“I Am Hutterite” By Mary-Ann Kirkby

“I Am Hutterite” by Mary-Ann Kirkby

I saw this book sitting on a stand in and airport bookstore as I was walking past this afternoon, picked it up on impulse and finished it a few hours later. I highly recommend it. This is not a great work of literature. It is, however, a nicely crafted little book that is somewhere between important and very important for people who have left Mormonism, or who are sitting on the brink of leaving and terrified by that prospect.

The Hutterites are closer to the fundamentalist Mormons and the Mormons. They are the cultural relatives of the Old Order Amish, and live primarily in Canada in a communal environment. “I Am Hutterite” is the true story of a family who left a Hutterite colony. It is written by a women who was approximately 10 years old when her parents took the extremely unusual step of deciding that they could no longer abide by the strictures of their community.

This story parallels the experience many of us have had while leaving Mormonism. However, it is more extreme than our experience in almost every way. Hutterites are raised in the same sort of cloistered environment as the fundamentalist Mormons. They are accordingly hamstrung when it comes to surviving outside of their communities. The cultural adjustment they go through as they attempt to acclimatize to life outside the “colony” is exponentially more difficult than the adjustments post-Mormons have to make.

Mary-Ann Kirkby is a journalist, and therefore well-suited to telling this story. She writes from a child’s perspective, observing the stresses in her parents and other community members’ lives and how that affected her experience. She went through the adolescent hell of being an odd dressing, accent speaking outcast after her family left the Hutterite faith and community. She describes in fair, clear headed and loving terms both the strengths and weaknesses of her former community. She emphasizes the importance of forgiveness in the healing process after departing an authoritarian community.

In particular, Kirkby communicates the warmth and complexity of the relationships within her former community, and the relative desolation she initially experienced in the “outside” world. She describes in convincing fashion the iron rule within the Hutterite group, the love demonstrated by the rulers and others, and the ignorance dominated life the Hutterite faithful lead. The book’s primary weakness is it lack of comment relative to the negative effect of the Hutterites extreme “beehive” mentality. The price paid for the community’s warm embrace is surrender of nearly all opportunity for personal development.

Gradually, Kirkby and her family acclimatized to the “English” world. However, the first year was excruciating and the first several were difficult. For her parents, the difficultly went on for much longer. They made the same kind of sacrifice immigrants make – they gave up potentially everything in order to purchase a better life for their children. This kind of courage moves me.

One of the aspects of this book that I found most interesting was the difference between the way the men dealt with the conflict that resulted in Kirkby’s family leaving the colony, as compared with how the women dealt with it. The men tended to draw lines that were much more black and white, and based on principle. The women seemed to be more orientated toward preserving relationships, regardless of principles that needed to be breached in this regard. The women, for example, tended to break the rules in order to maintain contact once family members left the colony. The men tended to be the ones who forced issues, and hence forced change. The women then reacted to contain the energy that was generated in this regard so as to preserve relationships. This caused that energy to remain within the group, and caused additional change because the dissidents could not be excised cleanly as would have been the case had the men ruled with the iron hand they have on paper.

Women are bridge builders who ease transitions and exert an influence outside the formal structure of the Hutterites community.

When Kirby’s father finally decided he had to leave the community, he went away on his own for a few weeks to attempt to lay the groundwork. He was well over 40 years old, had a grade 8 education and had never done anything other than farm work. He and his wife had seven children. The prospects for him being able to support his family were minimal.

While he was gone, community members told Kirkby’s mother that he had run away and would not come back for her, but that if he did come back she should lock the doors and not permit him into the house. During their wedding ceremony years before, he had covenanted that if he had a crisis of faith and left the colony that he would not attempt to take his wife and children with him. That is, Hutterite marriage is a three party deal – husband, wife and Church.

In the parts of the story that deal with the way in which the Hutterite community is structured, countless parallels can be found to the Mormon community. For example, Hutterites believe that the colony is the “ark of God”, and that only those who remain within the ark are safe. All those who refuse to enter, or who leave, will perish. As a little girl, Kirkby was so disturbed by the stories of judgment day she heard, that at one point she concocted a plan to do something really good for her mother and then kill herself. She reasoned that life was so difficult overall, and in particular it was so difficult to get to Heaven, that it would be better for her to do that (her good deed just before death would ensure her entrance into Heaven) than to continue to struggle through life. She was pulled back from this plan by the knowledge that killing herself would hurt her mother and father too much.

I was particularly touched by the author’s description of the loneliness Kirkby and her family experienced as they adjusted to life outside of the warm Hutterites community. For example:

“The summer of 1969 was the loneliest summer of our lives. We lived in the middle of nowhere and knew no one. It rained all the time, and the flies and mosquitoes were intolerable. If we went outside to play, we were up to our elbows in muck. If we stayed in, with no television or toys to amuse us, the boys would wrestle or play tag, tearing the house apart. On the colony, we would have been to Essenschul for breakfast and off playing with our friends by 8 a.m., but the social and physical structure that had given order and purpose to our lives had been ripped out from under us. In Faireholm [the colony], we had spent relatively little time with our siblings except for evening prayers and bedtime routines; our new circumstances brought us in much closer contact with each other, and that led to a lot of arguing as we worked to define our new relationships. Mother found herself with a house full of lively children who didn’t know what to do with themselves.” (Page 123)

“Mother struggled to put meals together. There was no more running to the community kitchen for fresh, home-cooked meals or buns, pies and cakes just out of the oven. In Faireholdm the bell rang at 15 minutes past seven and 11 in the mornings, and 15 minutes past five in the afternoon for what was known as “first call”. Those with very young children sped toward the kitchen, for it signalled that the meal was ready and they should come to fill their pails and dishes with a delicious vaariety of fresh food to take home. Older people have the option of having their food delivered to their homes instead of going to the Essenstuben. On the half hour, the bell would rign again and the rest of the community would stop what they were doing and head to the kitchen to eat.”

“Since she was a teenager, mother had followed the traditional pattern of work rotation on Hutterite colonies. She was 17 when she was first assigned a cook week in Rosedale, the age when all women step into their adult roles and are paired with other women between the ages of 17 and 45 to spent alternating weeks baking, washing dishes, or cooking. With up to 100 community members to feed, good organization was important; the menu was set out in advance by the head cook, and the supplies were always on hand in the kitchen. Had mother stayed on the colony she would, at age 45, have been eased into retirement as the younger women took over, but now her retirement was put off indefinitely.”

“She was an excellent cook and with the proper ingredients could replicate all the mouthwatering Hutterite meals our spoiled palates were used to, but we couldn’t afford the ducks for Sunday dinner or the cream for Schmond Wacken or the fresh strawberries so readily available on the colony. All Father could manage on his salary was food at bargain prices. A sympathetic Jewish grocer in Winnipeg who ran a small corner store agreed to sell him produce that had outlived its shelflife.” (Page 125)

“We hardly ever saw Father anymore. He was gone most mornings before we awoke and arrived home late in the evenings after everyone was in bed. Mother craved adult companionship, and sometimes I would find her gazing longingly out our kitchen window, watching a single car drive past until it was out of sight. What she would give to share a cup of coffee with Katie Hofer or fold laundry with Oma, who made every crease vanish, and our underwear and towels look as if they had been ironed.” (page 130)

“I sensed her loneliness and started to stay up with her to keep her company. Every night, often until midnight, Mother stroked my hair and told me Bible stories of faith and perseverance while we sat by the picture window looking out into the darkness. I could tell she was trying to shore up our own faith, and the stories were as much for her benefit as mine. On the colony, the family had no worries about food and shelter, paying the bills, or caring for children. In our new lives, far from the security of [the colony], mother had no idea how we would survive if something happened to Father, or what we would do or where we would go. When we saw the headlights of the truck turning onto our deserted lane, we would both be relieved, and I would rush upstairs to my bed before Dad was in the front door.” (Page 131)

[Comments with regard to a return visit to the colony without her family] “I missed seeing my mother working with the other women, hearing her laugh and swap stories with her gardening partner, Katie Hofer. During our daily ice cream break, the older women patted my head sympathetically and proclaimed me “innocent”. I knew that they blamed my parents for what had happened. I was still too attached to let go, not ready to give up the silky sand beneath my feet, the dusty, winding paths, and the sound of the kitchen bell. I ached for the structure of the days, the familiar, lined faces of the women in the kitchen, the smell of baking buns, and the guttural sound of our language. My heart was not ready to accept that this was no longer home.” (Page 150)

Overall, this book is both touching and profoundly encouraging. Those of us who have been through difficult cultural transitions will find the description of the stresses Mary-Ann experienced as a young person attempting to adjust to a new way of life moving. And, if Hutterite families can leap the massive chasm described in this book successfully, Mormon families should cope with the changes required to adjust to life outside Mormonism. We should expect to be frightened by the prospect of this transition. We should also expect it to be manageable, and that we will thrive in the more complex, richer environment outside of Mormonism.

“I Am Hutterite” is about human social evolution – a testament to our adaptability.

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