Book Review:Navigating the Witches of America
When I first learned of Alex Mar's book, Witches of America, I was eager to read it. Considering my own studies in Witch and Witchcraft representations, I was interested in her take on the subject. Before the book's release, I had absolutely no externally-derived expectations, and my limited contact with Mar did not reveal the nature of her project. Therefore, I assumed that this book would catalog or survey the practice of Witchcraft in modern America. And the title appeared to corroborate this assumption. However, I soon learned that I was unequivocally mistaken. The book was a memoir.
Over the past month since its release, Witches of America has been reviewed and discussed many times over. On the one hand, mainstream coverage has ranged from the moderately critical to the highly positive. New York Times reviewer Merritt Tierce loved it, and the news giant recently placed the book on its list of Top 100 Notable Books of 2015. The magazine Marie Claire has also listed the book on its 2015 top Book-Club picks. At the same, an NPR reviewer was not quite as enamored with Mar's work, saying, "Some of these disappointments, I'll admit, come from finding the cultural research aspect of the book more engaging than Mar's personal journey."
On the other hand, Pagan reviews and blog discussions have ranged from the negative and highly critical to the more moderately critical. At Patheos, channel manager Jason Mankey discusses the limitations of the study itself, saying, "One would expect a book entitled Witches of America to be about Witchcraft as practiced in the United States, but it’s not really about that. As a practicing Witch for the last twenty-two years there was very little I identified with in the book."
One of the first and most scathing reviews, which was eventually quoted in a later Guardian article, was published at Gods and Radicals. Editor Rhyd Wildermuth calls Mar a "spiritual tourist" and writes:
... her book offers a sordidly pornographic and self-aggrandising narrative disguised as an elucidating look into the way witchcraft is practised in the United States. Belonging alongside a 1980s issue of National Geographic (we’ll get to the pendulous breasts in a bit), exploitative British-tourist narratives and freak-documentary, Mar’s book tells the tale of her search for authentic witchcraft in the most ‘extreme’ of American Pagan experiences ...
Other Pagan bloggers spoke out, including John Halstead, John Beckett, David Salisbury and Segomâros Widugeni. Of these four particular reviewers, only Salisbury, who is mentioned in the book, offered a moderate response. He wrote, "There are some things that are problematic with Witches of America. There are also things that are problematic with just about every single book portraying witches that I’ve ever read in my 16 years on this path." He later admits, "And while everyone has a right to how they feel, this doesn’t make me feel exploited. It makes me feel like a witch."
Through these writings and the social media discussions, it seems that the Witches of America do not like the Witches of America. And, this point was noted by the Guardian writer who asked, "Serious researcher or 'spiritual tourist'? How Alex Mar riled America's pagans"
As I read through the book myself pushing past my original expectations, I wondered how I could possibly write a fair review of a book whose major players were people that I knew in some way. How do I evenly discuss the book when I am personally invested in some the content? This became the challenge and, originally, I opted not to write a review at all.
However, I changed my mind, because there is a particularly interesting issue that is raised by the publication of the book, not by the content within the book itself. It is an issue that is touched on by several of the bloggers, and affects more than just Mar and those people mentioned in her story. It is one faced by many other writers as well.
How do you navigate the blurred lines created between public and private speak when the professional mixes with the personal?
Before diving into to that issue, I'll do a quick rundown of the book. Alex Mar's Witches of America is a personal memoir written for general audiences. It was not specifically meant for the Pagan or modern Witchcraft communities highlighted within its pages, or any for that matter. However, Mar's journey, regardless of her underlying purpose, does provide ample detail, which may intrigue even a long-practicing Witch.
In other words, Mar is not providing a Witchcraft 101 experience for new seekers. Nor did she create an educational tool for non-Pagans. As mentioned earlier, it is simply a memoir - one woman's experience, opinion and approach.
With that said, I found Mar's writing style, which is somewhat clinical and journalistic, to be uncomfortable in that genre. Her tone creates an emotional distance, even when she describes the most intensely personal revelation. At the same time, her style works and is more settled in the sections in which she offers historical fact or other background data. And, aptly, these were the most engaging for me.
Another disappointment was the lack of bibliography. As an academic writer and journalist, I want my nonfiction to marinate in proof, data sets and extra source material. This is partly a personal problem, and the memoir genre does not demand such background information. But it would have been nice, considering that the book was written for general audiences. For example, if a non-Pagan wanted more information on Gerald Gardner's history, Mar could have provided a list of credible sources.
But once again, this is a memoir, and I kept telling myself to just keep reading and stop looking for endnotes.
Looking closer at this memoir aspect, I can't criticize Mar for her spiritual experience. I wasn't there. I don't what is real and what is opinion. Was she being honest or was she a spiritual tourist? I'll leave that speculation to the bloggers and reviews listed above. I recommend reading them all for various opinions on the issue.
However, I did reach out to Mar and asked if the main players knew that she was writing a book. Mar told me, "I was very open about it in general, and was never 'undercover' -- that's another approach to reporting, but it's not one I took with this book or with my previous magazine stories. It wouldn't have made sense here, as my goal was never to write an exposé, but to create a portrait of a slice of the Pagan community while also documenting my own spiritual exploration."
Salisbury's blog post confirms that. With regards to her intent, he wrote, "Did you not know that she was a journalist writing a book with the bent of a memoir? That seemed highly obvious to me, as someone who basically lived with her for a week."
A recent public statement by Coru Cathubodua also corroborated this statement.
Throughout the book, Mar hops around to a variety of different religious groups, events and spiritual practices, experiencing initiations, workings, magic and ritual. As noted in detail by Mankey, Mar does not catalog the entire American Witchcraft community, as if that was even possible. The book focuses on several specific traditions, predominantly Feri and Thelema. Her travels were limited to New Orleans, New York, Massachusetts, and Northern California. However, she does spend some time at Pagan Spirit Gathering and at PantheaCon.
As she told me, her intent was to offer a "portrait of a slice of the Pagan community," and she did that. However, the title itself sets an expectation of something greater, which then becomes part of the problem. Witches of America does not represent the Witches of America. It represents Mar's journey engaging with a small fraction, a slice as it were, of greater diversity. That's okay. But the results don't meet the expectations set by the title, which may account for the wide gap between the mainstream and Pagan reviews. Non-Pagans don't understand that point and don't care; Pagans do.
Now returning to the issue of privacy and professionalism, Mar recounts some very detailed initiation rites, rituals and educational workings. She also published direct email communications with several of her contacts. Almost unanimously, the Pagan reviewers point this out, citing that she violated people's privacy and overstepped spiritual boundaries.
I had to know. Were these accusations correct? Did she violate a trust or was she given permission to print the data presented? I reached out to a number of the players within the book, including Karina, Morpheus, the New Orleans OTO group and Coru Cathubodu. Both Karina and the OTO declined to comment. In the Coru statement, representative Scott Rowe answered this very question. He said that, in a phone agreement, Mar offered the group review rights before publication. With that understanding, as Rowe explained, [the] "gave Ms. Mar access to individual members for interviews. She attended public events and hospitality. She was never invited to nor was she present for any private Priesthood rituals."
Then, according to Coru, the agreement was rescinded. Rowe said, "The Coru Cathubodua Priesthood would have declined to participate in Ms. Mar’s book from the start without the agreement that we would be able to provide corrections and redaction where necessary to protect our members’ personal and religious lives, and ensure our beliefs and public writes were correctly depicted." Rowe stated that the book has caused some direct harm to its members and community, adding "We cannot, will not and do not stand by it."
I reached out to Morpheus and asked the same question. Did Mar violate your trust? She simply said, "I do not endorse Alex Mar's book and I share the position of the Coru Cathubodua Priesthood in this."
An interesting point to note within Coru's response is the issue of intent and damage. Rowe said, "We believe that Ms. Mar was sincere in her religious and spiritual exploration at that point, and in her intent to craft a book that would benefit our community. However, this book is not a boon to the Pagan and Polytheist communities. Ms. Mar’s intentions matter very little in light of the consequences of what she chose to write."
This comment brings us back to the initial dilemma of privacy. Assuming, as Coru does, that Mar was genuine in her spiritual seeking, then the problem lies with the overstepping of boundaries, intentionally or not, in the presentation of her experience. And this issue can lay at the heart of anyone attempting to publish works on their spiritual endeavors. How do writers navigate the lines created between public and private speak when the professional mixes with the personal?
Many journalists regularly experience this problem when they are covering community in which they live. Lines can become blurred between work and play. But it is on us, as writers and editors, to be ever vigilant in distinguishing which role we are playing when and to draw clear lines for the sake of safety, integrity and ethics - both personal and professional.
Bloggers will face the same dilemma. What can you publish? What can you talk about? But the onus is not only on the writers to maintain clarity. In a world of social media, we all part of the public voice. What you publish in your feeds can be subject to the same issue. What is public and what is private? And where and how do we clearly draw the lines?
Rowe advises, "We would like our experience to be the final lesson to other Pagans and Polytheists on the potential challenges and ramifications of dealing with the mainstream media. Journalists are always on the record and what you say will be used in whatever light the writer finds most advantageous to the story she wants to tell, whether it’s true or not. Before speaking with mainstream journalists, make sure to get all agreements detailed in writing."
Doing this with anyone, mainstream or not, is a good idea. It is something that I talk about in my own Public Relations workshops. Unblur those lines, or draw them, in order to ensure that what is being said privately doesn't end up on the front page, in a blog or on Instagram. Monitor closely your navigation of the professional and the personal.
As for Mar's book, I am troubled by any violations of privacy. I take that issue very seriously and acknowledge the frustrations and anger felt by those involved, in this case.
Setting that discomfort aside, I will add that I did find elements of the book interesting. As with Mar, I grew up in New York City metro and came to Paganism through the eyes of a skeptic. Some of her personal questioning reflected some of my own early doubts about ritual practice, magic and religion. However, as a whole, Witches of America was neither here nor there for me. But then again, that's another personal problem. I generally don't read memoirs
... and I need a bibliography.