When Emma Gingerich left her Amish community in Eagleville, Missouri, she was 18 and had an eighth-grade education. The life that awaited most Amish women—one of cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing—never appealed to her.
She wanted an education and the freedom to choose her own path. She grew up without light bulbs, but she met her boyfriend of seven months on Plenty of Fish. When people ask where she’s from, she responds, wryly, “Missouri.”Apparently Emma is not the only Amish person lured by a freer, more connected life. I googled my grandfather and I found information about him that I just couldn’t believe. Apparently, he was accused of doing some bad stuff, but the law couldn’t do anything about it because he was Amish.
When she voiced her feelings to a family friend, he snuck her the phone number of an ex-Amish woman who would help with her escape. The rapid pace of technology, she says, is forcing the Amish community to grapple with big, existential questions like it never has before. They don’t use it, but I guess there's been so many people leaving and then going back home, so they're becoming more familiar with it. Khazan: What did you think of it when your GED program first said, here's this system of web pages where you can look up anything? I found a picture of him on the Internet and I just thought, I can’t believe he’s my grandfather.
One cold January day in 2006, at in the afternoon, Emma took off her bonnet and walked out the door of her family’s small farmhouse. Now living in a suburb of Dallas, Emma blends in well. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows. I didn't know how to use it but I figured it out when the time came. I was in shock for days after I found that on the Internet.
She left a note for her parents: The life she found could not be more different. Accustomed to making supper for her family of 16, she learned to cook for one. She wears brightly colored blouses and a full face of makeup. Olga Khazan: What technology were you already using when you left? Another person that had been Amish and had left gave me the cellphone. Khazan: How did you figure out how to use it when the time came? Gingerich: I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to hear anybody because I had never talked to somebody on the phone. That encouraged me to look more and more and more, to see if there was more stuff out there about my family that I don’t know about. Gingerich: He was accused of sleeping with his daughters.
Gingerich: I just dialed a number and figured out what button to push to make it call out. [I thought], “ All kinds of things were going through my head. Khazan: How did that affect you, seeing information about your granddad on the Internet? Some of them do have a phone outside the house in a little shack. The thing is, if people do split off to a more a liberal church, the ones that stay, family members are divided, even. Gingerich: The family that I stayed with in Missouri for a few days, they knew the people in Harlingen, so they got me in touch.
Khazan: The concept of phones, you were familiar with that? But after it was done, I felt pretty good about it, that I had accomplished it. I enjoy looking at different hashtags on Instagram and looking at pictures from all around the world. Gingerich: What got me the most was that my parents never talked to us about stuff like that. And that causes problems when there is a wedding, for example, because then some of the family members are not included as much in the wedding party as they would have been if they had stayed. Khazan: So you didn’t know English when you left, really?
Gingerich: Yes, I really didn’t think that I would ever do that.
After I moved to Stephenville, a friend of mine, we started talking about guys, girl-talk stuff, and we both made a Plenty of Fish profile. Because we were talking to so many different guys on there, we just enjoyed it, it was our girl time. That was maybe four years ago, so I would have been 23. Several years later, I had met somebody at work, but we broke up.And then I got back on Plenty of Fish and [eventually] met my boyfriend. One thing that me and my boyfriend are doing is we don’t text much at all.Khazan: Some people think social media is making us lonely. He’s big on talking face-to-face or calling on the phone, which I really like.Khazan: Who picked up on the other end when you called? A lady that picked me up from the little town, the day that I left. Khazan: Where did you get your first non-Amish outfit? Khazan: Do you remember the first time you went on the Internet? I had no idea that my grandfather was such a horrible person. Gingerich: Because three of his sisters left, and I’m thinking it was all because of their dad. The people have a choice of staying where they’re at now or they can leave and join a different church, with less rules, I guess. Gingerich: Freedom to be able to go work outside the community, to be able to use a driver to go to work instead of horse and buggy. Gingerich: I had a difficult time speaking English, mainly because I was scared of what I was saying.Gingerich: Some people donated clothes, which were way too big for me, to start with. I went to a thrift store first, because I didn’t have much money. Gingerich: I wanted to learn how to type, so I pulled up a Word document. I always wanted to be one of those people who didn't have to look at the keyboard. Gingerich: I started taking GED classes four or five months after I left. Khazan: What are some of your favorite websites now? I didn’t like him ever, while we were growing up, I hated going to his house because he was such a mean guy, but after I read some of that stuff, I thought, “Wow, no wonder my dad is so upset that I left.”I almost felt sorry for my dad at that point, because I think he probably blamed himself for not being able to keep me there. And my dad was not near the horrible person that his dad was, so he probably just couldn’t understand why I wanted to leave. I can just say what I think it is: Some people want a different lifestyle. And then there’s people who say, “No you can’t do that, that’s wrong,” and then they shun people. Khazan: So the thing that people want that’s different is more freedom? Worrying that I was saying something wrong, worrying that people wouldn’t understand me and I would have to repeat it. Gingerich: I don’t think it really hit me until I started my bachelor’s degree. I would wake up the next day and feel like, what was I crying about again? Khazan: Has technology ever failed you in a certain way?I was practicing the letters, and I couldn’t figure out why some of them are big and some of them are little and why aren't they all the same size? I thought I had to hit caps lock every time I wanted a big letter. Khazan: You said that there are more people leaving now and coming back. Khazan: How long did it take for you to get better? I felt comfortable right as I was graduating with my associate’s degree. There were a few times I would call a friend, bawling my eyes out, saying I’m going to quit, I can’t get through this any more, because of homework and trying to figure out APA-style formatting. There were a few times where I thought, “Why am I doing this? Khazan: What do people who didn’t grow up Amish not appreciate enough, in your view? Gingerich: When the Internet is not working, I lose it. I went to Nepal last year for a mission trip and over there, at first it felt great to be able to be away from technology.