BY SARA GILBERT
Saloma Miller Furlong, the author of the memoir “Why I Left the Amish,” spoke at the Haverstraw King’s Daughters Public Library on Tuesday, June 12 about how she made the difficult decision to leave the community she grew up in, twice.
Furlong was featured in the PBS American Experience program, “The Amish,” which was shown earlier in the day on Tuesday.
She read passages from her book, shared clips of the documentary and answered the audience of about 60 people’s questions.
The book begins with Furlong returning to where she grew up, the Amish community in Ohio, in order to attend her father’s funeral. This was 24 years after she left.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the warmth of the community,” Furlong said. “I get asked sometimes how I fill the void of a community like that. It can’t be replaced, it’s a trade-off.”
She left the community the first time running away at age 20 and taking a train to Vermont. There she met her then boyfriend, now husband, David. Her mother convinced her to return to the community, where she stayed for two years, only to decide to leave again, this time for good.
“If I’d stayed, my life would be predictable and unchanging,” she said, running through the list of chores and activities that would be expected of her. “But in my life, I married the love of my life, have two healthy grown children, got a college education, wrote a book about my life and I get to be adventurous.”
She provided a window into what her growing up experience was like. As one of seven siblings, Furlong endured violent outbursts from her mentally ill father, lack of protection from her mother and physical and sexual abuse from her older brother. To call it a dysfunctional family would be an understatement.
“Even at a young age, I knew there was something wrong with my father,” Furlong said, describing her father’s manic and erratic behaviors. Her mother, too, would get violent if questioned. “But I was more afraid of my brother than either parents… [his] brutality was calculated.”
Her mother passed away one year after her father and none of her siblings are talking to her. “It was complicated even right up to the end,” she said about her relationship with her mother.
Furlong is far from the only one to experience abuse in the Amish community. During one of the clips in the documentary, a woman described her husband physically abusing her and turning to the church for help. “They asked me ‘what did you do to cause your husband to treat you this way?’ I was crushed,” she said.
Furlong admitted that although she doesn’t know how often abuse occurs in the Amish communities, “it is a male-dominated culture and therefore a recipe for abuse.”
There are many reasons Furlong wanted to leave the community: her dysfunctional family; the strict way of life; to further her education past the eighth grade, when Amish children stop going to school; and to travel and see the world.
Since leaving the Amish community, Furlong has married and had two sons. She graduated from Smith College in May 2007 with a major in German Studies and a minor in Philosophy. She interned with Dr. Donald Kraybill, a noted Amish expert.
To this day she identifies as somewhat Amish, continuing to dress conservatively and keep a low-key home. She has struggled even since leaving the community to come to terms with her past and better understand herself and her heritage.