Exclusive: My life as an Amish

The Mirror, UK/October 7, 2006
By Antonia Hoyle

One week ago the tiny Amish community of Nickel Mines lived in peaceful isolation from the evils of the modern world.

That innocent idyll was cruelly shattered by crazed gunman Charles Carl Roberts.

Now one former Amish member lifts the veil on just how the mysterious sect will try to recover from the school massacre - and on her life as one of them.

Ruth Irene Garrett, 32, was brought up as an Amish until leaving 10 years ago when she fell in love with a non-believer.

Monday's bloodbath in Pennsylvania was a catastrophic example of the worst of 21st century life they strive to keep apart from. It is this isolation that gave many a feeling of security. A feeling that may now have ended forever.

Ruth, raised in Iowa, said: "The isolation from the rest of the world makes you feel protected. I felt so secure in those days.

"It was like being in a bubble. You hear about terrible things happening in the outside world and wonder how such awful things could happen - but you never expect them to happen to you or your family. It does sound strange, but it's all to do with cutting yourself off and displaying your differences."

The deeply religious Amish devoutly follow Biblical teachings.

And, Ruth - now a novelist - reveals that such is their fervent belief in forgiveness, they would have been prepared to extend it to the 32-year-old man who brutally took the lives of five of their children.

She said: "I know we have capital punishment in America, but there's no way on earth any of those families would've appeared in court to seek the death penalty for Roberts if he hadn't killed himself.

"They're pacifists and their religion demands that they turn the other cheek. To demand an eye for an eye would be to belong to the outside world. And that's the last thing they want.

"They hate punishing people so much that they won't collaborate with prosecutors even when they are victims.

"That's why they allowed Roberts' wife Marie to attend the funerals, and are even considering giving her compensation from their own collection for her grief."

America's Amish communities lead austere lives. No phones, TV, electricity, cars, planes - their existence often seems little changed since they first settled in American in the 18th century.

Ruth explains: "Amish communities are agricultural, so we'd get up early to do the milking. Then girls would do the housework while the men would head for the fields.

"Everything's done by hand. They unwind by reading books and playing board games.

"Although TV's not allowed, they keep in touch with the outside world via visitors.

"The Amish don't use phones or electricity either. That's why the school in Nickel Mines was lit by kerosene and the single teacher there used a chalk board."

All this was part of Ruth's spartan lifestyle - until she fell for a non-Amish man 10 years ago.

Although members of the cult travel by horse and buggy, one of their few concessions to modern life is that they are allowed to hire a van driver for lengthy journeys. That is how she met Ottie, now her 57-year-old husband. Although finally breaking free of her shackled upbringing devastated her family, she found it liberating. However, she was stunned at how unprepared she was for life on the outside. Ruth reveals: "I felt a combination of freedom and fear.

"Not so much fear of the outside world but the fact we were always told if we left that we wouldn't go to heaven.

"I quickly discovered there were lots of tiny little things I had to learn, like shopping for clothes. I'd try them on over my clothes because I didn't know they had changing rooms. The first thing I bought was a pair of white tennis shoes, because unless it's a religious occasion the Amish can't wear white. It made me feel free.

"Enjoying the things the average American would take for granted became a thrilling voyage of discovery.

She goes on: "What excited me most was being able to travel freely. As an Amish you can take your horse and buggy, but not go so far.

"I felt like a free bird and around every turn was something new.

"And I was excited about the opportunities for careers. In the Amish community my life was pre-ordained. If you don't have kids you become a school mistress, maybe open a quilt shop or work as a maid.

"Out here, though, you can become a nurse, a doctor or anything you want to be."

TV and films were new to her as well. She adds: "TV was something I was paranoid about because the Amish have a very negative view of it. And movies were a very strange concept. The first one I watched was [1985 film] Witness, about the Amish. Ottie thought it was a good way to introduce me to films. But I didn't realise they were actors - I thought people really died."

One remaining sadness is the fact her parents are still bitter she decided to leave.

She says: "I had to follow my heart but my family still can't accept it and won't let Ottie round to visit.

"I write to Mum and Dad all the time but only ever get a couple of letters back. On the odd occasions I see Mum she cries because of what happened."

Ruth says Nickel Mines will again turn its back on the modern world as it struggles to deal with the tragedy. She said: "They won't accept professional help from the outside. And because Amish schooling ends at 14, no one qualifies as a psychiatrist."

However, she believes the togetherness the Amish have forged in isolation will help them pull through.

She adds: "I may have turned my back on being Amish, but at times like this their dignity, strength and sense of community they pride themselves on will be invaluable."

'The isolation from the rest of the world makes you feel protected. I felt so secure. It was like being in a bubble. When I left, the first thing I bought was a pair of white tennis shoes..it made me feel free'

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