October 21, 2011

“Amish” Thugs; The Bergholz Gang

Category: News — Ira @ 6:42 pm


“If every family would just do as they pleased,
what kind of church would we have?”

-Bishop Sam Mullet

I was about as floored as anyone, I suppose. The media sure had a field day with the juicy reports. Amish people invading the homes of other Amish people and cutting off the beards of the men. And, at least in one case, forcibly cutting the hair of the women in the house. The news flashed in headlines all across this continent. And across the world. Befuddlement ruled, mostly. Such shocking stuff had never been heard before. Surely it was all just a farce. It wasn’t, sadly.

I instantly and instinctively realized the story would be good for my book sales. And almost immediately, my Amazon numbers, which had been languishing between 10,000 and 20,000 in the rankings, rocketed up. For a couple of weeks now, Growing Up Amish has pretty much been hanging right in there between 3,000 and 10,000 in the rankings (watch it plunge back to where it was before, now that I went and said that). I don’t know exactly what that means in real hard numbers. A dozen books a day, maybe. But when the subject of the Amish hits the headlines, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, not when it comes to sales of my book.

Along with a host of Amish and ex-Amish people, I read in disbelief as the details trickled out. And mostly, I won’t rehash those details in any depth. Just give my take on the entire sordid episode.

I did make some calls to few trusted contacts in Holmes County, though. Just to get a first-hand feel of all the buzz. And to try to sort the actual facts from all the media hype. My contacts were most helpful. One of them was very closely involved in the aftermath of these events.

It’s a terrible thing, to really grasp. People entering your home, and cutting off your beard. I mean, that kind of religious zeal went out the window, at least in the West, centuries ago. What is this, the second defenestration of Prague? Back then, they committed all kinds of atrocities during frenzied religious disputes. In a way, I couldn’t help but laugh at the mental picture in my head, though, of these beard-cutting incidents. How whacked can you be, to think you’ll get away with something like that in today’s world? Sheer madness, in every sense of the phrase.

It all stems from one man, and that one man’s decisions. Bishop Sam Mullet. From the pictures I’ve seen, a well-fed man. Not plump, particularly. But smooth. And well spoken. Looks Amish as they come. Large nose. Weathered but not unhandsome features. A patriarch with a full flowing beard that widens as it lengthens, well combed. Adds gravitas and all, such a beard. Could even be a source of pride, I’m thinking. Wonder how Bishop Sam would feel if someone forcibly cut that majestic beard from his face.

And there he stands, addressing the media. Confident. Arrogant. Smug. Yes, this was a church matter. No, the law shouldn’t be involved. And no, his group is most definitely NOT a cult. How could anyone suggest such a scandalous thing? And of course he didn’t order the attacks, didn’t order his followers to go cut beards and hair from Amish men and women in the sanctity of their homes. Of course not. But yet, his denials echo hollow. (Since that one hour-long interview, he’s been awful quiet. I bet his lawyer told him to shut up.) Why then, did his followers do such a preposterous thing? Did they just dream it up on their own? And follow through, without his blessing? Maybe. But I think not.

And here, it might be good to speak of a bit of background history. Of who Bishop Sam was way back when, and who he is today. My conclusions are my own, and should not be construed as anything other than my opinions.

The timeline of events seems a bit murky, so I didn’t spend a lot of time researching the dates and such. Because they don’t really matter that much, not to the essence of the story. From my Holmes contacts and from a New York Times article, I pieced earlier events together the best I could. So some of my background “facts” may be a bit off, as to exactly when they happened.

Bishop Sam emerged from the strict plain Amish settlement in Geauga County, up near Cleveland. The Geauga Amish have always had an unsavory reputation. Just a notch above the Swartzentrubers. “Low” Amish. Uncouth. Rough. Hard core, far more so than the mad bishop who tormented me all those years ago. Their laughter is hard and mirthless. Many drink. Or smoke. Or both. And their youth practice bed courtship. All the bad stuff my father raged against in his writings, all his life. That’s Geauga.

Some decades ago Bishop Sam moved to a similar settlement in Fredericktown, Ohio. Somewhere along the line, he was ordained, first as a preacher, then as bishop. I have no idea when. He relished his new position, and reveled in his newfound power. And ruled over his frightened huddled flock with a crushing iron fist. Old Testament style.

At some point, then, in Fredericktown, for some reason or other, Bishop Sam got restless. In time, he made plans to move away to another place and take his flock with him. And he did. Moved to Bergholz, Ohio, with around fifteen other families. And so they settled in the Bergholz area, Bishop Sam and his little group of pilgrims. Set up their own little world, and their own little community. Revolving around the dictates of one man. The man.

The Bergholz community may not have been isolated at its inception, but it soon was. Before long, the rumors started trickling out. Murmured stories of what went on. Brutal things. Despicable, horrifying things. I won’t recount them, because they may have been just rumors. Or maybe not. Inside the Amish lines of communication, details get embellished sometimes. A lot, actually. It’s called gossip. But the core of that gossip is usually based in some seed of truth. It is true that Bishop Sam successfully defended himself from charges of child abuse, and then turned and sued the local sheriff for $2 million dollars. He didn’t get that, but he did win some sort of judgment for a far lesser amount.

Then, about five years ago, there was trouble in Thug-land, uh, Bergholz. I have no clue what that trouble was, but Bishop Sam suddenly and stridently excommunicated some members of his church. Perhaps because they dared to stand up to him. Or maybe they just wanted to leave, to move out. Whatever. But he just kicked them out. Perhaps he really believed that was the right thing to do. Most likely, though, he simply could not brook any form of dissent. Or departure from his cultish enclave.

The excommunicated members were deeply grieved. Felt they had been wronged. So they approached some other bishops in their Amish fellowship. Told their stories. They must have seemed credible, because the bishops were concerned enough to launch an investigation. And they found that the excommunications had indeed been unjust. They stepped in to correct Bishop Sam’s harsh and hasty edicts.

And all was functioning as it should have, in the Amish way of things. There are structural safeguards. Sometimes they work; many times they don’t. This time, it seemed they had.

Bishop Sam, however, reacted in a manner most unbecoming. Some say his response was an explosion of raw rage and fury. Instead of accepting the rebuke of his peers, he refused to acknowledge their authority. Wounded, as a wolf among sheep, he simmered and stewed and chafed. He simply could not and would not let it rest. Or let it go. And his little frightened flock huddled low and endured the turbulent spasms of his deranged and egotistical rage.

His will was law in his little commune, by all the accounts I’ve heard. Still is, for that matter. The thing festered in him, how he’d been so mistreated by the other bishops. How his authority had been challenged. How his decision had been overturned. And somehow, through the years, someone in his group came up with the idea of extracting revenge. Cut the beards and hair of those who had wronged him. Not saying the plan was Bishop Sam’s idea. He denies it. I can’t prove it, one way or another. But I’d bet the farm that it was. Not that I own a farm. But if I did, I would bet it.

And so the nefarious plot played out like it did. In several different areas, within a span of a couple of weeks. Gangs of men forcibly entered the homes of several, mostly elderly, Amish bishops, the ones who had been involved in overturning Bishop Sam’s excommunications. Held them down and cut off their beards. In at least one instance, the gang included women. They assaulted the household women and at least one young girl and snipped their long hair. At least two of Bishop Sam’s sons, and one son-in-law, were arrested and charged. As were a few others. From what I’ve read in the news reports, all of them are free on bail.

Obviously Bishop Sam was a charismatic or otherwise mesmerizing man, or he never could have moved into the role of social-outcast leader and kept so many loyal followers. And obviously, his sons could never break free of him. They see with hollow, vacant eyes, believing in nothing but their father. They are enslaved to him. A man of his character would never release control of his sons under any circumstances. And they never developed the backbone to stand up to him.

That’s their loss. Big time. They could have been so much more. Could have been the men they were created to be. But they threw it all away. Sacrificed themselves to their father’s will. For nothing.

As far as controlling his sons was concerned, Bishop Sam wasn’t that different from a lot of Amish fathers, really. Not in the aspect of absolute control. He just took it further, pushed it way outside the lines. So far outside the lines that he now stands as a caricature of the Amish culture that birthed him. A bitter, violent controlling man. And this time, I think, he probably pushed it too far. It’s going to come back and bite him. It just is.

This time, he miscalculated badly. He figured his goons could slip in and assault his perceived enemies without any repercussions. That the news would not spread beyond the local Amish communities. The Amish don’t believe in calling the cops, or pressing charges. So he could get away with it unscathed, he figured. There was no way he or any of his thugs would face charges. That’s what he thought. He was wrong.

The law wants him, bad. As a libertarian, I am strongly inclined to leave people alone, mostly, to reap the consequences of their choices. As I strongly prefer to be left alone, mostly. And, perhaps stemming from my Amish roots, I’m usually extremely reticent to get the cops involved anywhere for any reason. But this guy, well, it would be good if they nailed him. Put him away for a while. Providing they can produce some hard evidence, of course. Hearsay and gossip alone are not enough. The evil in his heart is not enough. They have to be able to prove that his influence and his commands were the driving force in these attacks. An extraordinarily high hurdle. Absent that, the man cannot be judged guilty in a court of law.

He knows who he is. We don’t, not really. We can only surmise from what we see and hear. Sometimes, even in the most “clear cut” cases, our perceptions can be deceptive.

It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out. Bottom line, though, is this. Bishop Sam and his little gang of thugs are not Amish. No more so than I am. Sure, they dress Amish. Talk Amish. Look Amish. But they have violated one of the foundational tenants of the Amish faith. Nonresistance. They have embraced violence, and there is not a single group anywhere in the “real” Amish world that would fellowship with these guys. Or have much of anything to do with them. Not one. They stand alone. As the renegades they are.

And that’s pretty much all I got to say about one of the most bizarre incidents ever to come down in all of Amish history.

All righty, then. A couple of book signings to announce. Coming up in November. On Saturday, Nov. 19, I will be at the Barnes and Noble Bookstore at the Red Rose Commons in Lancaster, PA. From 3 PM until whenever people stop coming. Hope to see some of you locals there. And maybe even some non-locals. Remember, a lonely author sitting there twiddling with his pen and smiling hopefully is not a pretty sight. Don’t let it happen to me.

And then, the following week, the week of Thanksgiving, I’m going “home” to Bloomfield, Iowa. First time since the book was published. My nephew, John Wagler, has invited all his cousins (my nieces and nephews, a good many of whom will show up) and several uncles, to his home for the holiday. I doubt I will hang much in the Amish community, except for stopping by to see my brother Titus. I’ll definitely do that. Otherwise, I’ll probably lay low.

Anyway, I will have a book signing in Bloomfield on Friday, Nov. 25, from Noon until 3 PM. (NOTE: THIS DATE HAS BEEN CHANGED FROM TUESDAY, NOV. 22nd TO FRIDAY, NOV. 25th.) I’ve rented the Get-Togather Room, a converted store front on the north side of the town square. All are welcome to bring their copies, and I will have a couple of cases of books with me for those who wish to purchase one.

I’m nervous and excited to be returning to Bloomfield. Most of the old haunts are gone now. Chuck’s Café in West Grove was demolished years ago. The community is no longer what it was. But the memories remain, stark and vivid. And many of my old English friends are still around. I can’t wait to hang out and reminisce.

October 7, 2011

Feedback, Fans, and Flamers

Category: News — Ira @ 5:54 pm


It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.

—W.C. Fields

Well, it’s been a wild ride, these last three months. Seems like a lifetime ago, when I was eagerly anticipating the arrival of that magical date. July 1st. The official release for my book. Time, however seemingly frozen, does creep on. As it did. Day after agonizing day passed in slow motion. Until the day arrived.

And strangely, my pre-release inner turmoil escalated. The book was my impossible vision, my dream, my baby. Packaged and presented to the world. What would the world think?

From my gut instincts, and from my blog fan base, I figured the book would be well received, at least in a tiny sliver of the market. But still, the tension increased. Exactly as the Tyndale people had warned me. It’s the same for every author, even the wildly successful ones, they claimed. So just expect it. I tried to. But it was impossible to fully grasp the true meaning of their words until I experienced what it was they were talking about.

A few days before the official release, the emails started trickling in. I’ll never forget the first one. From a lady, over in the next county. Fairly local. She had picked up a copy at BJ’s Wholesale Warehouse. They had stocked the book a week early. And she had seen it there, picked it up, and read it. She was excited and highly complimentary. Seemed mildly astounded, even. The book spoke to her, she claimed.

And that was the first taste, the first feedback from an actual reader, at least one who had purchased the book. The reviews had been percolating out there on the internet for months. The great reviews. The merely good. And the ugly. But those were reviewers who had obtained an advance copy, some of whom seemed a little taken with themselves. They certainly weren’t real purchasers who had invested their own money.

Since that time, I have received hundreds of messages from readers. The vast, vast majority via email. That’s how people communicate now. And I don’t wonder at all why the Post Office is in deep doo-doo. They don’t deliver much any more. Ten, fifteen years ago, all those email messages would have been sent by mail. And I’d have tons of letters to answer.

I’d say 98% of the letters/messages are very positive. I’ve heard from many who have emerged from their own restrictive backgrounds. Catholics. Baptists. Jews. And many other denominations. I even got an email from a reader in Japan some time back. Somehow the story struck a chord with so many. The universal themes, the journey, the lostness, the searching. And the finding.

I have received a few letters, though. As in handwritten on a sheet of paper. Or typed. My work address is posted on this site. And some few who are not wired still crank out the old lines on paper. Send them in the mail. The emails are easy to answer, and I try to return a brief note to everyone who contacts me. Well, almost everyone. Spread the word. That’s what I tell them. After thanking them for reading the book, of course.

The real letters, though, well, that takes more effort. And so far, I’ve written back to only one such letter writer. Because she wrote one of the very best responses so far. A nice lady, from Massachusetts. Quite riled up, she was, and determined to set me straight. Instead of describing what she wrote, I took a picture of her letter with my iPhone.

After reading that, my head most definitely felt “booped.” And my rear end, well, it felt kicked as well. She nailed me. Did she ever nail me. And she was right on. Sarah did owe me one. Maybe she still does. The letter gave me some glimpse of how deeply some readers get involved emotionally. I am very honored to have such readers.

And Jean, if you read this, you got it done for Sarah. You really did.

Not all the messages are complimentary, of course. Or even cordial. Because, as always, there are the flamers (defined in Dictionary.com as Computer Slang; to send an angry, critical, or disparaging electronic message).

No one likes criticism, however valid. And yeah, I grew up hearing that old cliché. You learn more from criticism than from praise. Maybe so. But I sure ain’t never felt that.

It’s a trite truism, that one learns more from critics. Might be true. But I’d sure love to smash back at them in kind. Measure for measure, blow for blow. Sadly, though, I can’t. I’m the target. Anyone can take a swipe. Responding would only encourage more of the same. Arguing with critics just turns into one giant tar baby. Whack, whack back, and on and on. So I generally bite my tongue and brood instead.

And boy, are they ever out there, the flamers, furtively lurking in the safety of the vast impersonal world of the internet. Not in large numbers. But there. What motivates these people I won’t care to guess. But there they lurk and shiver in the shadows, their faces never clearly visible. Anonymity begets boldness. And boldness begets the occasional blast of mindless vitriol.

Which is fine, because that’s their right. But it’s not fun, if you are the recipient.

A few posted reviews on the book. And no, I won’t provide any links. But from their harsh cacophonous screeching, one might conclude the book might as well be burned. Destroyed. Certainly not read, by any sensible person.

And a few send emails. I usually read them, then hit delete. Cast them into the ether of outer digital darkness. A few weeks back, one such email arrived. Seemed innocent enough from the heading. I opened it. There was no greeting, no pleasantries. Just the terse lines. And no signature.

I’ve just finished your book ‘Growing Up Amish’. I can’t believe that
your writing of your self pity and self importance got published. I read
nowhere in the book where you cared for anyone other than yourself.
I read where you used everyone you could for self gain. If you really
think there is some ‘Jesus Message’ relayed in your book, your
badly mistaken!

I can understand why Sam lost hope in you.

I’ll call the guy Bob. Flamer Bob. I won’t use his real name, so he can’t preen and bask in some perverse self-aggrandizing glory. After recoiling a bit, I did what I always do with all such vitriol. Deleted it. Dumped it out. But a day or two later, I got to thinking. What if I engaged, just to see what gives? I planned to write a blog down the road about responses to the book. Why not post Flamer Bob’s letter, and a bit of correspondence? So I dug into the deleted bin and retrieved his letter. Wrote a brief response and sent it off to Bob.

Dear (Flamer Bob):

I usually don’t respond to messages like yours, because they are tar-babies. No one wins. And no one will win here either, probably.

Usually, when I come across a book that I dislike as intensely as you apparently dislike mine, I don’t finish it. I just toss it aside as rubbish. And I most certainly don’t bother to take valuable time out of my day to contact the author. But apparently it was worth your time, both to actually read the book, and then make the effort to contact me.

So I’m just curious. What exactly did you intend to accomplish by sending me your message?

Ira Wagler

Flamer Bob lay low for a day or so. Then he answered. Probably delighted that I had engaged, he actually observed some basic rules of politeness. Even signed off with his name. Might have been his real name, might not. All his correspondence is posted exactly as he wrote it. As is my own.

Dear Ira,
First, I don’t know what you mean by ‘win’ ! I am not out to ‘win’ anything !
What is it that you want to win ?
Second, I guess that I grew fond of your character (you) in the book and
continued to hope for a better outcome. Now I wondering when you will
write the second in the series titled, ‘Still Growing Up’.
And, quote ‘What exactly did you intend to accomplish by sending me your message?’.
Answer: a response.
Ira. After reading your book I can honestly say that I didn’t intend on accomplishing anything.

Thanks for responding
(Flamer Bob)

And this was my final response. A bit terse, perhaps. But still, more polite than he deserved.

You, sir, are a Flamer. Google the term if you don’t know what that is.

I don’t have time for Flamers, but took the time with you, because I wanted an example of such correspondence to use later in my writings. Yours will do nicely, I think.

Have a great day. And by the way, I have blocked you from my email inbox.

Ira Wagler

And that was it, with Flamer Bob. I don’t know how he reacted, because he had no way to let me know.

I wonder who they really are, these people like Flamer Bob. In their everyday lives. And whether their flamer personas are a fraud. They might be the pleasantest people around, face to face. Neighborly. Helpful. Cheerful. Kind. And it’s only their alter egos that I see out there on the web.

But I doubt it.

Last weekend I made the long trek to Shipshewana, IN, for a book signing on Saturday afternoon at the Davis Mercantile building. Shipshewana has exploded in the twenty-five years of my absence from the area. I remembered little of the countryside or the town. My hosts, Levi and Joanna King, were simply lavish in their hospitality. I met a lot of people during the 3-hour signing. Including some friends from way back I had not seen in decades. Even my wandering minstrel friend, John Schmid, showed up. He was in town for two nights of concerts.

Tomorrow (Oct. 8th) I will be at the Freiman Stoltzfus Gallery in downtown Lancaster from 11 AM until 1 PM, for a signing. An accomplished artist, Freiman is an old friend, and he has graciously offered his gallery for a signing. If you are in the area, stop by. And as always at any of my signings, bring your copy with you, or buy one there, or both.