Shunning--a Terrible punishment

Background

I grew up in central Kansas in a zone dominated by Mennonite farmers. You have to understand that Mennonites come in several varieties of strictness, ranging from the Amish -- most strict, to what we called the Mennonites, who dressed like everybody else, went to school and university, and drove cars; but who automatically got C.O. status from the draft, and believed dancing was evil.

One of the in-between sects had a colony a few miles west of where I went to high school. They were definitely not Amish, because they had electricity and drove cars. But they did dress like the Amish. One local difference was that the baptized women of this sect tended to wear their hair done up in a black kercheif, rather than the stylized starched white bonnet that the Amish use. We had Amish communities too, so I was accustomed to seeing buggies among the cars.

These folks did not believe in education beyond the eighth grade, as farming was the only occupation considered "honorable" for them. They lived within their own little society, being cordial and transacting business with outsiders, but having all their social and networking and important relationships within the fold. They have much more of a worker bee mentality than the typical individualistic American. Your existence within their society is very family-oriented. Everyone knows what farm you come from and who your people are and what your place is. No one needs to "find themselves." It is a tightly knit and highly functional social organization that works pretty darn well, unless, like my soon-to-be friend (I'll call her Linda), you happen to yearn for something a little more intellectually stimulating than farming.

After completing eighth grade, Linda begged to be allowed to go to high school. Her parents thought it over and they decided that, since Linda was a smart girl, perhaps a little extra learning would suit her. They were adament: two years would be enough. Linda was to go to a small rural high school populated mainly by Mennonites just one or two grades lower on the strictness scale than they were. She wasn't likely to be corrupted by evil inner city influences. There were no computers or TV's in schools in those days. Linda was given the task of learning bookkeeping and home economics, to try to prepare her to be a better farmer's wife. But Linda had other plans. When the two years were up, Linda's parents withdrew her from school and put her to work on the farm. She slyly convinced them to let her get a job doing some bookkeeping for a local farm store so she could hang out in "town" more. They liked the money she brought in, as the family was not very wealthy. She was so good at it that she was often able to leave early. She killed time waiting for her ride home by standing slack-jawed outside the local TV store gaping at the TV sets which were left on until very late. Sometimes she nearly frostbit her fingers; such was her fascination with TV's and all things electrical.

The other thing she did while waiting to turn 18 was to study high school books with a view to getting her GED. She also enlisted the aid of one of her former high school teachers. The day she turned 18, Linda went in and took the GED and passed with flying colors. Her former high school teacher helped her apply for a scholarship. He wrote a letter explaining her situation and why she had a GED rather than a high school diploma. Linda received a scholarship to go to University. Alas, it was not a full ride, so she did not have the means to go to University right then and there. Linda had received a raise from the farm store owner, which she did not tell her parents about. She still turned over money to the family every week, but she started saving the extra in her own account for University. Plus she worked the rest of the time on her family's farm, and behaved as a good almost-Amish girl should.


Linda goes to University

About that time there was a terrible blow-up in the family. Linda's treachery at saving up her own money was found out. Plus she had no intention of marrying the farmer lad that had been picked out for her. She went off in a huff, taking her money, and enrolled herself in University to study electrical engineering.

You must understand what incredible cojones it took for her to leave her family and community like that. That is the time that I met Linda. We were freshmen at University together, she being a couple of years older than I due to the delay, but strangely naïve and innocent in the ways of the world. When we met we realized that we had gone to high schools four miles apart, and some of her cousins (strays from the sect, no doubt) had actually gone to my high school. Of course the first thing Linda did upon arriving on campus was to lose the black headscarf, get a stylish haircut and buy herself some jeans. At least she looked like everybody else. But she hadn't bargained for the intense aloneness she was to feel, and she was ill-prepared for it. Aloneness hits every college freshman to some degree, but not the way it hit Linda. Unbeknownst to me during that first year, Linda's family was obliged by their religion to shun her because she broke the rules.

Aloneness was much harder on her than a mainstream kid, because in the sect, they do everything communally and a person's sense of self is defined by who their family is.  Not to mention that Linda was not accustomed to the way the "English" kids talked, listened to music, related to each other, or partied.  She had no clue about popular culture, didn't really care for beer, and was actually a rather shy individual.  The other girls in her dorm, being kind and caring people, just decided Linda was a little odd and aloof, and left her strictly to herself.  Her family kept communication to a minimum, informing her only of births, deaths and weddings.  No one except I knew that she had come from an old Mennonite family, and I was sworn to secrecy.   She made up for a childhood bereft of television by becoming a Star Trek rerun addict.  I swear that girl was in love with Spock.  Her grades the first semester were not as stellar as she had hoped.   Double E is demanding; television for her was a major time sink, and feelings of isolation are not conducive to excellent intellectual performance.   Second semester we started to hang out   more together and both our grades improved.    I enjoyed Linda's outsider view on popular culture.  She was intensely rational about everything, and was a dogged and determined problem solver.  I enjoyed my role as her personal guide to all things normal about student life.  We engaged in lively debates about religion.  Linda had, in the way of the young, decided that all religion is oppressive and declared herself quite vocally to be an atheist.  I wasn't so sure I'd take things that far.

We talked about the upcoming year, and we both decided to move to the big international dorm.  I don't know why we didn't request each other as roommates but it didn't occur to us.  During our sophomore year, Linda sought me out more and more, and it was clear to me that she was becoming sadder and disillusioned with the "modern" way of life.  Her younger sister got married that fall, and Linda was not even allowed to be in the wedding.  She had to sit in the back of the church.  When she visited home, which was not often, she was not allowed at table with the family, they did not converse with her other than routine business, and basically treated her as an unwelcome boarder.  I had plans to go abroad for the second half of my sophomore year, and several times Linda expressed to me wistfully that she wished I wouldn't.   Being young and clueless, I was not picking up on just how important our friendship was to her.   I went abroad as planned but we promised to write, and indeed we did.    I received several letters from Linda during my foreign stint.  The letters became increasingly sadder, and then there was a time when I didn't get any at all.  It was only after I returned that I found that Linda had gone back to the sect and was engaged to marry a young farmer from up the road a piece.   

Epilogue

When I had been back a while I got a letter from Linda.  She wanted to visit me at my parents' when I was home from college.  I said sure.  When she arrived, what a change!  She was back to the black kerchief and the frumpy longish cotton dresses typical of her sect.  It was impossible for me to read all of her feelings but it was clear  Linda was afraid I would think she was a great stupid git for returning to the sect.  She tried explaining to me how she fit in so badly in the English world, but there was a niche custom made for her in her world if only she believed in the religion. 

So, did you see God in a vision or something? I asked.  Because remember YOU were the atheist of the two of us.

No, she said, but I can see God, or whatever you want to call Him, more clearly working  through my people than I can through the English.  My people are simple farmers.  We grow food which people need in order to live.  We sell what we don't eat and we use the money to buy the things we need that we can't grow.   But we don't have the excesses of the main culture.  I truly do believe that excess is the downfall of modern culture.  Do you find that stupid?  

No, I said.  "Normal"  people could learn a lot from your people. I just wish the religious rigidity wasn't part of the package.  But I suppose you folks need that to maintain your separateness.   

Linda, I said gently, I could tell that you were getting sadder and sadder from your letters. I want you to be in a place where you are happy.    Does this make you happy? 

She thought about it a long time, then she said, I am content. 

I never saw her again.   

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Comments 22 comments

Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 7 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

That's a fascinating story, very nicely told. We hear quite a lot about the extreme sects and their control techniques over their 'loved' ones, but it's rarer to have an insight into the 'second order'. One wonders how many Lindas there are out there. Very sad.


VioletSun profile image

VioletSun 7 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

Seeing Linda surrender to her roots not because she wanted to, but because the shunning broke her resolve to do experience life in a different way is sad. Enjoyed reading your story because I got to experience via your words, a world I am not familiar with.


hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 7 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

Who am I to speculate, but I don't think it was the shunning that "broke her down." I think it was the emptiness of our materialistic lifestyle coupled with the shunning -- After I left Linda was starving for even the remotest shred of meaning and warmth in her human relationships. She was not a charismatic person who attracted friends easily. A person with a different personality could have capitalized on their old Mennonite past and become an uber party animal. That's what some of the other escapees from the sect do. But Linda was looking for meaning. I don't want to seem self-important, but I think I really let her down when I left. I didn't mention it, but she also had a couple of "boyfriends" while she was among the English, but they were just after sex. And anyway who are we to judge whether she "chose" that path or not. All of our life choices involve emotion. And who are we to judge whether going back was the right path for her or not.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 7 years ago from The Ozarks

Hot Dorkage, this is an important story you've told here. I think many people feel trapped in the same way, even if they don't come from such strict sects. Everybody needs a sense of "belonging", and often they sacrifice their intellects in order to get that. BTW, did she ever try to hook up with other Trekkies? That's a kind of religion, too.


hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 7 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

She may have met some Trekkies, I don't really know. But I suspect that if she did, the relationships left her feeling unfilfilled.


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States

Impressive story. Couldn't help but wonder if she's still content.


VioletSun profile image

VioletSun 7 years ago from Oregon/ Name: Marie

Only Linda knows the answers I guess- your story touched the human part of me that felt a tad of sadness.


hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 7 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

I haven't been back there in years. My parents moved away from that area a few years after the whole Linda thing went down. Linda wouldn't be too hard to find: I could just go to that tiny Kansas farm town and ask in any business establishment after the family. OMG it's been so long I can't even remember their surname but if someone said it I would remember. And it's a small Holdemann Mennonite community, there aren't that many surnames in circulation. But I probably couldnt' look her up on classmates.com or facebook. :( I'd love to see her. And my guess is she found a way to be and stay content. The Mennonites are amazingly resourceful people.


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States

Try searchbug.com under searching for people, just the first letter of a surname in the name category -- then the town and state. Long shot that sometimes nets results.


hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 7 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

Thanks Jerilee, I could try that once I get my brain around the surname. There was no internet when all this went down, but my guess is that those folks absolutely and completely shun the internet. I have to remember her maiden name first, but I think I have old letters from her stashed away some where.


Denny Lyon profile image

Denny Lyon 7 years ago from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA

Fascinating story. Nothing worse than getting caught between two worlds and neither one of them is satisfactory. She had some tough choices.

Most likely she figured out how to live inside herself much like Japanese women used to do a few generations ago. In a strict society of any kind that's usually where a woman goes: to her inner world.


hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 7 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

That's an interesting take.  I can totally relate. And I rather think that the men in the sect also have to live inside themselves -- their behavior and roles are pretty regulated as well. It would be pretty tough to be gay, for example, if you were an old Mennonite, and I'm sure such unfortunate individuals exist. The Mennonites would probably call "living inside yourself" self-discipline or spirituality.


anjalichugh profile image

anjalichugh 7 years ago from New York

As paraglider mentioned we don't know how many Linda's are out there. It's unfortunate that so many lives are sacrificed in the name of religious restrictions and societal rules. When will people understand that 'spirituality' & 'religion' lose their meaning if the 'spirit' is in bondage. I just know one thing for sure that I have seen similar culture and strangulating religious beliefs at a very close range. I can very well understand what Linda must have gone through in being the odd one out and living (practically) a secluded life. It clearly shows that she ultimately succumbed to her situation and opted for a lifestyle which no doubt was oppressing and suffocating, but was at least familiar; She still felt a part of it. It was a heart rending story.


hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 7 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

I think I would have made the same choice. What good is all the bright shiny baubles the "normal" culture offers if you feel absolutely isolated and your only friend who even remotely understands where you came from abandons you. I feel awful about leaving her alone like I did in retrospect. She seemed so competent and able to cope I didn't think it would break her down for me to go as long as we wrote often. But I was gone for nearly a year. Long time when you're young.


anjalichugh profile image

anjalichugh 7 years ago from New York

Don't blame yourself. Life is complicated. You must have had your own reasons to do what you did. You might have been occupied with your own problems. Moreover, everyone has to fight his own way out. How long and how far would you have been able to extend your help. Sooner or later she would have had to make a choice. It was to happen and it did. It's called....'back to source'. She probably belonged there.


hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 7 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

I just felt awful, but I don't put any blame on myself. I was just behaving normally for a young kid -- the travel abroad was a great opportunity for me. But things could have worked differently for Linda if she had a better bridge into the dominant culture. Like if a truly caring and compassionate man had swept her off her feet or something or if one of her professors had taken a professional interest in her (not likely in EE, they were then and probably still are pretty sexist) she might have gained a foothold in her sense of belonging. One never knows where the road not taken might have ended.


EYEAM4ANARCHY profile image

EYEAM4ANARCHY 7 years ago from Las Vegas, NV.

Having been raised on the west coast, I had only known of Amish and the associated groups through movies before I started travelling, so when I first came across the real thing it was a bit of a culture shock. While this story is very sad and doesn't speak well of some of their customs, I agree that "normal" people could learn alot from them in general.


C.S.Alexis profile image

C.S.Alexis 7 years ago from NW Indiana

Your story is very curious and sad but, that is from a point of view that does not know the other side from within my heart. I feel that our upbringing has such a strong hold that it was probably the best for Linda in the long run. Then again, how can we ever know?

We all rebel from our roots in our youth. It seems most of us return to what we know because that is what we were taught. The best thing about the basics of this is at least Linda did not come from a self destructive, drug addicted, alcoholic group...so maybe it is not so bad. And maybe she will be more understanding with her children and her younger relatives lending some tiny expansion in their very closed world.

Enjoyed your sharing here.


hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 7 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

Well, plenty of people do escape. There are websites for ex-Amish where they share all their horror stories, kinda like ex-Catholics share "mean nun with a ruler" stories. The thing I find about people who escape is most of them never thought deeply about the basic goodness embedded in their own culture, so eager are they to partake of the excesses of materialism which has pretty much taken over the whole world by now. All they were able to see was the excesses of people in their world who were about rules and not about spirituality, and/or the superficial privations they have to endure, such as no TV. So in a sense the shunning served its purpose, because the family deprived Linda of what was good about their society and that forced her to appreciate it. If they had been all down with her going off like that, she might not have felt the isolation quite so keenly.


exjwlaurie 5 years ago

This was a facinating story! I can relate to Linda, as an ex-JW.

I know what it is to live within a closed-society of fellow-believers. To be considered "odd" to the outside world--which only makes you more dependant upon your "group". To only marry within the "group". To shun any who dare leave the "hive".

To long to experience what the rest of the world is able to do so freely--is considered to be either wrong--or pointless, as it is "of the world". (college, travel, pursuing a career)

I left the JW's after being born into the hive, raised in the hive--devout to them for 35 years. I lost every friend I had ever made (all Witnesses)when I left them 18 years ago. My siblings reject me, my dad will only speak to me on occasion on the phone.

I understand the temptation to return to regain family and friends--however-I can't because I know they do not have the TRUTH. They give up so much to follow man-made deceitful teachings.

But I did feel a kinship to Linda as I read your story about her. I understand her. I feel sad for her--choices really aren't choices for some people--they are eventualities. It is "learning to accept" that which we cannot change, and hoping to come to peace with it.

Thank you for telling her story, I hope she finds true peace in her life.


hot dorkage profile image

hot dorkage 5 years ago from Oregon, USA Author

Linda did leave the "tribe" just like Siddhartha did. She did not find the fulfillment she had hoped for in mainstream culture. She found intellectual stimulation a poor substitute for a feeling of belonging.

When I first knew her, we both naively believed that we would discover a welcoming community of like minded intellectuals among the university set. Alas, that was not the case for either of us. Most of the university students seemed bent on drinking themselves into oblivion, and/or playing stupid little social games just like high school. I guess I just coped with it better than she did.

Nothing would stop her from going to the library and reading, and if she wanted to travel, they have an active missionary component. I believe she told me when we parted that she would shortly be going to Guatemala, so settling there may have been an escape for her.


exjwlaurie 5 years ago

She sounds like an amazing woman!

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