Why I fled from the Amish sect

The Sun, UK/October 7, 2006
By Emily Smith

To many outsiders Amish life seems simple and peaceful – but for Ruth Irene Garrett it was a prison with rules based on fear.

And seeing the forgiving reaction of the community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, after this week’s school shootings has made her even more angry at the brutal intolerance the religion showed to her.

Born into an insular Amish community in Iowa, Ruth says she always felt trapped by the rigid way of life which avoids all dealings with the outside world and keeps boys and girls apart.

Her world changed when, at 15, she fell in love with Ottie Garrett — a divorced man more than twice her age — and an “English”, as the Amish call outsiders.

Ruth was told she had turned to Satan, was excommunicated from the religion — and her family told her they wished she was dead.

Her story paints a very different picture of the Amish than the scenes in Nickel Mines, where the parents of the youngsters killed by evil Charles Roberts say they have already forgiven him “in their hearts.”

Ruth, now 32, said: “They can forgive the shooter but what I did is unforgivable in Amish society.

“They feel fear and pity for the shooter because he broke the commandments. They feel compassion for his family and fear for the wellbeing of his soul.

“But I was born into the Amish community. What I have done is worse because I have disregarded their teachings.

“They think I’ve turned my back on God. My father even told me how my mother wished I’d died as a child rather than do this to them.”

He had been working as a driver for Amish families in their Kalona settlement since Ruth was a teenager. The couple married a few months later and Ruth hoped her family would eventually come to support her. But the bitterness had only just begun.

Ruth, who described her fight in her book Crossing Over: One Woman’s Exodus From Amish Life, said: “They were convinced I had abandoned God and sold my soul to the devil — that I was under some kind of spell.”

Then a terrible letter arrived from her father — an Amish minister. Referring to a childhood accident, it read: “If only you could have died when you fell out of the upstairs window.”

Ruth said: “I had so disgraced them by leaving the Amish that my death was preferable to my life. To tell a child you wished they had died has to be one of the harshest forms of abuse.”

Ruth was born into the Amish Old Order, the most conservative of the Amish groups. It follows the strict teachings of a 17th Century Swiss religious order.

She lived with her parents and six siblings on an 80-acre farm, grew up speaking the dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch, prayed every day and attended religious services regularly.

She went to an Amish school until she turned 14 — the age when most Amish children leave their studies to begin working on their families’ farms.

Boys work in the fields while the girls focus on quilting, sewing, cooking, milking, cleaning and gardening. Her settlement banned electricity, phones, motor vehicles, photographs, and other modern technology, believing these are outside corruptions.

They think TV is evil — the antenna on the roof is known as the “devil’s tail”, while the box in the living room is his tongue.

Ruth said women were second-class, subservient and discouraged from speaking their minds.

Girls are not allowed to wear jewellery or make-up, shave their legs, and are forced to wear skirts no shorter than eight inches from the ground. They also wear push-down bras to hide their curves.

Men are not allowed to layer their hair or grow moustaches, which are deemed to be too sexual and masculine. Men who are married have beards, while those who are single are clean-shaven.

Boys and girls are segregated at school from an early age, and as children get older, they are not allowed to spend time alone with a member of the opposite sex.

Dates also often chaperoned and young couples are not permitted to hug, kiss or hold hands.

They are only allowed to chat and are banned from spending time together in the dark. Touching is banned. Any single Amish youngsters taking holidays are chaperoned and are not allowed to share rooms with a member of the opposite sex.

Sex education is not taught in Amish communities, and flirting is frowned upon.

Ruth said the Amish rarely smile or laugh, and believe if something is funny then it is bad.

She explains in the book: “They take their religious, agrarian life seriously, living by the motto that the harder it is on earth, the sweeter it is in heaven.”

Unsurprisingly, leaving the remote Amish community and moving with Ottie to Nashville and then Kentucky was a huge shock to Ruth — but also a welcome surprise.

Ruth told me how her first rite of passage was to shave her legs.

Ottie told her: “If you’re going to be my wife you’re gonna have to shave them. You’re not Amish any more, you know.”

Her next stop was daring to buy brightly coloured clothes for the first time in her life.

And she fell in love with the first washing machine she saw after years of washing by hand.

The hardest thing for Ruth was to buy lingerie — it took her six months to pluck up the courage to visit an underwear store.

But her parents still regularly beg her to ditch her husband, and ignore the letters she sends to them.

She said: “They tried to convince me that God doesn’t exist outside the Amish world.

“But I know that I don’t need to live a traditional life to be a good person or go to heaven. I feel blessed because I am free.

“Once I was trapped but now the world has no boundaries.”

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