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NY Mills author to speak at DL Library Why she left the Amish

Anna Olson will be speaking in the Detroit Lakes Library on Wednesday at 7 p.m. about growing up in the Amish community, her depression there and subsequently leaving that lifestyle. She has written two books about her experience.

Though she grew up in an Amish community in Hewitt, Minn. -- "about 30 miles from where I live today in New York Mills" -- the gap that separates Anna Dee Olson from that life might as well be an ocean.

In 1992, when she was 24 years old, Anna left the Amish community behind to pursue her dreams.

"I dreamt of having a career," Anna says. "I knew it wasn't possible (as an Amish woman), but I dreamt about it anyway.

"I wanted to go to college."

The other major reason behind her decision, Anna says, wasn't so positive.

"I was diagnosed with clinical depression after I left (the Amish)," she says. "Looking back over the years, I suffered from depression probably from about 3-4 years old on.

"My parents, my community did not recognize the fact that I had depression. I didn't know what was going on -- I was just a bad person.

"No matter what I did, it was never enough -- I was never good enough."

Anna strongly believes that if she had stayed in her community and remained a part of the Amish life, she wouldn't be alive today.

"I seriously thought about harming myself -- I just never got the courage to do it," she says. "I thank God for that."

Instead, Anna somehow found the courage to leave behind the community where she had spent her entire life, for a completely new one -- as a college student in Wadena.

"I was like a 24-year-old adolescent," she says. "I really had no idea how to survive, how to be in this world without being Amish. Being outside of that (world) was quite a learning experience for me, to figure out how to live out here."

But survive she did -- in fact, Anna thrived. Today, she and her husband Tom Olson live with their two children in New York Mills, enjoying all of life's modern amenities. She even has a cell phone (which is how this interview was conducted).

She has the career she always wanted, working as the associate registrar at Minnesota State Community & Technical College in Wadena -- the same place where she earned degrees in secretarial work and medical administration.

"I graduated college twice, and now I'm back again," she says, adding that she's taking one or two classes a semester while continuing to work at the college.

Her eventual goal is to earn a two-year associate degree, then move on to complete her bachelor's degree at a four-year college.

"I'm leaning toward either writing, or women's studies (as a major)," she says.

Though she doesn't have a degree in writing, Anna is already a published author: Her first book, Growing Up Amish, was published in 2006.

"When I first left Wisconsin (where her parents still live) and moved to Wadena, I started babysitting for a couple who became my family...Penny, the mother of the children I was babysitting for, encouraged me to write a book, and many of my other friends kept telling me I should.

"So in 2006, I hired a coach to write a book, and I did."

She has since published a follow-up book, "Leaving the Amish: Connecting to the Outside World," and has established a second career of sorts, as an inspirational and motivational speaker.

"I was working at Tri-County Hospital in Wadena when they asked me to do a cultural awareness event for the employees...they do get a lot of Amish people in the hospital," Anna says. "The fear of speaking up and stepping out was holding back, and even though I was so scared, I forced myself to do it. I said yes."

Since then, Anna has had speaking engagements not only in Minnesota, but North Dakota and Wisconsin as well.

"I've spoken for a wide variety of groups -- church groups, women's groups, corporate meetings, town meetings, libraries and other community organizations -- I've spoken at high schools and middle schools too.

"I adjust what I talk about (to fit each audience)."

Anna will be doing several such presentations in the lakes area this week, as part of the Lake Agassiz Regional Library System's "Sugarbeet Series."

Her three-day speaking tour will include a stop at the Detroit Lakes Library on Wednesday, March 14, at 7 p.m.

She will also appear at the Library LINK sites in Cormorant and Frazee on Thursday, at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., respectively.

Anna says the first part of her presentation includes talking about all different aspects of Amish culture, and how that upbringing has informed her life today and made it richer.

The second part of the presentation focuses on a question-and-answer session.

"That's the best part of the whole event -- to get to the 'Q and A' and find out what people want to know, what questions they have," she says.

Some of her answers get quite personal -- she doesn't hold much back, even when discussing her depression and how it almost led her to suicide.

"People seem to really enjoy that I get to a personal level with them like that," she says. "I think there are a lot of people who have those struggles (with depression) out there and if my sharing will help those people see you can get to the good side of life if you want it badly enough -- which I did -- it can hopefully be an inspirational message as well."

One question that frequently comes up in her presentations deals with the practice of shunning: Those who leave the Amish community are never allowed to come back, and are completely shunned, even by their own family.

"I was taught that if I leave, I will go to hell...because I am of the devil now," she says. "I cannot go back to my parents' house (in Wisconsin) and share a meal with them.

"If you were to walk up to my mom today and ask her, 'Do you believe Anna will go to hell?' she would probably say, 'I'm not here to judge' -- but she did teach me that if I left I would go to hell."

Despite the fact that their religion required that Anna would never again have meaningful contact with her parents or siblings -- she has nine brothers and sisters -- Anna has no regrets about her decision to leave that world behind.

"Let's just say it was a long road -- but definitely worth it," she says. "I can't say I've ever regretted it. I truly believe I am where God wants me to be."