Out of Amish country
by Sara Hacking,
For New York Mills author Anna Dee Olson, the publicity she is receiving for her new book is in direct contrast to the Amish values she grew up with.
"Black and white, that's pretty much how different it is," she said. "You're not to draw attention to yourself."
Olson's photograph has appeared on the front pages of several area newspapers along with features about the new author. The exposure has generated numerous e-mail questions through her Web site www.growingupamish.com and requests to speak for groups.
Even her friends have been affected by her newfound local fame.
"Yesterday my girlfriend [said] 'at least I get to see you in person now, instead of every paper I pick up,'" Olson said.
The flash of the camera is no longer forbidden for the former Amish woman. And Olson has grown used to having her photograph taken since leaving the Amish in 1992. Still, the attention she is receiving his humbling, she said.
In her recently released book "Growing up Amish: The Insider Secrets" Olson reveals her experience within the distinctive subculture. The book is the first of several Olson plans on writing about why she left the Amish community of her parents in Wisconsin.
Olson's story is an unusual opportunity for locals to learn about the bonnet-and straw hat-wearing Amish neighbors who frequent the streets of Wadena in horse-driven buggies.
Olson is promoting her book as "one woman's journey away from and back to Amish culture" on her Web site. Although the phrase hints at a return to the life she grew up in, it refers only to her return to talking about her Amish past.
"I'm not going back," she said.
The decision to abandon the austere Amish life of her childhood spent near Hewitt and in Missouri and Wisconsin wasn't easy. The threat of hell, learning a new culture and the ongoing excommunication from her family have all built barriers in her path to realizing the life she always wanted.
However, Olson has learned to forgive those who hurt her and to appreciate the values of hard work she was raised with. Now Olson believes she has a message to share about her journey and the life she has created for herself.
Olson's questioning of Amish teaching began when she was a child but did not develop into a decision to leave her community until her early 20s.
As a child Olson learned the Amish values of humility and simplicity.
Posing for photos and wearing jewelry were too prideful. It was best to wear the simple dresses and bonnets of Amish society. Olson's few toys included a toy iron and some dolls made out of gray socks and dressed in little Amish clothes.
Olson's exposure to the outside culture came through trips to town and glimpses of neighbors when she was young.
Trips to town meant attracting a certain amount of attention from the English, an Amish term for non-Amish people. Although the purpose of the uniform Amish dress is designed to avoid drawing notice, a group of Amish dressed in black has the opposite effect, Olson said.
"We were more watched," she said.
Olson was not the subject of stares by the "outsiders" in town very often, though. Her father only took one child at a time when he made trips to town, if he took any kids at all, she said. And there were 10 siblings to wait turns.
"If we got into town one time in the summertime that was pretty much it," she said.
Olson viewed the townspeople as "strangers," she said. They were not people she would get to know because she had more security at home when she was a little girl.
Her values were different but she didn't really think she was better than the English, she said. Although she did get the impression Amish community elders thought that way.
She was taught everything the outsiders had was bad, she said.
"My understanding was that if I had it or it was there I would definitely go to hell," Olson said about forbidden objects such as cameras, jewelry and even books that did not fall into an acceptable category -- such as Laura Ingalls Wilder tales.
A fear of leaving the Amish culture and going to hell was implanted in Olson at an early age, she said. Indirect insinuations that if she didn't follow the rules she would face eternal punishment were emphasized to Olson.
"It drills into your head until you don't know anything else," she said.
Following the rules did not always play well with Olson's independent personality.
She wasn't supposed to voice her own opinions or make her own decisions, but she did.
"And that's why I was in trouble," she said.
Olson said she was taught that listening would help her deal with her feelings rather than talking about them.
"If only I would listen, if only I would do as I was told, I would feel better inside," she said.
Olson and her siblings were expected to spend time reading the Bible, she said. It wasn't easy because the scriptures in her home were written in High German, which was difficult to read and understand.
"I didn't get a whole lot out of reading the Bible," she said.
That is until she discovered a rare English translation while the family was living in Minnesota. She was around 12 or 13 years old. She and her siblings read the book so much it started to fall apart, she said.
There were some similarities between what she read in her English Bible and what she was taught in church, she said. The story of Adam and Eve was one example.
"They preached about those things and those made sense to me," she said.
There was a significant difference, however.
"That book talked about God's love," she said about the English Bible. "I grew up to know that God was going to strike me down one day because I couldn't walk a straight enough walk."
The teaching of a wrathful God made staying Amish impossible, she said.
"Our life didn't seem doable anymore because I couldn't walk a straight enough line," she said. "It didn't matter what I said or did, it wasn't going to be good enough."
Finding resolution to her dilemma wasn't easy, though.
Olson observed her non-Amish neighbors who did not have all the restrictions she did. A neighbor whom Olson refers to simply as Cathy befriended her and remains one of her best friends.
"I just really liked ... how she interacted with her children," Olson said. "I felt like I could get the respect I was looking for."
If someone had asked her at the time if she wanted to leave, she would have said no, Olson said. But when she looks back she knows the desire to leave was already in the back of her mind.
"I didn't want to be somebody else's child," she said. "I just wanted to live the way they did."
Olson's family moved to Wisconsin when she was 15 and she wasn't able to find a friend like Cathy until she met Jon and Penny Paulson when she was 23, she said. She planned on leaving her Amish community at age 21 but she didn't feel safe enough to do it. By the time she was 24 she finally had the courage to leave.
And Olson needed all the courage she could muster. At the time, her mother thought the world would end in 2000.
"I left in 1992 thinking 'well, I've got eight years and then I'll have to go to hell,'" she said.
The memory of her doom-and-gloom perspective causes her to chuckle now. But it was something she believed at the time, she said.
Olson said the moment she decided that she didn't have to be Amish to find salvation her life started to change.
"It's like the moment I decided to just follow my heart and quit struggling that's when it all came together for me," she said.
Her life seemed to take forever to change, but in retrospect it amazes her how fast things happened, she said. She left her Wisconsin Amish community in February 1992 and earned her driver's license that summer. She enrolled in a semester of college in Lacrosse, Wis. By 1995 she had received a diploma in word processing and secretarial work from Wadena Technical College. She married her husband, Tom Olson, a Wadena native, in 1996.
All of these accomplishments helped foster a sense of independence and self confidence in Olson.
It was a really strange feeling to control a car for the first time, Olson said. She was glad to not be dependent on others for rides, though.
Receiving her first college diploma in 1995 and a medical secretary associates degree in 2005 brought self-confidence, she said. Going to college was a major reason why she wanted to leave Amish life. She remembers watching neighbor kids getting on the bus and going to high school. Amish children finish school after the eighth grade.
"I wanted to have a career," she said. "I wanted to have a business."
As a woman Olson's job opportunities in the Amish community were limited. Her options included teaching school for $12 a day or helping an Amish woman after childbirth for $7 a day.
After receiving her secretarial diploma, Olson took a job in the Twin Cities. Then she met her husband and settled in Wadena.
Marrying Tom made it a lot easier to visit her parents in Wisconsin, she said. Her mother has rarely told her how wrong her life is since her marriage, she said. That was a regular occurrence before Tom.
When she first left her Amish community she didn't visit her parents for months, she said.
"I was afraid they would talk me into going back," she said.
Her parents required she wear traditional Amish dress when she first went to visit them. Donning her Amish dress and bonnet made her uncomfortable, she said.
"I felt like that wasn't who I was anymore," she recalled. "And it almost felt like oh, am I going to go back?"
Olson has not returned to Amish culture since leaving 15 years ago. Five of her nine siblings have also left.
When asked what she would think if the Amish culture disappeared, Olson was very honest.
"I don't think it would be a bad thing," she said.
She quickly added that she is not interested in bashing Amish people, she said.
"Because I'm not, I'm truly not," she emphasized.
But she does believe the Amish are missing out on some very valuable things, she said.
Areas of knowledge relating to parent education and mental health issues are lacking, she said. The Amish don't believe there are child rearing experts, she said. The whole focus of Amish groups is to honor you father and mother and to do as they did. Discipline in her Amish household was frequently based on frustration rather than an actual need for discipline, she said.
Another area that Amish culture doesn't address well is mental health issues, she said. The Amish are human beings like everyone else and subject to depression and other mental health problems.
"I think that's where they're lacking," she said. "That knowledge [of] ... help that some of those kids need and don't get."
Olson didn't include modern conveniences in her list. She said those comforts had nothing to do with why she left.
While Olson's Amish upbringing has been a major part of her life experience, she believes what she has learned is relatable for everyone.
"People have read the book and said 'you took me right down the road to where I was when I was a little girl,'" she said.
Olson has learned that life is short and people don't need to carry big loads on their shoulders, she said.
"Life is so much more enjoyable when we can be free," she said. "Free of the guilt, free of the worry."
The final point of letting go and forgiving occurred in 2002 after the Olsons lost a set of twins, she said.
She wrote a letter to her parents telling them that she forgave them. Her mother wrote a response but she did not address any of the real issues Olson brought up, she said. She is not sure that her parents understand why she needed to forgive them.
"That's OK," Olson said about their unwillingness to talk about difficult issues. "It is the Amish way."
Her relationship with her parents is the best it's ever been right now, she said.
She keeps in touch with her Amish siblings and buys maple syrup from her sister. Tom has to present the check, though, because rules regarding buying and selling are part of the Amish excommunication process that Olson is undergoing. Other excommunication rules include forbidding the excommunicated from eating at the same table with members of the Amish church and not allowing marital relations with someone who is being excommunicated.
There was another group of people that Olson needed to forgive. From age 3 until her 20s, some of Olson's family members and community members told her she was fat. Weight became a big issue in her life, she said.
The name calling became so bad people would tell her "you're so fat, no one would ever like to live with you," when she was 20, Olson recalled.
Olson wasn't any bigger than anyone else, but she thinks the way she thought about herself influenced how others treated her, she said.
Now she thanks these people on the credits page of her book.
"It was very satisfying to be able to say 'thank you for being part of my life,'" Olson said. "'You have no idea how much you helped me be the strong person I am today.'"
The teasing wasn't fun when it happened but she was able to let it go and grow from the experience, Olson said. She's discovered that she has a lot to teach people about overcoming obstacles.
She experienced the best of both the Amish and non-Amish worlds, Olson said.
From her Amish upbringing she learned cooking, gardening and attention to detail.
"I learned that I had to work hard," she said. "That hard work isn't going to hurt you."
If worse came to worse, Olson knows she could get work sewing and she isn't afraid of physical labor.
There is one job she avoids whenever possible, however. Washing dishes was Olson's chore as a child. She washed dishes from three meals a day for a family of 12. Breakfast and lunch were large meals and supper was a small meal.
"It was my pretty much my life for a couple of years," Olson said about the loathsome chore.
Now the dishwasher in the Olson's New York Mills home alleviates the need for scrubbing plates and silverware. Olson said her husband had pretty much taken over the task prior to the dishwasher.
Tom said Olson has experienced a lot of changes from her Amish upbringing. His wife's accomplishments are great, he said.
"I think she's really come far from where she started," he said.
The Olsons have a busy family and working life. Tom works at Industrial Finishing Services in New York Mills and Olson works for Homecrest Industries in Wadena. The Olsons have two children, Josh, 7, and Jasmyn, 3. Olson does speaking engagements and has an online business. She is also starting a coaching business titled "Empowering People -- Live life with a purpose."
While there is little trace of an Amish accent in Olson's voice and she wears jean shorts and button-up shirts along with thousands of other Minnesota women, her background still comes out in the food she prepares as well as other more surprising ways.
Olson still finds time to whip up some of the made-from-scratch Amish food she cooked with her mother and sisters.
Pies were her speciality in her mother's kitchen and she wants to carry forward some of the pie recipes, she said. She likes to bake pastries she can't find in restaurants such as coconut oatmeal pie and shoofly pie.
One of the hardest things to adjust to when she left the Amish was only eating a bowl of cereal for breakfast, she said. A typical Amish breakfast consisted of fried eggs, homemade bread, and either hot or cold cereal. Sometimes they would have biscuits and sausage gravy, which is a breakfast she still likes to make for her family.
Olson occasionally bakes up a batch of homemade bread. She even makes her own jams and jellies. The Olsons also can summer fruits but not the hundreds of quarts that Olson's mother canned.
Cooking Amish food is a reminder of the satisfaction Olson experienced when she made a dish that pleased her family members around the Amish dinner table.
A few other elements from her past remain as well. She has an Amish desk in the dining room. It once belonged to her grandpa in Ohio, she said. She also has several Amish dresses she used to wear and a white cap she stores in an ice cream pail.
There are other more intrinsic remnants from her Amish life.
Tom has lived with Olson for 11 years and when asked he said he doesn't see any Amish left in his wife.
Olson piped in with "oh yeah, once in a while."
The hint prompted Tom's memory and he said with a laugh, "Oh yeah, she talks German in her sleep."
When it first happened it took him awhile to figure out she was speaking another language and that's why he couldn't understand her, he said.
Olson said she woke up and didn't realize she had been speaking the language of her childhood, Pennsylvania Dutch, a dialect of German. It was the language she spoke at home. Amish children used English at school.
"It's still in the subconscious, you know," she said smiling.
Olson's journey away from and back to the Amish culture of her childhood has taken her across some bumpy roads. She may not travel in a horse-driven buggy any longer but her journey to discover her purpose in life isn't over.
She is on a quest to find out what God wants her to do, she said.
"I think the biggest thing I've learned is that God is leading me," she said. "I just need to listen."
The lesson is one she has been working on since she left the Amish.
"It just seems to become stronger and stronger as time goes on," she said.
Olson's quest involves more than listening, however. Those who read her book, hear her speak or see her face in the newspaper can testify to that.