Joe Mackall has lived a mile away from the Shetler family for more than 16 years, driving Mary, Samuel and their growing family of nine children to the doctor when needed, sharing the family’s grief over a child’s death, and gradually bridging the divide between his own “English” (non-Amish) culture and their insular world of farming and family. Such friendships are rare, particularly because the Shetlers are members of the most conservative Amish sect, the Swartzentrubers, who eschew even reflective “caution” signs for their buggies and the practice of rumspringa, popularized by the 2002 documentary, Devil’s Playground.

In his new book, a mixture of memoir and reportage, Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish, (Beacon Press: June 15, 2007,) Mackall invites readers into the Shetler family to consider what Mackall describes as the “holiness” and “horrors” of Swartzentruber life.

After the Shetler’s daughter, Sarah, dies of brain cancer, for example, Mackall writes of going to view the body, laid out on a simple board in her church clothes, with an elderly man holding a kerosene lamp over the girl’s face:

Whether it was the glow of the light or the play of the shadows, or the old Amish man’s wizened face, or the tears of strangers, or just that there were so many people huddled in a home to comfort two young parents, to commemorate a life and to commiserate over a life lost, I felt at that moment that there was something beautiful and holy at the center of Swartzentruber Amish life.

But when he’s driving in his car on a nearby road, coming upon a Swartzentruber buggy with two children playing the back, he is sickened to watch one child fall out the back of the buggy onto the asphalt. Mackall writes frankly about his sense of outrage:

Does God really care that you drive a buggy and I drive a car? Is sticking with your sacred buggies more important than the sanctity of human life? Can’t you take care of your children?

ReligionWriter spoke with Mackall this week about his decision to risk his friendship with the Shetlers to write this book; what he would do if a Shetler child left the Amish and sought his help; and how it feels to take a buggy ride to Home Depot.

ReligionWriter: You have such a deep and complex relationship with the Shetler family. Why did you decide to put the story into words and publish it?

Joe Mackall: I knew it was going to be complicated, all the way. I did not want to endanger my relationship with the Shetler family, or do them any harm. But it was one of those things where, 30 years from now, I would be scratching my head, saying, “Why didn’t you write that book?” Ultimately, it was impossible not to write, mainly because of how fascinating they are, and I knew I was getting a look inside that not many people have gotten. I could never live that way, and there are some horrors about living that way, but I also admire it tremendously. The Shetlers are also an exceptional family, whether they were Amish or English or whatever—just the kind of family you like to hang out with.

RW: At one point you ask Samuel to trust you as you write the book. Yet even you doubt whether you should be trusted, knowing that a book, once it’s published, can have a life of its own. Were there moments when you thought, “My relationship is him is too important; I can’t write this?”

Mackall: I didn’t talk to them about a writing book until knowing them for more than 10 years. Samuel knew I am a writer, and that I was very curious the community; I was always asking him a million annoying questions. After the manuscript was finished, before it went to the publisher, Samuel and Mary read it, and then the three of us sat down and talked about it. I ended up taking out two things, which I thought were pretty innocuous. The things I thought would be more incendiary, they didn’t have a problem with. But when Samuel [was elected by his community to become] a minister, that’s when I thought we were going to be in trouble. As a minister, everyone is watching him, including the bishop [who leads the community.] Samuel worked with me behind his bishop’s back. That’s not uncommon among the Amish I know: there’s a side shown to the bishop, and a side shown to everybody else. I don’t think it’s hypocritical; it’s the way you might behave with your boss, as opposed to when the boss is not there.

RW: In becoming close friends with you, let alone authorizing you to write a book about the Swartzentrubers, Samuel risked being officially “shunned” or otherwise reprimanded. Why did Samuel go along with you, when apparently so much was at stake for him?

Mackall: I still ask myself that question. When I pushed him, he gave me two reasons. One, it’s just because I was the one asking. Not because I’m such a great guy, but because they know me and trust me, and we’ve been through a lot together. Two, the Amish know the way they are portrayed in the “English” world, like the 20/20 story on abuse in the community. A lot of people in rural Ohio don’t like them, asking, you know, “Why are their horses sh-ing in the road?” Samuel said he was hoping my book would show the Amish in a good light. I told him I was going to have to show them in the light that I saw them.

RW: It seems surprising Samuel would have that media awareness. Why should the Amish care how people view them?

Mackall: They do have to be separate from the world. But it’s in their best interests not to have an antagonistic relationship with the world. A county could say: “No horse droppings on the road.” If English people wanted to make life miserable for the Amish, they could do it. They want to get along with the English world, even though they’re separate of it. Some of it, though, might be just a non-Amish, human need to see the group you belong to portrayed in a good light.

RW: You write about Jonas, Samuel’s 18-year-old nephew who leaves the Amish and faces a lot of hardship in the English world. If you’re ex-Amish, having a trusted English friend makes that transition so much easier. But that’s exactly what the Swartzentrubers doesn’t want: an easy transition.

Mackall: That’s why [Swartzentruber parents] are so afraid to have English friends. After a while, their kids might say, “If my parents like them, and they’re not Amish, then maybe you don’t have to be Amish to be good.” It’s such a tightly woven fabric, any time they let someone like me in, it’s not as strong as it was before I came.

RW: In the book you ask yourself, what would you do if one of the family’s daughters left the Amish and sought your help? What’s the answer to that question?

Mackall: I hope to God I’m not faced with that. It would be a horrible choice. But [if a Shelter child did leave the Amish, they] probably would come to us, because they’ve known us — most of them — for their entire lives. It would be hard for us to turn our backs on a Shetler.

RW: Given your 16-year relationship with the Shetlers, how did you narrow down which experiences to write about: for example, your description of you and Samuel riding the buggy to Home Depot?

Mackall: When I starting working on the book, I was at the Shetler’s farm morning noon and night. Samuel is constantly working, so you have to be at his side to interview him -  he’s not just going to sit down and talk to you. When I had an opportunity for a buggy ride, I jumped at it because I knew I’d have a captive audience.

RW: But going along with him in the buggy put you at risk.

Mackall: A buggy is a scary thing to ride in. When you’re on small road, at dusk, or in the fall, it can be just beautiful. But on bigger roads, with cars flying by; I imagined jumping out [in case I needed to save myself.] Buggies are no match for cars in an accident. I have full confidence in Samuel as driver, but there are just too many variables: the horse, the car, the noise, the buggy itself. It’s not an ideal way to travel. Maybe it was when everyone drove a buggy but not now, especially because the Swarteztruber won’t even put a reflective “Slow Moving Vehicle” sign on the back of their buggies.

RW: You critique the way Americans look at Amish, either reviling them as backwards or idealizing them. What was your impression of the coverage of the Amish school shooting?

Mackall: Most Americans — non-Amish people — were amazed at the ability of the Amish to accept what happened and forgive the killer. But that forgiveness is not exactly how we think of forgiveness. It’s more like they looked right through the tragedy to the fact that it was God’s will. Since it was God’s will, then of course they had to get close to the woman whose husband did it. Amish people don’t like to be on camera, and most news people didn’t seem to give that much thought. I thought growing up Catholic was tough;  the Amish have so many more rules, so an outsider is bound to step in the middle of that.

RW: Given that the Amish sometimes represent a lost rural past for Americans, it seems like some English would want to become Amish. Do they accept converts?

Mackall: They do. I could walk in there and say I wanted to be Amish, but I would have to go through probationary period for a couple of years before being baptized. Converts really have to prove that’s the life they want to live. It’s not like being a Hare Krishna — walking around an airport with flowers is a hell of a lot easier than becoming Amish. Forget the religious stuff: the day-to-day life is rough.

RW: Is Samuel going to appear with you at any publicity events?

Mackall: No, but that would be funny. He wants some deniability. I’ve given him a book already; I’m sure he’s hidden it in his house so no other Amish can see it. He’s probably gone as far as he’s going to go. And that’s farther than any other Swartzentruber has gone, unless they’ve left.

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