Escaping the Amish for a Connected World

What it’s like to adapt to texting and online dating after a life without electricity

hutch photography / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

When Emma Gingerich left her Amish community in Eagleville, Missouri, she was 18 and had an eighth-grade education. She barely spoke English.

The life that awaited most Amish women—one of cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing—never appealed to her. She wanted an education and the freedom to choose her own path.

When she voiced her feelings to a family friend, he snuck her the phone number of an ex-Amish woman who would help with her escape. A fellow rebellious teenager had given her a cellphone, which she kept hidden in her room until the right moment. One cold January day in 2006, at 12:30 in the afternoon, Emma took off her bonnet and walked out the door of her family’s small farmhouse.

She left a note for her parents: “The time has come for me to leave, I am not happy here anymore. I am sorry to do this to you but I need to try a different life.”

Gingerich in her Amish garb (Zach Weber Photography)

The life she found could not be more different. She moved to Harlingen, a city in south Texas. Accustomed to making supper for her family of 16, she learned to cook for one. She figured out what tortillas were. She earned her GED, and then a college degree.

Now living in a suburb of Dallas, Emma blends in well. She wears brightly colored blouses and a full face of makeup. A “blinged out” case adorns her iPhone 6. She works for a hospital and is finishing up an M.B.A. She loves football, Mexican food, and the rodeo. She grew up without light bulbs, but she met her boyfriend of seven months on Plenty of Fish.

Only a faint Germanic accent betrays her past. When people ask where she’s from, she responds, wryly, “Missouri.”

Apparently Emma is not the only Amish person lured by a freer, more connected life. The rapid pace of technology, she says, is forcing the Amish community to grapple with big, existential questions like it never has before.

Emma’s experience of entering this world of screens suddenly, and all at once, offers a fresh perspective on how our lives have changed since the digital revolution—for the better, and for the worse.

I met her recently in her one-bedroom apartment. We talked about how her views of technology have evolved ever since her escape, and how the Internet helped her unearth a dark family secret. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Olga Khazan: What technology were you already using when you left?

Emma Gingerich: Is a radio considered technology? I had a battery-operated radio. I had it before I left. At the time that I left, I just had a little cellphone that I was using as an aid to help me get out. I didn't know how to use it but I figured it out when the time came. Another person that had been Amish and had left gave me the cellphone. It was a long phone with just a tiny screen.

Khazan: How did you figure out how to use it when the time came?

Gingerich: I just dialed a number and figured out what button to push to make it call out.

Khazan: The concept of phones, you were familiar with that?

Gingerich: It wasn’t like, “What is this?” but to actually use one was pretty intense.

Khazan: How did that feel?

Gingerich: I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to hear anybody because I had never talked to somebody on the phone. [I thought], “What if I can't understand what they’re saying?” All kinds of things were going through my head. But after it was done, I felt pretty good about it, that I had accomplished it.

Khazan: Who picked up on the other end when you called?

Gingerich: It was a stranger, actually. A lady that picked me up from the little town, the day that I left. She just heard about me and agreed to take me in.

Khazan: Where did you get your first non-Amish outfit?

Gingerich: Some people donated clothes, which were way too big for me, to start with. It took me a few days to go somewhere. I went to a thrift store first, because I didn’t have much money. I had like $50. I think I bought a couple shirts and some pants.

Khazan: Do you remember the first time you went on the Internet?

Gingerich: I wanted to learn how to type, so I pulled up a Word document. I was practicing the letters, and I couldn’t figure out why some of them are big and some of them are little and why aren't they all the same size? Finally, I figured out about shifting. I thought I had to hit caps lock every time I wanted a big letter. It took me a long time to be able to type efficiently. But, now for work, that's all I do is typing. And I’m pretty fast at it now. I don’t even have to look at the keyboard anymore. I always wanted to be one of those people who didn't have to look at the keyboard.

Khazan: Did you try Google right away?

Gingerich: I started taking GED classes four or five months after I left. They showed me the Internet and Google and stuff.

Khazan: What are some of your favorite websites now?

Gingerich: I think I looked up The Atlantic once. I love Pinterest for recipes and clothes. Pinterest is my top and then it’s Instagram. I enjoy looking at different hashtags on Instagram and looking at pictures from all around the world.

Are those websites or apps?

Khazan: I think both. Do Amish people know about the Internet?

Gingerich: They do now. Things have changed a little bit with the Amish. They are more familiar with technology now. They don’t use it, but I guess there's been so many people leaving and then going back home, so they're becoming more familiar with it. But I had no idea before I left.

Khazan: What did you think of it when your GED program first said, here's this system of web pages where you can look up anything?

Gingerich: It was pretty fascinating. I did look up Amish people. I googled my grandfather and I found information about him that I just couldn’t believe. I was so blown away. Apparently, he was accused of doing some bad stuff, but the law couldn’t do anything about it because he was Amish.

I found a picture of him on the Internet and I just thought, I can’t believe he’s my grandfather. I really don’t know how all that stuff got on the Internet in the first place.

I was in shock for days after I found that on the Internet. That encouraged me to look more and more and more, to see if there was more stuff out there about my family that I don’t know about.

Khazan: What did he do?

Gingerich: He was accused of sleeping with his daughters.

Khazan: How did that affect you, seeing information about your granddad on the Internet?

Gingerich: What got me the most was that my parents never talked to us about stuff like that. I had no idea that my grandfather was such a horrible person. I didn’t like him ever, while we were growing up, I hated going to his house because he was such a mean guy, but after I read some of that stuff, I thought, “Wow, no wonder my dad is so upset that I left.”

I almost felt sorry for my dad at that point, because I think he probably blamed himself for not being able to keep me there. Three of his sisters had left long before me.

Khazan: Why do you think your dad blamed himself?

Gingerich: Because three of his sisters left, and I’m thinking it was all because of their dad. And my dad was not near the horrible person that his dad was, so he probably just couldn’t understand why I wanted to leave.

Gingerich (far left), her cousins, and siblings, walk to church as children (Undated tourist photo)

Khazan: You said that there are more people leaving now and coming back. Are you saying that more people are leaving the Amish, period, or that the people who do leave have more to talk about when they visit their Amish relatives?

Gingerich: There are more people leaving. Recently, there has been a big division in the church and it has caused a huge uproar with different families. And some of them, they just give up and leave.

Khazan: What exactly is the division over?

Gingerich: That’s what I don't know. I can just say what I think it is: Some people want a different lifestyle. Maybe not leave the Amish, but they want more. And then there’s people who say, “No you can’t do that, that’s wrong,” and then they shun people. Ultimately, it's the bishop that has the say-so. The bishop did agree to dividing the church. The people have a choice of staying where they’re at now or they can leave and join a different church, with less rules, I guess.

Khazan: So the thing that people want that’s different is more freedom?

Gingerich: Freedom, yes.

Khazan: Freedom to do what?

Gingerich: Freedom to be able to go work outside the community, to be able to use a driver to go to work instead of horse and buggy. Things like that. Not even to drive themselves. I’m guessing they want phones, too. Some of them do have a phone outside the house in a little shack. That, they did start doing.

The thing is, if people do split off to a more a liberal church, the ones that stay, family members are divided, even. And that causes problems when there is a wedding, for example, because then some of the family members are not included as much in the wedding party as they would have been if they had stayed. It’s so complicated.

Khazan: When you left, how did you pick Harlingen?

Gingerich: The family that I stayed with in Missouri for a few days, they knew the people in Harlingen, so they got me in touch.

Khazan: So you didn’t know English when you left, really?

Gingerich: I had a difficult time speaking English, mainly because I was scared of what I was saying. Worrying that I was saying something wrong, worrying that people wouldn’t understand me and I would have to repeat it.

Khazan: How long did it take for you to get better?

Gingerich: Probably, three, four years. I felt comfortable right as I was graduating with my associate’s degree. Then I moved away to Stephenville (Texas) for my bachelor’s, and I didn't know anybody in Stephenville, so I was alone all over again, making new friends and getting used to a bigger university.

In college, listening to the teacher talk, I got so overwhelmed. It was tiring for my brain. I would go home and start studying and plop, just fall asleep. I would be asleep by 7:30 every night. I was also working at Dollar General.

Khazan: That must have been exhausting.

Gingerich: I don’t think it really hit me until I started my bachelor’s degree. There were a few times I would call a friend, bawling my eyes out, saying I’m going to quit, I can’t get through this any more, because of homework and trying to figure out APA-style formatting. Oh my goodness, I had the roughest time.

There were a few times where I thought, “Why am I doing this? Why not just work and forget about a college degree?”

Khazan: What kept you going?

Gingerich: I just couldn’t quit. It’s that simple. I would wake up the next day and feel like, what was I crying about again?

Khazan: What do people who didn’t grow up Amish not appreciate enough, in your view?

Gingerich: They have more freedom, and sometimes I feel like people don't appreciate the choices they can make. They can make whatever choice they want, but still they're complaining that they don't have enough, not enough options. Versus the Amish, you just have one option.

For example, the Amish have more than one church, but if you join a different church than the rest of your family, you get shunned. And here, you can go to a Baptist church one week and the Methodist church another week and you don't even officially have to be a member of the church. You can do what you want.

Khazan: And what tech things do typical Americans think are very cool, but aren’t that cool in the grand scheme of things?

Gingerich: Oh, let's see. Can you give me examples?

Khazan: Like, maybe reality TV, or iPhone games, or ...

Gingerich: Definitely, games are overrated.

Khazan: Why is that?

Gingerich: Maybe, because I don’t like playing games. I don’t play games. I think it’s such a waste of time. I would rather pick up a book, read a book.

Khazan: Has technology ever failed you in a certain way?

Gingerich: When the Internet is not working, I lose it. I cannot stand it when I cannot have Internet. I went to Nepal last year for a mission trip and over there, at first it felt great to be able to be away from technology. But then toward the end, I was thinking, I just can't wait to go back to the U.S. where I can be connected to technology again and see what all is happening. Because it feels like I’m naked or something without being constantly updated on what’s going on.

Khazan: In your book you describe the Amish courtship style in graphic detail. It sounds like people meet each other as teenagers at church sing-alongs. Fine enough. But if you like someone you immediately are supposed to spend the night in their bed, but not necessarily have sex. Was it a weird adjustment, to use a website to find a boyfriend?

Gingerich: Yes, I really didn’t think that I would ever do that. After I moved to Stephenville, a friend of mine, we started talking about guys, girl-talk stuff, and we both made a Plenty of Fish profile. We had so much fun. Because we were talking to so many different guys on there, we just enjoyed it, it was our girl time. I didn’t take it seriously at that time. That was maybe four years ago, so I would have been 23.

I was just doing it for fun, talking to people. Several years later, I had met somebody at work, but we broke up. And then I got back on Plenty of Fish and [eventually] met my boyfriend.

Khazan: Some people think social media is making us lonely. Do you agree with that?

Gingerich: Yes, I agree with that. One thing that me and my boyfriend are doing is we don’t text much at all. He’s big on talking face-to-face or calling on the phone, which I really like. I’ve had guys who were interested in dating me, but they would never call me, and I don’t like that.

I dated a guy for nine months in Stephenville, and we never once talked on the phone until the day after we broke up. I don’t think he wanted to, but I also don’t know why I didn’t make the effort to talk to him on the phone. I guess because I never saw him talking on it—except to his mom.

Khazan: So people, in your view, don’t communicate as much as they could?

Gingerich: I’ve talked to girls who freak out if a guy calls them. They’re scared to talk to him, they want to just text. It’s sort of like hiding behind who you really are. You don’t want him to see something, to notice something. It’s like a security blanket.

Khazan: Your siblings are still Amish, right?

Gingerich: Yes.

Khazan: When’s the last time you talked to your family?

Gingerich: At the end of May of last year, I went to visit my sisters who are married. They all live in an Amish community in Maine. I’m allowed to visit, but it’s never easy.

I can just feel the tension. My sisters are always nice to me, but there’s always this, “Well, if you would just come back ...” They make me feel guilty for not being there and watching their kids grow up. That part is hard because I would love to see that. But now I live in Texas and this is my destiny.

Khazan: Would you consider moving to Maine and still not being Amish, but just visiting your Amish sisters more often?

Gingerich: I have tried doing that ever since they moved up there. I love Maine, it’s beautiful and I could see myself living there. I’ve actually tried looking for a job and looking for a place to live up there, but it just doesn’t work out. My sisters tell me it would just be too hard to see you living this close and you’re not Amish.

I don’t get that feeling from them of, “Yes, move up here, be closer to us.” So I don’t feel like I should force myself to go up there and make them like it. I just don’t have the energy to try to continue being closer to them if they don’t want me there.

Khazan: Do you have to wear Amish clothes when you go visit them?

Gingerich: If I go to my parent’s place, then my dad has put his foot down, you're going to wear Amish clothes when you come here. But my brothers and sisters, they don’t care.

Khazan: Last time we talked, one of the things you mentioned really enjoying about your new life was the ability to eat ice cream whenever you want, since the Amish don’t have freezers. Is there anything else like that that you’ve been thinking about?

Gingerich: I really enjoy having the ability to share my faith, or my happiness, or share whatever to others, and not feel like I can’t do that because then I'm considered worldly. Because in the Amish, they don’t really share anything about themselves, how they feel, how mad they are. They’re not supposed to be mad.

For the Amish, they just keep it inside and move on. I’ve had a hard time expressing myself because I was so fearful thinking I’m being selfish if I do. But I found out if I communicated right, it makes my life easier, and it makes life easier for other people because I’m not grumpy.