“My responsibility as a poet, as an artist, is not to look away.” ~ Nikky Finney
I am very please to introduce you to Memoir Author Saloma Miller Furlong. Saloma and I met in a LinkedIn discussion in the Women’s Memoir group. She has recently launched her second memoir, Bonnet Strings:An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds, which is about her struggles within her Amish community and her eventual decision to leave. Her first memoir, Why I Left the Amish, was a finalist for the 2011 Forward Reviews “Book of the Year Award” (BOTYA).
Your Story or Your Family?
Finding a balance between censoring our life stories so as not to hurt the people we are writing about and “telling all” is a difficult one for memoir writers. None of us have the answers for anyone else, but if we feel called to writing our life stories for an audience, we must answer it for ourselves.
It requires that we search our souls for what is important in our lives and stories.
Having grown up Amish, I often felt I would be disbelieved if I told my story as it happened. If someone from almost any other insular culture were to write a story like mine, it would be believed. But for many people to believe my story, they first have to let the Amish people down off the pedestal they had them raised upon. And yet, knowing all this, I still felt compelled to write my story.
I did not grow up in an idyllic Amish family. My father was mentally ill and incapable of being a father. As we children grew older, he often became violent. And he was not the only one. I was often whipped by my mother, for “backtalk” when I tried to voice my frustrations for the injustices in my life. And I suffered physical, mental, and sexual abuses at the hands of my older brother, Joe.
Silence shrouds all abuse. And yet for those who are being abused, breaking that silence takes enormous courage. When I was growing up, I often felt like I had no advocates. Other Amish people were not equipped to deal with the dysfunction in our family, and they would have been seen as “interfering” with another family’s life, had someone tried to intervene, so I felt I had no choice but to endure the abuses.
When I wrote my first book, Why I Left the Amish, I felt the purpose of the book was to break the silence by telling my story truthfully and to make people aware that even within a culture that is often seen as a model of a good society, abuses do exist.
Years after I left the Amish for good, I was writing my memoir and trying to get it published. My mother (Mem) was losing her battle with cancer and she knew it. It was in this condition that she made a startling request. She asked that I “not write anything bad about Joe or me.” My jaw dropped. There was so much left unsaid in this request. It felt like she was almost admitting that if I were to tell the truth, it would not shed her or Joe in a good light. It seemed to say I could write whatever I wanted about my father. After all, it would perpetuate the family myth — that he was the cause of all our family troubles. I simply did not know what to say. Mem knew she was invoking guilt about whether I would honor a dying mother’s request, should I think about refusing. I knew that too.
When I read a story by poet Nikky Finney about her grandmother making a similar request when she read one of Finney’s books, I was moved to tears. She described how her grandmother made a stunning, fervent request after reading one of Finney’s books — she asked that it be her last. Finney wrote: “I would’ve promised to sail the seven seas in five days if I could have, for my grandmother. She meant that much to me. ‘Promise’ she said. But I couldn’t. Even for her, I couldn’t.”
“Even for her, I couldn’t.” That was how I felt when Mem made her request. And so I did not promise her.
Finney went on to write, “I too forgive, but I don’t forget. In the forgetting we miss something important about the climb, the loss of life, the loss of dreams.
My responsibility as a poet, as an artist, is to not look away.”
This was exactly my aim when I wrote Why I Left the Amish, though I would not have been able to articulate it so well at the time. And there were consequences. After it was published, none my siblings would talk to me. One of my five siblings finally began communicating with me two years later. The others have not.
Even though Why I Left the Amish dealt with the hefty issues around abuse and family dysfunction, my aim was to have readers understand that we humans are resilient creatures — we can overcome many adversities, even though we may lose hope for a time. And we can move out of that place of feeling stuck and beyond mere survival to actually thriving in our lives through intentional healing, forgoing the right to hurt back those who hurt us, and envisioning what we want in our lives. One of my favorite quotes is by Thoreau:
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”
When I wrote my second book, Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds, I was doing exactly that. I had always envisioned continuing my story that Why I Left the Amish had started. Bonnet Strings begins when I was twenty years old and decided that I would no longer endure the violence and dysfunction in my family. It is a coming-of-age story that conveys my struggle of feeling torn between two worlds, of hurt and healing, of doubt and faith, of longing and love, and of the competing desires for freedom and belonging.
A Christian publisher, Herald Press, is publishing Bonnet Strings. In the parts of my story that shed others in a negative light, the editors helped me to sort out whether that “scene” is central to the story, or whether it is something I could omit. If it was central, they helped me frame the material to be more sensitive to the people I’m writing about. We also chose to change some of the names and identities. The guidance I received was crucial in this book, and it was true to Anabaptist principles.
So in my first book, I aired more on the side of “tell all” than in my second book. I likely will not heal any relationships with Bonnet Strings, but at least I hope to prevent the hurt that people may have felt with my first book from going any deeper. It was a hard balance, and Nikky Finney’s articulation of forgiving, but not forgetting is a good way to describe the balance I tried to bring into writing Bonnet Strings.
I often think about the fact that from the time I started writing for an audience until the time my first book finally made it into print was seventeen years. By that time both my parents’ journeys on this earth were at an end. I now think it happened as it was meant to. As much as I wanted at the time to see the book make it into print, both the story and I needed to evolve. And at the end of their lives, my parents did not need to be reminded of the mistakes they made.
Thank you Saloma for addressing a topic that is germaine to anyone who writes their truths then faces objections from their family or close friends.
Saloma Miller Furlong inspired millions with her story when she was featured in the PBS documentary The Amish that aired on American Experience in February 2012, She is also featured in the sequel, The Amish: Shunned premiering on February 4. She is one of seven people whose story this film follows. Her books, Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds and Why I Left the Amish, offer an authentic rendition of what it was like to be born and raised in an Amish community. Furlong’s coming-of-age story is simultaneously a rare look inside her Amish community and universal story of overcoming adversity.
She offers hope to people in difficult life situations to call on their inner resources to make necessary changes to alter their lives.During her thirty-year inner struggle of coming to terms with her Amish past, Furlong has gleaned a better understanding of herself and her heritage. It is this perspective that she brings to her reflections about her life and her heritage.
Her story is featured in the PBS documentaries, The Amish and The Amish: Shunned on “American Experience”:
Author Contact Information:
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Saloma-Miller-Furlong/e/B004SXYJXE
Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorSalomaMillerFurlong
Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4487564.Saloma_Miller_Furlong
How about you? Have you had to deal with resistant family members who try to talk you out of writing your truths?
Saloma has graciously agreed to give away a copy of her memoir to a commenter whose name will be selected in a random drawing.
We’d love to hear from you. Please leave your comments below~
ANNOUNCEMENT: Congratulations, Janet Givens! Your name was selected in a random drawing of commenters to receive Frances Caballo’s book, AVOID SOCIAL MEDIA TIME SUCK.
Monday, 4/21/14: “Why I Decided to Go with a Small Publisher for My Memoir”
Thursday, 4/24/14: “Journaling as Seed for Memoir: A Memoir Moment”