Thoughts on “I am Hutterite”

I just finished “I am Hutterite,” Mary-Ann Kirkby’s memoir of her childhood on a Hutterite colony in Canada and her parents’ decision to leave. It illustrated some points of Moral Foundations Theory for me: cultures really do value different things, and my culture’s values aren’t ubiquitous. Loyalty, authority, sanctity, and care are much bigger there than in my culture, and I think the resulting social cohesion makes them come out ahead in a lot of ways.

The big question of the book for  me was why the family would ever leave. The colony ran like clockwork, taking care of you from birth until death. New mothers have three meals a day delivered to them and are assigned an older woman and a teenager to help watch the baby. Children run in packs among adults who have known them their whole lives. Old and sick people have their needs provided and live in constant contact with their grandchildren and other family. Everyone has a job and three meals a day cranked out by the communal kitchen. New colonies split off when they reach about 150 people, so your social group is always below Dunbar’s number. The whole system has operated more or less like this for 450 years.

After the family leaves to live among “English” people, things seem a lot worse. They’re materially poor because they weren’t allowed to take anything with them. The father works grueling hours to try to earn money and social capital. The mother is isolated in a farmhouse taking care of seven children alone, rather than among her sisters and cousins. Coming from a society where everyone is assigned the same goods, the children have to learn to signal status to avoid their classmates’ torment (like by bringing home saran wrap from the trash to wash and re-use it so their sandwiches will look like the other children’s sandwiches).

The main reason for leaving seems to have been the father’s longstanding conflict with the colony’s leader, the worst effect of which was that the parents weren’t allowed to take a colony vehicle to the hospital where their two-year-old was awaiting emergency surgery, and the delay likely caused the child’s death. But weirdly, this doesn’t seem to have been the last straw for the family. It’s instead conflict about the colony finances, and the leader’s refusal to treat the father as competent to make business decisions, that seems to have been the main problem. (This article theorizes that the transition from unmechanized agriculture to modern methods where you only need one manager to run a large cattle or hog operation has raised attrition from Hutterite colonies, as most of the men are left without much to do.)

In some ways, this illuminates an additional reason to leave a very traditional, closed society: everything seems to have been the father’s choice. Even though leaving was pretty clearly worse for the other eight people in the family, his dignity seems to have been valued above their wellbeing.

I was expecting there to be an online community of ex-Hutterites decrying the sexism and authoritarianism of the system, like there is for the Bruderhof and other similar groups, but there basically doesn’t seem to be one. The most prominent ex-Hutterites‘ main criticism seems to have been that it wasn’t Biblical enough(!) and didn’t emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus.

Even if I knew I’d have better quality of life there, I can imagine it would be really hard to handle a sense of unfairness. I imagine the conformity is difficult or impossible for people with a strong wish for autonomy, queer people, and/or people with an intellectual drive that can’t be satisfied with education that ends at age 15. And I’m sure there’s abuse that goes more or less unchecked. The author mentions a bunch of other people who left, but the Hutterite birthrate seems to be high enough that they can lose a lot of people who don’t like living there and still have plenty of numbers.

The descriptions of the parents’ courtship and marriage also made me think about another way of life that’s unthinkable to those who don’t grow up with it: arranged marriage. The marriage wasn’t actually arranged — the mother chose the father over the man her family was pressuring her to marry. But because dating didn’t exist on the colony, they’d had only a couple of conversations and one letter when she made the decision. The fact that people in such marriages usually make it work, and often seem very happy together, seems to be testimony for the advice that marriage is largely about cooperating as a team rather than finding the one-in-a-million person that’s just right for you and hoping you always feel like going in the same direction.

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