NORTH ANDOVER — For Americans, leaving a church or other religious group is not ordinarily a big deal.
With some exceptions, if a person quits a particular faith community, he or she is probably not going to get hounded and hassled and told to return, lest he or she spend eternity in hell.
Leaving the Amish, a group that follows a strict interpretation of the Bible, for the most part gets around by horse and buggy and largely avoids outsiders, is painfully difficult, according to author Saloma Miller Furlong, who told her story at the Stevens Memorial Library on Thursday night. She actually left her community twice, first at 20, then finally for good at 23.
Furlong wrote “Why I Left the Amish: A Memoir” in 2011. Published by Michigan State University Press in 2011, it’s her first book.
During her youth, Furlong loved school — but for the Amish, education ceases after eighth grade. She has always had a “curious nature,” she said — but curiosity is not encouraged among the Amish, especially on the part of women, she noted. She chafed at the lack of personal freedom, she said.
After finishing school, she concluded that her future consisted of “a long stretch of boredom.”
The Amish center their lives around church, but Furlong grew up in a dysfunctional family. Her father suffered from a mental illness and would “talk to people who weren’t in the room,” she said. She described her older brother as being “mean.”
The Amish are taught that if they leave their community, they are destined for hell.
“God wanted me to stay Amish” is how she was indoctrinated, she said.
Yet she continued to loathe the lack of freedom. She even considered ending her life, perhaps running in front of a car, she said.
“I knew I didn’t have the guts to go through with suicide,” she said. Finally, she decided that if she left the community and ended up going to hell, at least she would taste freedom before dying. So she saved up the money she earned by cleaning houses six days a week and at 20, she bought a ticket for a night train headed to Burlington, Vt.
Why Vermont? She learned about it in her geography class and it seemed like a nice place, she explained.
She landed her “dream job” — working as a waitress at a Pizza Hut. She also met the man she ended up marrying, David Furlong.
Her Amish community in Ohio, however, did not give up on her.
“I knew mom would call,” she said. Mom not only called, she went to Vermont, accompanied by big brother Joe and other family members, Furlong recalled.
“The Amish came and took me back,” she said.
“I was overwhelmed,” she said, when she encountered her family members. Since she was over the age of 18 and being taken against her will, her relatives could have been prosecuted for kidnapping. Furlong, however, did not know that.
“I thought the law was on their side,” she said. Also, “Amish life is not about saying no; it’s about going along,” she explained. That was how she had been raised.
“I was like a puppet on a string,” she said.
So Furlong returned to her Amish community in Ohio. Again, however, she concluded that “Amish life doesn’t fit me” and she left again. After returning to Vermont, she said David were married and that earned her liberation from a way of life she didn’t want.
She was shunned. When she and David were married, “nobody from my home community attended,” she said.
Being shunned by her community has not eliminated all contact with her family, she said. Actually, her mother ended up loving her husband, she noted.
She is not permitted to eat meals with her family; they cannot ride in her car; they cannot accept gifts from her; and they cannot do business with her, she said.
Furlong’s presentation was attended by a large crowd. The fire code does not permit more than 80 people in the library’s meeting room so several people had to be turned away.