Many Lancaster County residents first encountered Esther Schmucker gracing their television screens from 2012-2015 on the Discovery Channel’s controversial show “Amish Mafia.” The show received backlash from many in the area due to its lack of authenticity, and Esther’s time in the media spotlight as the matriarch of a gang of fringe “peacekeepers” in the Amish community was short-lived, the press typically negative. A horrifying domestic abuse incident, in which Esther was beaten by her then-boyfriend so badly that he fractured facial bones and broke her nose and several teeth, was written into Amish Mafia’s storyline. That time in Esther’s life was a culmination of years of struggle and abuse that no one bothered to dig deep enough to find out about, and that she has only in the past few years found a way to overcome.
The real story of Esther Schmucker starts in a tiny Amish community in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where she was born and raised. “We didn’t have any running water or indoor bathrooms, no refrigerators, no freezers,” she remembers. Her father died when she was three years old, and her mother adhered to the strict Old Order Amish lifestyle. “The way I grew up was if you question the rules of the culture, you’re disobedient,” Esther explains, “I always had questions; I was very curious, and I got reprimanded for it… spanked for it… I was taught that not being content with what you have is the devil.”
She was also taught from a young age that, as a woman, if she attracted a man’s attention in unwanted ways, it was her fault. As an example, she recounts a story of when, as a fifth grade girl, her male school teacher chased her down a deserted lane and exposed himself to her. She ran home, frightened, and told her mother what had happened. “She told me, ‘What’s something you were doing that was leading him on?’” Esther says. “She gave me lessons on how to walk, you know? Make sure you’re not wiggling your hips.” Just a few years after that incident, when she was 13 and 14 years old, Esther was repeatedly sexually abused by an older Amish member of the community, and again told that “if a man lusts after you, or if a man comes after you or molests you, it’s something that you did that enticed the man.” Esther escaped her abuser when her mother remarried and her family moved to her new stepfather’s home in Lancaster.
It was here that her world turned upside down. In her community, “You never talk about sex, you never talk about men, you never talk about how babies are born. It’s all very hush-hush, and if you do, you’re punished,” Esther says. At age 15, Esther went into labor and gave birth to her abuser’s baby, having no idea that she was ever pregnant. “I didn’t know what was happening to me,” she recalls. “I was sure I was dying. I just started praying, and I was like, ‘God, what is happening to me?’” Her sister found her curled up in bed crying and ran to get Esther’s mother, who then found an Amish midwife in the community to deliver the baby—a healthy boy. Esther suspects her mother knew she was pregnant, but didn’t tell her or take her to the doctor. “I felt numb,” she continues. “I was in shock, and I was just looking at my baby like, ‘What do I do?’ It was the craziest time of my life. But I stepped up and was like, ‘Okay, now I’m a mom,’ and I took care of my baby, and I fell in love with my baby, and I did what I needed to do.”
Not long after the birth, however, elder members of the church arrived at Esther’s house urging her to give her son up for adoption. They didn’t want to explain to others why a 15 year-old unwed girl had a baby. When Esther refused, they banned her from caring for her son in public. The pressure became so intense that Esther decided to leave home: “I was this lost little girl. I had no idea what to do, I had no plan, but I just knew I wasn’t giving up my kid.” She remained Amish, but joined a New Order church that welcomed her son and helped her find an apartment and a job. The next several years were a whirlwind as Esther took part in Rumspringa, started partying and meeting new people, connected with the producers of the Discovery Channel, starred on a television show, and suffered through a physically abusive relationship. When the show ended, Esther took time to look inward and ask herself tough questions about who she wanted to be and what kind of people she wanted to surround herself with.
Now living a happy, quiet life in Lancaster, Esther has found her calling by helping others through Voices of Hope, an organization where she speaks to women who have faced abuse or domestic violence, as well as writing a book titled “Healing in Heels,” in which she shares her own personal story. She is especially interested in helping Amish women, many of whom Esther says remain silent or have their abuses “swept under the rug” or minimized. In sharing her past, “What I’ve learned is that when you step out in bravery, you’re giving other women the freedom to be brave, too, and to open their hearts and to speak their truth. It’s been incredible.”