Into Account is honored to have as colleagues, and to advocate for, a number of Plain and Amish people. And we’re especially honored to publish a Plain survivor’s story.
Plain survivors face many barriers, including people from outside their context claiming expertise and making recommendations on how to interact with survivors and their families.
Intro to Fannie Masts’s Story, Dr. Stephanie Krehbiel
In 2021, Child Welfare Journal published an article entitled “Understanding and Partnering with Amish Communities to Keep Children Safe.” The author, Dr. Jeanette Harder, writes, “Due to cultural expectations, the Amish are not often in the practice of critiquing or analyzing their own thoughts or behaviors, or thinking abstractly.”
I read that sentence, and thought of the many formerly Amish and Plain Mennonite survivors I’ve worked with, some of them as fellow advocates and collaborators, for the past four years. Their ability to think critically, to self-reflect, to apply a critical lens to their cultural background despite being deprived of anything resembling a real education–that ability saved their lives. It continues to save their lives.
And none of them would argue that they, or their brutal, violent stories, are exceptional within Plain communities.
If you know these formerly Amish and Plain advocates, you know their work. They don’t chase accolades. They don’t get invited to speak at academic conferences; they aren’t recognized as “experts” on the communities that have shunned them. Instead, they show up for women and children. When Plain “community leaders”–the very people Harder advocates prioritizing in outreach efforts–lead seminars on sexual abuse in which no women are allowed to speak, these advocates are there. Some of them wear head coverings; some of them wear heels and makeup; some of them have androgynous haircuts and genderqueer clothes. None of them are welcome. At least not by “community leaders,” they aren’t.
But they show up. Together. They don’t wait for the blessing of community leaders, because they know it’s never coming for survivors like them. And then they talk to the women. When the men aren’t listening, they teach them the English words for reproductive organs. They talk about what should happen at a gynecology appointment. They bring along booklets with photos of cloth Amish dolls to teach body parts. They bring along booklets with information about criminal acts.
They teach consent. That even the man you’re married to isn’t entitled to your body whenever he wants it. That even the man you’re married to isn’t entitled to the bodies of your children.
And they hear endless abuse stories. About fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, and occasionally mothers too. When the “community leaders” aren’t monitoring their words, survivors talk. They learn about the systems in place to help them; they learn that in the English world, their stories don’t need the approval of a male family member to be worthy of belief, resources, and meaningful support.
I have seen the gentleness of these women, their steadfast, patient presence with survivors trying to survive the chaos of losing everything, of being shunned for choosing their children over the authoritarian power of “community leaders.” I see their grief and fury at the way the most prominent scholarship on Plain people clings to utopian romance. There is no role for them in the “partnerships” that Harder argues are “the best effective way for child welfare to promote change.” For Plain survivors to have agency, they require support to defy male authorities. Yet survivors, especially those who would defy male authorities, have no discernable role in the model Harder presents to child welfare workers.
You can’t understand a cult if you’re too afraid to talk to the people who have left it.
You can’t disrupt a culture of abuse if you defer to its power structures.
You can’t prioritize the safety of children if you’re more concerned about preserving a culture that denigrates them.
You can’t understand Plain Anabaptism if you’re too afraid to talk to the shunned.
Fannie Mast is one of these survivors. Her name here is a pseudonym. Part of why we’re using a pseudonym here is that Plain people are taught to stalk and harass the people they shun, and Fannie has already had enough of that. The Canadian Mennonite writer Miriam Toews once referred to shunning as “murder without killing.” When you meet someone who has been shunned by a community of pacifists, know that this is what they have survived.
Alone, broken, scared of the darkness within me.
Terrified of the future.
Terrified to stay where I am.
My heart. What can I do? If I don’t move forward, I’m stuck here forever.
Can I trust the people who pledged to walk with me?
Can I trust them?
Will this make a difference?
Will it ever change anything?
(My therapist says that child rapists are rarely ever successfully rehabilitated.)
Everything is spinning in my brain.
Make it make sense.
What do I do?
Where do I go?
Who do I trust?
What is the truth?
Would God really allow this to happen?
A new phase of fear strikes my heart: what if I never see my loved ones again for a meal?
“Amish families love and cherish their children.” (Harder, 2021)
It’s been 18 years.
I haven’t eaten a single meal with my Amish loved ones.
I attempted to attend one funeral.
They surrounded me with 12 Amish men, stroking their beards, in their black mutza suits and the wide brimmed wool hats:
They attempted to separate me from the people I was there with. They pointed their finger at me and said: it’s your fault they went to prison and can’t be here today, so you, you don’t get to walk through and view him.
As if it was my fault that I was raped, repetitively, violently, no matter what I did. No matter where I sought assistance from, no one helped me.
And so today, I give myself a moment to grieve the loss of all I knew and held dear, my loved ones (I just wanted them to get help), my community, my knowledge of how to navigate life that was destroyed and rebuilt. The loss of any form of support from my people I cared about so deeply. Tears well up in my eyes as I write this.
“Parents may use objects in administering corporal punishment because they believe that hands are instruments of love.” (Harder, 2021)
How many children in that community alone have suffered abuse of all sorts and reached out for help with no meaningful support, education or change being implemented to prevent future abuse from happening?
What about removing access to future victims from abusers?
Have they done that?
Not for the abuser who threatened me the day I scampered out of the house as quickly as I could. I carefully put my goodbye letter to my family in my room and grabbed a few treasured items. I said goodbye to my sister, I ran into the waiting running van, and we took off. A quarter mile down the road, I put another letter in the mailbox of the minister. The letter that told him what really happened and that there were multiple child rapists in the congregation.
“The prevalence and characteristics of abuse and neglect among the Amish are not known. Similarly, little is known specifically about their strength and risk factors for abuse and neglect.” (Harder, 2021)
We walked into my helper’s house and the phone was ringing. I don’t remember if I answered the phone at first or not. I just remember the phone just ringing and ringing and ringing.
Walking upstairs with a person who out of their beautiful and kind heart gave me 2 pairs of jeans and some t-shirts.
I could finally change my clothes.
The clothes I was wearing felt really awful at this point.
My friend cut my hair and of course I had to do it, the thing we all do. Let’s have bangs!
I am back downstairs. It’s 11 pm and the phone is still ringing, going to voicemail, ringing and going to voicemail. I’m having a serious conversation with my helper. They cannot be calling her house like this.
We decide to say, do not call back and they do it anyway. Again. And again.
This is over 3 hours of repetitive nonstop calling after being told to not call this number.
We called the sheriff’s department. I’m now in front of the door.
The sheriff: let me see your ID
Me: what does that mean?
Sheriff: your form of identification
Sheriff: How old are you?
I don’t remember the rest of it. My helper explained to the sheriff that I don’t have ID. I won’t have ID until certain things happen.
Whew. I have no idea what would have happened, had my helper friend not explained this to the sheriff.
Laying in bed.
Attempting to sleep. Crying myself to sleep.
Waking up from nightmares.
My heart is pounding, my mind racing as I struggle to breathe.
I’m not back there. I tell myself.
Even today, I still sometimes wake up just like that, reassuring myself, I’m not back there. I’m as safe as I can be physically.
“Based on my engagements with Plain communities, the most effective way for child welfare to promote change is to gain trust and rapport with community leaders, provide them with information, and invite them to adapt and deliver the information to their communities.” (Harder, 2021)
The grief from being so cut off that no one will really bother to spend time with you unless they’re telling you to “return to the ways of thy youth”.
The sorrow that even now permeates every cell of my being as I write this.
How do I begin to describe how abusive, manipulative and harmful the practice of ban and meidung is?
My skin crawls. I wasn’t worthy then. I’m not worthy today. I sincerely doubt that I will ever be worthy of any seat at their tables. I wasn’t even worth the effort to actually do something that would have protected me from abusers. I was accused of things I didn’t do. I was labeled with so many unflattering things.
My own community showed up in droves for the abuser. My cousin attempted to have a non-consensual conversation with me after court, attempting to force me physically to remain.
“Families will involve extended family members and community leaders in decision-making. Workers should physically make room for these additional people, be accommodating with seeking consent for the involvement of others, and be respectful of hierarchies that may defer to males and elders.” (Harder, 2021)
The community also harassed me by constantly claiming for years that anything that happened around the community was me.
Example 1: someone’s cows got out, they called the sheriff’s department and claimed it was me.
Example 2: a car the same color as mine passed a buggy, they’d call and claim I was out there trying to run people off the road.
These things would be called in during times I was literally locked in the facility I was by then working at. (It was physically impossible for me to be out there in the community doing what the Amish community claimed). There was no possible way for me to actually be doing these things. The sheriff’s department ended up questioning someone who called me and questioned me about my whereabouts.
Literally all I did was go to work, work my shift and go home.
I moved again.
I moved out of state.
I don’t know if it still continues because I haven’t been back for long enough to know whether or not I’m still being a so-called menace to the community.
“It is important to not misinterpret their passive demeanor; due to cultural behaviors and norms, they will not likely have the language or courage to advocate for themselves.” (Harder, 2021)
The thing is, knowing what I know today, would I go back and do it all over again?
Yes, yes, I most certainly would.
I’d even hope I’d do it sooner. I’d hope that I’d do it quicker. I’d hope that I’d get it through my head quicker that people that only support perpetrators of abuse have a vested interest in silencing folks like me.
They will attempt to accomplish this at all costs. They will protect and preserve the “Amish” brand in a way that will benefit them.
It was never about them ever providing any form of safety for children.
“The Amish father (or another male family member, such as an uncle or grandfather) will be central to all discussions and decisions. The Amish mother will be unlikely to engage with the worker, both because of male/female roles as well as familiarity with the English language.” (Harder, 2021)
My breath catches, a tear falls, not my so-called mother. My heart shatters. That woman knew. She was told.
That I was being raped as a child.
She would take me with her places and not leave me home alone with the rapist(s) for a while, (where was my safety? The rapists would become more and more deviant the more they were monitored) and then one of my rapists would scream at her about this being unfair.
She’d leave me home with the rapists again.
I could run from the moment the buggy was hitched up, she’d slap the reins over the horse’s back, I’d run as fast as I could to my room, to lock the door.
When I finally was able to lock the door, I turned around and the rapist was climbing through the window.
When I locked my windows and never opened them and locked the door.
The rapist removed the door of my room.
There was no escape.
They made me responsible for my own safety as a child.
“The Amish place a high value on children as gifts from God and foster a close bond with their children; however, they are not likely to evidence this through displays of affection or emotion toward their children in the presence of non-Amish.” (Harder, 2021)
I didn’t know
I deserved to be treated better than this.
And here’s what I’d like to ask and tell the church leaders who think they can monitor child rapists safely around potential victims:
I was raped as a child repetitively over an approximately 14–15-year period and I told.
I can’t count how many times in the middle of the night a rapist would climb into my bed while I was sleeping, and he’d hold my mouth shut, as he violently and brutally raped me.
My room door had a lock on it. The lock did nothing to prevent me from being raped.
“Church leaders can be engaged to monitor offenders through their internal structures and crisis teams.” (Harder, 2021)
Church leadership, parents, family members, those of you patting yourselves on the back for “successfully” monitoring and helping offenders: Does that help you sleep at night?
Let me tell you the other side of the story. You are sleeping in your satisfaction and self-praise for saving the abuser’s soul, while one room over a child (sometimes an 8 year old) is being raped, with nowhere to turn, no support, no resources to begin processing the horror for when they ask for help. They are told to be silent about it, they are told they are not faithful enough, that they enticed someone to rape them. They are told to forgive, that maybe this is God’s way of punishing them for something. That if they truly prayed and had enough faith, this would have never happened.
What kind of a God would allow this to be the narrative for so many folks?
I’m not interested in worshiping a deity that condones any of that kind of behavior from the church leadership all the way down.
When someone tries to provide you with better information to prevent child sexual assault, especially when it comes to supporting the survivors of this, maybe you should sit your behind down on a backless wooden bench with no cushions and actually listen to the survivors instead of continuing to promote your own perceptions and the privileged, romanticized view of Amish.
If you find yourself getting uncomfortable receiving the information an Amish or plain survivor is giving you, that’s a huge indicator that you hold a romanticized view of Amish folks.
Do not dismiss the information. Pay attention. Listen to hear.
Liberation Day. The day I first wore jeans and a t-shirt. My bangs were cut. Whew, what a change.
At 2:30 am I gasped wide awake; a slight noise woke me. I got up, went and laid back down, read a little bit, wrote a bit. Now I’m just laying here with tears welling up in my eyes.
Oh, hey look, my heart feels shattered, broken, torn in two at the losses I wrote about above.
Then my mind goes to the love I know today from my chosen family and friends. My heart fills with so much love, it could burst all over again.