Stream it or skip it?


In the two-part television documentary Peacock Sins of the Amish, former members of the Amish and Mennonite traditionalist Christian communities allege a toxic pattern of sexual abuse and victim-shaming that has occurred over the hundreds of years they have existed in America. In the first part, interviews with victims intertwine with comments from outside observers, and a trio of sibling abusers face sentencing by a Wisconsin judge.

Opening shot: A prototypical Amish horse-drawn buggy drives along a two-lane rural road, its orange slow-moving vehicle warning triangle affixed to the rear. “To the outside world, the Amish appear to be a kind, loving, generous, and hardworking community that basically wouldn’t hurt a fly,” says a former member. “But this whole picture is pretty much a lie.”

The essential: Sins of the Amish alleges a generational pattern of chronic sexual abuse in Amish and Mennonite communities across North America. From Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin to Washington State and North Carolina, the stories of the victims interviewed are eerily similar. That beyond devotion to a humble lifestyle, hard work, craftsmanship, and devotion to the will of God, Plains communities are plagued by the objectification of women and children, to unchecked assaults and sexual violence, and to the refusal of the church and all-male elders establishment to effect any accountability or change. Mary, who was raised in Amish communities in Wisconsin, calls it a “predator’s paradise” and details how her brothers raped her as a child. Sisters and former members Meg and Rebekah, who grew up in Michigan and North Carolina, say they were subjected to numerous sexual assaults by members of the community as well as their own brother, and were blamed for the incidents at place of the authors. And Misty, who was assaulted when she came to live in the home of an Amish church leader, describes the failure to report the abuse. The bishop was the all-powerful spiritual leader of the community. Who would believe her?

Keeping the house, working hard, having children: that’s the ingrained mantra among women in the Amish and Mennonite communities, say former members interviewed here. And if you step out of line, give voice to your abuse, or reject the culture of discipline and control, well, God help you. “All religion is rooted in abuse,” says Jasper, activist and podcast host. “They looked at me and saw a problem,” said Annie, a former Mennonite from Pennsylania. When she spoke about the sexual abuse she had suffered, her family told everyone she had schizophrenia and took her to an unlicensed care facility where the counselors themselves were abusers.

In 2004, Mary said she couldn’t take it anymore. His own abuse for years by older brothers Johnny, Eli and David Byler was bad enough. But when she found out her younger sister was also a victim, she called the sheriff’s department. In its last section, the first part of Sins of the Amish features interviews with the sheriff’s deputy who interviewed Mary, the Wisconsin prosecutor who took the case against the Bylers to a judge, and footage from the courtroom on sentencing day.

Photo: Peacock

What shows will this remind you of? Sins of the Amish is featured as part of Peacock’s “True Crime Tuesday,” where the streamer features originals like Monster in the shadowsabout the 2012 disappearance of Alabama teenager Brittney Wood, and preach evil, which includes first-hand accounts of life in the cult of polygamist preacher Warren Jeffs. And do not forget Breaking up the AmishTLC’s reality show about young people from Pennsylvania who make their rumspringa in New York.

Our opinion : Investigations of child sexual abuse in Amish communities have recently appeared in national news outlets like NPR and the Associated Press. But Sins of the Amish feels more intensely personal, given that the documentary series centers on the first-person testimony of abused individuals themselves. The women speak clearly to the camera about their experiences, often with an air of cautious detachment, as if the violence they experienced had already been categorized and canned. But that does not make him forget. There’s a raw, edgy energy to the way Mary handles her knitting needles during interviews — anything to keep her hands occupied, her thoughts active elsewhere — and her box of Amish community artifacts is overwhelming. She pulls out some sort of sex education manual for eleven-year-old girls, which seems to blame the victim and absolve any sexual abuser, especially a male sibling. “He suddenly discovers himself victim of your carelessness and lust for her own body,” Mary reads aloud. It’s heartbreaking.

Sins of the Amish is powerful on a personal level, it doesn’t always provide enough narrative detail. For example, how the apparent existence of mental institutions exclusive to Plains communities plays into their traditionalist belief system is not explored, or how these places can remain unlicensed and unregistered. But it’s a tantalizing facet of the doc nonetheless, one that shares true Mormon-centric crime drama with. Under the banner of heaven a sense of unfurling the shroud of a famous island community.

Sex and skin: Descriptions of ugly and shocking sexual violence are ubiquitous in Sins of the Amish.

Farewell shot: Hundreds of Amish in traditional dress gather in a courtroom gallery. For one person, they are there to support the three brothers and accused rapists, not their sister and victim, and the judge appears to berate those gathered for not “crying for” Mary, who is only hoping for justice.

Sleeping Star: “This is brainwashing and mind control shit.” Mary’s visible anger and salty candor about the culture of violence and submission she experienced in the Amish community make for some of the doc’s most powerful moments.

The most pilot line: Dennis E. Reinaker, a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania judge and founder of a task force investigating Plain communities, says sexual violence is common. “It’s something that’s been tolerated within the Amish community for a long time, not treated as inappropriate, and that’s part of why it’s such a difficult part of the fabric of their community to manage, because they didn’t see it as the problem everyone knows it is.

Our call: SPREAD IT. Sins of the Amish gives voice to former members of the once silenced Plain communities, whose collective history of chronic sexual abuse is compelling from a personal and real crime perspective.

Johnny Loftus is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicagoland. Her work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glenganges


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