Our Amish, Ourselves

By the time I made my way to Mr. Stutzman’s farm to ask for his take on the renegade Amish of Bergholz, Ohio — a splinter group that includes several members recently arrested after participating in assaults on other Amish — I was too late to break the news. I knew I would be. Several of my fellow English (that is, non-Amish) residents of Ashland County had been to see Mr. Stutzman earlier that morning. All were eager to tell him of yet another Amish incident. And this was the best kind — a case of Amish-on-Amish violence.

English always stop by Mr. Stutzman’s place with news of the outside world, especially if the news reveals Amish indiscretion, or worse. A few years ago an Amish man in an adjacent county was sent to prison for sexually abusing his daughters. Traffic at Mr. Stutzman’s produce stand was heavy that day, he told me. Folks he’d never seen before stopped by to pick up a head of lettuce or a bushel of peppers. They stared hard into his face as they asked if he’d heard about the abuse. Springing bad news on our Amish neighbors is just something we do around here.
I live surrounded by the Swartzentruber Amish, widely considered the most conservative of all Amish. Around here, people seem either to love or hate them. Unlike those parts of America without large Amish populations that tend to romanticize the community, here things take on a more fundamental, some might even say practical, prejudice.
Around here people tire of swerving around buggies and dodging horse droppings. Around here people resent the amount of land bought up by the Amish and how they have their own kind of health insurance, an insurance called community. Around here people are convinced that the Amish are getting away with something, have figured out something, have too many secrets. Around here people love to poke holes in the fabric of Amish solidarity.

The assaults and arrests in Bergholz seem to fit a convenient narrative for people seeking to discredit the Amish. There’s evidence of a doctrinal split, which is as common in the community as straw hats and hay wagons. Schisms and splinter groups are prevalent among the Amish that I know. Mr. Stutzman’s neighbor, Mr. Gingerich, also a Swartzentruber, recently broke off from Mr. Stutzman’s group over the issue of adding a second lantern to buggies. Mr. Gingerich is set to move to Maine later this month to start his own settlement.

All Amish seem to fall into the trap of believing their way is the true Amish way. The Swartzentrubers believe that the more liberal Old Order groups and the even more liberal New Order groups live dangerously close to the modern world, a world from which all Amish are to remain separate. The more liberal orders deride Swartzentrubers for taking baths only on Saturdays, and they call them gruddel vullahs (or “woolly lumps”) for getting cows’ milk in their beards. So it comes as no surprise that the attacks in Bergholz, which included the forced cutting of hair, were the work of a splinter group that believed somebody had betrayed the true cause, if the attacks can be credited with such lofty motives.

Whatever the case, I know a few things for certain. The Swartzentruber Amish will continue taking baths only on Saturdays, believing this deliberate inattention to hygiene is evidence of living the true Amish way. I know that there will always be splits and schisms among the Amish. I know that many of the rural English of Ashland County will continue to dislike the Amish in general, even while maintaining genuine friendships with a few. I know that many Americans will continue to see the Amish as a backward cult of religious fanatics, but that many more will persist in mythologizing them, seeing in them what they need to see. I know that, as the writer Wendell Berry says, America’s view of the Amish is a “perfect blindness.”

The truest thing I can say about the Amish is that within a week, or even less, they will disappear from the media and from the nation’s consciousness. They will deliquesce — until the next newsworthy incident — into the background of contemporary America.

Dr. Joe Mackall

A former journalist with a B.A. from Cleveland State University, M.A. from University of Central Oklahoma, MFA in fiction writing from Bowling Green State University and Ph.D. from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Joe Mackall is director of the Creative Writing program and instructor of nonfiction writing for the Ashland University MFA program. He is co-founder of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative and co-editor of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize Series in partnership with the University of Nebraska Press. He is author of The Last Street Before Cleveland: An Accidental Pilgrimage (University of Nebraska Press, 2006) and Plain Secrets: An Outsider Among the Amish (Beacon Press, 2007). The Last Street Before Cleveland: An Accidental Pilgrimage will be released in paperback next fall. His articles have been published in a number of newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, Washington Post, Cleveland Magazine and Cleveland Plain Dealer and an interview with him recently aired on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.”

MFA Seminars and Readings by Joe Mackall
•Recreating Scenes: A Craft Seminar (Monday, August 6, 2012)
•Reading by Joe Mackall (Tuesday, July 31, 2012)
•Reading by Joe Mackall (Friday, July 29, 2011)
MFA, Bowling Green State University
Ph.D., Indiana University of Pennsylvania