Aug 31, 2012

Amish Trial: Sexual Coercion & Violent Haircuts

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

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Well, now we know what "sexual counseling" from Sam Mullet meant. As per testimony from his, ahem, daughter-in-law, it was to help women become "better wives" and stop failing their poor husbands.

The woman said her husband had a mental breakdown in the summer of 2008 and was in the hospital when Mullet suggested that her husband's trouble stemmed from dissatisfaction with his marriage. Mullet told her he wanted to help the couple with marriage counseling, and she agreed to his request to move in with him, she said.

At first, he wanted hugs, from her she said, adding that she learned he had asked the same of other women.

"Next we had to kiss him or maybe we had to sit on his lap," she said. "I'm not sure what was first."

. . .

She went along with Mullet's wishes because she thought it would help her husband, she said.

Yes, that's right. Sam Mullet's son had a nervous breakdown because his wife wasn't good enough in bed and needed instruction from Sam Mullet  -- a lot of instruction.

A sobbing daughter-in-law of Samuel Mullet Sr., the Amish leader on trial here with 15 followers for terrorizing the Amish of eastern Ohio with beard-cutting attacks, said on Thursday that Mr. Mullet had repeatedly called her into his bedroom for sex in 2008, at one point sending his wife to fetch her.

The testimony of the daughter-in-law, Nancy Mullet, provided some of the most dramatic moments yet in a trial filled with accounts of violent attacks and bitter feuds among the normally peaceful Amish. It also provided the strongest evidence yet of what prosecutors and his Amish critics describe as Mr. Mullet’s cultlike domination of the 18 families, nearly all his relatives, who lived around him in an isolated valley near Bergholz, Ohio.

. . .

Trying to avoid the steady glare of Mr. Mullet, 66, Mrs. Mullet testified that after her husband, Eli, had psychiatric breakdowns, her father-in-law first told her to sit in his lap and kiss him, then days later had her sleep with him nightly for what he called marriage counseling.

“He told me the other ladies had done the same thing,” Mrs. Mullet said, and that her husband “would not get better” if she did not accept his attentions.

Nancy Mullet was "counseled" throughout the two months that she stayed with her father-in-law as her husband received psychiatric care. Even after her husband returned and she moved back into her own home, she was expected to return for regular instruction. She was terrified not to. The pressure from Sam Mullet was explicit, as he told her things like, "I can't understand why you won't obey me, the other ladies can." When she finally put an end to it, he called her a whore. She and her husband gathered a few belongings and fled to Pennsylvania a short time later.

Defense attorneys, who previously argued that evidence of Mullet's sexual "counseling" be excluded in part because it was unproven, did not dispute the accuracy of Mrs. Mullet's testimony, acknowledging that, "it was wrong." As with the hair-cutting attacks, the defense appears to be conceding all the factual elements, disputing only their motivation and relevance.

The prosecution is building a strong argument for their theory that Sam Mullet was an authoritarian leader with absolute control over the Bergholz community. His daughter-in-law also testified that he reserved the right to read and approve both outgoing and incoming mail.

His own sister described him as a "dictator" and his followers as "zombies" when she testified on Wednesday. Barbara Miller and her husband Martin followed most of her children to her brother's community but left after only a few months.

Miller, who is in her late 50s, offered a portrait of her brother that contradicted the benevolent, peace-loving image of an Amish clergyman who preaches the love and forgiveness of Jesus in the New Testament. Sam Mullet had become a fire-and-brimstone preacher who favored the Old Testament, she said.

"He was more about violence, anger and hatred. More of the 'eye-for-an-eye' syndrome -- If he does it to me, I'll do it to him," Miller testified.

Frightened by Mullet and heartbroken by the growing estrangement from her five sons, a daughter and their spouses, Miller and her husband decided to abandon Bergholz and return to their homestead in Mesopotamia. This infuriated her children, she said.

"They said if we go back we're going straight to hell," Miller recalled. "I have been shunned by my children."

Joy at seeing her son Lester at their door one night turned to terror as she and her husband were encircled by a gang and violently assaulted with hair-cutting implements, Lester grabbing his father's beard "so hard that it distorted his face."

Miller said her mind went blank for a while and later she saw her husband in a chair with all the men around him.

Lester had a pair of shears and her son-in-law Freeman Burkholder had a pair of clippers.

The men were screaming at Marty, saying things like, "Nothing is being changed up here."

Marty was saying "please, no," but the yelling continued, she said.

Marty was crying and begging, she said, at that point their daughter Nancy Burkholder pulled her mother around and shook her head.

The women in the group, two of whom were holding babies, sheared off two feet of her hair.

Under cross examination, Miller denied that their assailants had claimed they were attacking their parents for their poor parenting. The defense's aim is to show that this was an internal dispute, not a hate crime based on religion. But testimony like this will be hard to shake.

Another son screamed at me, " 'God is not with you,' and he screamed it twice," she said,

Mullet has clearly differentiated his brand of Amish and positioned himself against sects he doesn't believe are conservative enough. Miller also reported that some of the women sneered at her clothes. I still just find it strange that his quest for conservatism had his followers using cameras and other modern implements. I noticed plastic furniture in a picture of him in front of his home. He's also made himself a millionaire by allowing fracking on his land. I'm no expert, but much of this doesn't strike me as terribly traditional.

The nature of the attacks sends a message about the victims Amishness, or lack there-of. While this was not aimed at degrading them for being Amish, which would be an obvious hate crime, it says they're not true Amish as the Bergholz sect defines it. That's what makes this a hate crime.

The defendants stripped their victims of symbols of their Amish identity because they didn't think they were entitled to them. They shamed one victim so severely that he no longer felt able to preach.

A hair-cutting attack on an Amish bishop left him so ashamed that he stopped preaching and refused to attend a family wedding because he didn't want anyone to see him without his beard, his son testified Wednesday at the trial of 16 Amish men and women accused of carrying out a series of hate crimes on church leaders in Ohio.

In the minutes after the surprise encounter last fall, Andy Hershberger said he looked toward his 77-year-old father. Gray clumps of hair from the beard his father had grown since marriage covered the floor where he sat.

"He was shaking all over," Hershberger said. "He was crying and crying."

What Sam Mullet has created with his Berholz clan is a cultural climate of dominance and degradation. This is how he has kept his own flock in line and his followers clearly took a page from that book. It's a deeply disturbing portrait and sharply contrasts with what has been repeatedly described in media reports as the "peaceful" Amish. I would remind readers, however, that all has never been as idyllic in the Amish world as is commonly believed. While Mullet's forced attentions on women followers are explicit and alarming, there is nothing new or novel about sexual violations among the Amish. Sex abuse is an epidemic in some communities and women are expected to submit to male authority. What is happening in Bergholz is less an anomaly than an extreme and violent eruption of the dark, hidden elements that are always burbling away under the surface of Amish culture. And in true Amish fashion, victims were reluctant to turn this over to the authorities of the English world, hoping instead to handle this through forgiveness and reconciliation. It's an indication of just how outrageous Mullet's behavior is that he and his followers are now facing the possibility of hard time.

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