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Monday, February 7, 2011

Author Interviews - SALOMA FURLONG

Saloma Furlong, the author of WHY I LEFT THE AMISH, was kind enough to grant me an interview.  I reviewed Ms. Furlong's poignant memoir on October 28, 2010.  Ms. Furlong has also provided a "fresh off the presses" copy of her book for one lucky reader.  Please see the post above to enter for a chance to win her memoir.  You can read more about Saloma Furlong on her own blog, AboutAmish.  Saloma, thank you for giving me this opportunity.

Lynn:  When did you decide to write about your experience?

Saloma:  I cannot remember exactly when my writing went from journal writing to setting out to write a book, but I think it was about 16 years ago. Since then, the story has evolved many times, as have I. I tried selling the book about twelve years ago, but it was a completely different book back then. I'm glad it's had a chance to develop -- it is now a much better book.

Lynn:  I couldn't help but wonder how you got the courage to strike off on your own when you did after growing up in such a closed environment. Could you tell me what you thought your future would hold at that time? Did you have people you knew who could help you when you left the Amish community?

Saloma:  I had no idea what my future would hold, quite honestly. I only knew that something out there had to be better than the unbearable life that was mine. With my father's untreated mental illness, and the denial around all that, both on the part of my mother and the Amish community in general, I could tell there was no help in sight. Some may call it courage, but I call it desperation. When I got to the point to which I kept asking myself how my life outside the Amish could be any worse than the one I was living, it took some of the fear out of the unknown. In other words, my fear of the known was greater than it was of the unknown. I believe all of us can call on our inner strength when a situation gets bad enough -- and mine was. I took a risk when I was ready to leave and asked someone for help. Thankfully, that person did help me. She and her husband became angels along my journey, of which there were many. My journey would most likely have been very different without their help. I am currently writing a series on my blog called "Angels along My Way." The couple who helped me is part of that series.

Lynn:  Delving into a difficult past can be very painful. Did you find that writing your book was more difficult than you thought it would be when facing the reasons you left the Amish community?

Saloma:  There are several ways of delving into the past. Before I could even begin to write this book, I had to embark on a healing journey, which involved intense therapy for nearly five years with a grief counselor. I had so much grief to work through after leaving the Amish. I am talking about all the stages of grief -- the scariest one was the sadness. I sometimes felt there was no bottom to the pit of sadness. My counselor kept assuring me that there was a bottom, and that I would find it. She also kept telling me that sometimes the only way out is through. She was right about both. To avoid going to the hard places would only have buried the grief, which meant that I had to go "through," not "around." And I discovered that tears are a healing balm. Over those five years I probably cried a river of tears. But I did not get buried in sorrow, rather my tears allowed me to see the beautiful rainbow and I began to feel a whole range of emotions, not only those mired in sorrow. It was after going through this difficult time that I was able to look at my Amish life in a whole new way. I no longer felt that it was all bad, but rather I could see that the Amish life helped shape me into who I am today. It was only after going through this process that I was able to write about my experiences at all. The writing part was easy once I'd gone through the most intense part of my healing. I will be healing my whole life, but the hardest part was done when our two sons were little. I find writing such a wonderful way of expressing my full range of emotions. Once we've faced our demons, we have nothing more to fear.

Lynn:  Have any of your siblings or friends from that period in your life chosen to leave the community as you did?

Saloma:  All four of my sisters have left since I did, though my two brothers stayed. I understand that several of my friends have also left. I am hearing from some of them, who have heard of my book and have contacted me. So, the answer is that I don't know how many of my friends from that time have left, because I lost touch with them.

Lynn:  In your book you talk about the contact you've had with your Amish family in recent years. How were you able to reconcile with them and quite honestly, forgive them?

Saloma:  There are as many answers to that question as there are members of my family. Interesting that it was my father's violence that was the catalyst for me to leave the first time, yet I feel I've forgiven him more fully than I have my mother or my brother. The reason is Dad had a mental illness that was untreated at the time, and when help was offered from the county social workers, it was my mother who turned them down. After I left, the family did get help, and Dad's illness was treated. When he took his medication, he was no longer violent. For me, forgiveness comes easier when I can understand why the person did what he did, and even more so when that behavior changes. Both of these factors were true for my father. In the end I feel that I had as good a relationship with him as was possible. I am finding my relationship with my mother was much more complicated. I still do not understand why she did many of the things she did. Even though she is no longer alive, I still have a hard time understanding and fully forgiving her for everything. And in terms of forgiveness, my biggest challenge is my older brother. I just do not understand why or how he could do so many things that hurt so many people. I hope someday I will be able to fully forgive him for all the pain he caused me and others. As far as reconciliation... that is easy once the forgiveness has taken place... it is much like the process of writing, once the deep healing has taken place.

Lynn:  You were raised in a very religious community and I'm not sure if you can still practice the same version of your faith if you leave the community. Did you join a church and what religious training did you provide to your children?

Saloma:  The Amish teach that you are either Amish or you are not -- there just is no in between. In terms of their way of life, I disagree with that. There are so many Amish ways I have integrated into my life -- the homespun arts; the solid work ethic; the closeness to the earth; and their refusal to fall hook, line, and sinker for the newest fashions and technologies -- which means I am both Amish and not Amish. However, I was very willing to change my spiritual beliefs, from what I consider to be punitive beliefs that are rooted in medieval times, to something more inviting and joyful. My husband and I were part of a Presbyterian church group when our sons were little. We loved that church group, but then the pastor, who had been the leader of that church, left his wife of many years, who had mothered their five children, and left the church, too. That shook our confidence. I have been searching for a church group that I feel comfortable in for quite a few years. This is complicated by the fact that we have moved so many times. I like conventional churches for their joyful rituals, such as singing, but I like the Quakers for the quiet meditative quality of their services and for the equality of it all -- the whole congregation does not depend on one person to interpret spiritual beliefs. I am looking for something that integrates these various qualities in one community. I've not found that yet.

Lynn:  In WHY I LEFT THE AMISH you share some very intimate things that happened to you. How did your husband and children react to reading your book?

Saloma:  My husband helped me shape my book into what it is today, so I had no trouble sharing these things with him -- that is the nature of our relationship. I don't know if my sons, who are 27 and 24, have read the whole book. I think it is much harder for them to deal with some of these things, especially the sexual abuse. I don't push them on these issues... but I hope they know that I am open to discussing them, should they care to. I will also say, that I am very surprised that several of my older son's friends have read the book and are asking him questions about it, which has made him more interested in the story.

Lynn:  Have any members of your Amish family read your book? If yes, what was their reaction?

Saloma:  My parents are no longer alive, which leaves my two brothers as the only remaining Amish members of my family. (Of course there are also their children). I honestly don't know if they have read it and therefore I don't know what their reaction is or will be to the book.

On a lighter note....

Lynn:  What is your writing ritual? (On a regular schedule, at the kitchen counter, at the local library, with a bag of M&Ms?)

Saloma:  It's been a while since I've actually written something long. My normal way to write is to get so engrossed in what I'm doing that I forget to eat, go to the bathroom, or anything else. My longest days of writing the book were 15 hours with only short breaks. I tend to be that way with any creative endeavor, whether it's painting a room in my house, quilting, baking, braiding a rug, or writing.

Lynn:  How did you feel when you realized someone was actually going to publish your book?

Saloma:  Absolutely elated! During my break at work, I read the email from MSU Press. I called up David immediately and tried to contain my excitement. I remember saying to him, keeping my voice as quiet as I could, "The worst part of this is that I cannot scream here in my office!" Containing that kind of elation takes more composure than I normally have. And David was just as excited -- he was as invested in this book as I was. Then, that same day, another publisher asked to see the whole manuscript. That's when I knew that the time for publishing my story had finally come -- after all these years!

Lynn:  I understand you have two more books in the works that will follow the journey of your life. Do you have a release date for the next book?

Saloma:  The second book is about my stay in Vermont before the Amish came and fetched me back. David and I had a budding romance at the time, and he had to stand by and watch me go back, knowing this was not my choice. He tried to maintain our relationship during the separation, but I kept insisting we could only be friends. His persistence won out -- nearly three years after my return to the community, he and I had begun to correspond again. When I decided to leave, he went to Ohio with his little yellow Datsun pickup truck and delivered me back to Vermont -- the land of my dreams, and the home of my heart.

So far I have written three chapters for this second book, and David has been working on his first. The cool part is that David is a better writer and storyteller than I am, and he is bringing a different perspective to the book. Though we don't have a release date yet, we do have a working title for this book -- "When We were Young, and She was Amish; A Shared Memoir of a Forbidden Love."

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