Lael Colony: Author tells of life in unusual sect

GOSHEN, Ind. — In the 1950s, a little girl grew up in an isolated colony tucked away in a lush valley where playing was forbidden, books were burned and dissenting members were forced out and “dumped” among strangers — all by decree of one man.

This is the story Patricia Hochstetler tells in a series of three books about her childhood in an Old Order Amish splinter group ruled by a man called “The Elder.” Hochstetler makes no demur about calling the colony a cult — it’s right in the title of the book.

The writing of “Delusion: Growing up in an Amish-Jewish Cult” took 10 years. Hochstetler said the memories and subsequent emotions forced her to give up writing time after time.

Finally, she decided to pretend she was writing about a different little girl.

“I pretended I was writing about someone I knew, not myself,” Hochstetler said.

The words were never supposed to be read by anyone anyway — at least “not until I was dead and gone,” she said. She planned to leave the story of her childhood in the Lael Colony in Tennessee for her children and grandchildren to read.

Hochstetler had first thought about writing about her experiences when she was 19 and newly out of the colony. She quickly found it impossible to do that and keep her life in the outside world from disintegrating.

“I had shut the door to the past,” she said. “I had to do that to survive.”

Creating a new life in her teens also included dealing with a strange and frightening new world.

“I had never heard or seen a radio or TV or inside toilets,” Hochstetler said. “I didn’t know there was a president. We were told the outside world was evil. I didn’t expect to survive.”

She made a few other attempts over the years to put her story down in words before finally deciding, “the third time is a charm, I will not lay it down.”

It was “difficult to open those closed doors,” Hochstetler said. “I never talked about my childhood to anyone, ever. I never wanted to spade up that ground.”

The technical aspects of writing were also difficult. Hochstetler grew up speaking Pennsylvania Dutch and — after a mandated book burning — the Bible was one of the few books she was allowed to read. Her writing was sprinkled with Germanic and archaic intonations — it just didn’t sound quite right, she said.

Hochstetler joined writing groups and took a course from Writer’s Digest led by John Cooper that helped her “immeasurably.” In 1996, she decided to take an English course at Bethel College.

“I told the professor I was a kindergartner in college — it was true,” Hochstetler said.

At a writer’s conference, she was encouraged by professor Dennis Hensley to try to get her story published. Reluctant at first, Hochstetler was finally convinced that by releasing her writing to the public, she might be able to help someone else in danger of joining a cult.

“It was written to let people know how dangerous cults are. No one decides to join a cult,” she said, explaining her parents and the other families in Lael were drawn there by a true desire to serve God and live decent, hardworking lives.

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There are still about a dozen people living in the colony, according to Hochstetler. She interviewed anyone who would talk to her about the past, changing names for privacy’s sake, and also received help from her mother.

The first of Hochstetler’s three books about living in the Lael Colony has been published by Baker Trittin Press, Winona Lake.

“Delusion: Growing up in an Amish-Jewish Cult,” deals with her very earliest years in the colony, starting at age 4 when she was whisked away from Elkhart to the secret valley in Tennessee.

Although Hochstetler wrote the entire account of her life in Lael as one book, the publisher divided the writings into three books.

“Delusion” will be followed by the second book in the series, “Deception” at Thanksgiving, and the third, “Deliverence,” next spring.

The first book “opens the door,” Hochstetler said. “The second is really the nitty gritty about cult living.” The third is about her deliverance — through God’s hands, she said — from the cult.

Hochstetler said she takes no credit for the completion and publication of her writing.

“The Lord helped me through it. I did not have the strength to do it on my own,” she said. “It’s a little scary this is out in the world. But if it will help somebody, I’m willing to put it out there.”

Hochstetler is ready to move on to more cheerful book topics. She loves writing about other people and has had articles published in The Paper and The Goshen News. She also enjoys writing poetry and has written a children’s book based on an injured goose she cared for several years ago.

The book can also be purchased for $12.95 on the Web site www.bakertrittinpress.com or at Miller’s Country Store on C.R. 34, east of the fairgrounds.

Delusion’ recounts control

Patricia Hochstetler was 4-years-old when her parents received the long-awaited news that they had been accepted into what they thought was Utopia.

Hochstetler’s maternal grandparents and other family members were already in the Lael Colony in Tennessee “bound financially and spiritually,” Hochstetler said.

Her “English” father, disillusioned with the outside world, was eager to join the families who had split from an Aberdeen, Miss., Amish group to follow The Elder.

The Elder, a man born to the Jewish faith who called himself Mack Sharky, had hitchhiked into Aberdeen and quickly instilled himself in the community. He attended the Amish group’s church services before drawing followers from the group to his own services on Saturdays rather than Sundays.

Those followers cut all ties with their families and friends, and The Elder convinced them to secretly move to a 2,500-acre plot of land in Tennessee. The followers were forbidden to tell anyone they were leaving and were also forbidden to reveal the location to anyone outside the group. After the roads to the new colony were barricaded, the group began carving their new lives out of the wilderness.

The tales in “Delusion: Growing up in an Amish-Jewish Cult” reveal a time in Hochstetler’s life where everything was dictated by The Elder — from clothing style to mandated celibacy, even between husband and wife. He even changed several people’s names, including Hochstetler’s.

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