Sunday, September 9, 2012

Breaking Amish: TLC's Newest Reality Series

Breaking Amish premiered tonight on the TLC network. The show features five people from Mennonite and Amish communities who move to New York City. The group, comprised of Abe, Jeremiah, Kate, Rebecca and Sabrina, brings us into the secretive world of the group's religious culture - and gives us a look at what happens when people walk away from the community.

I think many people have at least some level of curiosity about the Amish culture. We know about 'Amish country' and hear about how members of the community don't use electricity and other things that seem foreign in today's technological society. And we wonder about Rumspringa, the period in which a 16 year old Amish person leaves the community to decide whether they'd like to break away or return. With the new show Breaking Amish, TLC brings us into the world of people from the Amish community who are stepping away to live a more traditional lifestyle. And believe me, watching these people find their way is quite fascinating. likens Breaking Amish to MTV's Real World, presumably in the sense that it takes youths from different areas of the country and relocates them to a busy city and places them in specific situations. Like with Real World or Jersey Shore, you should be hesitant to believe that Abe, Jeremiah, Kate, Rebecca and Sabrina represent all Amish youths who step away from their culture.

In an interview with, Timothy Sauder, a 30 year old who left his Amish community, warns viewers to be skeptical before assuming all Amish people act like the group of five on Breaking Amish. Regarding the stars of the TLC show, Timothy stated:

I don’t think that they’re a representative group at all. They’re far more dramatic than any Amish kids I’ve ever seen, so that makes me suspicious immediately. Their way of speaking doesn’t look genuine to me. I just felt like they expressed themselves in ways that seem very scripted, like, they were told to say those things.

Early reviews of the show rate it highly, saying it's good to watch and the participants are likeable. Reviews also state the show is hard to watch because we're seeing participants being forced away from their families for choosing a televised lifestyle, making difficult life decisions and being filmed despite their lack of knowledge about reality television.

Before you say this show is exploiting its participants, keep in mind that all of the people on the show are adults and have ambitions beyond being Amish - they were not forced by TLC to agree to be filmed, despite the risks of losing their families and acceptance from their communities. Per the NY Daily News:

Kate, 20, and Rebecca, 21, think they’d like to model. Jeremiah, 32, and Abe, 22, have gotten just enough of a whiff of life outside the Amish community that they’re just missing too much by never experiencing it. Sabrina, 25, was born to Puerto Rican and Italian parents and adopted by a Mennonite family. She wants to find some sense of her biological roots.

Episode 1, 9/9/12:

The episode opened up with dramatic music and white wordings on a black screen warning us that the participants will have to make a decision to live lives in New York City or go back to their old lives - if they're even allowed to go back.

Next, we got a synopsis of the situations that would occur during the show - driving, drinking, relationships, and interpersonal conflicts.

Following that, we met Rebecca, the first of our participants. She told us how she dreams of so much more than she's getting from her Amish lifestyle. She dreams bigger than the life she'll have in the Amish community.

Rebecca was born to a woman who became pregnant from a non-Amish man, and that made her one of the only people in her community with a single mom. Because of this, her grandparents raised her. She loved and was close to them, but when she told them she wanted to go to New York, they told her to leave, and she essentially lost them forever.

Abe was next, and he admitted that he has trouble reading because education wasn't a priority for him growing up. He introduced us to his family, who seemed like the most bored looking people on earth. Following that, Abe said he hadn't had fun in two years. It made sense, judging from how unexciting his family looked. Abe's mom warned him that if he leaves the community, he'll be shunned and become an outcast. Nice, right?

Kate was third. She's the bishop's daughter, so there's a lot of pressure on her. She feels like there's something bigger in the world for her. Her dream is to be a model, a career she learned about through magazines. Instead, she lives in a world where nobody has pictures of themselves or their families and people live by a strict code. Kate's parents found out that she was filming and kicked her out, so she went down to Florida to another Amish community before going to New York for the show.

After going to Florida, Kate found a place to live, got her drivers' license and forgot to turn her lights on while driving one night. She ended up being arrested with a DUI and staying in jail overnight. She postponed her court date to hire a lawyer, so it seems that she'll have to deal with this while in New York City.

Jeremiah, who is adopted, dreamed of driving a car for his whole life. He seems resentful of the Amish lifestyle and often wonders what his life would be like if he was adopted by a non-Amish family. He's sick of being watched by the bishop and his family, who live nearby, and craves the privacy that non-Amish people have.
Jeremiah had the difficult task for telling his girlfriend Iva that he'd be leaving, despite the fact that they'd planned to marry in the fall. Iva asked what she would do because Jeremiah would be shunned, and she wondered what people think. Iva said that she didn't think her words would matter anyway and walked away.

Jeremiah was talking to the camera about how the Amish think eighth grade is enough schooling and then kids can work instead, and he saw the bishop's wife watching him. He then realized he needed to get out ASAP. He packed and left - that had to be the end of it. A quick, swift exit from the only life Jeremiah's ever known.

Sabrina, also adopted, is the only Mennonite participant on the show. Mennonites, unlike the Amish, can drive cars and use electricity. Because of her adoption, Sabrina never felt like she fit in. Kids made fun of her as a child because she's adopted, and it seems to have not gotten better - when people found out that Sabrina was considering leaving, they sent her mail saying that she was going to hell. She dreams of singing, but can't do it because in her community, it's considered showing off.

Sabrina told her best friend Rose about her plans to go to New York, and Rose was pessimistic, saying that Sabrina would give into temptation and going to New York was too much of a risk.
Sabrina confronted her parents about leaving (off camera, as her parents refused to be recorded), and while her mom was okay with it, her dad said that she needs to be a better Mennonite girl and be submissive, rather than rebelling.

My thoughts on the show

It's disturbing how people in the Amish communities discourage their members from leaving because they're 'doing the wrong thing' and 'could be shunned from the community'. Why is it that religion can dictate whether family members can associate after one member leaves the community? That sounds just as ridiculous as a mother cutting her kid out of her life if he moves out of state or chooses a different religion. Shouldn't family be stronger than that?

Some community members seem so unhappy. There seems to be so much fear of being watched or being shunned or looked down upon. Acceptance seems so volatile - you have to work so hard for it but it's so easy to lose it completely.

Women have such limited rights in the Amish and Mennonite communities. They have set roles and are expected to behave in a very specific way. That can't be easy!

The Amish are very focused on work and believe that children should only be educated until the eighth grade. To me, it sounds like that's the community's way of discouraging members from aiming for a life bigger than can be found within the community.
At the end of the show, we got some more scenes from the upcoming season, and it certainly looks like it's going to be a dramatic one. Let's just say that the participants clearly got in touch with their wild sides, so it'll be interesting to see where the show goes from here.

My verdict? Watch Breaking Amish. It's captivating and time flies as you watch the show. It's interesting to see a culture so different from our own and truly understand the struggle of some community members when they crave a different lifestyle.

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