Rape Survivor Torah Bontrager shares her journey of stealing back her own freedom by breaking all the rules and setting herself free.
Torah Bontrager’s betrayal by those closest to her began at age four. In the shielded-from-view world of her Amish community, her ordeal started with severe parental physical and verbal abuse followed by uncles’ serial rapes. At 15, Torah fled to the false safety of a divorced paternal uncle in Montana who, shortly after her arrival, raped her more times than she could remember over the course of 7 months.
I spoke to Bontrager as she awaited the trial in Columbia County, Wisconsin of one of her uncles, Enos Bontrager, a blatant alleged sexual predator who finally ― more than 20 years after he first molested Torah ― will stand trial. On November 29th, Enos Bontrager, 48, will stand trial charged with four counts of sexual assault of a child under 13 years old, two counts of second-degree sexual assault of a child, and one count of sexual assault of a child under 16. Torah’s accusations of Enos Bontrager’s repeated rapes will not be part of those proceedings because local authorities –despite Torah’s efforts to hold her uncle accountable ―allowed the statute of limitations to expire.
Bontrager, the author of the forthcoming book “An Amish Girl in Manhattan: A Memoir,” and I discussed her nightmarish but all too common experience against a backdrop of a national discussion of sexual assault that has become a part of the conversation and debate in the presidential election.
Mary: When I think of Amish culture, I think of minimalism, growing vegetables from heirloom seeds, raising animals, hunting deer and foraging for mushrooms, berries and plants in the wild. But, after speaking with you, I also think of rape. And the sad reality of Amish rape culture is that so many young girls fall victim and can’t escape. Why is this?
Torah: It’s a culture that, from the get-go, from the day you’re born, especially as a female, you’re groomed to be a victim. The patriarchal structure, the hierarchy, is one huge problem. That’s the foundation of the problem. God is number one; then it’s the husband; then it’s the wife; then it’s the children, then the animals. The wife literally has to promise on her wedding day to obey her husband for the rest of her life.
The biblical commandment “honor your parents” is interpreted as a literal “obey your parents no matter what” and is constantly enforced. It’s one of the first things I learned as a child—before I could probably even talk. You’re not ever supposed to say “no” to your parents or “no” to adults, certainly not adults in positions of authority such as aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers and preachers.
If you say “no”, you get reprimanded and shamed at best and usually physically punished. Spanked, hit, beaten, whipped—depending on the perceived severity of the crime and disposition of the adult.
What that level of continual enforcement does is groom women and children, especially female children, to be victims. Of course, then, when an authority figure, especially a male, approaches you, you’ve already been trained and pre-conditioned to say “yes” to whatever that adult demands of you. At the very least, you don’t resist and you don’t protest out of fear of getting a severe beating, getting sent to bed hungry, or punished in whatever other ways in which you’ve already experienced.
The Amish refuse to educate their children about even the basics of sex, so you’re also not taught to recognize the signs of sexual advances and predatory characteristics. They won’t even warn their children of known child molesters and rapists within the community. They pretend that the rampant sexual assault found in almost every community doesn’t exist. The Amish attitude toward sexual assault is so bad that when a female is raped, she is punished for “being too tempting” to the male and is required to ask the male attacker’s forgiveness for having tempted him.
Mary: You were sexually assaulted multiple times by men in your own family. Can you share a little bit about that?
Torah: Yes. I was first molested by my uncle, Enos Bontrager, when I was around six years old but I didn't understand what was going on. I didn't think in terms of, "Oh, I'm being molested." I just knew that something really bad had happened. There was something very wrong.
I escaped from my Amish parents, Henry and Ida, in the middle of the night because of how severely they both abused me. I thought I’d be safe with my Montana uncle. I trusted him completely and without question. He was the only person I knew who understood me, I thought, because he had also escaped from his father—my paternal grandfather—when he was young. Never once did it ever occur to me that he would rape me, or that I wouldn’t be safe with him. It was a beyond heinous situation of jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Mary: Do you think that the physical abuse lent itself to you being victim to sexual abuse?
Torah: Of course. What child is going to say no, after getting beaten and abused in various other ways so many times? Especially a female, where you’re a second-class citizen, and an older male, especially male authority figures like my uncles, comes and demands something from you.
Mary: Unlike many victims of physical and sexual abuse, you were able to escape. You almost did so by means of a self-inflicted bullet. What was within you that gave you the fortitude within yourself, to be able to escape by means other than suicide in such a difficult situation, when you felt that was your only option?
Torah: I had never had any sort of good relationship with my mother; and my father turned increasingly more sadistic and tyrannical the older I got. He’s a bona fide sociopath, or psychopath. So because I still hadn’t figured out a way to get out of there, I tried to kill myself.
Before I pulled the trigger, I had this thought that ran through my head, “I want to live”. And I realized in that moment that that was the first time that I had ever thought in terms of "I want to live" instead of "I want to die”.
Mary: We live in a society where we tell girls they can grow up to be anything they want. They can grow up to be the president of the United States. But for many of these girls, that isn’t an option and they don’t have a way out. What’s the solution for them?
Torah: The solution is that there is a way out. If you’re reading this or hearing this, you have a way out. There is support here for you. You’re not alone and you’re not crazy. Find a domestic violence shelter and they will help you; and then of course, email or call me. I have a list of resources in my book and that list will also be posted on my website.
In terms of the girls—and boys—who are lost in the Amish system, who don’t know about me or how to get out, that’s something I’m on a mission to change.
This includes helping equip those who have already left the Amish with more skills, such as learning when and when not to trust people, because they've been taught to obey and never question. The kids have no discernment skills. They get into drugs, they can't read people, they get taken advantage of. There are all sorts of cases where they’ve gotten caught in human trafficking, sex slavery, criminal pursuits, things like that, because they just… They don't know how to assess people nor how to protect themselves.
These are all things that I want to offer. Creating this support system has been one of my dreams from way back when I was a young teenage Amish girl who vowed that someday if she made it, she would help the ones left behind.
Mary: What do you want people to take away from your book?
Torah: Ultimately I want people to get it that yes, you can have the life of your dreams. If you really want to be happy, then—unless you have a debilitating situation—take back your power and set yourself free. It’s okay to be afraid but it’s not okay to let fear control your happiness, or lack of happiness. All brave people feel fear. All the time. I didn’t escape because I wasn’t afraid. I escaped because I valued myself and my personal dream of happiness more. I was determined to one day be free or die trying.
I hope that one of the things that people get from my book is how to turn their tragedies into assets and what I call steal back their freedom, by breaking all the rules. No matter whether you’re Amish or not, most people are unhappy with their lives or businesses or other situations. There is always a way to turn the worst of what happens into a payoff, but it often means breaking the rules of whatever culture or society or family that you’re part of. It’s not necessarily easy to go against whatever everyone else says and follow your heart, but I hope I can offer tools and different ways of thinking that make it a little bit easier and at the least, let you know that you’re not alone.
So, take personal responsibility for your life. If you’re not happy, do something about it. You are not powerless. If you’re reading or hearing this, then you definitely are not powerless. I’ve been through the worst of hells a million times and back. I’ve wanted to kill myself at least six times over the past 20 years. I have no shame in saying that. I know what what it feels like to be all alone and not see a way out. Some of the very hard lessons I’ve had to learn are that no one can save me and I can save no one else but me.. Keep believing in yourself and your right to be happy and free.
Mary: After everything you’ve been through, do you still believe in God?
Torah: God is love, kindness, compassion and wisdom. What’s true for me is that despite all the evil on this planet, love is still a far more powerful force in the universe. The bad things that happened to me is an example of humans taking religion and perverting it for their own nefarious purposes. If it doesn’t come from love, it’s not from God.
Editor’s Note: Torah Bontrager is a past consulting client of the Mary Simms Public Relations Agency.
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