Book, documentary tell of Amish shunning
Herald Press and PBS focus on freedom and loss
When Saloma Miller Furlong left the Amish for good, one of the ways her shunning manifested and evolved was around the dinner table during return trips to visit family in Ohio.
At first, she and her then-boyfriend David Furlong sat with the family, though it was against the rules to eat with a person who is shunned.
“The next time my mother put a card table six inches from the table, and David and I would sit there and they’d pass the food to us,” she said. “She was chastised for that, and after that we didn’t eat together at all… . We would then schedule to arrive right after lunch or leave before dinner.”
Unlike common perceptions about strict and total disassociation, most Amish allow some interaction with those who have been shunned. However, shunning practices vary, sometimes even within communities. For Miller Furlong, that arbitrary nature hung on her heaviest.
“That was one of the hardest things for me, not really knowing what the rules are and that the ministers could bend and enforce those rules based on who it was,” she said.
“I knew what the price would be when I left, so I didn’t complain about it, but when I saw how it punished my parents, that hurt me more, and I think the ministers knew that.”
The new life she built after her departure is described in a Herald Press book to be released Feb. 3.
Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds is the second volume of her memoir, which began with Why I Left the Amish — a story of growing up with a violent, mentally ill father and a sexually abusive brother before fleeing to a new life in Vermont.
Bonnet Strings describes a return to her Amish roots in Ohio and the final break when she went back to Vermont to marry the “Yankee” (non-Amish) David Furlong, who contributes a few chapters to the book.
In addition to two books, her story has been woven into two American Experience documentaries on PBS. The Amish, a 2012 documentary, will be repeated Jan. 28, followed by the new The Amish: Shunned, Feb. 4.
Filmed over 12 months, The Amish: Shunned is a two-hour program presenting the stories of seven people who have left their communities. Those stories are interwoven with — according to American Experience — “the voices of staunchly loyal Amish men and women who explain the importance of obedience, the strong ties and traditions that bind them together and the heartbreak they feel when a loved one falls away.”
Miller Furlong, who now makes her home in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, said the film’s producers did a good job representing both sides.
“Not only do the Amish people talk about being left behind and the shunning … [but] there are those of us who talk about what you lose,” she said.
There are elements of life in a faith community she can’t do on her own — like Amish communion services or twice-yearly footwashing — which she calls powerful expressions of being humble to each other.
“I miss the Amish chanting and singing that they do,” Miller Furlong said. “Whenever I hear it, it evokes a deep loss. There’s a loss of the tradition and the deep and abiding faith that is expressed through that singing.
“Even when I was young in the community and singing, I always felt very connected to my ancestors, the other Amish at the time and knowing this would connect to the future.”
But there are also Amish traditions she maintains, such as braiding rugs and quilting, maintaining a fairly plain home and a deference to modest and plain clothing — though she occasionally indulges in some colors she wasn’t allowed to wear in her previous life.
She also still considers herself Christian.
“I think my way of thinking is still Anabaptist in terms of humility, and I still have a quiet faith,” she said.
It is a faith that has stayed quiet but grown more inclusive.
“I think the Amish are less judgmental than a lot of other religions are — only not if you grew up Amish,” she said. “It’s the funniest thing. They will not condemn a murderer as much as they condemn those of us who left.
“I honestly think it’s their way of maintaining the culture, to have people be afraid of leaving, because they are afraid they’ll go to hell for leaving.”
Return is possible
She opened her home to Anna, a woman who left the Swartzendruber Amish and lived with her for six months last year and appears in The Amish: Shunned.
Miller Furlong said Anna’s concern about her eternal destination, combined with longing for her 40 nieces and nephews back home, resulted in an inability to transition into the world. Anna’s return makes for what Miller Furlong calls the film’s most powerful moment.
“Anna’s basically saying that she thinks her family will be happy to see her. She says her family lived with her her whole life, and one morning she just disappeared,” Miller Furlong said. “It’s just the way her face is downcast and she lifts her eyes and you can see the turmoil.
“Her eyes are a window into her inner self, and it’s just heart-wrenching. You just want to give her a hug.”
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