I wasn’t even going to read Alex Mar’s Witches of America, much less review it, but then I started seeing all the negative reviews from the online Pagan community, and perversely, my curiosity was piqued. And the more I read of the book, the more I realized that I would be writing a review. Not just because Witches of America is an interesting and, in my opinion, mostly fair portrayal of a slice of contemporary Paganism, but also because I think the overwhelmingly negative response to the the book from the Pagan community says something about us Pagans.
Let’s get a few things out of the way first. First of all, it appears quite likely that Mar betrayed the trust of her informants. (For a lot of Pagan readers, there is no getting beyond that point. And if you’re one of those folks, then you probably shouldn’t bother reading the rest of this review.) I have no direct contact with any of the people mentioned in the book (who have remained conspicuously silent), but I have heard second- and third-hand sources that Mar disclosed personal communications without the consent of her subjects. I can’t attest to the accuracy of these reports, but I will say that, given the nature of some of the emails and personal conversations she published, I found myself numerous times through the book wondering about Mar’s ethics. Unfortunately, Mar does not address the issue of consent in the book, nor does she in any of the post-publication interviews I have read (abut a half dozen), leaving me to suspect the worst.
Also, at least some people believe that Mar misrepresented her intent when she participated in closed Pagan rituals. By her own account, at least, she struggled with being both a sincere seeker and an objective reporter. About halfway through, the book shifts from a journalistic report to more of a personal memoir, as Mar embarks on a more personal exploration of Pagan spirituality — specifically, Feri witchcraft and Thelema. Many of the Pagan reviewers of the book have questioned Mar’s sincerity. I will come back to that question shortly.
But whether or not she was sincere, a separate question is how forthright Mar was with those she circled with in closed rituals. Even if she were a sincere seeker, it’s not clear whether those present knew she would be writing a book about her experiences. This is especially true of the Feri rituals Mar participates in, which are secret, but it also applies to a degree to the semi-public rituals at Pantheacon and Pagan Spirit Gathering. I was present during the “exorcism” ritual at Pantheacon 2012 which Mar describes near the beginning of the book. I was one of the people kneeling on the floor, purging myself emotionally, breathing and pounding and thrusting and screaming out my fear. I don’t feel that Mar violated my consent exactly, but then she didn’t write about me specifically. If I were the bare-breasted woman that Mar singled out in her narrative, I might feel differently.
In any case, I’m glad I didn’t know that someone would have been writing about the ritual for a non-Pagan audience, or I might not have been able to get into the mental space where the catharsis happened. That appears to have been precisely the challenge that Mar confronted at the same ritual:
So this is how I start to dance.
The priestesses call “Fear,” and I launch into thinking: “I have that. I am afraid.” Of money, of being judged, of loneliness, of growing old and used up. Part of me wants desperately to snip the wires of my self-conscious brain loop, to stop caring about appearances. I’m here, aren’t I? No point in being coy now! And, pushing past my embarrassment, I step forward. I enter the circle. I get into some kind of tribal rhythm, stamping the balls of my feet. I stamp the ground harder and harder, and start pitching my arms out in front of me. I do this until my wrists hurt. The drums don’t stop, and the people in the circle don’t stop, all these Pagans— and so I keep going. And after enough of this, I have a surprising reaction: I want to sob, deeply, the kind where, if you let it out, it will come for three days without stopping—
Morpheus shouts, “Let the poisons become power!” Is that what the people in this room are doing? I don’t know how to do that. All I want to do is cry, and I have no idea why.
But some part of me, the scaffolding around my presentation of myself, holds fast, and I don’t cave. Having denied myself the release of, I guess, a nervous breakdown, I simply feel uncovered, a lame exhibitionist. What would my people think if they saw me here?
In the nick of time, Fear winds down, and we return to our spots in the outer ring.
What Witches of America Is and Is Not
Any Pagan intending to read Witches of America should know one thing: This is not Drawing Down the Moon Redux. Although it seems to start off that way, Mar’s book is not at all like Margot Adler’s 1979 opus, Drawing Down the Moon:Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America. It is not a survey of contemporary Paganism. It is not even a survey of contemporary Witchcraft. The book primarily is concerned with one Feri group (which is a form of Witchcraft) and a Thelemic group (which is not a form of witchcraft). In fact, Mar’s book is not even a survey, per se. It is really a memoir. The subject of the book is Mar herself — as she moves through the part of the world of contemporary Paganism. That being said, it is still an interesting account of one person’s reaction to a small slice of the Pagan community.
And it is not an insignificant slice that Mar shares with us. The book focuses largely on Morpheus Ravenna and her friends and followers, who have been near the center of a growing movement of devotional polytheists within the larger Pagan community for the last several years. Mar gives us a close up view of some of the young movers and shakers of contemporary Paganism, the Pagan version of the “cool kids” (Mar’s words) clique.
There’s been a lot of criticism of Witches of America — for Mar’s ethics, for her shallowness, and for preoccupation with the physical attractiveness of all of her subjects. All fair criticisms in my opinion. But few reviewers seem to have criticized the accuracy of Mar’s portrayal of contemporary Paganism. As I read Mar’s account of Pantheacon and Pagan Spirit Gathering, I found myself nodding along. Her description of those events was, in my opinion, spot on. If I wanted someone to know what the public face of Paganism looks like, I would have no reservations about handing them a copy of Witches of America.
That’s not to say I agreed with everything Mar wrote. For example, I was disappointed that Mar saw the feminism of the women’s ritual conducted by Ruth Barrett at Pagan Spirit Gathering as somehow passé. But then I have the same frustration with many Gen X and Millennial women who eschew the feminist label.
In any case, throughout the book, Mar maintains a respectful, if appropriately skeptical attitude, toward both the beliefs and practices she explores. To me, she demonstrated a remarkable ability to suspend disbelief, at least to a degree that many modern rationalists might find challenging. When she is instructed to regularly roll an egg across her back as a spiritual exercise, for example, she does it unquestioningly. When she is sent out into the swamp with two young men she barely knows as part of a Thelemic initiation — an initiation which culminates in her being tackled, blindfolded, and led into a fire-lit circle — she throws herself into it. She does sometimes develop self-consciousness, and she wonders how she might be perceived by her urban atheist friends — but, honestly, who of us isn’t sometimes self-conscious in our spiritual practice?
Was Mar Sincere?
This brings me to the real reason I wanted to write this review. I don’t know Alex Mar and I never met her. So I can only go on what I have read. Contrary to many other Pagan reviewers, I’m not convinced that Mar’s spiritual quest was mere pretext. There’s one part of the book in particular, which led me to believe that Mar’s searching was genuine. It occurs in a European “castle,” which the Feri coven with which Mar was studying had rented for a week. During the first ritual, Mar has a revelatory experience. It is the kind of experience that had eluded her in other Pagan rituals, either because she was unable to surrender herself to the experience (the Pantheacon “exorcism”) or the ritual did not click for her (the PSG women’s ritual).
People continue chanting— more free-form free-form now, and growing— and the chants change, and the rhythms of the circle change. More moaning and heavy breathing fill up the dark. And now we invite the Craft ancestors to join us, and our own blood ancestors to mingle with them. And so I invite my people in: Josefina, Norma, Eduardo, Stephanos, Ana. I say their names aloud twice, but softly, privately, as all around me people recite their names. I’m getting a little dizzy, crowded into the dark with these people I barely know, everyone muttering aloud now, like a scene in an asylum where patients wander the crafts room having conversations with themselves. But I force myself to focus— and now I see them. I see them clearly: my relatives, watching me. And, as in life, I sense the emotions that passed between us— especially among the women.
That’s it: I focus in on the women who believed they had some kind of sight— Josefina, Norma— and slowly I turn my mind to what I might ask of them. At this moment, I manage to drag three short words out of my brain: to— own— myself. I ask these women in my family line for the magical ability to own myself.
What does this even mean? On the surface, it’s embarrassing cult-of-self-help language; but I’m also being honest. I have been glossing over my fears and weaknesses— the cruelty of my own vanity; my avoidance of the fact that I’m well out of my twenties, and I had better claim whoever it is I’d like to be already; the painful confusion of my creative life, at least as fraught as my romantic life has been. I realize this is exactly what these women I loved were unable to do themselves: to have ownership, to each be and own herself completely. So this is something I could do for them as well; and, over any disapproval they might feel for my dabbling in American-born Craft with these strangers, they would want this for me: to be independent in the most frightening sense of the word; to lose my fear of outsiderness; to be able to stand apart from the normal, calculable world with purpose.
I am meditating on this, a stronger, clearer, diamond-cut sense of who I am— which is what the Morrigan is about as well, sovereignty— when someone else joins my women. Interrupts them. A third woman jockeys for position; and while my family, though palpable presences, were free-floating and abstract, she takes me away from them and pulls me into a fully realized scene. She is not much older than me— she could be a wilder, harsher, less forgiving version of myself— and I know immediately that she is a priestess. She’s pausing on her way along a rough and rutted pathway in the mountains in Crete. There’s a cool wind coming up from the water, and cypress trees behind her, and craggy, steel-gray rocks. A priestess in Crete— Minoan Crete?— with long, strikingly black hair and pale skin, dressed simply, in a rough white robe or tunic. She’s waiting: she expects me to follow her. She has my attention, and so she starts walking again, uphill, and I know intuitively that she’s walking toward a temple, that she’s the priestess there. And once she’s there she’ll bathe in the fresh blood of a black bull (a bull for Hekate: that’s what she likes). And when I’m deepest in this vision— or hallucination, or trick of the imagination— and she is still walking through this open, cold, island-mountain landscape, my brain gives it to me, hands me what I’ve asked for without knowing: a scent. I smell the air on that hillside covered in white rock, and the cypresses, and maybe the slightest trace of smoke and the Mediterranean blown uphill by the low wind. For a moment, I smell these things as clearly as I can smell someone’s skin.
But just then the sounds in the room— the actual room I am standing in— come crashing into my moment. The chanting shifts and changes. The moaning and the ring of Karina’s finger cymbals and all our percussive, pelvis-swaying movement give way to the bland rhythms of some neo-Pagan-sounding, Celtic-style sixties tune about “ancestors,” nothing my ancestors would be drawn to— and immediately the mood is broken. That scent is gone, dissolved in an instant, and I know it was nothing like the smell of this tightly shut, low-ceilinged nouveau-riche living room packed with barefoot American witches weaving between one another, raising their arms and twisting their wrists in the air. My scent was something else entirely.
This seems to me to have been a genuine encounter with divinity. Honestly, I don’t know how any Pagan can read this and think Mar was not sincere. What is ironic is that the actual ritual seemed to have distracted Mar from the real experience. This dissonance, if you will, led Mar to conclude that Feri was not her path, and she subsequently discontinues her Feri studies. She writes, “Regardless of what I experienced that weekend, I understand that I do not have a connection to Karina and her vein of witchcraft. To continue to train with her would involve lying for the first time in this experiment.”
Now, here’s my question: If someone is only interested in infiltrating a closed Pagan group, why discontinue the studies just when you have entered the temple grounds? No, Mar has her flaws (some of which she seems more aware of than others), but insincerity does not seem to be one of them.
What Does Our Reaction Say About Us?
Mar has accused by some Pagan reviewers of being a “spiritual tourist.” But I found this stigmatizing of spiritual seeking to be disturbing — especially in the context of a religion like Paganism which encourages exploration of many spiritual paths and which does not purport to be the “One True Way.” I wonder if perhaps what underlies some of the intensity of the Pagan condemnation of Witches of America is that, in the end, Mar didn’t “convert” to Paganism.
Paganism is often described as a “religion without converts”, but some of the rhetoric which is being unleashed against Mar sounds very similar to that rallied in other religions against those who fail to convert. It reminds me of the accusations which were leveled against Teo Bishop when he left Paganism to return to Christianity — a move which many Pagans took to be a betrayal. And it reminds me of how people in my own religion of origin (Mormonism) tend explain those who leave the church. Whatever the religion, it is common to hear those who stay say that those who left were never “real” Pagans/Christians/Mormons/etc. “They weren’t really sincere,” the faithful say. “They were just tourists.” Of course, statements like these just cover our discomfort with the fact that someone we identified with did not, in the end, identify with us. And I can’t help but wonder if this is not the real reason why so many reviewers question Mar’s sincerity. The unstated assumption seems to be that, if Mar had been sincere, she would have “converted” to Paganism.
Maybe I’m off base. And even if I’m right, it doesn’t get around Mar’s betrayal of her informants’ confidences, her failure to fully disclose the nature of her participation, or her Sex-in-the-City obsession with everyone’s sexiness or lack thereof. But I do think the charge that Mar was insincere bears taking a closer look at.
We often say that “Paganism isn’t for everyone.” Do we really mean it? Or is that just a kind of elitism, a way of saying that Paganism is only for the spiritually serious? Because Mar’s journey strikes me as serious. She seems to be searching for the same thing that I think many of us Pagans are searching for. Can we accept that she did not find it in Paganism, without reading that as a condemnation … of either her or us?