Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

In the wake of personal crisis, Rhoda Janzen returned to the Mennonite community of her youth — and penned a laugh-out-loud funny memoir.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Rhoda Janzen. Photo by Shelley LaLonde.

Until the year she turned forty-three, college English professor Rhoda Janzen led a seemingly idyllic life, one that included a rewarding job, a lakefront house, and a husband of fifteen years. Then within the span of a single week, her husband left her for a man he met on gay.com, and she was seriously injured in a head-on motor vehicle accident on a snow-covered road near her Michigan home.

Needing to come to grips with debilitating injuries and her failed marriage, Janzen returned to the Ukrainian Mennonite neighborhood where she was raised—a “land of Borscht, Zwiebach, and corduroy-covered Bibles”—and moved in with her parents. The experience not only helped her to heal both physically and emotionally, it yielded a witty memoir, one that proves you can go home again—provided you come from a close-knit Mennonite community.

Failure interviewed Janzen to discuss her experiences, and to find out how Mennonites have reacted to “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” (Henry Holt).

Who are the Mennonites and what do they believe?
The Mennonites are a Protestant group who believe a familiar Protestant creed, but one thing that makes them distinctive is that they tend to be anti-war and anti-violence. Most Mennonites don’t fight under any circumstances. They also have a communal ethos, and tend to live together and support one another.

What is their relationship to the Amish?
The Amish are an offshoot of the Mennonite church, having split from the Mennonites several hundred years ago because the Mennonites were too liberal. There are pronounced similarities in creed and in practice between the two churches, though most people assume that the Amish are even more conservative. In general, that tends to be true.

Did you feel “different” when growing up?
Oh, yes I did [laughs]. It’s hard when you’re a child to understand the theological reasons that motivate parenting lifestyles and choices. I just saw the surface differences between me and everybody else. I didn’t dress the same, I wasn’t allowed unlimited access to TV or movies, I couldn’t listen to the radio, and I wasn’t allowed to dance. Things like that can really cramp your style.

When did you make the transition to mainstream culture?
In college, when I began living independently and my parents were no longer in a position to make requests or requirements of my dress or deportment.

Was it difficult to make the transition?
Yes and no. It was a slow transition because I started at a Mennonite college, and the Mennonites around me tended to be very conservative as well. But as I moved forward into graduate school it became easier.

Can you talk about your husband leaving you?
It wasn’t a horrific surprise, as things had been getting progressively more difficult. But he announced that he was leaving me for a man he met on gay.com. That was its own catastrophe after 15 years [of marriage]. Then six days later I was in a serious car accident. The combination of those events knocked me back, and I knew I needed to make some changes.

Tell me about the accident.
I was driving a Volkswagen Beetle and was hit head-on by a slightly inebriated 19-year-old. He lost control of his Jeep Cherokee and veered into my lane on the M-40—a popular place for accidents, as it can be very slippery.

What injuries did you suffer and how long did it take to recover?
Given how serious the accident was I feel lucky I got away so lightly. I suffered a cracked patella, broken ribs, a concussion, and a broken clavicle. It was two months before I was well enough to travel.

What compelled you to return to the Mennonites?
It wasn’t my first thought. But I really didn’t know what else to do. I had a sabbatical planned and I couldn’t afford it. So I went to speak to my department chair, and he was the one who encouraged me to get out of town. He suggested a visit home [Fresno, California], and the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea.

What was it like when you first returned to the Mennonite community?
It was a combination of deep culture shock and comforting familiarity. All the things that were in place when I was a child were still in place, including my mom doing the cooking and the Mennonites singing. But it was a shock in the sense that the things I took for granted I had to re-think—like the things that I wore and the language I used. I did my best to accommodate my parents’ requests.

How did your family and the community react to your personal situation?
I only spoke to my immediate family about the situation, and I didn’t tell them right away that my husband had left me. It was one of those dark, horrible nights of the soul that I didn’t want to talk to them about it. But they were so supportive. I was surprised, because as someone raised Mennonite, I feared that the first thing they would do was shake their heads about divorce. But they weren’t like that at all.

How do you think your life would have turned out if you had remained in the Mennonite community all along?
It would have been a different life. I would have been a mom, for one thing. I probably would not have pursued higher education with such tenacity. And I might have gone to Mennonite seminary. In fact, I did apply and was accepted in my late twenties and chose not to go. If I had stayed I probably would have gone.

Have you received feedback from any Mennonites about the book?
There are some who really like and support the writing. Others aren’t big memoir readers and can’t contextualize it as a work of literature among other literary works, but welcome the opportunity to discuss the issues.

On the other end, there are Mennonites who have been hurt and offended by my work. Some think that the humor is disrespectful, and there are two scholars who believe I’ve done the Mennonite church an injustice in presenting it as less than open to global interests.