"Beware of half truths, you may have hold of the wrong half." Amish proverb
There is a mystery that surrounds the Amish. And if you’re one of the 3.8 million viewers who watched the finale of TLC’s Breaking Amish and got caught up in the brewing controversy about the credibility of the show, you might be even more mystified.
TLC’s Breaking Amish series was promoted as a reality show, featuring young people who had left their Amish communities for the first time. In actuality, these cast members left the Amish long ago. A few have been married and divorced.
So why bother watching it at all?
“It’s the controversy,” said one ex-Amish man. “It’s created its own maelstrom.”
Another ex-Amish woman said it catches her attention like roadkill. “I watch every week,” she admitted. “My husband [also formerly Amish] hates it, so I record it and watch when he’s not home. I guess it’s the shock factor. I like to see how outrageous it gets. But I think it’s absolutely terrible.”
And yet, despite the misrepresentation of cast members and claims that it was staged, the series was TLC’s most watched television show in 2012.
Reality television shows about the Amish aren’t new. In the summer of 2004, CBS aired Amish in the City. It featured five Amish young adults, put them in a house in Los Angeles with six urbanites, and let the cameras roll. The show was an immediate summer hit.
Obviously, the American public is fascinated by the Amish. But by watching these television shows, are they truly learning about the Amish? Or are they just watching the story of a few disenfranchised individuals who crave the limelight?
Mary Ann Kinsinger, who blogs about her Amish childhood in A Joyful Chaos, said Breaking Amish painted the Amish as awful people. “They make Amish men, in particular, sound horrible. Jeremiah sounds like such a chauvinist. He puts women down all the time. That's not how Amish men necessarily are. I don’t even think it’s fair to the ex-Amish, either. Most of us who left the Amish didn’t do it for a wild life. Some leave, like we did, because our beliefs differed and we couldn’t stay peacefully. But that doesn’t keep us from respecting their ways and trying to hold on to those ways in our family. Others leave because they couldn’t conform. But of the twenty or so I know who left, only two left for worldly temptations.”
Perhaps that’s the irony of these reality shows: they’re really about not being Amish. The story of those who choose to remain Amish and join the church doesn’t get told. They are utterly private people and frown on anything that would bring attention to themselves. Even in church, they sing in one voice. No harmony, lest one individual stand out.
And far more stay in the Amish church than leave. The retention rate for the Amish is roughly 85-90%. Mounting evidence indicates that the Amish maintain one of the strongest and stable family systems in America. This is due, in part, to the peaceable, slow-paced, stress-free lifestyle they live. Research indicates that major depression occurs about one-fifth to one-tenth as often among Old Order Amish individuals as it does among the rest of the United States population. In addition, the Harvard School of Medicine’s recent findings revealed that Amish people have a much lower rate of heart disease than do average Americans. Breaking Amish gives the impression that something is very wrong about the culture of the Old Order Amish. The truth is that some things are very right about it.
But viewers don’t seem to be terribly concerned about the truth. Sadly, maybe they don’t really care. If it’s got Amish in the title, they’ll watch it. On December 12th, the Discovery Channel airs a new series: Amish Mafia.
About Suzanne Woods Fisher: She is an author of bestselling fiction and
non-fiction books for Revell about the Old Order Amish. Learn more about Suzanne, her books, and her weekly radio show by stopping by www.suzannewoodsfisher.com. Download the free app, Amish Wisdom, to receive a daily Amish proverb. A moment of peace and calm in a busy day.