. This church allows members to have cars, electricity, telephones and indoor plumbing, but they still dress like the Amish. They were still shunned though as the Amish don't consider Amish-Mennonites to be true Amish.

They visited the Amish community once but were only allowed to stay for a few hours. The rule of thumb if you're shunned is that you can only visit every few years. You would have to eat at a separate table. It is like this in most Amish churches, but some of the most liberal Amish churches have relaxed the shunning a bit. I do know that usually, parents and siblings don't want to enforce the shunning policy, but they have to or they'll be shunned themselves.

Misty's book, Tears of the Silenced: An Amish True Crime Memoir of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Brutal Betrayal and Ultimate Survival details her time in and departure from Old Order Amish community—and the alleged abuse within it.