Let me start this with a couple disclaimers:
This review is based on my own week-long experience with Alex Mar as a subject, which most people won’t recognize because I only ended up in a few sentences in the book, which were positive/neutral. This is also the case with my three camp-mates who shared our tents with Alex. Because of this brevity in the book, I have no reason to feel attacked. So I want to make it clear that I do not deny any pain, anger, or any other feelings my fellow witch subjects of the book experienced. It is not up to me to validate anyone else’s feelings. If you were hurt, I believe you. You don’t need my permission. This is based on my experience and my experience alone.
Although I’ve been a Feri student formally for 3 years, I am not an initiate. So I am viewing this from the lense of someone who is in training and knows the tech that Alex Mar received, but it is not up to me to determine what was secret and what isn’t. This varies by line and I do not have the authority to make a determination of that. That said, every experience I saw Alex Mar go through in Feri is widely available online and is considered “public” with most of the Feri folk I know. Again, this is my experience only. Many will (quite aggressively) disagree with me here. That’s ok.
I write this with no agenda. I didn’t know Alex before PSG and I have no reason to “save her name” in the community. My intention here is to bring a little balance to the massive wave of critical reviews from within the community. Don’t get me wrong, I found some things problematic too, which I will also highlight. With that,I hope you will read this with an open mind.
This is not “extreme praise” for Witches of America, as you’ll see. But considering that the extreme, vast majority of reviews from within our community are negative (I don’t think I’ve read a single positive one yet), I thought I’d present my own critiques, but also my critiques of the critiques. This is in addition to (gasp) what I liked about it.
My first time meeting Alex Mar was also my first time attending Pagan Spirit Gathering. On my first day, I rolled into the park with my friend and campmate (mentioned in the book as the Hellenic recon), excited for a week of community. This was also an interesting week because we agreed to spend it with someone, a journalist, who wanted to camp with a small group of people while experiencing the festival. We were asked if we could sort-of look out for this person and just see that she had what she needed for the week (camping for a week is hard if you’ve never done it before). That person was Alex Mar.
Being from a big city myself, I took an immediate liking to Alex because she reminded me of many of the friends I have. Clad in New York Black with the edge and style that so many urban creatures embody. She was also very pleasant and didn’t have the defensiveness of someone I would expect to have, going to a huge Pagan gathering with strangers for the very first time.
Our first conversation, as I recall, was over cocktails. The head of our camp is an excellent bartender and the week would be laced with many opportunities to let our guard down and relax in our glamping oasis. Talk about social vulnerability.
Having already been familiar with Alex’s work in the form of the documentary American Mystic, we already had a basic idea of what she wanted to do. She clarified this to us explaining that there was a certain curiosity she had with witchcraft in particular. She told us that she felt this path deserved to have a story told about it that was more in depth than what she could give in a movie. She also explained her own curiosity on a personal level.
I have seen many people say that Alex presented herself as a sincere student first and a journalist later. That was not my experience. In fact, beyond her initial admission of being “curious”, Alex never said she was embarking on an educational course of study in witchcraft to further her personal goals of being some witch initiate. And, I didn’t read that desire anywhere in the book, either. This is the first area that confuses me in terms of bad reviews. If Alex presented herself as wanting to study the Craft because she wanted to be an initiate and dive fully into those mysteries, she didn’t say it to me. Again, I am not denying that this could have happened elsewhere. But 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.
My next area of confusion comes with the body and its exploitation. There is a large criticism of Alex’s “obsession” with large bodies and her draw to thin-only bodies in the book. I just did not get that from the book. I am not thin by any means. I have a great big round belly. Had Alex introduced me as “David, who had a great big round belly”, I would have thought “ok, well, that’s me.” I’m actually rather fond of my great big round belly! My boyfriend digs it, so I’m happy. Is it wrong to describe the physical characteristics of people? Maybe if Alex had said “David, who had a great big hideous round belly, which disgusted me all week”, I would have agreed and taken offence. That said, I thought it was odd to constantly describe everyone’s body shapes so often. Is there a hint of body-obsession there on Alex’s part? Maybe. But I wouldn’t call it shameful. A poor choice in narrative-crafting, maybe.
Now, let’s talk practices. I will start by getting out my one major criticism of the book. I think it was wrong of Alex to seek initiation into the OTO and to print even parts of that ritual. Having gone through the Minerval grade myself, I know exactly which parts of that ritual are not meant to be shared. The answer is: any of it. In fact, some would go as far as to say that it is wrong to even speak of having went through it (I don’t go that far). I am disappointed with that. If I were to give the benefit of the doubt in any way, I might say that perhaps her initiators didn’t explain this. But that is a generous instance of devil’s advocate. Alex, I was sad to see that! I hope that will be written out in the next revision. Onwards . . . .
In terms of the practices itself, I didn’t see any material I would consider oathbound in my own line to be betrayed. She discussed the triple soul, kala, the nature of the gods (in a way that I thought was quite authentic and beautiful), and some of the aspects of Feri people themselves (strong, confident, edgy…etc). Hey, I’ll take those descriptives any day. Additionally, there is no way that Alex would have even had the opportunity to reveal any highly-secret information about Feri. The reason? She didn’t train long enough to get them. And if kala is a secret now and talking about that exercise is doing to damn our tradition, then we must not be as strong a people as we claim to be.
There are few things in my life that make me prouder than my work in Feri. It changed my entire life and flipped it inside-out. It spurred me to make some of the most challenging and transformative decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life. I have a passion for it that causes me to ache when my practice slips and excites me to euphoria when I get to talk with others about it. As a non-initiate who is in this thing for life, I love Feri with everything I am. And I did not hate how it was portrayed in Witches of America.
And now for the ending chapters-
I am with you all in that I do NOT buy this necromancer story. While I don’t think Alex made it up, I think this guy does probably exist, has extreme mental health issues, and lied about everything. That doesn’t mean I’ll let Alex off the hook for the chapter though. It was a strange and perplexing choice to include that chapter. There are plenty of “dark” instances of magick within witchcraft to use that would have been good examples of what a lot of witches practice. I hex for justice magick and I have some interesting real-life stories surrounding that, as I imagine many others do. Why not talk about that stuff? Hexing is divisive and controversial enough within our community to make it relevant, while also keeping it factual.
Alex Mar ends the book with a big question mark. She admits that she isn’t choosing to pick up the label of witch, or even that the path calls to her at all. This is a big criticism in many reviews that I just can’t grasp. I was trained to be very anti-proselytization. Even to the point of completely releasing someone, guilt-free, if they pursue training (if even for many years) and then later decide it’s not for them. I had the same criticism when I saw the community destroy Teo Bishop when he announced his return to the Church. Witchcraft is NOT a path for everyone, and nor should it be. If there are any criticisms of the book, Alex Mar’s unwillingness to submit herself to the Craft fully shouldn’t be one of them. I am sad for her that she didn’t get the call of something I find so beautiful and holy, but it isn’t up to me to make sure she got the call to be a witch and stuck with it. That’s on the gods and the people they call.
In the end, 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. And I get where a lot of the hurt comes from. Alex made friends with a lot of us. We hoped that someone with a big platform was going to finally proclaim the awesomeness of witchcraft and put it out there for the world to see. Instead, she remained a skeptic and we are perhaps a little disappointed by that.
Alex portrayed us as exotic beings who are equally eccentric as we are connected to something that makes us feel strong. And while everyone has a right to how they feel, this doesn’t make me feel exploited. It makes me feel like a witch. We are exotic, eccentric, strange, and yeah, even sometimes a little ungrounded and air-headed. But can we acknowledge those things and claim power from them, or do we resign ourselves to self-induced shame about qualities that we shouldn’t really feel shameful about? That decision, as the real witches of America, lives within each of us as individuals. It is not confined to the pages of any book. Let’s not give away our power so easily.
About Our Guest: David Salisbury is a queer, vegan, Witch and a devotee to the goddess Hekate. As High Priest of Coven of the Spiral Moon, he teaches Wicca and Witchcraft-based topics throughout the mid-Atlantic region. The focal point of his leadership is an activism and service-based approach that seeks to expand the unique gifts that each person came into the world with. He currently lives in Washington DC where he works to co-facilitate Firefly, a national Wiccan tradition. You can visit him online at David Salisbury.com