There are few groups as controversial, misunderstood, and fascinating in America as the Amish.
These communities of intensely religious people who choose to live apart from the world seem to capture our imaginations.
While they live simple lives - without electricity or modern conveniences - the Amish have been the subject of TV documentaries, movies, and even romance novels.
But Emma Gingerich, a writer who dubs herself 'the Runaway Amish Girl,' says there was nothing romantic about her childhood.
The Dark Side Of The Simple Life
Gingerich grew up in a strict Amish community near Eagleville, Missouri.
From an early age, she says that she "didn't fit in" to her society of rules and discipline.
"Other girls my age were a lot happier than me," she remembered. "For Amish women, they're very secluded and always kept in the dark."
As a child, Gingerich says that she did farm chores, made her own clothes, and rarely spent time playing.
She also remembers being treated for chronic headaches with old-fashioned cures, like putting balloons up her nose.
But Gingerich claims she was "pretty happy," until she finished eighth grade at age 14.
From that point, she was expected to start working, and babysitting her 13 siblings.
"I don't remember having joy," she told Megyn Kelly in a recent interview.
"There was never anything to look forward to."
"There's just no breaking the rules anywhere."
As her teenage years wore on, Gingerich remembered that "something changed" inside her.
"I just didn’t feel like I belonged there anymore. I was curious about the outside world, and I longed for more."
Her introduction to Amish matchmaking only made her want to leave even more.
At 16, Gingerich says her family set up up with a boy they thought she would "be a good fit with."
"They bought him to my parents’ house on a Saturday night and they brought him upstairs to my room," she said.
While Gingerich was expected to share her bed with the boy, "they condemn you if you do anything romantically before marriage."
"I was absolutely horrified," she remembered.
"I don’t see how people can fall in love like that. To me, that’s just wrong."
Gingerich had finally realized she would probably never see eye to eye with her parents, or the rest of her community.
"My family was very strict. They believed in old traditions that were made up years ago. There's just no breaking the rules anywhere."
Gingerich was introduced to another way of life while cleaning homes for nearby non-Amish families. (Called "English" by the Amish.)
She remembered realizing there "was so much more out there for me."
But her family would never let her leave, so Gingerich relied on English friends to help her escape.
She left a note for her parents behind, along with her traditional bonnet, and left her home.
Gingerich had just $50 and the clothes on her back when she left Eagleville, and spoke almost no English because the Amish use their own Pennsylvania Dutch language.
Gingerich remembers she thought the world was flat, didn't recognize George Washington, and had to rely on friendly strangers for just about everything.
While she kept in touch with her family at first, they only tried to convince Gingerich she was in over her head.
"Within the first month I had gotten seven to eight letters from people, my brother and my parents," Gingerich remembered.
"They were all telling me I’m making a mistake. That I’m going to end up somewhere I don’t want to be. And that God won’t accept me like that."
Life After Amish
Since leaving Eagleville in 2006, Gingerich's life has completely changed.
She lives in Texas these days, and has a job, and apartment, and a degree (in agricultural technology and crop science). As for regrets, Gingerich has none.
"If would've stayed Amish just a little bit longer I would’ve gotten married and had four or five kids by now," she explained.
"That is just not me. I can’t even imagine myself being married to an Amish guy."
Instead, she shared her story on her blog, Runaway Amish Girl, and published a book of the same name about her dramatic life story.
Over the years, Gingerich has traded letters with other girls who want to escape Amish life, and some of her own cousins have left the community too.
While Gingerich has visited her parents, she is still shunned by Amish leaders, and only tolerated by her own family.
But she still admits there were some good things about her Amish upbringing.
"You learn about family values and you learn to be honest and a hard worker," she said. "But I definitely wouldn’t want to go back just because I couldn’t take all the rules."
What a brave woman!
Here are more surprising stories about the Amish:
- 10 facts about the Amish you probably didn't know.
- Here's what it's like to be Amish and pregnant.
- The hidden meaning behind Amish clothing rules.