For those with long memories, Oct. 2 was the 10th anniversary of the massacre of several Amish school children in Lancaster County, Pa.
Lots of news outlets did anniversary stories about the event. As I’ve scanned a few of them, I noticed the Washington Post interview with Terri Roberts, mother of the man who murdered five girls and injured five more.
What I noticed was how the reporter got access to survivors –- and their parents –- that I hadn’t seen other mainstream reporters get. Unless you have major contacts inside such a community, first-person interviews with the Amish are notoriously tough to find.
Yet, here were several such interviews, all on the theme of how do the major players of such a drama deal with each other when the son of one of them has done the unforgivable?
NICKEL MINES, Pa. — A single word in black cursive font hangs above a large double-pane window in Terri Roberts’s sun room. It says “Forgiven.”
The word -- and the room itself, a gift built by her Amish neighbors just months after the unimaginable occurred -- is a daily reminder of all that she’s lost and all that she’s gained these past 10 years.
The simple, quiet rural life she knew shattered on Oct. 2, 2006, when her oldest son, Charles Carl Roberts IV, walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse on a clear, unseasonably warm Monday morning. The 32-year-old husband and father of three young children ordered the boys and adults to leave, tied up 10 little girls between the ages of 6 and 13 and shot them, killing five and injuring the others, before killing himself.
The story of how the Amish gathered around the Roberts family is well known. But what happened after that?
The narrative jumps forward a decade.
But the Amish did more than forgive the couple. They embraced them as part of their community. When Roberts underwent treatment for Stage 4 breast cancer in December, one of the girls who survived the massacre helped clean her home before she returned from the hospital. A large yellow bus arrived at her home around Christmas, and Amish children piled inside to sing her Christmas carols…
Ten years later, the Amish families are still consciously deciding to forgive every day….But it’s impossible to forget. In one home, a 16-year-old girl sits immobile in her wheelchair, unable to speak or feed herself. Nearby, a 23-year-old man sits at his kitchen table, also struggling to speak, though for him it’s not because he isn’t physically able. He just can’t find the words to express the emotional pain he’s felt every day for the past 10 years.
Rosanna King was among the youngest in her class that day: She was 6. Aaron Esh Jr., then 13, was the oldest.
Roberts has developed bonds with both of them.
The reporter, who got to visit Aaron and Rosanna but not take photos, describes the girl’s near-vegetative state and the struggles her father still has with that reality.
For King, forgiveness has not come easy. Some parents have mourned the death of their daughters. Others have seen their daughters fully heal. His daughter survived, but he also lost her. Every day, he fights back his anger. Every day, he has to forgive again….
There are joy-filled moments with their daughter, like when she seems to perk up when he comes in from work. But then there are days when she has seizures or she’s up in the night and can’t be comforted.
“I’ve always said and continue to say we have a lot of hard work to be what the people brag about us to be,” he said.
That last sentence is the best in the whole story.
The Amish are world-famous for their forgiveness, but behind the image is a man having to gut it out on a very personal level day after day, year after year and now decade after decade. There's been lots of interviews done over the past decade and much of this information is already out there. The trick is to get decent quotes that say something new about the weight of time on their agony.
Then there’s 23-year-old Aaron Esh, who cannot forgive himself for fleeing the scene that horrible day and not trying to protect the girls. He tells the reporter:
“There are still times, especially around this time of year when you think, ‘Why did this have to happen,’ and you have to catch yourself or you can become bitter real quick,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve had complete peace with it, I don’t know. I think I’m struggling more than I realize, and I don’t want to admit it.”
There’s one curious absence. Neither God nor any creed are mentioned. Yes, we know the Amish are Christian and forgiveness is a huge deal in the New Testament. There’s even a very good quote from a college professor explaining how the Amish don’t wait until they feel like they can forgive. They forgive first and work through the emotions later.
Still, I think the obvious could have been stated at least once. Currently, it’s like reading a story about high winds without mentioning there was a hurricane involved. The reporter has incorporated faith very openly in other stories, so I don’t think this is something she willingly left out. Terri Roberts has mentioned God and quoted the Bible in other interviews.
Maybe these quotes just came out in a non-sectarian way.
The kind of forgiveness we see in this story is part of the warp and woof of Amish life, this Christianity Today essay explains, which makes it impossible to strip-mine from the Amish culture and applied elsewhere. The word "forgiveness" is so bandied around. Ten years out, what does it mean?
This may be the last time anyone interviews Terri Roberts, as she’s dealing with advanced breast cancer. A photo essay by one of her other children in the New York Times mentions how sick she really is.
And so I am glad this reporter got in there when she did, to record how people who’ve gone through hell try to plant some flowers along the way and leave the world less bitter than the way they found it.