The Problem With ‘Breaking Amish’

Breaking Amish
is a new show on TLC. I must admit that I have long been fascinated by
the Amish, largely because of their close knit culture and their refusal
to use modern technology.  When I learned that
Breaking Amish
was designed to be a form of documentary about 5 people leaving their
Amish and Mennonite communities to travel to New York and live among the
English for the first time, I must admit that I was excited. I imagined
the culture shock and the emotion of leaving behind a way of life that
was all consuming and the doubts that would occur. What I did not
imagine, and probably should have given the fact that it is airing on
TLC, that it would be nothing more than a farce representing itself as a
documentary series.

lot of reality TV in and of itself has an unpleasant undertone. In
theory this is a way for us to learn about unusual experiences,
lifestyles that are different from our own and different circumstances
through a different viewpoint – certainly a laudable concept of
expanding people’s horizons. But this is very rarely what we see; far
more often reality TV exists to present us with people that are
considered “weird” or “other”  by society and encourage us to both
decide that their lives are somehow our business and then to pity or
judge them. It’s a combination of an old fashioned freak show and a town
pillory – from the raucous activities of
Jersey Shore and Real Housewives to the insular culture of American Gypsies to the family life of Honey Boo Boo
this is all about watching people regarded as “freaks” and then judging
them and is only exacerbated by the frequent targeting of vulnerable

the very first episode something about this show struck me as wrong.
How exactly did TLC manage to find five people interested in leaving
their closed communities all at once? The cast were all old enough to
have gone through Rumspringa – a time when the young have the chance to
live among the English and make the decision as to whether or not they
want to remain Amish. Their fascination with creamers, cell phones and
microwaves seemed feigned at best. Rebecca, in particular, went out of
the way to display disgust about the outhouse in her home.  If having an
outhouse was a part of her normalised life, why is it so absolutely
disgusting to her suddenly? It’s not like indoor plumbing was ever a
part of her everyday existence. Right after getting off the plane, their
language completely changed and they used all of our current
vernacular, including cursing. After a moment’s contrived confusion
about chop-sticks, they adapted happily enough to eat a meal in a
Chinese restaurant. They presented very accurate seeming shock at a $50
hotel breakfast (I was shocked, never mind them!) but then maintained
that same shock for a $10 a head meal. Navigating an airport is a matter
of brief confusion, but a bedside radio is incomprehensible. And that’s
before we consider the likelihood of Jeremiah getting a driving license
and job as a taxi driver in New York city so quickly. Many
inconsistencies just didn’t pass the smell test.

a quick internet search, I quickly found that what TLC had attempted to
present as a true experience was based on lies. Jeremiah, the raving
sexist of the group, apparently has been married before and has three
kids. Naomi Stutzman, Jeremiah’s ex wife filed for divorce on the ground
of “gross neglect of duty” and “extreme cruelty.” Stutzman also
received a restraining order and, after separation, lived in a domestic
abuse center. Abe and Rebecca who supposedly have grown close and even
became engaged on the show,
apparently already have a child together.
Rebecca isn’t the only woman to have a child out of wedlock, but she’s
probably the first to go on national television and lie about having her
teeth pulled by the Amish to get a new set of dentures for free. A
picture taken in 2010, clearly shows Rebecca in a bikini
with a huge smile and of course, her own teeth. Abe, who also spent quite a bit of time expressing his displeasure with Kate and Sabrina for drinking also has an arrest on his record for public intoxication.
Yeah, that is the sound of hypocrisy. Then there is the little manner
of Sabrina, the sole cast member who is Mennonite. Sabrina married
Delmar R. Burkholder on July 25, 2009.  From the look of the
wedding photos, it’s clearly not a Mennonite wedding.  Sabrina also participated in the 2010 National Geographic documentary Amish At the Altar,

fiction presented as fact is especially damaging when we consider that a
large part of this series doesn’t just tell us how different the Amish
and the Mennonites are, but also how wrong or bad they are. From the
constant running in fear from the Bishop and his family, to describing
the way the Amish live in contemptuous terms through to showing their
loved ones shunning them. We have conversations in which the Amish are
presented as extremely misogynist, that Amish men are over-sexed and
will press their wives for sex hours after having a baby and even Amish
men having sex with animals. In an extreme example, Rebecca even says
that the Amish had all of her teeth removed unnecessarily when she was
young and that is why she needs false teeth, which, as we say above, is a
lie. But it is a story so shocking that it moved a dentist to provide
her with a new set for free – I can only hope that kind dentist was in
on the fiction. The Amish and the Mennonites are presented extremely
negatively from the very beginning. When the show isn’t trying to amuse
us with the somewhat contrived conflicts between the cast, it relies on
demonising and othering these communities to engage their audience. This
is the very purpose of the show and the only thing that differentiates
it from any other reality show with a group of people getting drunk and
having ridiculously dramatic spats, love affairs and fights that are
such a staple of reality tv. The show’s very concept is reliant on the
Othering of the Amish.

is further problematic simply because the Amish, due to their beliefs,
have no real chance to respond. The Amish cannot go on television or on
the internet and say “no, these are lies. No that’s an exaggeration. No
that is a gross generalisation”. They are not in a position to
effectively counter the message presented.

this fiction damages any attempt at legitimate criticism as well. I am
sure there are things to criticise about Amish communities and how their
insular lives leave little hope for intervention or help; for example
the treatment of women and GBLT members for one. But any of these
messages are lost and undermined by the sheer amount of lies being
presented. Any truth, serious issues or reasonable criticism this show
could raise about the Amish or Mennonites is completely lost due to the
deception of the source. Why should I trust Jeremiah’s complaints about
the interference of the Bishop in his life when everything else he has
said is lies? Why should I believe Rebecca when she talks about the
state of health care in her community when she has faked so much? Is
Abe’s depiction of the low education levels in the Amish community
accurate or just another dramatic falsehood?

deception undermines any possible reasoned criticism that this show
could inspire – relying instead on constant freak-show shaming with
little substance or secure foundation. Even the truth they present
cannot be taken seriously when it is drowned in so many lies and, worse,
it could undermine the truth that other, more honest commentators

Editors Note: This piece was written by both Sparky and I. We have to deal with his addiction to reality television somehow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *