A life divided

Author writes of Amish childhood, leaving community

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Saloma Furlong has lived two lives.

At 56, she works, writes, travels and spends time with her husband, David, at their home in Vermont. Together they raised two boys and now they travel the country on book tours.

For the first half of her life, though, as a child and young adult, she lived in an Amish community in Ohio with a father who suffered from mental illness and was abusive and a mother who failed to stop the abuse.

She left that life twice. The first time for just four months before a vanload of people from her community came to bring her back into the fold The second time it was for good.

“The first time I left I was really leaving my family more than I was my community, although they were so intertwined that you can’t really separate them out,” Furlong says. “My community was not able to help out with my family situation. A lot of Amish communities don’t recognize that there may be a psychological underpinning to deviant, so they try to treat everything through the church. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and in my father’s case it only made it worse.”

She has written her story in two books: “Why I Left the Amish,” which she said tells the beginning of her story, and now a followup, “Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds.”

The first, published in 2011, details the events leading up to Furlong’s first “escape,” when she left her family situation at age 20. She fled her home in Ohio and headed for Vermont (she had learned about the New England states in seventh grade and fell in love with the region, particularly Vermont). She’d never visited the state, knew no one there, but quickly made it her home.

She found a job cleaning houses, then in restaurant kitchens and finally waiting tables in a Pizza Hut.

“Waitressing to me was almost glamorous compared to cleaning house at that time,” Furlong said. “I didn’t know much about myself or this new world to know that I could reach higher than that, I could do more.”

She developed a social life and met a man, a toymaker, named David. They dated for several weeks until the vanload of Amish came to retrieve her. She returned with the group, and it was another three years before she decided to leave again.

David, meanwhile, waited for her. He sent her letters and, despite her continued rejection, he persisted. The two were reunited after she left for the second time.

The first book recounts her desperation to leave an abusive home. The second — “Bonnet Springs” — tells the story of a woman divided between two worlds — one steeped in tradition and community and the other in which she is free to grow and become educated and develop a sense of self.

She has now lived more than half her life outside the Amish community, but said there are still memories and traditions that bring pangs of nostalgia. Her life now, she said, is “a funny mix of the two worlds.”

“There are certain things that can really trigger the memories of being in the Amish community. Amish singing, that can trigger me into nostalgia more than anything else,” she said. “The Amish church singing is almost like a Gregorian chant, each word gets drawn out. It used to put me in almost a trance.”

Though she left to find her own sense of self, the sense of community she felt in the Amish community is something she’s not felt since leaving.

“The feeling of togetherness in the community is just overwhelming,” she said. “When I went back for my father’s and then my mother’s funerals, it was amazing to me how everyone just did their part and knew their part. That kind of togetherness in a community is something just not found anywhere else. That’s something I miss, I don’t think those memories will ever go away.”

Now she feels like she has lived two lifetimes in one span, she said. First Amish, now English (English is the word the Amish use to characterize everyone outside their community).

“It’s really hard to find a connection between the two worlds,” Furlong said. “Back when I was still Amish I used to be told over and over that you cannot have It both ways, either you are Amish or you are not, you cannot have it both ways. That’s really the opposite of what is taught in the mainstream culture: All you have to do is want it badly enough.”

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