Alabama and Reflections on Alex Mar’s Witches of America

alex marI’m in Alabama for Thanksgiving, hanging out with my parents, running, writing, and sleeping more than I usually do. Oliver always makes the drive with me, and it’s funny watching him interact with my mother’s three cats, who are comparatively huge and fancy (long-haired, Persian, flat-faced, totally uncivilized despite whatever she says about them). Oliver stalks around the house looking surly, hissing a lot, and staying close to me. The other cats do little more than watch him attentively, but he hates it. And, naturally, I have to take his side.

Thanksgiving break and then winter break are much-needed, and I appreciate them more now that I’ve finally admitted to just not liking fall. I can catch up on reading (in between grading student papers), do some blogging, and refocus on my own physical well-being (eating regularly, getting a lot of exercise, sleeping). I even set up a target in my parents’ backyard so I can shoot.

I’m finishing up Alex Mar’s Witches in America, which I’d been dying to read since seeing all of the horrendous, scathing, angry reviews floating around the Pagan Internet.  It’s been sitting on my table for weeks, and I finally got to read it yesterday, finishing up this morning.

There’s a lot in here that I recognize. Mar and I have similar educational and economic backgrounds (near as I can tell) and are close in age, so many of her questions and impulses look familiar to me. I understand how she feels when she doesn’t quite connect to the language prevalent amongst the Dianics she visits (it’s not her feminism, not her experience of womanhood). I understand that she feels self-conscious, surrounded by the kind of ecstatic religiosity at a large Pagan gathering, and later amongst the smaller groups she pursues. I understand wanting to suspend disbelief in search of a feeling that everyone else seems to have already achieved, feeling like you’re missing something. I understand the difficulty she has negotiating conversations about socioeconomic class, and the sometimes careless assumptions she makes about the people she’s studying.  And I understand the disappointment of having to go, “Nope. This isn’t what I thought it was or what I hoped it would be.”

So I’m empathetic, even if my experiences were different.

I can’t really comment on her relationships with her individual subjects or what oaths she may or may not have broken. I think it’s worth noting that (as far as I know) the people she describes by name have remained silent on the matter. Only they can say what boundaries were violated, if any. I’m not privy to the promises she made, and I don’t feel like that’s any of my business. I also think that when oathbound material is shared and vows are broken, it’s usually best dealt with by shutting up and not drawing attention, which only serves to let everyone else know the material is really oathbound.

When I first read Tanya Luhrmann’s Persuasions of the Witches’ Craft, I had similar reactions. I found myself thinking, “Jeez, I would never have been comfortable letting a scholar into my circle like this.” But that’s their business. It’s not up to me to tell them what’s secret and what isn’t, because every group is different. If I disagree, they only way I can protect material is to keep my own mouth shut and use their experience as a cautionary tale. As for open rituals, I think having writers present is a risk that everyone takes. These are public, after all. How many church services have I written about myself? How many open rituals? Even when you go through IRB clearance (as I did), individual consent from a large body of attendees is often not required, especially if the event is open to the public (like most Pagan festivals). Whether or not that’s personally ethical varies by individual, and the outsider’s position (whether she’s a scholar, a journalist, or a blogger) is usually different from the insider’s.

Friends and colleagues have commented that they found the work to be dismissive of certain kinds of Paganism (especially eclectic Wicca) and also somewhat body-shaming. I didn’t get that impression, myself. If anything, I thought most of her descriptions were a little cliché (“pendulous” breasts abound). When she avoided eclectic Wiccans, I understood it to be because she was personally on a quest for something organized, lineaged, and appealing to her desire for intimacy. Her avoidance made sense to me, and didn’t strike me as dismissive.

As an ethnographer, I can also empathize with the fact that subjects almost never feel perfectly represented. They often feel you’ve missed the point. They often feel slighted. Usually—for religious groups—this is rooted in the ethnographer never totally giving up her outsider position. The Christians I worked with knew that I couldn’t possibly have gotten them, because if I had, I would have been saved.

At best, I’d say this is an interesting memoir from someone who thirty-something spiritual seekers may recognize. At worst, it’s just kind of rehashed and self-indulgent—pretty standard fare in popular journalism. I think the mistake some people made was assuming that this book was designed to be representative or descriptive, but this is obviously not the case. It’s very clearly a memoir. I can’t imagine how someone could pick this up after reading the dust jacket and opening chapter and think this book would tell them how to be a witch, what Paganism looks like in the United States, or what really goes on in a witch coven. This is one more volume in the growing library of “seeker” memoirs—popular for the last several years—akin to Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple or Lauren Sandler’s Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement. Fascinating for the mildly curious, but clearly not intended to be objectively scholarly.

As usual, I think our reactions say more about us than about the work itself. Maybe she really gets it wrong. Maybe looking in the mirror is uncomfortable for us Pagans. Maybe she broke her oaths. Maybe we’re offended that she didn’t feel what we feel. Maybe we wish she’d worked with different people. Maybe we just wish she’d picked a better title.

I think it’s worth reading, though, and considering the problem for yourself.

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6 thoughts on “Alabama and Reflections on Alex Mar’s Witches of America

  1. Segomâros Widugeni

    Honestly, my main problem with the book, other than friends of mine getting hurt, is the whole “Jonathan the Necromancer” business. Just imagine a small town cop reading that witches rob graves and behead corpses. That sort of talk is dangerous, Satanic Panic-ish, and something no respectable journalist should print without checking, particularly in this case, where there isn’t a shred of evidence that the story is true.

    Reply
  2. Diana Brown

    Thanks for this!

    It struck me when I read reviews of the book, re: the “pendulous breasts,” that there must be something else to the criticism, if only because in one of the most memorable scenes (for me) from Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, a young woman being initiated by Maxine Sanders is described as, ahem, “so heavy that her stomach hung down, making her vagina invisible.” (Adler follows that up with: “Since I myself was thirty pounds overweight, her appearance, I regret to confess, cheered me immeasurably”!) I’ve never thought of calling this an act of body-shaming. Maybe it is! But the point is, people don’t dismiss Adler (and I don’t think they should, I love Drawing Down the Moon…). But anyway, not having read Witches of America (only about it), I started to think the issue probably had to do with her outsider status, and especially her privileged outsider status (which she may obnoxiously highlight–I don’t know). Adler, who names names a aplenty, and offers criticism, isn’t criticized (that I know of) because she was already an insider, someone who identified with the community, when she was writing, and she remained identified with it–unlike Mar (and Luhrmann). That doesn’t mean Mar and others don’t deserve criticism of course–it’s possible to be a really bad guest and leave people high and dry, beyond the demands of the work.

    Reply
  3. Eis

    This essentially sums up how I felt about the book as well. I cracked it open expecting it to piss me off, but like you I kind of empathize with Mar. I can see where she’s coming from, and I understand her spiritual hunger and disappointment. I think there is some degree of exploitation anywhere journalism is present, and like you said, there are bound to be individuals who feel they were not accurately portrayed/misrepresented. I’m not saying that makes it okay, it’s just the nature of the beast.

    The only section of the book I didn’t buy was the bit about the grave robber/necromancer. I think Mar either pulled that one out of her ass, or someone fed her a line of BS and she included it for the shock value. It just didn’t mesh with the rest of the book.

    Overall, I think it’s interesting to “see” Paganism and various witchcraft-related things through the eyes of someone on the other side of the hedge.

    Reply

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