Witches of America – A Review

witches of americaFor of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
– John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

Privilege and opportunity are not evenly distributed in this country and our safety net is seriously deficient. Still, by historical standards most of us have incredible amounts of both, even if others around us have more. One of the most common questions among the young (and the not-so-young) is “what’s my true passion?” – which of the countless paths should I take with my life?

This very important question is made more difficult by our culture’s expectations of us. Do we work toward what we want, or do we chase what we’ve been told we’re supposed to want? Our true desires have a way of seeping to the surface, pushing us toward an adventure of learning, experience, and service to something greater than ourselves. Many times, though, these desires are at odds with what the mainstream society tells us is good and what it means to be successful.

At some point we have to choose. Do we follow our true calling, or do we become what our schools, employers, and the sorcerers of Madison Avenue tell us we’re supposed to be?

Writer and film maker Alex Mar was faced with this decision. She chose poorly.

Mar is the product of an extremely privileged environment. She grew up in New York City and has a degree from Harvard. The values and priorities she demonstrates in the book are the values of privilege. She doesn’t think about her impact on others. Everyone she meets is described by their physical appearance: those who are young, thin, and hot are viewed favorably; those who aren’t are mocked and dismissed.

But Mar doesn’t fit in perfectly. She’s the child of recent immigrants, and her peer group is richer and blonder than she is – a fact she points out herself. She’s trying to be successful in the chic world of Art, a subculture that prides itself on its intelligence and sophistication.

Mar is the director of American Mystic, a 2010 documentary film that followed three individuals as they pursued mystical non-traditional religious paths. The film and the people she met while making it sparked an interest in mysticism and especially in witchcraft – and it provided easy entry into secretive orders and societies.

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Crete

Early in the book, Mar identifies with her culture’s disdain for religion and spirituality. But she also discusses the spirit-infused Catholicism of her mother’s Cuban family and tells stories of relatives with psychic gifts. She talks of her father’s Cretan heritage and speculates about ancestral connections to ancient Minoan priestesses.  She observes some of the finest priestesses and priests in the modern Pagan community and is present for foundational events in the re-emergence of a Battle Goddess.  Using her newly made connections, she begins study and practice in both Feri Witchcraft and in the Ordo Templi Orientis. The path is clearly presented to her, and unlike so many of us, Mar’s path is wide open.

But that path and the path of the stylish and sophisticated New York / Harvard artsy intellectual are at odds with each other.

If Witches of America was a novel, readers would turn the pages with anticipation, anxious to discover if the narrator and main character would find her true calling as priestess and witch. But this is not a novel. We are not reading events as they happen in the story, we are reading the accounts of events after they’ve happened and after the author has decided what they mean to her. And her narrative makes it clear: there was no transformation.

The fat-shaming and poor-shaming shows her heart was never opened. Breaking the confidence of people who thought she was their friend and who believed she was a serious magical seeker shows her virtues were never examined. Walking away from Feri after having a strong spiritual experience shows her fear of where that path would take her, namely, away from her rich thin chic culture and her hope for mainstream accolades.

Temple of Aphrodite - Rhodes

Temple of Aphrodite – Rhodes

The Gods and magic never provide the kind of “proof” our cynical materialistic society wants, because our cynical materialistic society doesn’t want proof.  It wants spectacle. It wants entertainment. There is no “proof.” There is only experience after experience after experience. There are only common experiences among different practitioners. There are only the stories of our ancestors. There are only lives made more meaningful by sincere devotion and consistent spiritual practice. There is only becoming a part of something greater than yourself.

Why would anyone risk the approval of High Culture for that?

This book contains little useful information. The biographies of Gerald Gardner, Aleister Crowley, and Victor Anderson read like Wikipedia Lite. Better descriptions of Feri and OTO rituals and practices can be found on the internet, and most OTO rituals are open to the public. Her story of Jonathan the graverobber is devoid of context and Mar never saw the human heads he supposedly stole from cemeteries. He would not be the first fringe member of the magical community to manufacture grotesque stories to enhance his reputation as an occult badass.

Mar’s own story is educational, but not in the way she intended. It is a cautionary tale of the difficulty of walking away from what you’ve always been told you’re supposed to want, even for the opportunity of real magic.

And her story is not over. With the publication of this book, Mar has alienated herself not just from the witches she exploited but from most of the Pagan community. Witches are not known for their forgiving nature.

Witches of America was not written for witches. Neither was it written to introduce witchcraft to mainstream readers. It’s intended to be an edgy version of Eat, Pray, Love – the spiritual tourism of the privileged. Its release two weeks before Halloween is not coincidental.

In his excellent review on Gods & Radicals, Rhyd Wildermuth expresses concern about backlash against the Pagan and magical communities due to the more lurid aspects of the book. That’s possible, but given its intended audience I don’t think it’s likely. I’m more concerned about the additional scrutiny magical seekers will face as they try to find and gain admittance into groups that do deep magical work. And if you’re a journalist, film maker, or social scientist, you can pretty much forget about gaining access to non-public groups and rituals for the next 20 years or so. Tanya Luhrmann is still persona non grata among British Wiccans old enough to remember her.

Many of the witches who were betrayed and caricatured in this book are my friends – some are very good friends.  Most are quietly ignoring the book talk and it is not my place to speak for them.  It is, however, my place to speak to them.

This is not your fault. Whatever the shortcomings of American Mystic, it was respectful. Mar presented herself as an honest seeker and I think it’s likely she was telling the truth, at least at first. Even if you suspected she might not be able to make the necessary commitments to this path, based on the film you had good reason to expect that her book would be honest and respectful. You did what good mystics always do – you made yourself vulnerable to help someone in need. Most times that works out well for all involved. This time was the unpleasant exception. Know that you have my unqualified support, and as best I can tell from the internet chatter, the support of about 99% of the Pagan community.

In an alternative timeline, Alex Mar would have heeded the call of her ancestors. She would have realized the power of witchcraft was only its surface. She would have seen the humanity of those whose bodies aren’t trim and fit like hers. She would have honored the confidences entrusted to her. She would have studied, and practiced, and learned, and grown. She would have become a part of something bigger, deeper, and more important than herself.

Instead, she chose to affirm the values of the rich and beautiful, and to continue to beg for their acceptance.

Alex Mar chose poorly.

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all photos on this post except the book cover were taken by John Beckett

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About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.