Author to tell her Amish tale at Whittemore Library

Pictured at age 20, Saloma Furlong holds Scotty Bartholomew shortly before she left the Amish. - CONTRIBUTED

Since she left the Amish, many people have asked Saloma Furlong about her unusual name. The question often led to others about her native culture and why she left. Depending on the situation, the story could take several hours to explain.

“When I had told my story that many times, I realized that this touches many people,” Furlong said.

Her memoir, “Why I Left the Amish,” answers all those questions and gives outsiders a unique look into one girl’s experience growing up in a culture that just didn’t suit her.

Furlong will tell her story at the Howard Whittemore Memorial Library Aug. 31 at 6:30 p.m.

John Wiehn, head reference and programming librarian at the library, said books about the Amish have been very popular at the library. The fictional book “The Missing,” by Beverly Lewis has been a best seller.

“I think we’re going to fill the room downstairs,” he said.

In her book, Furlong frankly recalls abuses from her mentally-ill father and sometimes brutish brother as well as pleasant memories of picking apples with her sister and tapping maple trees on her family farm in Ohio.

Even though her experience growing up Amish was unique, Furlong said she felt there were enough elements in the story that people could relate to as a coming of age story about overcoming adversity in a dysfunctional family.

Furlong left the Amish for the first time when she was 20 years old.

When her father went from being depressed to becoming violent as she grew older, Furlong said she reached out to county social workers for help. However, the legal age in Ohio at that time was 21 and Furlong’s mother refused to support Furlong’s claims of abuse.

After she left the community, Furlong said her mother finally had to accept help for her father’s condition. It didn’t take long to figure out that her father needed medication.

“Once he was on medication, he was no longer violent,” Furlong said.

Furlong said her councilor told her that the success of her father’s treatment encouraged other people in her community to get counseling when they needed it.

Furlong escaped to the Young Women’s Christian Association in Vermont, but was soon scooped up by members of her community. Feeling she had no choice, Furlong went back to her Amish home, but left again at age 23 to be with her husband.

Because Amish don’t school their children past eighth grade, Furlong got her GED in 1981 and started attending Burlington College in Vermont. The arrival of her first son put her college aspirations on hold, but when her younger son was in high school, Furlong applied, and was accepted to the Ada Comstock program at Smith College. The program was designed for women who didn’t finish college at the traditional age. Furlong drove three hours each way every weekend between Massachusetts and Vermont and finally graduated in 2007.

“That was one of the most positive experiences of my life,” Furlong said.

If there was one thing she could change about Amish life, Furlong said higher education would be it.

“The Amish are actually limiting themselves now,” Furlong said.

Many Amish compete against others with high school and college degrees for factory work, she said.

After graduating from college, Furlong got a job in the German department of Amherst College, but left in March to promote her book full-time.

Although she has published a few short stories, “Why I Left the Amish” is Furlong’s first book.

“I may not have become a writer if it hadn’t been for the story that needed to be told,” Furlong said.

Furlong said she has always been an extravert and bad at keeping secrets, so telling her life story and struggles to strangers came naturally.

“It actually feels okay, because the stuff that I dealt with, the inner struggle and really personal stuff I dealt with through therapy. … By the time I worked through that, the rest of it is a piece of cake. … I don’t find it intimidating or too exposing, but I don’t think my siblings share that view,” Furlong said. “If I could have spared siblings more, I would have, but I couldn’t find a way to do that.”

Furlong’s four sisters also left the Amish while her two brothers stayed in the community.

Saloma Furlong pictured in 2010. - CONTRIBUTED BY KERSTIN MARTIN

She said her siblings knew she was writing the story and she sent them a copy as soon as the book was out for publication in 2009.

Furlong said her sister Sarah was looking forward to reading the book, but changed her attitude after reading it.

Since she published the book, Furlong said only one of her siblings will still talk to her. She said she wasn’t really surprised by her family’s reaction, and that her sisters tried to go around the process of healing from their abusive childhoods rather than working through it.

“This book thrust them into that whether they were ready for that or not. I have to have compassion for them because I remember what that was like. I hope they will seek some kind of help for working through it,” Furlong said.

Since her first book was published in January, Furlong said she is working on two more books about her personal struggles living with the Amish. Her second book, which she is co-writing with her husband, will focus on their relationship after she went back to the Amish. The third book will focus on Furlong’s complicated relationship with her mother, who passed away in 2005.

After over 40 book talks, Furlong said the response from the public has been tremendous.

“It’s been gratifying that people can really relate to the book from a lot of different aspects,” Furlong said.

She said some people try to defend the Amish.

“There are some people who really don’t like to have their sort of pristine view of the Amish complicated. … My story is about my life, which was not that pristine,” Furlong said.

However, Furlong said the Amish do have good qualities to teach others, such as a strong sense of community and work ethic. She said the Amish are also more self-sufficient.

“Their whole way of life is so steeped in tradition,” Furlong said. “They are much more deliberate about what technologies they’re going to adopt into their lives.”

Although she left the Amish many years ago, Furlong said she still integrates a lot of Amish ways of thinking into her life. She said her home is plain and her living room features a hand-braided rug that she made herself. Furlong said she still quilts once in a while, is handy with a sewing machine, and knows how to garden. She still tries to keep Sundays free as a day of rest.

In other ways, however, Furlong said she is very different from a good Amish woman.

“To be a good Amish woman, you have to submit to the man in the culture … and that was so hard for me to do,” Furlong said.

She said the Amish also use a metaphor that people must give up their individuality the same way a grain of wheat gives up its individuality to become part of a loaf of bread. Although in better circumstances, Furlong might have been part of a loaf of love, “I didn’t want to be ground up and put in to a mish-mash together,” she said.

Furlong said her mother was a strong, intelligent woman married to somebody who couldn’t manage. She kept constantly having to swallow a lot of people criticizing her for not being more submissive, yet she was the one who could be responsible as a parent. Others in the community blamed Furlong’s father’s loss of temper on the girls in his family.

“That wasn’t lost on us girls at all,” Furlong said.

Furlong said, according to the 2006 Amish directory to Geauga County where she grew up, her family is the only one in which all the women left and the boys stayed.

Out of 2,500 families in the community, 100 women and 75 men left, which is highly unusually.

In most Amish communities it is more common for men to leave than women, Furlong said.

Nationally, about only five to 10 percent of Amish leave their communities, Furlong said.

During all her conversations with people outside the Amish community, Furlong said the most common misconception is that Amish youth can run wild during Rumspringa, the period of adolescence before youth are formally accepted into the church.

In the popular view, children have a choice at that point as to whether they stay or leave the community.

However, Furlong said in her community, Rumspringa was basically a dating period where parents overlooked the occasional music, camera on the sly, alcohol, or buggy races. But parents and elders would look for signs that children were unsatisfied with the Amish way of life such as taking a college course or dating in an unusual way like going to a restaurant for dinner.

“It would tell them that the person was trying to change the culture,” Furlong said.

If that happened, elders, parents, and friends would hover over that person and pressure that person to join the church, Furlong said.

“It is about the furthest thing from a conscious choice that there can be,” she said.