Author tells of life in unusual sect

Goshen News, Indianna/August 24, 2007

By Monica Joseph

In the 1950s, a little girl grew up in an isolated colony tucked away in a lush valley where playing was forbidden, books were burned and dissenting members were forced out and "dumped" among strangers — all by decree of one man.

This is the story Patricia Hochstetler tells in a series of three books about her childhood in an Old Order Amish splinter group ruled by a man called "The Elder." Hochstetler makes no demur about calling the colony a cult — it's right in the title of the book.

The writing of "Delusion: Growing up in an Amish-Jewish Cult" took 10 years. Hochstetler said the memories and subsequent emotions forced her to give up writing time after time.

Finally, she decided to pretend she was writing about a different little girl.

"I pretended I was writing about someone I knew, not myself," Hochstetler said.

The words were never supposed to be read by anyone anyway — at least "not until I was dead and gone," she said. She planned to leave the story of her childhood in the Lael Colony in Tennessee for her children and grandchildren to read.

Hochstetler had first thought about writing about her experiences when she was 19 and newly out of the colony. She quickly found it impossible to do that and keep her life in the outside world from disintegrating.

"I had shut the door to the past," she said. "I had to do that to survive."

Creating a new life in her teens also included dealing with a strange and frightening new world.

"I had never heard or seen a radio or TV or inside toilets," Hochstetler said. "I didn't know there was a president. We were told the outside world was evil. I didn't expect to survive."

She made a few other attempts over the years to put her story down in words before finally deciding, "the third time is a charm, I will not lay it down."

It was "difficult to open those closed doors," Hochstetler said. "I never talked about my childhood to anyone, ever. I never wanted to spade up that ground."

The technical aspects of writing were also difficult. Hochstetler grew up speaking Pennsylvania Dutch and — after a mandated book burning — the Bible was one of the few books she was allowed to read. Her writing was sprinkled with Germanic and archaic intonations — it just didn't sound quite right, she said.

Hochstetler joined writing groups and took a course from Writer's Digest led by John Cooper that helped her "immeasurably." In 1996, she decided to take an English course at Bethel College.

"I told the professor I was a kindergartner in college — it was true," Hochstetler said.

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