The Amish are such an iconic part of rural America these days that it will startle PBS viewers to learn: Just half a century ago, hundreds of Amish parents were jailed as criminals for refusing to keep their children in school past the 8th Grade. Eventually, a U.S. Supreme Court decision freed the Amish to maintain their own culture, including foreshortened education for youth.
Flash forward to 2006, when the Amish response to the mass shooting of children at their West Nickel Mines school suddenly transformed them from quaint emblems of farming life—into globally celebrated saints of peacemaking. This has become a major theme at ReadTheSpirit with the publication of our new Blessed Are the Peacemakers by Daniel Buttry. As part of our focus on communities like the Amish, we published a major three-part series about Dr. Donald Kraybill’s book The Amish Way. Coming full circle with the debut this week of the two-hour “The Amish,” Kraybill now speaks to the whole world as a central commentator explaining Amish life in this documentary.
Of course, viewers immediately will realize one huge contribution of this particular film: Kraybill is far from the only voice we hear. Other scholars were interviewed, as well, and most of the voices we hear from start to finish are the Amish themselves—men and women.
THE AMISH: ‘The Truth Isn’t Plain or Simple’
That phrase—“the truth isn’t plain or simple”—is used by PBS’s American Experience series to describe the scope of this new film. As a newspaper religion writer for decades, before becoming Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I have screened pretty much every movie about the Amish produced in the past 30 years.
In addition to my own fascination with intentional religious communities, I was born in LaGrange, Indiana, where a part of this new documentary was filmed. Some of my relatives had extensive relationships with neighboring Amish farmers. So, I grew up understanding that “the truth isn’t plain or simple.” I recall the era, before the Amish became one of America’s most popular tourist attractions, when neighbors were aghast at the way some Amish treated their animals—and their family members.
The PBS documentary is, by far, the best film I have seen about Amish life in America. Yes, the Nickel Mines story is recounted here. Yes, much of the footage is absolutely gorgeous—from stark winter scenes on the Midwest plains to a summer night when the filmmakers caught swarms of lightening bugs rising from the tall grass around a farm. Yes, on balance, the Amish come off as a noble people.
However, this film does examine the painful experience of trying to leave an Amish community and it also touches on the nearly impossible problem Amish children and women face if a man in the community becomes abusive. We hear from one abused Amish wife who remained in the community and resolved her problems within the Amish system. In the course of the documentary, we also meet Saloma Furlong, whose departure from her Amish family was especially difficult.
Even at the generous length of two hours, Saloma’s real story is more complex than PBS and its expert narrators like Kraybill could hope to explain. The film suggests that Saloma simply was restless and wanted to continue her education beyond the 8th Grade. In fact, in a newly published memoir, Saloma tells the world “the rest of the story,” which involves deep psychological wounds in her father’s life that left him a cruel and brutal taskmaster over his children. Worse than that, an older brother who was brutalized by her father wound up becoming a sexual predator in her family—abusing Saloma and her sisters at early ages. In her book, “Why I Left the Amish: A Memoir” (now available in paperback and Kindle versions), Saloma describes this brother as torn in several directions—between his own tortured childhood as a beaten child, the calling of Amish pacifism and forgiveness, and his compulsion toward the serial abuse of others.
Obviously, Saloma’s story was too complex for this documentary to capture more than her experience of leaving the community and suffering through her family’s initial shunning of her. Among other things, her family sided with the older brother, even though (we learn only in the memoir) Saloma’s mother was aware of what this brother had done to her. If the PBS documentary intrigues you—and I can almost guarantee that it will—then you’re likely to want to meet Saloma in the pages of her new memoir. While this may sound like a disturbing book, given some of the violent incidents described in the memoir, readers are likely to find themselves astonished at Saloma’s graceful way of trying to make some spiritual sense of her family, their culture and her own life in both Amish and outside worlds.
As an added endorsement of Saloma’s writing, her higher education included an internship with Kraybill’s scholarly center. Kraybill himself wrote the first back-cover blerb praising Saloma’s book. Through his long and distinguished career, Kraybill has spanned both worlds—and he is widely trusted in both worlds to this day. Here is his endorsement of Saloma’s memoir: “Growing up in a dysfunctional family, Saloma Furlong faced a hard choice—endure abuse or leap across a big cultural gap to the outside world. In this memoir, she poignantly describes her pain as well as her succesful transition and eventual reconciliation with her family.”
AFTER FEB. 28, 2012, PBS DEBUT—SEE IT ON DVD/BLU-RAY
One reason we are publishing such an extensive set of reviews: This absolutely first-rate documentary, American Experience: The Amish, now will live on in countless households nationwide. Click that link (or the DVD cover above) to jump to Amazon and learn about it’s availability in DVD or Blu-ray.
REVIEW by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm
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Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.