Amish escapee tells of sheltered life and incest

  • 20/08/2018

When Emma Gingerich was 18 years old she ran away from her strict, German-speaking Amish community in Missouri, leaving behind her parents, 13 siblings, and a single note.

The Amish are a strict traditionalist Christian community closely related to the Mennonite sect, who are extremely community and family-oriented. They are known for their simple living, plain dress, and reluctance to adopt modern technology. 

Over the past 12 years, Ms Gingerich has discovered a completely different life, learning English and world history, getting a degree, starting a Facebook page, and even publishing a book, 'Runaway Amish Girl: The Great Escape'.

Ms Gingerich told the AM Show the life was very sheltered, and while there were aspects of it she liked, there were other aspects such as incest and criminal behaviour that cast a shadow over the community.

"The day that I left I wrote a little note and told my parents that I was going to go find something else, that I wasn't happy at home. I left it on the table and walked out the door and down the road, four miles until I got to a little town where I had somebody pick me up. My parents weren't home at the time."

When Ms Gingerich left, she left with one thing - the phone number of another woman who'd fled her community.

"I made that phone call and it was the first time I made a phone call in my entire life. It was intimidating to dial some numbers and not know who was going to pick up. But the lady who did come pick me up ended up being really nice and took me in for two weeks at her house."

She said prior to leaving, she'd had very little contact with the outside world.

"I was very naïve and I was sheltered a lot. The Amish women, at least where I grew up, were very secluded and stayed at home washing clothes and doing chores and cooking, feeding the younger siblings and making sure there's food on the table every day.

"Any communication with outside people was mainly to go buy some groceries at a grocery store, just little things like that."

Ms Gingerich said her parents were already suspicious of her before she left, and that she couldn't have gotten away if they had been home the day she left.

"I have gone back to visit them since I've left and tried to mend the relationship with them. I wanted them to accept me and I wanted to accept them but it hasn't gone too great, I'm still working on that.

"The first time that I visited, my parents were very, very angry with me and tried to tell me I was going to Hell if I didn't go back. They said I had been taken by the devil. They were angry and I was angry that they didn't understand why I wanted to leave."

In subsequent visits, she says her parents don't say those things to her anymore.

"I do love my parents. I love my brothers and sisters, I miss them, I care about them, but I've got to live the life that I think is right for me."

When she first left, she says she experienced a deep depression.

"Now, after 12 years, I'm a lot more emotionally stable, but the first few years the culture shock was way harder than I thought it would be. Getting into the lifestyle was harder and I didn't know much English, and then getting into school. But I never regretted leaving the Amish and now I'm really happy with the life that I have created for myself.

Ms Gingerich said the strangest thing she experienced in leaving was learning there is a president of the United States.

She also said she was terrified the first time she saw someone removing contact lenses. 

There are some aspects of the lifestyle she misses, but there are a lot of dark secrets within the community as well.

"The lifestyle's good; the farming, raising your own food, the work value is good, I enjoy that. But they hide a lot of bad things that happen in the community. The worst thing is incest, just criminal stuff that nobody talks about. They sweep it under the rug.

"If somebody commits something like that the church members will have somebody come to church and confess their sins and after six weeks they'll say 'well, don't do it anymore, you're forgiven' and things like that."

Now, Ms Gingerich goes to a non-denominational church and enjoys traveling and attending sports games and concerts.

She says she wouldn't go back to the Amish lifestyle, and hopes to be a beacon for others who may want to leave the community.

"I enjoy the life that I have now. If others want to leave that lifestyle I want to be there to help them, but I would never encourage somebody to leave the Amish if they weren't 100 per cent sure they wanted to do it."