CROSSING OVER

One Woman's Exodus From Amish Life

By Ruth Irene Garrett with Rick Farrant

HarperSanFrancisco. 190 pp. Paperback, $13.95 This is the story (just as the subtitle suggests) of how one woman escaped from Old Order Amish life because she fell in love with an outsider and followed the dictates of her heart. When Ruth Irene Garrett first met her future husband, Ottie Garrett, in 1989, she was, by her own account, "a naive fifteen-year-old," and he was a "forty-year-old man of the world, married three times, and about to get another divorce." The narrative continues: "Everything about him was big -- from his 450-pound frame to his sleek, fifteen-passenger Ford van, complete with snazzy running lights, loud glass-pack mufflers, CB radio, and radar detector."

Wait a minute! Does she mean that the van has a 450-pound frame? Wouldn't it weigh more than that? Or does she actually mean that the man she's going to run away with weighs 450 pounds? Forget the 25-year age difference and those three marriages and divorces -- isn't Ottie a little chubby to be cast in the role of a star-crossed lover? That throwaway sentence casts every other incident here in a dubious light, that and the fact that Ottie lives on disability payments and makes extra money taking photographs of the Amish when they're not looking, then compiling those pictures into calendars that he sells to outsiders, or "the English," as the Amish call them.

That 450-pound frame! When the couple end up in a motel seven years and 40 pages later, it lends extra resonance to a sentence like: "How could something so sweet and true be so wrong, so misguided?" What all this indisputably does show is that Ruth Irene Garrett really needed to leave the Amish.

"Crossing Over" was first privately printed in the town of Allen, Tex. Due to what must have been strong marketing efforts on the part of the authors, the book is said to have sold around 20,000 copies, whereupon it was picked up by this large publishing house, so that now the general American reading public -- if it chooses -- may be treated to insights like: "How do they know they're putting the right appearance on this so-called dinosaur? The only thing they've got is the bones." (This in a heated discussion with her husband and her co-writer about the possibility of evolution.) "What if you find a dog carcass and put a cat covering on it? They could do that, couldn't they?"

Ruth Irene Garrett grew up in a strict, Old Order Amish family. Her father, a minister in the church, was, by her account, a thoughtless brute, her mother a put-upon wretch with open sores on her legs. At first Ruth didn't mind her childhood; she worked in the kitchen and on the farm and competed in a pool-like game called carom. As she grew older, however, she was repelled both by the misconduct of her father and what she considered to be the hypocrisy of the church. Her list of grievances is considerable; many of them have to do with how her branch of the church has dealt with the relentless encroachments of technology.

Horses and buggies are still the stated order of the day, for instance, but it is permissible to hire drivers like her husband who own vans with "snazzy running lights." Phones are forbidden in Amish homes, the author tells us, but little phone booths are concealed in the woods in case someone needs to make a call.

Everyone else's religion is always slightly suspect, of course. Only our own religions make even the remotest sense. (And once our beliefs start to slip, it's sometimes hard to "keep the faith.")

But Ruth Irene Garrett can't seem to let her Amish faith go. She's "shunned," of course, after her marriage to Ottie, put under a "ban" that forbids any connection with her family or any member of her church. Ruth is gone, she's left, she's outta there, but as in a very bad divorce, she can't let go of the fight. She joins the Lutheran Church and prevails upon her minister to "lift" her ban. He does so, and writes a letter confirming that to her former Amish community. They write back to say, oh no, she's still banned all right! Shunned as can be! Sure enough, when Ruth goes into an Old Order Amish grocery, they won't take her money. But why would she shop there in the first place? Don't they have regular markets in her neck of the woods? She can't let go: This ungracious book is further proof of that.

Something about mean-spirited rants all in the name of God seems particularly unpalatable right now. "Are you making the scars in Jesus's hands bigger if you keep right on going your way?" her sister viciously writes to Ruth after the ban.

It would be nice if the author could walk away from this wretched scenario of mutual, self-righteous, acrimonious recrimination.

But she can't. Or won't.