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Sep 14 2012

Another neighbor reports on Amish life

A comment by Socio-gen, something something…

I grew up in northeastern PA in an area that had a small Amish population (about 80 families — or 18-ish depending on whether one counted households or kin relationships). My experience was pretty similar to yours [isavaldyr's].

Most of the families were dairy farmers, with the poorer men working “outside” jobs in construction. The wives and daughters often ran roadside vegetable and baked good stands, in addition to all the housekeeping and child-rearing — all made more difficult and labor-intensive by their refusal to use modern technology. Few Amish women had any schooling past the 6th grade.

The amount of abuse that Amish women and girls experienced (then and now), and the degree to which it’s simply accepted by everyone in the Amish community as an expected, normal, day-to-day experience is sickening.

Trigger Warning for a description of abuse: I still remember seeing the girl who sold baked goods on the corner being whipped by her father (with a buggy whip) for failing to sell as much as he’d expected. I was crying and begging my grandmother to stop the car and help. . . I was only 7 or 8 and didn’t understand any of her explanation of why we couldn’t interfere. Someone is being hurt, what do you mean we can’t do anything?! I’m still brought to tears by that memory and the sick sense of horror and utter helplessness. And I remember how disillusioned I was, realizing that adults could not be counted on to act to protect someone in danger.

From that day on, my grandmother would go to the stand on Saturday evenings and buy whatever was left so that Dora would not be hurt. It was the only form of protection she could offer (and which Dora would accept).

4 comments

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  1. 1
    Musical Atheist

    What a horrible thing to witness, and what an utterly wretched existence for Dora. What would be the best method of intervention, by a woman who had her young grandchild with her? If it wasn’t safe to intervene directly, surely this is where one calls the police to report assault? Sometimes there are situations in which that is not necessarily the right thing to do, (corrupt or racist police system; fears of exacerbating the abuse the victim faces at home), but was this one of them?

    I’m wondering if the social taboo on interfering between a husband and wife was at work here. That taboo itself has a religious basis: if the marriage is sacrosanct, no consideration of the wellbeing of the parties involved entitles other adults to interfere.

  2. 2
    Socio-gen, something something...

    Quoting my 2nd comment (in response to Ophelia) on isvaldyr’s post:

    “… It’s tough because stepping in almost always ends up bringing more abuse on the victim because now they’ve shamed the family by bringing their “private matters” to the attention of the “English.” [...]

    It’s an incredibly complex problem. Even when you step in, the victim has been brainwashed from birth to believe this is the natural order of things and is unwilling to accept help. There are no support services to provide shelter or relief to battered Amish women because a) nothing exists within the Amish community, and b) they won’t take advantage of outside agencies/services because it means cutting ties with their entire community — which, they have been taught, also means they lose all hope of salvation.

    Even when law enforcement is willing to step in (such as a child sexual abuse case) often they cannot do anything because the victims are not willing to give up their “immortal souls” by testifying and being shunned.

  3. 3
    Socio-gen, something something...

    Argh! I hit submit instead of preview.

    To answer your question, this instance was definitely a case where doing something would make the situation worse for the abused person. In my area, law enforcement would just tell you there was nothing they could do — because they’re Amish. My grandmother could have stopped and confronted the man but the only response would have been to stop, send Dora in the house to await further (and worse) punishment in a location less likely to be seen, and turn his back to my grandmother. (Only once in my 43 years have I ever seen an Amish man speak to a non-Amish woman, when his son was accidentally struck by a car — and that was enough to have him shunned by the community for a week.)

    There is literally no understanding within the Amish community that abuse is wrong. Those who are less abusive might think someone’s gone “too far” but the idea that you should tell a man he cannot hit women and children would never even enter their minds. They see it as not just a man’s right but his “responsibility to God” to administer punishment and keep his wife and children on the proper path. They realize the “English” world does not accept it and will keep the belts and whips away when in that world, but they see that as our failing, not their own. And it’s one more reason why we’re all going to hell in a handbasket while they’re the Elect.

    It’s religion, culture, social norms, and community ties all wrapped in a tight little ball that makes it difficult. Add in the complication of their separateness and the pass they’re given by civil authorities because of their religion, and the whole mess ties the hands of outsiders and leaves most victims unable or unwilling to seek help even if it were offered.

  4. 4
    Bernard Hurley

    Socio-gen, something something… says:

    To answer your question, this instance was definitely a case where doing something would make the situation worse for the abused person.

    In individual cases it’s very difficult to decide what to do. It’s analogous to the problem of when to give in to a blackmailer’s or terrorist’s demands. The general principle must be that you do not give in. However you must allow for the circumstance that in a particular case the cost of doing so might be too high to contemplate.

    Coming back to the case under discussion, my own instinct would be to intervene. That’s not to say I would necessarily do so, but if I didn’t I would bad about it afterwards.

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