Thanks to Elise Cooper for conducting this interview!
Editor’s note: While this is a contemporary novel, we are including it here because of the historical background it offers readers.
For those who do not know Kate Burkholder she helped to break the glass ceiling by becoming Chief of Police in a small town whose community consists of Amish and “Englishers.” Some cases she has to solve are more personal than others. Chief Burkholder has had to deal with her own Amish MeToo Moment, but also wonders if many of the Amish girls have a similar experience. Kate has spoken many times of her struggles with this peaceful and deeply religious community that at times appears to be conspiring to hide a truth no one wants to talk about. Kate has agreed to open up about her personal and professional experiences.
Elise Cooper: Having left the Amish community are there any parts of you that you consider were influenced by your Amish upbringing?
Kate Burkholder: Every part of me was influenced by my Amish upbringing. Good or bad or somewhere in between, I think that’s true for most of us. The Amish influence on my life was mostly positive. I was raised in a very traditional family with a lot of rules (some of which I didn’t follow) and structure. I was close to my siblings. As kids, we worked hard, but we played just as hard. My father was the disciplinarian. I was close to my mother. Everything changed in the summer of my fourteenth year, and I never saw my family—or the Amish community—in quite the same light.
EC: What do you miss most and least about the Amish?
KB: What I miss most about being Amish is the sense of belonging, of being part of such a close-knit community. I also miss the closeness I once had with my family. That said, there are a couple of things about being Amish I didn’t like and ultimately couldn’t live with. One is that it tends to be a patriarchal society (not always, but generally speaking.) And one of the Amish tenets is to be compliant and accepting. I couldn’t always abide. Even when it came to something as final as death, I would not readily accept it and I would rail against the unfairness of it. The Amish are also pacifists. I am not.
EC: Do you ever want the approval of the Amish community or your Amish Family?
KB: That need for approval is important to a young Amish person growing up. Your family and the Amish community are the center of your universe. But I do still find myself craving the approval of my brother, Jacob, and my sister, Sarah. And then there’s Bishop Troyer, one of the elders who has been a fixture in my life for as long as I can remember.
EC: Do you think having been Amish helps or hurts you as police chief?
KB: Being born and raised Amish in the town of Painters Mill (where one third of the population is Amish) has definitely made me a better and more effective police chief. I understand the culture, the religion, and I also speak Deitsh, the language. All of those things have gone a long way toward bridging the gap that exists between the Amish community and the “English” government.
EC: One of those you interviewed, Milo Hershberger, is under the bann. Can you tell us what that’s like for an Amish person?
KB: The bann is the Amish practice of social avoidance. Basically, when an Amish person breaks the rules set forth by the church district, that person is called out and excluded from the entire community, including his or her family members. No one will speak with them or associate with them or even take meals with them. What many non-Amish people don’t realize is that the practice is intended to be redemptive. A way to bring the person back into the fold. With the family and community being the nucleus of an Amish person’s life, taking away those associations can be devastating. Most often, if an Amish person wants to get back in the good graces of the community, all he or she must do is confess their sins and follow the rules. Some of the Old Order practice excommunication, which, depending on the offense, can be permanent.
EC: Because the Amish are somewhat a “closed society” and keep to themselves, are crimes more difficult to solve?
KB: Sometimes an investigation is much more difficult if it involves the Amish, mainly because of the “tenet of separation” many of the Amish practice. They try to remain separate from the rest of the world. Sometimes they try to protect their own. The reluctance of some Amish to come forward makes information hard to come by. In the course of any case, information is the most important commodity.
EC: You once told me about the Amish rule of forgiveness?
KB: An Amish boy who does something terribly wrong, even raping someone, can get off. If he confesses before the Church congregation, he is forgiven. This is why many of the girls do not speak up, some committing suicide, because they knew the boy would have been forgiven and they would be caught up in the stigma.
EC: Are you content with your life?
KB: I’ve come a long way since the first major case I worked as chief of police in Painters Mill. I attribute that mostly to my relationship—and love—for BCI agent John Tomasetti. My love for my small department of officers plays a role, too. They are my family when my own aren’t there for me. I would be remiss not to mention my love for the community as a whole—both Amish and “English”—all of those souls who call Painters Mill home.
EC: Through the years what has made you stronger?
KB: You’ve heard the axiom: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s the way life works and I’m a stronger and a more centered person because of the curve balls life has thrown my way, some in the form of difficult cases and various investigations. On a more personal level, I’ve worked through the trials and tribulations of being formerly Amish and a female chief of police in a small town. All of that combined has made me a stronger person.
LINDA CASTILLO is the New York Times bestselling author of the Kate Burkholder novels centering around the Amish community. She is the recipient of numerous industry awards including a nomination by the International Thriller Writers for Best Hardcover, the Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence, and a nomination for the RITA. In addition to writing, Castillo’s other passion is horses. She lives in Texas with her husband.