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.
When Mary's brothers began raping her, she turned to her mother again. Sally scolded the boys and gave them what Eli described as a light "mother's tap." She also gave them an herb that she hoped would reduce their sex drives. When the abuse resumed and Mary went back to her mother, she said Sally responded, "You don't fight hard enough and you don't pray hard enough."
"The boys were doing bad things and the mother knew," Kathryn said. "What mother would allow that to happen in her house?" And yet, it happened in her house as well.
When I knocked on her screen door on a recent autumn afternoon, Kathryn was boiling two large pots of water for her husband Raymond's bath. His white shirt hung near the wood-burning stove, along with his spare straw hat. Raymond was out doing carpentry work. Kathryn tied on a black bonnet as she came to answer the door.
I had already encountered Kathryn in court documents. This was the mother who had tried to shield her husband from prosecution, after the boyfriend of one of her three daughters reported to the Ohio police that Raymond was molesting two of the girls. The abuse began when the older girl was 5 or 6; it lasted more than a decade, and included repeated rapes. (The girl grew up in Pennsylvania near Mary Byler, and told Mary that her father was raping her.)
"I may have been to blame, too," Kathryn Byler said in court at her husband's sentencing in December 1998. In earlier interviews with detectives, Byler faulted herself for failing to sexually satisfy her husband. Like Sally, she talked about administering an herbal remedy to reduce his sex drive. "She knew what was going on. It was almost, 'Take my daughter by the hand and let's go to the barn,' " said Sergeant Paul Mills, who helped investigate the case. " 'So sayeth her husband,' and whatever he says is the way it has to be."
While we talked, Kathryn sat in a rocking chair, which she'd polished to a high shine. She wore metal-frame glasses and a dark green dress, pinned together because her church doesn't allow zippers. Beneath her black bonnet, her face was plain and open. As her religion dictates, she wore no makeup or jewelry. Though she was afraid to talk and spoke softly, fear didn't stop the words from rushing out of her. It felt good, she said as she settled into her chair.
Kathryn doesn't see her husband as a bad man. She smiled when she showed me a picture of a lighthouse that Raymond had painted, and she praised him for coming home early that day to help can tomatoes. Still, he has a nasty temper. Kathryn hates the foosball table that sits in the middle of her living room, an eyesore of miniature yellow and black men that was a gift from an English friend. But she has stopped asking Raymond to take it away. When he gets upset, he shouts, and then she cries. She has learned to be careful with him.
Years before his arrest, Raymond confessed to molesting one of his daughters and, as Kathryn put it, "made things right in church." Kathryn said that she believed he had stopped the abuse, though when her husband sent her out of the house on errands, a part of her wondered. "I knew he wanted me to go away a lot, but I trusted him," she said. "I guess I trusted him too far."
When their trust is betrayed, women like Kathryn and Sally see themselves as having little recourse. In 1996, Sally remarried a man named William Kempf, whom she'd met on a bus ride. The cabinetmaker, who is now 78, had a mean streak, and he took to hitting Sally, Mary, and Mary's younger half-sister. "Sally lived eight miles from the nearest police station," Sally's lawyer, Russell Hanson, said to explain why his client, who declined to be interviewed, didn't report her sons. "I was told by one of the elders that women are not permitted to take their horses to town."
Yet in a shed one door down from the Kempfs' house sits a white phone. It's registered in an English neighbor's name but is used by the Amish. Sally didn't call the police because she'd been taught to defer to the men in her household, even if they were her sons, and because she belongs to a community that believes the greater threat comes from without, not within.
Kathryn, for her part, has borne her husband six children. Four older sons and daughters have left home-the oldest girl got married and the middle girl lives with her-but their mother works hard to take care of Raymond and the young son and daughter who still live with them. Even if the church allowed divorce, Kathryn wouldn't want one. She'd like Raymond to take medication to help calm his temper. He won't, though, so she takes pills to ease her own sadness. "We're supposed to forgive, but that's hard to do," Kathryn said. "The only way I can ever truly forgive him is when he dies. Those were our children, and look what he did."
Today, most of the church's 200,000 members live in the United States, and about half of them are in Pennsylvania and Ohio, concentrated in rural counties that are the heart of Amish country. There is a sameness to much of the region, with its white shingled homes, dark buggies, and repeating surnames.
As Donald Kraybill explains in his book The Amish and the State, there are two kingdoms in Amish theology: the kingdom of Christ, inhabited by the Amish, and the one in which everyone else lives. To maintain the boundary between the two worlds, the Amish hold themselves apart from the secular state as much as they can. In the mid-1900s, dozens of Amish fathers went to prison rather than agree to send their kids to public schools with non-Amish children. The community opened its own one-room schoolhouses, where the curricula ignored subjects like science and sex education. A woman who now lives near the Amish in Ohio's Guernsey County reports that many of her neighbors weren't taught that the earth was round. "A lot of Amish will tell you they don't want their kids to be educated," she said. "The more they know, the more apt they are to leave."
The Amish tightly circumscribe their world in other ways as well. For the most part, they don't file lawsuits, serve on juries, run for political office, or vote (despite Republican efforts to enlist them in the 2004 election). The bishop is the highest clergyman in the hierarchy of each church, and he oversees two ministers and a deacon. Men and women propose candidates for minister and deacon, and in most districts any man with two or three nominations is considered. The "elected" clergy is chosen according to a biblical method of casting lots: each man chooses from a pile of identical hymnals, and the one who chooses the book marked with a piece of paper bearing a verse from the Bible becomes a church leader.
The bishop, who is chosen the same way from a field of three ministers, has awesome authority. He interprets the Ordnung, the unwritten rules that govern each church district, stipulating everything from the size of a man's hat brim to the paint color on the outside of a house. When a church member violates the Ordnung, the bishop determines the punishment.
When she turned 17 three years ago, Mary Byler joined the church, as Amish adults must do. Johnny had stopped raping her when he got married in 1998. Mary thinks her new status as a church member protected her from Eli because it meant she had a duty to confess to fornication. She tried to forget what had happened with her brothers, but she couldn't. When she was 19, Mary sought succor from her minister, Sam Mast. As she stood awkwardly in his workshop, Mast said he saw that she was "heavy-hearted." But Mary couldn't bring herself to tell him what Johnny and Eli had done. Mast suggested that she confess her sins in church. "I said, 'Why don't you go to somebody and just empty it out?' " he told me recently.
To some degree, Johnny had confessed his own a few years earlier, when he was 21. But he admitted to fornication without saying that he had committed rape or that his victim had been his sister. The church elders didn't probe. Bishop Dan Miller listened to Johnny's confession, and later Mast gave him the letter Mary had written. But when I spoke with him, Miller said he had "no sense of what was going on." He didn't connect Johnny's confession with Mary's plea for help.
Johnny's punishment for his confessed sins lasted two weeks. During that period, he was shunned, the traditional Amish punishment for serious transgressions. As if sin were contagious, the community erects a metaphorical fence around the sinner. Johnny wasn't allowed to leave his home except to attend church. After his punishment, he returned to working in his harness shop. Mary's punishment, by contrast, lasts forever.
Mast took a break from hammering in his workshop to explain the concept of excommunication to me. When Mary left her home, she broke her vow to uphold the Ordnung. The Amish believe that anyone who breaks that vow is damned and must be shunned. Church members may talk to her only to admonish her to repent and return, Mast said. He stroked his full beard as he struggled for the right English words. "We would tell Mary that we think she done wrong and tell her to come back," he said. "We couldn't take her word for anything. We would have nothing to do with her."
As for Mary's brothers, Miller declared that Johnny and Eli would be shunned for periods of four and six weeks. "They told us they wanted to quit and were sorry about what happened," the minister said.
In the shadow of a peeling white house in Guernsey Couny, Ohio, sits a rusty shed. Its wooden door had swung open on an afternoon in October, revealing black letters that spelled out the name N-O-R-M-A-N B-Y-L-E-R.
Aware of her father's problem, Norman's youngest daughter "went to great lengths to make sure he wasn't alone" with kids, said his public defender, Diane Menashe. In 1995, the daughter and her husband, Tobie Yoder, let Norman move onto their property. Four years later, the Yoders discovered that Norman was molesting three of his granddaughters, ages 3, 5, and 8.
Tobie went to Bishop Moses Miller and the elders in his Swartzentruber district. That denomination falls on the most restrictive end of the spectrum from Old Order to New Order Amish. (The New Order allows brighter colored clothing and more modern appliances.) Bishops like Miller actively police their congregations. The sins multiply quickly. Driving a car, using a tractor, masturbating, and drinking alcohol can all trigger the maximum six-week ban. (At the same time, some Swartzentrubers make allowances, like permitting tobacco and "bed courtship": On Saturday nights in Moses Miller's district, teenage boys are allowed to steal into the rooms of girls their age. The teens are supposed to keep their clothes on, but the boy isn't expected to leave until milking time the next morning. Many parents encourage bed courtship because it often leads to early marriages, which make young people less likely to leave the church.)
Moses Miller responded to Tobie Yoder's appeal by scolding Norman, who told him that in molesting his granddaughters, he was acting "no different than the cows in the field." Norman was shunned for six weeks. But he remained out of control, so volatile that adults in the area feared for their safety. Eventually Bishop Miller took the unusual step of allowing Yoder to take his father-in-law to a hospital.
Despite Norman's recurring problems, other bishops say they would not have made the decision that Miller did. "We have to deal with the sin if it's once, twice, or thrice," said Chris Kauffman, the most respected bishop in the Mt. Gilead area of Ohio's Morrow County.
Yet Levi Schwartz, who lives in Mt. Gilead, said the church's reliance on repentance failed him. "Sometimes I went into the bedroom and cried because of my sin," he recalled. In 1989 Schwartz started molesting one of his daughters. He kissed the girl, rubbed her, and bared himself to her until she grew old enough to date, and then he moved on to her younger sister. On a late fall night in his cavernous living room, the 52-year-old, who has since left the Amish, talked about his past with unnerving ease while one of the daughters he molested sat on a nearby couch. "I confessed in church a number of times," Schwartz said. "I wanted to be clean, so I took it to the ministers. I thought that would give me grace, and the power to overcome it."
Schwartz said his bishop, Eli Raber, discouraged Schwartz's sporadic attempts to get counseling. (Raber declined to comment.) In 1994, Schwartz's son Benjamin began touching his sisters; he confessed in church and was shunned for two weeks. Levi Schwartz, however, was losing faith in the church's method of punishment. After one of his daughters started crying while he was molesting her, Schwartz checked himself into Oaklawn Psychiatric Hospital in Indiana. He asked the girl to pray for him, and she did.
When Norman Byler's family sent him to Mercy Medical Center in Ohio, he received a week of counseling and was given antipsychotic medication and antidepressants, which he burned instead of taking. Still, Yoder believes the "doctoring" helped his father-in-law. "I felt like we had him half decent under control," he said.
But pedophilia is a hard disease to treat. Deborah Love, an English neighbor who lived next to the Yoders, saw Norman take his 3-year-old granddaughter into his woodshed on a fall day in 1999. She knew that one of Norman's daughters had recently moved her family to Iowa after saying that Norman had asked to sleep with one of her girls. "He was with me enough. He wasn't going to be with my daughter," Love said the woman told her.
A day after Norman took the 3-year-old into his shed, Love noticed some dried blood on the girl's leg. She called Guernsey County Children's Services. The Amish accused Love of lying, and she said she has felt their anger. When some of the men passed her house, they raised their hats and turned them sideways to avoid looking at her. Love's husband said that one young Amish man warned him during hunting season that, "Accidents do happen, so you'd better be careful." In the spring of 2000, the Loves moved out of the neighborhood.
Last March, a detective in Wisconsin phoned trooper Janice Wilson to tell her about statements that Mary and her family had made about rampant incest in the Amish community in which they grew up. That community is in New Wilmington, Pa., near where Wilson works. When she started investigating, she was stunned to hear reports of extensive sexual abuse, and of births resulting from incest.
Amish insiders say the problem is so common that a bishop in the area has preached against it. Johnny Byler said that, growing up in Lawrence County, he thought it was normal to have sex with his sister. "Other kids would talk about it," Johnny said. When I asked Mary's cousin, David Wengerd, whether he had molested his sister in addition to Mary, as Mary has charged, he responded, "I'd rather not answer."
When the police identify a perpetrator, however, their work in one sense becomes easy. The Amish ethic of confession extends to answering questions asked by outsiders. With little prompting from the detectives who questioned him, Norman Byler admitted to manually penetrating his 8-year-old granddaughter. He said that he hurt the child to get back at her father, who had refused to take Norman to the hospital to treat a torn muscle. (Most Swartzentrubers resort to Western medicine only in emergencies.) Raymond Byler, Levi and Benjamin Schwartz, and Johnny, Eli, and David Byler confessed with similar readiness.
Johnny and Eli were each charged with five counts of sexual assault and pleaded guilty, to two counts and one count, respectively. David pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting his little sister. In September, a month before his sentencing, Johnny said he sometimes felt suicidal and couldn't understand why he might go to prison. "Johnny thinks, 'I did a terrible thing but I've tried to make it right,' " said Jack Buswell, his attorney. "He feels let down."
Yet the confessions of Johnny and other Amish offenders haven't elicited heavy penalties. Levi Schwartz got probation and his son has not been prosecuted. The district attorney in Lawrence County said he had not decided whether to prosecute Mary's cousins, Chris and David Wengerd. Raymond Byler was sentenced to four years, even though the judge in his case found that he posed "the greatest likelihood of recidivism." Norman Byler faced a maximum penalty of 25 years in jail, but prosecutor Keith Plummer recommended that he serve no time beyond the two years he had waited to go on trial. The judge set aside the plea, saying he was unwilling to countenance such leniency for an offender who had shown "no genuine remorse." Norman was sentenced to five years; before his release last month, he wrote to the Yoders to say he wanted to come home.
The relatively light sentences meted out to these men stand out at a time when sex offenders are punished with increasing harshness. The fear that many pedophiliacs can't be stopped has led Congress to lengthen sentences for child sex offenders and has persuaded some states to use involuntary civil commitment laws to keep them behind bars indefinitely. Why did these Amish, by contrast, receive only mercy?
District attorneys and judges appear to be quick to forgive in the counties that have the largest Amish populations. The 92,000 Amish who live in Ohio and Pennsylvania generate hundreds of millions in annual tourism revenue. Brent Yager, who prosecuted Levi Schwartz, would never say that he spared Schwartz to protect the appeal of Pennsylvania Dutch country. But prosecutors and judges are as steeped in the myth of the Gentle People as anyone. "Is Schwartz getting a break because he's Amish?" Yager said. "In some ways, yes. Is he going to reoffend? I don't think so."
In Wisconsin, where only 10,000 Amish live, Timothy Gaskell took a harder line in prosecuting Johnny, Eli, and David Byler. Gaskell also brought misdemeanor charges against Mary's stepfather, for beating her, and against Sally, for failing to report the abuse of her daughter. As a result of Gaskell's efforts, the Kempfs were put on probation, David got a four-year prison sentence, and Eli got eight years in prison. Johnny, however, was ordered to spend one year at the county jail, and mostly at night. During the day, the judge said, he could work to keep his farm running. A crowd of 150 Amish turned out to support Johnny at his sentencing.
It is hard to think of Mary Byler as lucky, but in one respect she was: The state responded when she asked for help. Anna Slabaugh has a different story. Anna, who is the eighth of nine children, remembers reading books with her mother as a child. Fannie Slabaugh taught school when Anna was young, and though reading books was strongly discouraged by the family's Swartzentruber district, she couldn't bear to get rid of the books she had found in an abandoned schoolhouse.
Maybe it was the Nancy Drew mysteries, but Anna never felt she belonged with the Swartzentrubers. She got upset when her father cut off the tails of the pigs or pulled out the horns of the goats. She liked to draw, which violated the Ordnung. And she didn't like the constant dimness: The church allowed only kerosene, which gives off less light than gas, and candles had to be kept at a low glow.
Whether for wearing her cap too far back on her head or for "acting around" in church, Anna was often in trouble. Her father was in poor health, because he refused to take insulin for his diabetes, but he knew how to give a good beating. Sometimes he used the strap, a foot-long piece of rubber common in Amish homes; at other times, he took Anna "to the woodpile" and hit her with a piece of wood.
When Anna turned 11, she told me, her 19-year-old brother began molesting her, stopping just short of intercourse. When he moved away, another 17-year-old brother started raping her. (The court documents involving Anna's family are sealed.) Anna didn't try to stop her brothers at first. "You don't tell your brothers, who are so much older than you, No," she said. But when she got her period at 13 and realized she could have a baby, she started fighting back. "He would make sure he put a lot of pressure on my top so I couldn't breathe," she said of the younger brother.
Anna wanted help, but she didn't think she would get it from her church. So she began dropping hints about the abuse to English neighbors. When they didn't pick up on her cues, she got bolder. In 2001, while cleaning house for her family's landlord, Anna used the phone to call a battered women's shelter in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. The counselors on the other end of the line didn't take her seriously. But after a month of calls, the shelter alerted Children and Family Services Division of Knox County.
When a social worker visited Anna's home, Anna told her about the sexual abuse. She also reported that her parents were moving the family to Pennsylvania. Laurie Roberts, one of the social workers on Anna's case in Ohio, said she was taught in training that sexual abuse among the Amish is pervasive, and seldom reported. (The problem is significant enough that the counties near Knox publish a pamphlet to educate the Amish about sexual abuse.) Yet the county left Anna in her home. "Oh Gosh, I wish I could get it in those C.S. people that my parents will absolutely kill me now," Anna wrote at the time to a cousin who had left the Amish. The social workers "say you'll have to be hurt by them before we'll do anything about it," she continued.
When Fannie found out about the CYS visit, she and Anna went with 13 other kids to the home of John Yoder, an Amish dentist who lived an hour and a half away in the town of Punxsutawney. Yoder's living room had a recliner with a tin pan and some needles next to it. Anna watched as the other kids each had one or two bad teeth pulled. When it was her turn, Yoder shot some novocaine into her upper gum. She shook her head and told him that two of her lower teeth had cavities. He shot the lower gum, and asked Fannie which teeth should go. Anna's mother answered, "Take them all," and Yoder pulled-along the upper gum, along the lower gum, until every tooth was gone. "After he had pulled the last tooth," Anna remembered, "my mom looked at me and said, 'I guess you won't be talking anymore.' "
Anna bled for three days. Her family ignored her, except to periodically hand her a drink. She couldn't talk, but that didn't matter, because Anna had nothing left to say. At church, she looked away when other kids pointed at her mouth. Fannie Slabaugh told me that Anna had asked for her teeth to be pulled. But the detective who investigated the case, Trooper Michael Pisarchic, said that the other kids who went with Anna to see Yoder said that Anna was being punished. Meanwhile, CYS was continuing to investigate. A court date was set for the spring of 2002. The bishop in Anna's district, Moses Shettler, called Barbara Burke and asked her to testify that Anna had mental problems. Burke refused. On the Friday before Anna was scheduled to appear in court, soon after her teeth had been pulled, Shettler and a group of elders visited Anna's parents. Anna said her parents threatened two days later to take her out to the woodpile, or worse, unless she told her lawyer that she took back her accusations against her brothers. Stripped of faith in the state to protect her, Anna did as she was told.
Neither Anna's parents nor John Yoder were ever charged with abuse. The judge in Anna's case allowed the younger brother to remain under Amish supervision as long as he had no contact with Anna. But Anna said he returned home on the day of the hearing. "They don't believe it's any of our business," said Roberts, Anna's Ohio social worker, of the Amish attitude toward child abuse investigations. But it's the job of social workers, police, and prosecutors to make child abuse their business. The state's duty to push past the barriers thrown up by parents and the community can't hinge on the religion they practice. Its role becomes more essential, not less, when adults wall off children from the outside world.
While the authorities idled, Anna was being watched constantly. One of her chores was taking the family's horses out to pasture, within view of the house. On a morning in June when the animals seemed frisky, Anna clapped her hands. The horses scattered and she pretended to chase them, cutting across the field to a mailbox, where she dropped off a letter she'd written to Burke. "Are you still willing to help, or am I not welcome?" she wrote. "I need to get out of here." She asked Burke to put a message in a plastic bottle for her and leave it in a ditch by the mailbox. Two days later, Anna spooked the horses again, and a message was waiting. "Our arms are open to you and so are our doors," Burke promised.
Anna burned the note with a lighter and went home. It was her turn to make supper. She lit the stove, began heating water, and sat down to write a letter to her family. The sun was falling when she finished. Anna climbed out of the kitchen window and ran.
When Mary Byler left home, she threw her white cap onto Sam Mast's driveway and screeched off in the car of a woman who took her in. In the two years since, Mary has driven by her mother's house a few times in a black Grand Prix. "If Mary wants to get away," Sally asked Eli's lawyer, Greg Lunde, "why does she keep coming back?"
When I caught up with Mary, six months after she left the Amish, she insisted that her mother and her brothers were dead to her. But in the kitchen of the spotless trailer she rents next to Wisconsin's La Crosse River, she couldn't stop talking about them. Cracking eggs into a mixing bowl to make sugar cookies-never mind that it was after midnight-she dwelt on how much Johnny, Eli, and David loved her baking.
Though Mary can't quite leave her family behind, she ran from the church and didn't look back. She pierced her ears last March, earned a GED in April, and got a driver's license in May. A friend bought her the Grand Prix, and Mary paid him back on the $8-an-hour salary she earns cleaning a hospital in La Crosse.
Mary took me out to her car to play a Loretta Lynn cassette. Dressed in shorts and a tight pink T-shirt with a white angel on the front, she shifted a Doral cigarette from her right hand to her left so that she could jab more effectively at the seek button on the car stereo. She was looking for one song: "Hey, Loretta." When it started, Mary jerked her head to the beat. "Goodbye tub and clothesline, goodbye pots an' pans," she belted out, flinging her hair and pounding her right leg. Her nails painted a matching pink and a silver necklace hanging from her neck, Mary didn't care how many Ordnung rules she was breaking. She was drunk on freedom.