IT WAS A BUSY AUGUST AFTERNOON WHEN THE PHONE rang. I was not taking new referrals in my pediatric practice, but my secretary urged me to consider the request. A pleasant, down-to-earth woman from the county Human Services department was on the line, asking me to see Adrian, the 13-year-old adopted child of a local Mennonite farming family.
Until recently, she told me, Adrian's history had been unremarkable. He had come to this Mennonite family in rural Indiana as a foster child at the age of 4 and was legally adopted by them four years later at the age of 8. He seemed to have adapted well to life among the Mennonites a devout, cohesive community of evangelical Protestant farmers who live simple lives, similar to those of the Amish, but far less restrictive.
Then one evening in July, the family's barn had burned to the ground. All of the summer's hay was lost, but farmhands managed to save the 25 milk cows, the livelihood of Adrian's family, and move them to a neighbor's barn. Ten days later, that barn burned, too, and with it, all of the cows. A few days later, Adrian's father discovered the boy running out of the family kitchen as thick smoke poured from the windows and doors.
Under the questioning of the local fire chief, Adrian confessed to setting all three blazes. Adrian's case was referred to the social worker by the juvenile court. At first, her reaction was to look for another placement for the boy, but much to her surprise, after consulting with community elders, Adrian's parents decided to keep Adrian. The Mennonite community set to work rebuilding the barns, claims were filed with insurance companies, and the family agreed with the social worker's recommendation to have Adrian enter therapy.
In early September, Adrian, his parents and their three biological children came to my office for the first time. In their simple, modest clothes, they could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The father wore no tie. The mother wore a long print dress buttoned to the neck and a small black cap tied over her hair, which was put up in a bun. Adrian's clothing, too, was old-fashioned, and his hair was cut short, in '50s style. At 13, he had the small-framed, childlike body of a boy of 10.
The father was the spokesperson. The mother would not speak unless I insisted that she answer questions, and then she simply echoed what her husband said. Their 14-year-old daughter, who had left school after eighth grade to work with her mother on the farm, also barely spoke a word. Her two younger brothers, aged 9 and 7, were a marked contrast. Initially shy, they quickly warmed up and seemed at ease with drawing attention to themselves.
The family described themselves as typical Mennonites and reported no unusual conflicts brewing below the surface. Their lives were focused on God, work and community. Adrian, they said, was a pleasant, cooperative child who went to a Mennonite community school, worked on the farm and played with friends. I was struck by the fact that they seemed to have no hostility toward him. And the only fear I noted came from the daughter, who had asked to sleep downstairs so that she could escape more easily in case of another fire.
I told them that I had never worked with a Mennonite family before and that I did not want to violate any of their principles. I asked if they felt forced by the county to bring to a therapist what they might have thought was better left to God. But the father, who seemed to have a quiet interest in psychology, reassured me. Unlike the Amish, Mennonites pick and choose among the blessings of modern life they use tractors and electricity, for instance, but not television and the family's attitude was a mixture of curiosity about psychotherapy and a certainty about their own beliefs. The father said he felt I would be able to help all of them understand why the fires had happened, and thus help prevent them from happening again. He seemed …