James Cates

Serpent in the Garden is the first book to examine the complexity of sexual identity, philosophy and behaviour in Amish culture. Drawing on multiple perspectives and based on years of research on the Amish themselves, it offers a broad view of sexuality in Amish culture, and argues that, because the Amish are a sexual minority, queer theory is the ideal framework from which to observe their views on sex, sexuality, and gender. Offering readers a more sophisticated understanding of the Amish and of sexual expression among cultures, Serpent in the Garden will appeal to scholars working on gender and sexuality, the Amish, and social service professionals who serve the Amish community.


NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about? Why will people want to read your book?

JAMES CATES: A number of books explore the culture of the Old Order Amish, a Plain people. They primarily rely on horse-and-buggy transportation, do not take electricity from the grid (using batteries, solar power, kerosene, or fuel oil to light and heat their homes), and dress in plain clothing. They keep a distance from the world as they live out their Christianity.

Despite academic treatments of their beliefs, culture, and social practices, Serpent in the Garden is the first book-length examination of their sexuality. In a paradigm shift over the past few decades the Amish continue to embrace conservative Christian morals while mainstream culture has moved to a more relaxed stance. As a result, in the postmodern era they are now a minority. To better understand their stance in comparison to the heteronormative that surrounds them, I use the lens of Queer theory.

NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic, and what questions do you still have?

JC: I am a clinical psychologist with a practice located near several Amish settlements, so that my work has involved their culture, at least peripherally, for over 25 years. Initially, my services were primarily psychological testing and consultation. As relationships with those among the Amish deepened, so did my interest. A convergence of factors focused my energies on their sexuality, but two in particular stand out.

The Nickel Mines massacre is fading from corporate memory, but on October 2, 2006, a mentally ill man held 10 girls hostage in an Amish school. He shot all ten, ages six to 13, killing five, before turning the gun on himself. The world was astounded by the Amish willingness to forgive him. The media has more recently turned to cases of sexual abuse among the Amish, and is horrified by the willingness of the Amish to tolerate those who perpetrate this offense in their midst. I have testified several times in these cases. I remind the court what we fail to understand. The Nickel Mines tragedy and those who perpetrate sexual abuse are opposite sides of the same coin: forgiveness. Until we can grasp their need to forgive, we fail to understand how best to approach the needs of the most vulnerable in their culture, or how best to treat those who violate these victims. Christ’s imperative to forgive those who sin against us is deeply embedded in their beliefs and their tradition. They do not condone harm to those who are vulnerable, but become entangled in how best to define forgiveness, punishment, and reasonable consequences.

I was also privileged to work with a group of Amish women who developed a booklet offering support to those in Plain communities who struggle with domestic violence. These were primarily survivors of domestic violence themselves. They offered a different perspective, and a new respect and understanding for those who commit to a culture that perceives women as submissive to men. The nuances of egalitarianism in a culture of submission, and the strength of females who accept a role that is at least nominally inferior, became much clearer through that work.

And as with any subject on which I write, I find far more questions than answers. Sexuality is so intimate, and yet saturated so deeply into the fabric of any culture, that attempting to explain it is a daunting effort.

NOTCHES: This book engages with the culture’s expression of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?

JC: It was an intriguing process to reverse Queer theory. In this case, the sexual minority was not defending itself against a traditional heteronormative, but the traditional heteronormative was the sexual minority, defending its staid and proper stance against emerging definitions of sexuality. That process – the struggle to maintain boundaries against postmodern intrusion – is referenced in regard to gender roles, intimacy, sexual orientation, sexual identity, and a way of life that maintains a deliberate distance from the world. The emphasis on deconstructing sexuality lends itself to deconstructing the social system in which it is embedded. In that sense it gives a fresh perspective on what has been ably done by other authors – that of deconstructing the culture as a whole.

NOTCHES: How did you research the book? 

JC: Over the years I have had the opportunity to meet with Amish in their three largest settlements (Holmes County, Ohio; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Elkhart-LaGrange, Indiana), as well as many smaller settlements. It is fair to say among the Amish, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” and the inter-connections that my travels created have been invaluable in obtaining candid interviews. There were a few interviews for the specific purpose of filling in gaps, or validating information. But the majority of the research for the book was not semi-structured interviews, but a long, slow process of meeting with Amish clients and friends, learning about their lives, and developing an understanding of how a collective and high-context culture operates. (A collective culture emphasizes the needs and desires of the group as a whole over the individual. A high-context culture communicates in ways that are implicit and rely heavily on context. The Amish are both.) There was a process of joining with the culture and its expectations that often made the efforts more anthropological than psychological or sociological.

In Serpent in the Garden, I mention that I am gay, but touch only briefly on that fact. I was outed several years ago in the Amish settlement with which I worked most closely. Given the Amish belief that it is a serious sin to act on same-sex desires, and their belief that the steady inroads of sexual minorities are corrupting the morals of the country, I was not at all sure what my future would hold. My outing did result in some of the most conservative Amish rejecting me. Ironically, it also opened doors to allow me to talk with, and understand the suppressed glbtq+ minority and their struggles within Amish settlements. The support I received from those among the Amish who considered themselves my friends, and those who believed in the work that I was doing, was unexpected and heartwarming. Their loyalty reminded me that integrity crosses spiritual and religious lines.

NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out of your book and why? What would you include had you been able to?

JC: The stories! Heartwarming, funny, poignant – when everyone has passed on, they can all be told. Suffice to say, when The Bard said, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” he spoke a universal theme. If I had the time, or if there was a market, each of the substantive chapters could be expanded into a book. For example, there is a chapter titled “Intimacy: The True Serpent in the Garden.” The interactions in a collective culture, and the manner in which they relate creates an intimacy that is so unlike that which we find in postmodern culture. It hearkens back to an intimacy based on familial ties and geographic proximity, and less on a deliberate choice of friendships, and which family members one considers the closest. It also recognizes the patriarchal hierarchy, and the ties with the church which support and guide daily life. That experience itself is worthy of an entire book.

NOTCHES: Did the book shift significantly from the first time you conceptualized it?

JC: I first published Serving the Amish: A Cultural Guide for Professionals in 2014, and included a chapter on sexuality. The editor approached me, and asked about expanding that chapter, and creating a short book. Still, the best laid plans go astray, and the longer I debated how best to explore their sexuality, the more I realized it was either a bland description of an outdated Christian morality, or a deeper discussion of the struggle to keep the moral compass in which they believed pointing toward true north. Queer theory became the vehicle for that discussion.

And Amish culture continues to shift. The pace of change in regard to the Amish response to sexual minorities is breathtaking. For example, when the book went to press, their attitude toward the gay community in each of the three major settlements was uniformly dour. Now, I am aware of a young man in one of these settlements who has left the Amish, is openly gay, and living with his Amish parents. It is too early to tell if this is an arrangement that the church will condemn and refuse to allow, or whether this is the wave of the future. But it is this ongoing shift that is fascinating.

NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the Amish?

JC: In the 1990’s, Amish men in the Elkhart-LaGrange settlement were beginning to move away from farming and construction, and into the manufactured housing industry that was booming in the area. While that increased per capita income, it also meant less family members at home to care for their intellectually disabled family members. There were sheltered workshops available during the day that could offer care, but these facilities required a state certification that those in their care were intellectually disabled or developmentally delayed, and Amish family members had no such proof, since they had never utilized state services.

At the time I was working with a state program called Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS). Among other contracted services, I did intelligence and related testing for VRS at no cost to the client. This was the quickest and easiest way for Amish families to have a family member certified, and therefore eligible for a sheltered workshop.

I had never done psychological testing with Amish clients, and rapidly learned that many of the techniques were not appropriate. (One example: a question on one of the intelligence tests was, “What should you do if while in the movies you are the first person to see smoke and fire?” Most of these Amish clients had never been to a movie theater, much less a larger gathering of strangers.) The need to rapidly learn how to accommodate testing to meet the needs of these Amish clients led to my interest in working with them.

NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign with it?

JC: Serpent in the Garden could be a useful adjunct text in a course on the Amish or Plain people. It also demonstrates the versatility of Queer theory.

NOTCHES: Why do the Amish matter today?

JC: The Amish speak to the resilience of human beings to create social context that defies the norm. In doing so, they allow us to compare and contrast the postmodern culture that we inhabit with a parallel alternative.

NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?

JC: Donald B. Kraybill, the leading expert on the Amish and Plain people, has long been a proponent of a model called Negotiating with Modernity (NWM). This model describes the process by which Plain people accept, reject, or compromise with modern/postmodern changes that they are required to consider. I am currently completing a manuscript that examines seven areas in which the Amish use this negotiation technique, and how they do so. From the telephone to the cellphone, to genetic testing, to responses to the issue of sexual abuse, they demonstrate a consistent style, NWM in order to maintain their social structure while accommodating needed change.

James A. Cates is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is also associate faculty at Purdue University – Fort Wayne, teaching in the Counseling and Graduate Education Program. His latest book is Serpent in the Garden: Amish Sexuality in a Changing World (John Hopkins University Press).

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