Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Amish: Shunned (PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Amish: Shunned, a follow-up to a documentary on the Amish done for the PBS American Experience series which was made last year and aired a week before (right after President Obama’s State of the Union Address — I recorded it but I didn’t watch it, nor did I watch Obama’s speech until the recording concluded and I was able to finalize my disc), and quite a moving, powerful and unexpectedly somber piece. The show was written, directed and produced by Callie T. Wiser, and it profiled seven defectors from the Amish community — including perhaps the most interesting, a couple from Indiana who were not Amish to begin with, got married (there’s a photo from their wedding that looks like a standard 1950’s-issue straight couple getting started in their lives together, posed in full modern-day wedding regalia in front of their cars), settled on a farm in Indiana, found that they really didn’t know how to live off the land, started going to their Amish neighbors for advice and ultimately were so impressed by the community and its values that they converted. Years later they found the Amish rules too confining and left, though their son Paul stayed behind — and while eventually he left too, they noted that he’s still living like an Amish person, farming his own land with a horse-drawn plow. What I hadn’t realized about the Amish before this — well, there are a lot of things I hadn’t realized about the Amish before this, including that there are at least five major sects within the Amish that vary mainly in the degree to which they reject modernity. At least one Amish community was shown by a clip of someone milking cows and using obviously modern implements to do this, including clamps to fit around the cows’ teats and industrially manufactured buckets and pails in which to store the proceeds.

I also didn’t realize that the Amish have their own language, variously described in the program as “Pennsylvania Dutch” and a dialect of German — and that at least some Amish communities use the word “English” not only to denote America’s majority language but the entire modern American world from which they seek to isolate themselves and their families (i.e., “She left us and entered the English world”). Indeed, one of the difficulties faced by that Indiana couple was that they never really mastered the Amish language and therefore felt isolated from the community even when they were technically part of it. What I particularly liked about Wiser’s work on the program was that she neither romanticized the Amish nor ridiculed them — and it would have been all too tempting to do either — rather she did an excellent job showing both what is appealing about them and what is oppressive. Though she didn’t use the word in her actual narration, the notes she put up on the show on PBS’s Web site say that the word the Amish use to describe their system is Ordnung, which is literally the German for “order” (and which has some pretty chilling implications to someone who’s read as much about Hitler and the Nazis, who were also big on Ordnung, though they meant something very different by it). The Amish are alternately incredibly stern and surprisingly forgiving — they’re fond of quoting the parable of Jesus that if a shepherd loses one of 100 sheep he will leave the 99 behind and chase after the one (and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the story of the Prodigal Son is also one of their favorite passages from the Bible), and at the same time they will kick people out for seemingly absurd transgressions, like forgetting to tie the string on the cap Amish women are always supposed to wear in public to missing a church service or a meeting to which the Amish elders have summoned you.

What struck me most about the show is not only the severity with which the Amish (especially the most strict ones — the Swartzentruber group is cited by Wiser in her on-line notes as the most hard-line) make rules about avoiding cross-contamination with the “English” life outside but the centripetal pull young (or not so young) intellectually or socially restive Amish must feel between the lure of the rest of our nation’s life and the intimidation of their tradition, particularly the statement that any transgression, no matter how (seemingly) minor, can consign the soul to hell. And yet a surprising number of Amish have the resources to leave — while some Amish sects don’t educate anybody past the equivalent of eighth grade, others give their members enough of a grounding in “book learning” that they’re able to enter college once they leave (like Naomi, one of the people profiled in the show, who was able to visit relatives in Florida and, once she quit, to enroll in college and get a degree in nursing). I was particularly struck by the two young men who left the Amish, settled in Florida and were able to buy a car (how did they get the money, and how did they learn to drive?), and when one of them joined a Fundamentalist church (you could tell it was Fundamentalist because the minister had the congregants hold their Bibles aloft in the air and asked, “What do we believe in this book?” — and they answered, en masse, “All of it!”) he regarded that as a liberation from the strictures of the Amish (just as some Dari-speaking immigrants from southern Afghanistan make it across the border into Iran and regard Iran as a land of incredible freedom and opportunity — which it is, by comparison with what they were leaving). Though several people were profiled in the show, Wiser’s Web site contains a post by Saloma Miller Furlong (an ex-Amish who runs what’s essentially an Underground Railroad for people leaving the faith/community) which focuses on two of them, Naomi and Anna. As Furlong writes:

* Naomi managed to fly to Florida and live there with minimal supervision.

* Anna was not even allowed to ride in a car, which meant she had never been further than fifty miles (a two-day buggy ride) from her parents’ home. 

* Naomi had a decent basic education, even though she was educated in an Amish school. She was able to pass a GED without too much trouble, soon after she left the culture.

* Anna was also taught in an Amish school, but one in which education is de-emphasized. It is not important to the parents whether their children learn proper English. Anna was reading at the fourth grade level when she left her community. 

* Naomi left with a desire to further her education and become a nurse. She looked forward to making her own choices. 

* Anna struggled with making her own choices, because back in her community, nearly every decision was made for her. She was still being tutored in preparation of earning her GED. 

The difference between them becomes a powerful visual motif in the film, as Anna continues to wear the long baggy dress prescribed by the Amish, continues to wear her hair long and hanging down, is shown doing household chores with an incredibly hang-dog manner and posture, and ultimately — Wiser clearly intends it to be a surprise but it isn’t, really — returns to the Amish. I suppose I react to material like this somewhat differently from others because of my general skepticism towards all religion, and especially towards religions that demand total submission to authority and deny that humans either can or should think for themselves; I got a cold chill when I heard one of the Amish (who appear in the program only as disembodied voices since the Amish — or at least the ones Wiser interviewed — were allowed to be tape-recorded but not to be shown visually on camera being interviewed) use the word “submission,” and I couldn’t help but recall the literal meaning of the term “Islam” is the Arabic for “submission”  (though Faris Kermani’s and Ziauddin Sadar’s recent PBS documentary Life of Muhammad rendered the word as “surrender,” not that that’s much better) — though not all religious people behave that way, in just about every religious tradition there’s a tendency to tell the members essentially to turn off their intellects and just “believe.” This is especially an issue with a group like the Amish, who for all their good points (their general placidity, contentment, freedom from the angst-inducing rat race of contemporary “civilization” and commitment to a slower, more pastoral and far more environmentally sound and conscious lifestyle than the one most Americans live — including yours truly, who’s writing this on a computer that’s also playing him digital dubbings of 1920’s dance records, and will be posting it on the elaborate electronic infrastructure called the Internet, powered mostly by fossil fuels, so you can read it) certainly act like more recent cults, which underscores the sour joke I once made when Charles asked me what I thought the difference was between a religion and a cult and I said, “About 100 years.” I was only being half-joking; later I clarified that one of my benchmarks was whether the spiritual movement survives the death of its founder — as Mormonism, Christian Science and (much to my surprise, since I didn’t expect it to) Scientology have done.