Breaking Amish: One Ex-Follower’s True Story of Moving to the Big Apple

In light of TLC's new show an ex-Amish explains what it's really like to leave the religious community

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Walling McGarity / TLC

Kate, Jeremiah, Sabrina, Abe and Rebecca from TLC's Breaking Amish.

TLC’s Breaking Amish attempts to shed light on the secretive Amish community. The reality series will follow five people from Amish and Mennonite communities as they move to New York City and adjust to urban life. Think of it as an Amish version of MTV’s The Real World.

To learn what the transition is actually like, TIME talked to one young man who broke Amish for good and moved to the city.

Timothy Sauder, 30, a student at Columbia University’s School of General Studies, lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania — the oldest Amish community in the U.S. — until he was 14, when his family moved to Plymouth, Ohio. He left his Old Order Mennonite community — and two younger brothers and two younger sisters — because he wanted to go to college and pursue a career in science. And he could not be both an Old Order Mennonite and a college graduate because his community does not support higher education. Many members do not even attend high school. He used to dig televisions out of dumpsters just to learn about the outside world. For five years, he debated whether to leave, traveling around the U.S. and to 22 other countries while he pondered the decision. Finally, in fall 2008, without a high school diploma, he enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg. He transferred to Columbia in 2010 and is expected to graduate in May 2013 with a B.A. in Biology. Post-graduation, he wants to pursue a career in biotechnology and start his own biotech company.

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Sauder’s family has come to terms with his new life. His father Linus (a machinist), his mother and his siblings have even visited him in New York City. TIME sat down with Sauder at his apartment, which he shares with three other roommates. He no longer wears suspenders. Instead, he sported a pink striped button-down shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. His room was impeccably neat, complete with a lofted IKEA bed that he built himself — thanks to the carpentry he learned as a Mennonite. His bookshelf was typical for a student — biochemistry tomes and classic literature like Don Quixote and Hamlet — plus more revealing choices like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

So are you Amish or Mennonite?

I use the term Amish because it’s so universally understood. Old Order Mennonite is technically what I am. But basically, horse and buggies. I did grow up with power from the grid. But otherwise, we wore conservative dress — jeans and button-down shirts, suspenders and hats. Clothing was all store bought. For the girls, they make their own, and it’s a long dress and a cap. I went to school with Amish kids too, literally the same little stereotypical one-room schoolhouses.

I understand that many Amish/Old Order Mennonite communities don’t use modern technology outside of the workplace — if at all. Did your background influence your decision to study biology and pursue a career in biotechnology?

When I was seven or eight years-old, my parents bought a small encyclopedia set called Growing Up with Science, and I knew that it was a lot of money for them at the time. There was some sort of implicit approval. And I was always hyper aware of the divide between conservative faiths and science. I would always have to be careful to say things in a certain way so that I wouldn’t be ostracized for not buying the creation story. I would go to the public library a lot which was relatively unusual, but not necessarily discouraged.

In 2003, I took a bike trip in Colorado. I had just turned 20. Most of the people on the tour — a seven-day, 400-mile trip in the San Juan mountains — were professionals, either lawyers or doctors. I would get into these intellectual conversations almost every night, and all of them immensely encouraged me to get a higher education. I grew up with very, very little contact with people who had a higher education — or had even gone to high school. A few asked me “what’s keeping you,” and I found myself having a really hard time explaining what was.

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What are some major adjustments you had to make? 

My palate has changed quite a bit. I’ll eat Chinese and sushi. I took my brother to a Korean restaurant, and he could barely eat. Eating out was a rarity growing up. Takeout was unheard of. When [the Amish] travel, they do eat fast food, and that’s like a treat. Otherwise, the family would do home-cooked meals, and often the same meat and potatoes and bread. Beets—they grow themselves, as well as peas, and string beans. There might be a few people who use a soy sauce or a barbeque sauce. There are very little fried foods, other than donuts, maybe. They do have a few sort of dishes that are specialties, like Shoo-fly Pie, the stereotypical dish they cook for local tourists at all those at Amish places in Lancaster [main ingredients are molasses and brown sugar].

What about changes in your clothes? 

If I were a girl, obviously that would be radical, but for a guy, it’s not like I am wearing things now that I wouldn’t have worn at home. Minus the suspenders. But I’ve seen hipsters pull those off pretty well, so I’ve thought about it.

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Based on the trailer for TLC’s Breaking Amish, do you think the show will be an accurate portrayal of your journey?

It’s certainly not anything close to my experience, not even remotely the attitude that I had or still have. I don’t think that they’re a representative group at all. They’re far more dramatic than any Amish kids I’ve ever seen, so that makes me suspicious immediately. Their way of speaking doesn’t look genuine to me. I just felt like they expressed themselves in ways that seem very scripted, like, they were told to say those things.

(MORE: Why Mennonites Go Bad)

What actually happens when Amish and Mennonite people visit New York City? How do they react?

When I show around the [Amish/Mennonite] people from back home, they’re not the type of people who are like “OMG.” They’re not reacting. [Amish/Mennonites] are like, “oh, so this is a city.” It’s very easy to think they would just be floored, but I’ve never seen that reaction. They don’t have preconceived ideas that come from pop culture or media. Once in a while I’ll hear them say things like, “What would it be like to live here?” For them, it’s so far out there. If someone asked you, “How would you like to live on a Moon colony,” you would be like “No, never.”  The fact that I’m living here is probably the only thing that would sort of make them think twice.

At last count, I had 76 first cousins, and probably 25 of them have been here to see me. I’ve done the “Welcome to New York” tour many, many times.  Standard tours show where John Lennon was shot. Well, first I have to explain who John Lennon was. Their history is better than their pop culture. Ground Zero is universal. Everyone remembers it. It doesn’t matter where you come from. The subway system in general is fascinating for them.

Any misconceptions about Amish or Mennonite people who leave the community?

The biggest issue that I have with a few media depictions is that they exploit the Rumspringa ritual [a period from age 16 to marriage when they can date and leave the Amish community to try out modern world material comforts before committing to the religious lifestyle]. Usually they take the most extreme instances they can find and dramatize them.

Most media depictions tend to portray the family as ostracizing the person. But if you have this imperative to leave, you’re the one who does the isolating.  My family never told me not to do what I was going to do, but at the same time, I knew that they sometimes had huge questions and doubts. They never just put their foot down and said no. I could see it in their eyes that they just didn’t understand. They held their breath for a very long time, and they’re still kind of doing that.

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Because we’re an entertainment site, we have to ask: what kind of entertainment did you grow up with?

Once or twice a year, our Mom would let us go to the neighbor’s house [non-Amish] and see the Saturday morning cartoons, which was an epic treat. But mom really didn’t like it. As far as music, the only popular music you would hear was country music.  We would sing choir — that was very tightly integrated with our way of socializing, and I get emotional listening to it.

How have your entertainment interests evolved since leaving the community?

Film is something I can get into. I’ve watched pretty much all of Hitchcock. I’ve actually seen a lot more classic films than many of my [non-Amish] friends. Just the other day, a friend hadn’t seen Psycho, and I was like, “C’mon, I’ve seen Psycho.” Television: I’ve probably seen all of South Park, and I watch The Daily Show and Colbert. My friends are starting to get me into True Blood. I get a kick out of the whole religious King James speak.

I noticed your Flickr, which struck me because I thought Amish people don’t like to be photographed. How did you get into photography?

Ironically when someone does take a picture [of an Amish or Mennonite person], and they get a hold of it later, they’ll keep a scrapbook because they have so few pictures. But if you ask them to pose, they’ll be very reluctant to do it. The sin for them is the pride. Posing for a picture just seems too extroverted, too forward. Until recently I didn’t have any pictures of my family at all. I do have a few now, but still, it’s not part of their culture. As far as my own interest in photography, it came out of my interest in travel. I remember my mom saying, “You can buy postcards, and those are always nicer anyway.” I think that was the goal for me—to make sure that my pictures are at least as good as a postcard.

Have you ever thought about going back?

Of course. I can’t say that I won’t return, but at the same time, I don’t see myself going back to the middle of Ohio or Pennsylvania. If some people from home asked me if they should try the same thing — get a higher education and move out — I would be very slow to advise them to do that. If they tried, and it didn’t work out, I would feel bad. They have to find that answer themselves.

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