Saloma Furlong ’AC07 Reflects on Amish Upbringing and Smith Experience

Veronica Brown '17

Associate Editor

As a young woman, Saloma Furlong ’AC07 left her Amish community and braved a new future for herself. After raising two sons with her husband, she returned to her education through Smith’s Ada Comstock program. She published two books telling her story, “Why I Left the Amish” and “Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds.” Her story has been featured in the PBS documentaries “The Amish” and “The Amish: Shunned.”

What led you to Smith and the Ada Comstock program?

After I left the Amish, I acquired my GED and began taking college courses until I was expecting my first child. I decided I didn’t want to divide myself between being a mother and a student, but I promised myself that someday I would go back [to school].

I first heard about Smith College when I was living near Burlington, Vt. when I was exploring my options for going to college. At first I dismissed it because my family was not inclined to move, and I didn’t want to make a weekly commute. I kept on hearing about this program at Smith. When I hear the same thing three times, I tend to finally sit up and take notice…so I applied and was accepted.

What was your transition to Smith like?

My tenure at Smith College was truly a rags-to-riches intellectual experience. My whole life I had longed for a college education, but my experiences at Smith surpassed even my wildest dreams. What a contrast to my childhood! I knew, even when I was in first grade, that my education would end when I graduated from the eighth grade. When the time came, I wanted so much to continue to go to school, but I knew that there was no chance of that. I simply had to suppress my longing and go on with my life.

I made it to Smith when my older son was in his third year at Johns Hopkins University and my younger son was starting Johnson State [College]. I graduated the year after my older son graduated from Johns Hopkins University. I wore the same gown he had worn.

What inspired you to write about your experiences in the Amish community?

I found myself telling my story many times. Almost inevitably, [listeners] would tell me that I needed to write my story. But I couldn’t, at least not right away. I was bitter for several years after leaving the Amish, and I needed to gain a new perspective. When I first began writing my story, my memories were still quite fresh. I would take emotional breaks before returning to it. I started trying to get my story published and became discouraged. I kept shelving my manuscript because I didn’t see the way to publishing it.

When I first got to know Ellie Rothman [the founding director of the Ada Comstock program] and told her my story, she also said I needed to write my story. It became “Why I Left the Amish” — 17 years after I first began writing. I believe now that my story and I needed to evolve and grow to be ready for an audience.

What was it like to see your story featured in the PBS documentaries?

Viewing myself in each of the films for the first time was quite an experience. I had given the interviews months before, and a 10-hour interview was reduced to 10 minutes, so it was a surprise both times as to what was in the film and what wasn’t. Callie Wiser, the producer of both these films, was good at portraying people authentically, so I feel she captured my character well.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently applying for a Fulbright research grant. I am proposing to study the educational practices of the Anabaptists, the ancestors of the Amish, in 1600s and 1700s Germany to find out if the Amish attitudes against “book learning” and cultivating the intellect originated in Europe. Before the 1972 U. S. Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder exempted them from compulsory education, Amish parents were often jailed for not complying with education laws. I want to discover where such a deep-seated aversion to higher education came from. There is no historical record in the United States, or even in the Amish oral tradition or collective memory, concerning these conventions that run counter to the American mainstream.