The Gentle People
Courts have permitted the Amish to live outside the law. But in some places, Amish women are sexually assaulted with no recourse
BY: Nadya Labi
When she wrote the letter that she hoped would protect her sister, Mary Byler was lying on a twin bed, surrounded by rainbow-colored walls and a sky-blue ceiling decorated with bright white clouds. A stereo sat on the floor beside her. There were no signs of the Amish upbringing she had left behind-no plain wood furniture or chamber pot. Nothing except a stuffed doll that had belonged to her 6-year-old sister. The little girl had put the doll's bonnet on backward.
Mary fingered her long brown hair as she thought of her sister. And she thought about her older brother, Johnny, and his refusal when she'd asked him to go to therapy the day before. She started writing. "When I was 4 years old, I was molested, when I was 6, I was sexually abused (rape) from then on till I was 17," the 19-year-old put down. "There was nothing I could do about this abuse as it was incest."
Mary gave the letter to a friend, who drove 30 minutes northwest of the house where Mary was staying in the Wisconsin town of Viroqua, past a couple of dirt roads, a string of red barns, and frozen cornfields. He waited until nearly midnight on a cold evening last February, and then put the letter in the mailbox at the white shingled home of Sam Mast, an Amish minister in the community where Mary's family lived during her teenage years.
Mary's father was killed in a buggy accident when she was 5; she remembers him pulling her onto his lap and fondling her at their home in the small town of Sugar Grove, Pa. After her father's death, Mary's family moved 100 miles south to New Wilmington, Pa., another small town, where the back roads are filled with brown buggies and white shingled homes. There, Mary's two older cousins and brothers began molesting her. Johnny told the police that his cousins encouraged him, "as far as breaking her in." (The cousins denied that, but admitted to molesting Mary.) By the time Mary was in her teens, she was being raped regularly by Johnny, who is seven years older, and her brother Eli, who is four years older. Once, Eli climbed on top of her while Johnny held her down.
There was no escape. Mary was grabbed in the bedroom, in the barn, in the outhouse, milking the cows in the morning, and on her way to school. "It did not matter how hard I tried to hide," Mary would explain in her letter to Mast, which she also sent to other Amish clergy. "If I ran upstairs to go to bed or to hide because I was at home with the boys, I'd be locking my door and turn around and there was someone crawling through my window. So my windows were always locked . . . Then they started taking off my door."
To the hordes of tourists who travel to Pennsylvania Dutch country each year to go to quilting bees and shop for crafts, the Gentle People, as the Amish are known, represent innocence. They are a people apart, removed in place and arrested in time. They reject the corruptions of modernity-the cars that have splintered American communities and the televisions that have riveted the country's youth. The Amish way of life is grounded in agriculture, hard work, and community. Its deliberate simplicity takes the form of horse-drawn buggies, clothes that could have come from a Vermeer painting, and a native German dialect infused with English words.
The myth of the Amish is amplified in movies like Witness and television shows like Amish in the City. It's also fed by a series of practices that reinforce the group's insularity. The Amish want to be left alone by the state-and to a remarkable extent, they are. They don't fight America's wars or, for the most part, contribute to Social Security. In 1972, noting their "excellent record as law-abiding and generally self-sufficient members of society," the Supreme Court allowed the Amish to take their children out of school after eighth grade.
The license the Amish have been granted rests on the trust that the community will police itself, with Amish bishops and ministers acting in lieu of law enforcement. Yet keeping order comes hard to church leaders. "The Amish see the force of law as contrary to the Christian spirit," said Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and an expert on the group. As a result, the Amish shy away from sending people to prison and the system of punishment of "the English," as the Amish call other Americans. Once a sinner has confessed, and his repentance has been deemed genuine, every member of the Amish community must forgive him.
This approach is rooted in the Amish notion of Gelassenheit, or submission. Church members abide by their clergymen; children obey their parents; sisters mind their brothers; and wives defer to their husbands (divorce is taboo). With each act of submission, the Amish follow the lesson of Jesus when he died on the cross rather than resist his adversaries.
But can a community govern itself by Jesus's teaching of mercy alone? It is sinful for the Amish to withhold forgiveness-so sinful that anyone who refers to a past misdeed after the Amish penalty for it has ended can be punished in the same manner as the original sinner. "That's a big thing in the Amish community," Mary said. "You have to forgive and forgive."
In some church districts, which encompass only two or three dozen families scattered along back roads, there appear to be many crimes like Johnny and Eli's to forgive. No statistics are available, but according to one Amish counselor who works with troubled church members across the Midwest, sexual abuse of children is "almost a plague in some communities." Some police forces and district attorneys do their best to step in, though they are rarely welcomed. Others are slow to investigate or quick to let off Amish offenders with light punishments. When that happens, girls like Mary are failed three times: by their families, their church, and their state.
Kathryn Byler, who counts Mary and her family as distant kin, lives more than 600 miles from them, in Morrow County, Ohio. The Amish don't own phones (some use them only for emergencies). Still, news gets around. Kathryn knew Mary's story.