Wednesday, 28 October 2015

An Iconoclastic Review of Alex Mar's Witches of America

When I learned, through the Wild Hunt blog, of documentarian Alex Mar’s new book release Witches of America, I immediately went to read the linked excerpts; and finding the subject matter relevant to my interests, I got myself a copy and set about reading it over the weekend. During that time, I also began seeing reviews of the book cropping up, among them pieces written by people of the same type of demographic that Mar’s book chronicles, and was bemused by the tone that most of these were taking. Some were right on the edge of vituperative, and I found myself scanning the narrative more closely, looking at particular passages and their contexts while trying, and mostly failing, to detect the implied insults that these readers were seeing.


(I have a long history of being flummoxed by others’ perceptions of things, to the point where I often find myself wondering if I’m reading or watching or hearing the same thing [the answer to that being, of course, that we’re all experiencing the same thing from different vantage points, but that’s secondary to the subject here at hand]. I can remember once attending a screening of Gone with the Wind with a friend, thoroughly enjoying ourselves discussing [quietly, of course, we’re not complete boors] the historical context of the film, anecdotes about the production thereof, the general social milieu of antebellum and reconstruction-era America, etc.—then being surprised when the lights came up to find ourselves in a theatre filled with mostly weepy middle-aged white women, and noting aloud that we were perhaps getting something from the experience that they were not. I was reminded of that experience as I read Mar’s book, and the reactions to it from various corners of the online pagan community.)


The first thing I noted was multiple references, in reviews and comment threads, to remarks Mar made about certain older, heavier pagan women’s “pendulous breasts.” I re-read the relevant passages, and failed to find any implied insult or value judgment in what seemed to me to be merely descriptive writing—not to everyone’s taste, apparently, but not outwardly hostile. If the description was not especially flattering, neither was it particularly critical; but if we’ve reached the point in our discourse where only obsequious flattery is permissible, then we’ve put the stake through the heart of not only free speech, but creative writing as well.


Learning that Mar came from an Ivy League background helped to explain some of the antipathy she was garnering from certain critics, as well. Not all of us came from backgrounds of obvious privilege (and I hate resorting to that overused and overloaded word, but it’s the most appropriate), nor have the ability to jet all over the country in pursuit of enlightenment, and the fact that this author does can’t help but rankle. I too tend to be very wary of the wealthy, the elite, the 1%, and have to struggle with the impulse to stereotype and dismiss people on basis of their social and financial standings; but I also recognize that as being as limiting and dangerous as dismissing those at the lower echelons of wealth and power, and try to give people at least the opportunity to prove themselves to be worthy (or not) of respect. Obviously, some readers feel that Mar has proven herself, on the negative side of that balance; for the most part, I thought differently.


In this book, Alex Mar openly explores her own ambivalence and skepticism toward the very spiritual and esoteric subjects that also beguile her; a struggle that is very immediate and relatable to me, as I wrestle with these issues continually even after over two decades as an initiate and most of a lifetime of fascinated study. I can’t help but wonder if that openness is part of the problem some pagan readers are having with her. It may be that the author’s voice at times sounds too uncomfortably close to that little voice that some of us carry inside us, the one that questions, endlessly, the validity and the purpose and the reality of our spiritual experiences and pursuits. Certainty is a luxury that many of us lack, but even admitting that to ourselves is sometimes more than we can comfortably deal with. Like Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the not-so-great-or-terrible Oz, Mar lifts the veil that separates us from the myths we tend to create around ourselves and our paths. It’s surely unnerving to some to see (or be forced to admit seeing) that the powerful witch priestess can also be a struggling single mother, or that the dark necromancer started down his left-hand path in the wake of youthful romantic disappointment. But if we (as pagans, witches, occultists, magicians, whatever label we choose) can’t accept and reconcile these seeming dualities, these apparently opposing qualities in ourselves and our acquaintances, what does that tell us about ourselves, or our level of awareness? If our self-created emperors are as naked and blind as we are, where does that leave us? That’s a frightening territory to map, and it’s the terrain Mar leads us into in this book. It’s not always a comfortable read, but it’s an important one, and in the end leaves us in much the same place as the author: with no concrete conclusions, no tidy wrap-up, only a host of new questions to join the ones we came in with. That’s a rare sort of fearlessness, and I can’t help admiring her for it.


Mar goes places far beyond what you’d expect of a journalist scratching the surface of a subculture for salacious copy. This is a work that spans years of study, travel, and expense. This is no Rex Nemorensis redux, no shill going amongst the pagans to run a hatchet job in the press later; either Mar is genuinely seeking something among her subjects, or she is a most brilliant and convincing sociopath. In reading of her experiences, I marveled at her willingness to throw herself into things that would’ve had me balking instantly: hundreds of dollars spent on monthly witchcraft lessons, hundreds more on weekend retreats, multiple days spent camping in a goddamn Louisiana swamp with strangers, awaiting an unknown initiatory fate! This speaks of a dedication to ones’ craft above and beyond the ordinary. And while I can see the questionable ethics involved in sharing swathes of personal correspondence, if Mar was upfront with her subjects about her intention of writing about her experiences, then everyone involved should have known that anything they said or did could potentially end up in print. She did take pains, so far as I could see, not to reveal anything she was asked not to reveal, including peoples’ mundane names, oathbound material from the traditions she studied, or specifics of locations mentioned in the book. I’m not sure what else can be expected of a journalist.


So, in short: I found this a fascinating and valuable book, for all the reasons that are making people quite uncomfortable. It wasn’t always a comfortable read for me, either, far from it. And that, I reiterate, is why this book is important.