Emma Gingerich doesn’t have anything against the Amish romance novels that have become such a popular subset of Christian fiction.
Gingerich just hopes readers realize those novels romanticize the Amish lifestyle – something she knows about first-hand.
“It’s like any novel, really,” she said. “Some novels are all about feeling good, and that’s the way the Amish (ones) are too. But I think if people really want to know the truth about some of the things that happen in the Amish community, they need to read books that were published by people who grew up in the Amish community, and there are several of those books now.”
Amazon now lists 1,504 results in its Amish romance category. Between 2003 and 2013, the genre’s three most popular authors alone sold more than 24 million novels, according to the Wall Street Journal. And between 2003 and 2010, others self-published more than 150 Amish e-books, the Journal reported.
There are nonfiction books, too, about those who have embraced the Amish lifestyle: “Called to Be Amish: My Journey from Head Majorette to the Old Order” by Marcene C. Miller and Sherry Gore’s memoir, scheduled for release next month, “The Plain Choice: A True Story of Choosing to Live an Amish Life.”
And then there is a string of new titles released in the past year hinting there might be more to the story than sweetness and simplicity – memoirs by those who have left the Amish. Those books include “Plain Faith: A True Story of Tragedy, Loss and Leaving the Amish” by Ora-Jay and Irene Eash, “Beyond Buggies and Bonnets: Seven True Stories of Former Amish” by Brenda Nixon.
Gingerich’s own memoir, “Runaway Amish Girl: The Great Escape,” documents her departure from the Amish, the only life she’d ever known, on a cold January day back in 2006.
It was okay being Amish, she said, until it wasn’t – until she finished her schooling at age 14 and spent her days at home, weaving baskets and watching her younger brothers and sisters.
One day, she said, “all of a sudden something changed, and I just didn’t feel like I belonged there anymore. I was curious about the outside world, and I longed for more.”
Unlike the sweet romances of the novels, Gingerich was confused–not charmed–by Amish dating rituals, which involved boys she’d never talked to before spending the night in her bed. Faith was anything but simple and definitely not something her family discussed outside of church.
Even the simple life lost its appeal when her parents refused an MRI after she began having severe headaches; instead, she endured medieval-sounding medical treatments that involved inserting balloons up her nose and inflating them.
And she wasn’t allowed to question any of it, she said.
She’d met several English, or non-Amish folks, who had offered to help if ever she wanted to leave her community in Eagleville, Mo. She waited until she was 18 to make that decision, as they had advised. And then one morning, when her parents were in town 18 miles away, she knew it was time.
She made a few phone calls from her dad’s shop, left a note on the table and her cap in a drawer and walked away down the gravel road for the last time.
Today Gingerich, 27, lives in Arlington, Texas, where she works as a billing coordinator at a hospital and is studying for her MBA.
Living on her own and going back to school was a hard transition at first, she said. She was cut off from her family – her Mem and Datt and 13 siblings. She didn’t receive any schooling past eighth grade. She didn’t have a Social Security number or a copy of her birth certificate to prove her identity. And she spoke very little English – mostly Pennsylvania German.
But when she thought about the alternative, about going back to the Amish lifestyle and giving up her freedom and education, she knew in her gut she had made the right decision, she said.
Gingerich started a blog, Runaway Amish Girl, and discovered writing down her thoughts and experiences was therapeutic for her. It also seemed to resonate with others, some who also want to leave the Amish and some who just have been inspired by her story.
“I feel good about myself when I can share my story and motivate other people, give other people hope,” she said.
She now attends the evangelical Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas. She even decided to be baptized, a decision she had resisted when Amish.
The Amish share basic Christian beliefs, emphasizing values like simplicity, separation from the world and the authority of the local church its members. But, Gingerich said, to be baptized in the church is to agree to the Ordnung, to the long skirts and bonnets and the rules she didn’t understand. And it would have meant shunning if she didn’t follow those rules.
“Here, I got baptized for the right reason – because I believe in Jesus – and there was nobody telling me, ‘Well, if you get baptized, you have to wear a long dress and keep your hair under a bonnet,’” she said.
Next up, Gingerich said, she’s planning to take a mission trip to Nepal, hoping it will help fill the hole left by the brothers and sisters she no longer has contact with.
She’s trying to be more open and honest about how hard her journey has been, she said – and also how it was worth it.
“There is a way to if you allow yourself to grieve over something,” she said. “There’s a time to pick yourself up from that and move forward.”