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This book, by a woman in her 30s, has been getting rave reviews from various library review publications, but rather lousy ones from the Pagan community and for good reason. The following is my public (aka: please link or share if you find it useful or know people who would) commentary on it.

Alex Mar is known in the Pagan community for having created the American Mystics documentary that came out in 2010, during which she met a number of people in the Pagan community (one of the three people focused on in the documentary was Morpheus Ravenna, who is also substantially present in this book)

I cannot recommend this book for any part of its presumed audience (seekers, people interested in witchcraft, people interested in spiritual memoirs.) The following is an extended summary of why.

(I am hosting this on my Dreamwidth account for a variety of reasons, including that I'm going to be travelling next week, and this is a much easier space for me to moderate while on mobile devices. You can find my more visible Pagan presence at Limen: Thoughts from a Threshold and Seeking. More notes about commenting at the bottom. Both include comment forms if you want to write to me privately.)

Disclaimers


I know one person briefly mentioned in this book extremely well (we've been friends for decades and regularly discuss religion, witchcraft, magic, and other related topics). I know a couple of other people even more briefly mentioned slightly. I know other people (not mentioned or described in the book) who were at several of the events described somewhere between slightly and moderately well.

My training also comes from an initiatory religious witchcraft line which takes confidentiality and privacy very seriously (as many initiatory trads do), and my comments are going to talk about the issues of revealing personal details, ritual details, and some other related material without actually spelling it out here, because I take other people's private, personal, and/or emotionally intimate material more seriously than Alex Mar does.


Basic Summary of my thoughts


My essential issues with this book are fourfold.

1) This book is mislabelled.
This book does not do what it claims on the cover well, and the parts it does try to do, it does very badly in places.

2) Blatant invasions of privacy and confidentiality
There are serious, repeated, and entirely unnecessary violations of privacy, confidentiality, personal information, and related material, as well as the extensive inclusion of material considered if not oathbound, certainly private within the relevant groups, without any consideration for the effect this might have on others.

3) Patterns of unquestioned bias
There are repeated patterns in the book that show the author's (unquestioned) biases, in ways that undermine the book's theoretical potential benefits. These come out in her descriptions of people and places, her retelling of Craft history, her choices in which groups and individuals she focuses on, and several other aspects.

4) The question of reciprocation and community
This book suffers from a lack of understanding of community and reciprocity. Mar is consistently receiving favours, inclusion, access - rides, visits, stays in people's homes - and describes almost no reciprocal engagement with the community she claims she wants to join.

Additional notes are described below, relating to patterns of speech, and the emotional range and curiousity demonstrated in the book.

1: This book is mislabelled


There is no single tidy quotable summary of her goals in the main text, it's more sentences here and there, but her acknowledgements section has relevant information. She says, on page 275: "Large chunks of the Pagan experience are not represented in this book - this is, after all, only a single volume. My hope is that some readers out there will see themes in these pages that I've only touched on and will be moved to do their own research. Different traditions, lines, and covens have differing views on subtleties of practice."

It becomes clear, reading the book, that while this is initially couched as "Let me explore witchcraft in America", Mar's actual focus and sole interest is in those individuals and groups that personally engage her for some reason, and she glosses over or entirely ignores several substantial issues that were current and actively being discussed in the communities she talks about when she was present.

While focusing on her personal interests is not, exactly, unreasonable, it is never made explicitly clear what she is leaving out, and a number of her historical asides and summaries make little sense in her personal context (and are often potentially misleading or confusing to sincere seekers.)

She seems entirely unaware of Christine Wicker's 2005 Not in Kansas Anymore, which did much the same thing as Mar's book (a look at a wide range of different Pagan and magical communities, though with rather fewer issues of individual privacy, and better handled in several other ways.) I haven't reread Wicker's book recently, but plan to do so after I finish this commentary and some other immediate projects.

Given that Mar's interests are decidedly in the vastly less common practices among modern American witches and Pagans, this book also does not serve as a particularly useful introduction for sincere seekers not interested in the handful of paths or individuals Mar found intriguing.

For example, she entirely ignores eclectic Wicca and related forms of witchcraft, for example, other than a few dismissive comments about how it's not what she's interested in - no description of the range of practice, time with people for whom this is a statisfying practice, or anything else like. (Even though that category is probably the greatest population of the community by a couple of magnitudes.) Likewise, while she discusses Gerald Gardner, there's almost nothing about other initiatory witchcraft traditions other than Feri.

She presumes that witchcraft begins with Gardner, and completely ignores the long history of folk magic and witchcraft that trace back through the ancient world.

There's only minimal reference to folk magic practices (maybe five pages, in total, mostly relating to cleansing and no discussion of the theory), and no discussion of kitchen witchcraft. There is discussion of spellwork, but only detailed discussion of one aspect, a binding spell, (and no discussion of, say, spell work for self-transformation, or the kinds of low-key prosperity, health, and household works that many witches do relatively routinely.)

There's no discussion of divination, nor of meditation practice. Nor herbalism, stone and crystal work, dream work, or any number of other options. Naturally, many witches do only some of these, but to talk about witchcraft and not talk about any of them seems rather odd.

Other than her specific comments about her assigned practice during her training with Karina, there is very little discussion about daily practice (or the reasons for it: she lists what she does, but does not discuss why these things might help.) She describes several people's altars or shrines, but there is no discussion of why one might have one, or other approaches to creating one.

There's very little discussion of the art, music, dance or other art forms of the Pagan and witchy community, other than a few references to named people (Sharon Knight, Thorn Coyle, Anaar, and Morpheus Ravenna). She dismisses a chant in ritual more than once as not being to her taste without recognising the ritual uses of music, pitch, or rhythm as a ritual tool or that ritual music has some different needs than pleasure listening.

She very briefly references reconstructionist practices (a sentence or three), but does not describe them in any depth. Nor, other than the witchcraft traditions she actually explores, does she talk much about other options out there: not even a paragraph or two of overview.

For those interested in the particular paths she does discuss, the details revealed are substantial, and done in ways that may bias a sincere seeker's reactions to training, ritual experience, or other choices in ways that historically have been demonstrated not to serve many seekers well. (See the privacy section, below.)

Finally, one should note that of the four primary groups of practice Mar focuses on - Morpheus Ravenna's practice (including Coru Cathubodua, a priesthood of the Morrigan), Feri, the Ordo Templis Orientis (OTO), and the necromancer of the last chapters, only one and a half of these are primarily witchcraft traditions. (Additional chapters about Pantheacon and Pagan Spirit Gathering change the math a little, but they receive relatively little discussion of witchcraft or witches, considering, it's a lot more about Mar's reactions or other topics.)

2: Blatant invasions of privacy and confidentiality


Mar repeatedly ignores the customs of the community regarding confidentiality, privacy, and discretion: she includes identifying details about individuals (not just names but professions, locations, descriptions) without checking they're all right with that. She reveals private ritual experiences expected to be kept confidential to the participants. Not being an initiate of the relevant groups, I can't tell how far she goes in violating their requirements around secrecy of initiation details, but she tells a lot more than is generally considered sound (for a variety of reasons.)

On the topic of names and details, she says (on page 276, in the acknowledgements) "I'd also like to note that in a few instances, I condensed the time between events in favor of greater clarity and smoother reading as I moved between different story lines in different locations. I did not alter descriptions of the events themselves, and I changed very few names - in those cases, because the subjects were underage or still in the broom closet."

How did she know? In at least several cases, she made no attempt to inquire if people were in the broom closet, or if there were identifying details besides names that people would prefer not be shared in print.

A blog post from Gwydion Blackrose, present at the Blackheart Feri line Samhain gathering that Mar attended and described in detail in chapter 15, puts it very clearly, so I'm going to quote it here.

I have read someone suggesting that we ‘should have known better’ than to trust her, because we knew that she was a film-maker interested in making documentaries. This is not only blaming the victim, but simply absurd. How she approached American Mystic – Alex Mar’s surprisingly good documentary which featured a couple of Witches in an authentic, honest and most importantly consensual manner – was (as far as I understand it) entirely different from what she did with her new book. She never asked any of us if we wanted to become potential subjects in one of her book projects. She never mentioned that her questions about our practices where in fact not those of a fellow-Witch but of an undercover agent/ journalist conducting an interview. There was nothing obvious about it and therefore we treated her as a sister.

And to quote someone else, also at that gathering: We thought she was a sincere seeker and student who happened to be also writing a book. (And, you know, who isn't writing a book? I know my population is skewed, but I swear half the people I know who aren't writing books aren't writing books because they're working on dissertations instead. I'm writing a second book, right now; I'd already written one at the time.) So it was, "Oh, you're writing a book? That's cool, I do X, Y, Z." You know, like one does.

In short, Mar shows no signs of understanding that people might share more information while at a private gathering than they would in public, or that they might be happy to share name, specific location, and family details in person, without wanting them to be published.

Many of these details, in addition, add nothing to the book: the reader certainly does not need to know a physical description of a briefly mentioned individual, or the name of the specific town where they live, for a passing mention. If descriptions were needed to keep individuals distinct, there are a number of ways a competent author could have done so, without affecting privacy.

(The names themselves, in other words, are less of an issue here than the combination of unusual name, location, physical description, family circumstances, or occupation, though still problematic on a philosophical level when coming from situations where confidentiality is expected.)

People who are sincerely interested in the well-being of the community they're trying to join don't do that. This isn't a minor verbal mistep in private: this is choosing to put it in print, in public, in detail. There's no excuse for that.

I note that the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics makes it clear that journalists should minimize harm to those they discuss (I draw the reader's attention to that section, in fact) - as an example of how journalists view these questions. While also noting that this book is not actually journalism, and therefore does not have the journalist's goal of wanting to report news accurately as a reason to invade privacy.

The other question, the sharing of private ritual details (at various points, Mar describes the apparent core of the Feri initiation, several rituals at a private weekend gathering, the OTO Gnostic Mass, and her own OTO Minerval initiation) as well as rituals at more public gatherings is a little more complex.

A number of Pagan and magical traditions keep certain rituals or practices private. There are varying reasons for this, but one common one is that some things are designed to be emotional experiences, not intellectual exercises. If you are a person who tends to over-analyse your practice, reading a detailed description of pivotal experiential moments in advance can make you be in analytical mode rather than experiential mode very easily, thus losing the active participant a significant portion of the full experience they could have had and deserved to have.

Taking that choice away from seekers (especially without any explicit warning before launching into private group details or initiatory material) is a fundamentally self-centered act, not helpful to readers who might be intrigued by other things in the book.

Likewise, most people have different levels of intimacy in different areas of our lives: how and what we talk about is different with our family of origin than with our co-workers or with our chosen family. By taking private, small-group ritual or community details and publishing explicit description of both the rituals and participant's comments about their lives, the weekend, and related events, Mar again makes the self-centred choice to privilege her experience and desires over those of the people around her, or the options for sincere seekers who may come after her, but find people much more cautious because of Mar's direct actions and disrespect for other people's privacy, needs, or experiences.

I am not an initiate in the traditions whose initiations are discussed in detail by Mar, and I'm not going to comment on the details. Some of the review links below discuss this in greater detail, notably David Salisbury's

3: Patterns of unquestioned bias


Several reviews - most notably Rhyd Wildermuth's have commented on Mar's extensive (and often less-than positive) comments about other people's bodies. However, the unquestioned bias goes rather further than that.

Bodies: Several other reviewers have commented on her repeated focus on body and clothing descriptions, even in situations where it serves no particular purpose.

This shows up in several different ways: dividing by gender is complex both because of gender identity expressions in various Pagan communities, and because in a number of cases, Mar's comments make me suspect she's missing or at least deliberately not mentioning some things (and making assumptions about a number of others).

However, she measurably (I charted this over a number of chapters) describes women in more detail in men, and often lingers on details of clothing, body type, or movement with women in a way that focuses on mainstream social views of attractiveness only, and where she pretty clearly is only interested in people if they meet her particular standards of attractiveness, presentation, or presence. She repeatedly refers to people's body size as if it is a measure of praise or blame, and clearly uses it as a factor to decide who's worth talking to.

Class and employment: Mar keeps brushing up against assumptions about class, income, employment, and other related issues. She views some people in the book with limited income as virtuous (committing to their life, etc.) and others, she is dubious about. She is noticeably more generous about descriptions of homes and personal spaces of people whose lives she aspires to than people who are likely on a similar kind of budget who don't meet her standard in other ways.

She also does not reflect at all on her privilege: while it becomes clear that money is often a source of worry for her (and I'll grant her that journalism and freelance writing are not terribly reliable income sources) she still has the freedom to move to New Orleans for several months, to fly back and forth to California repeatedly, and rather a lot more, often taking advantage of other people's generosity to make it possible. (See the section on reciprocation that follows.)

She does not, however, give much sense of what she's doing with the rest of her life during this book: there's no mention of "So, the next month or two, I kept doing [witchy thing], while doing my best to keep up with my freelance career." It's just not present at all.

(And thus, her journey is also really not representative of the large number of people who are holding down scheduled jobs, who have kids in school, who are helping caretake for elderly parents, or - you know, the vast range of people in the United States who are witches. As a reviewer said, she really hoped for a much better view of day to day life for witches, and didn't get that.)

Relationships: Mar's descriptions of people repeatedly focus on their relationships (decidedly a privacy issue): at one point she says, basically "This person is monogamous, which is unusual!"

She never really describes the range of relationship types (even a couple of sentences would do) which means that if you're not already familiar with polyamory or other ethical forms of non-monogamy, you are likely going to be quite confused, and also thinking that there's a lot more weird going on than there actually is. And whenever it's introduced there are often scare quotes, and a sort of "tee-hee, see how exotic everyone is."

Age: It is entirely obvious that Mar is almost entirely focused on people (and specifically women) around her own age. There are a few mentions of established long-term members of the community (Selena Fox, Ruth Barrett, Ed Fitch, founders of the traditions she discusses) but there's no indication that Mar spent much time talking to witches and Pagans who are, say, 10, 15, or 20 years older than she is. (Or, other than one specific individual, does she appear to talk to people in their late teens or 20s.)

Gender: Mar was working on this book during the Pantheacon of 2012, and the Pagan Spirit Gathering that same year, both of which had extensive and highly publicised discussion about inclusion of transgender women in ritual. Mar does not talk about this *at all* despite talking with and profiling several of the people directly involved in those discussions in other ways, and at those events.

This omission is really glaring if you actually know the timeline for these conversations, and it calls into question a great deal of Mar's other reporting and narrative choices. (It is a difficult and complex situation, but then so is the Sundering of Feri, which Mar discusses over the course of a paragraph or two.)

There's also very little conversation or reflection on men who identify as witches: we see her interactions with Josh (OTO) and the necromancer of chapter 17, but other than that, most of the people Mar talks to (or about, other than historical data), mostly women. There's no denying that this is a reflection of the community as a whole, but Mar doesn't really ever discuss that.

Race: Likewise, race gets almost no discussion in this book. Mar briefly mentions that Pantheacon is largely white, but does not explore why that might be. She notes later about the white presence within the Voodoo and Hoodoo communities in New Orleans, without ever examining how that works and doesn't work - both references are quick sentence or two, and then she's on to the next thing. No discussion of cultual appropriation in any meaningful sense.

4: The question of reciprocation and community


This is one that did not hit me until I'd finished quickly reading the book the first time, in preparation for the longer analysis I'm doing here, but I realised that there was mention after mention of people going out of their way to assist Mar, and almost no mention at all of her reciprocating.

One of the things about the Pagan community is that many of us have religious and cultural traditions of hospitality, of building our personal communities - with other people, with gods, with spirits of place, with ancestors, with other entities and beings we spend time with in ritual and in daily life - that are built on a shared understanding of what that relationship is, and what things are and are not reasonable requests in it.

That often takes a bit of negotiation: I've certainly seen my share of culture clashes come up when things don't mesh (because the United States is a country of many different cultures and assumptions about what being a good neighbor/teacher/student/friend/family member means, even when everyone in a given setting is trying to be do hospitality well.)

But it struck me, at the end of that first reading, how little Mar gives of herself in this book: she hesitates to share information about herself that is relevant to her safety and well-being in training, while not apparently understanding that by taking her into their homes, people are already extending trust to her.

(Pretty much every Pagan teacher I know who's been doing it for more than a few years or with more than a few exceedingly carefully chosen students has at least one potential student who has been somewhere between creepy/uncomfortable to deal with and actively threatening at some point, or has been close to other teachers with that experience. Most teachers who take students at all regularly therefore have some sort of filtering mechanism.)

Mar blithely accepts hospitality, rides, inclusion, without appearing to do her own part in making those things work out (and the times she is explicitly told what's involved, as an exchange of energy and resources, she often resists.) More than that, she resists being sincere and (appropriately) open with the people she is seeking training from and connection with - decidedly problematic (even if it's also a very human impulse, but this sort of work is not meant to be easy!)

The fact that she does not comment on this, even after the events of the book, with time to reflect on them, is - well, let's just say that it indicates someone I wouldn't be inclined to trust or welcome into any community I was part of in the future, unless I saw a substantial change in behaviour and treatment of others.

Now, the question of reciprocation is often complicated (many Pagan traditions forbid charging for training and this is a key issue in the Feri discussion, and Mar does address this in reasonable depth) but even those that forbid it usually have customs for dealing with shared expenses, space rental if required, etc.

Some groups and teachers solve this by not doing things that would have costs beyond the individual's own practice, others solve it by potlucks and sharing in who buys supplies, others want to do things that require more financial investment and spread that around. It's a complicated question, but simply taking without sharing in the effort of making these small community gatherings function is - well, not the way to go.

Finally, there's very little comment here that Mar ever inquires about the people she is talking to, beyond what they can do for her. There's no mention of helping someone who's having a bad day, being a listening ear, sharing ideas for solving a problem. Mar consistently and reliably holds herself separate, even from the communities she says she wishes to join.

5: A few additional notes


One of the things that struck me, reading this, is - ok, so I tend to read and watch a lot of things that deal with behaviour analysis, or how conning people works. I am fascinated with how different people take in and use information, and how both rapid and extremely detailed analysis of choices and decisions happens.

Anyway, if you're familiar at all with the field, you'll know that one of the classic tells that someone is lying or obscuring something is that they suddenly get extremely detailed about something that isn't apparently relevant. I kept having that feeling while reading this book: that there is place after place where she piles on detail that does not serve her narrative, does not serve her stated goals, and adds nothing to the description that couldn't have been done in other ways. And yet it's there, like elaborate architectural gingerbread.

If you read the book, I'd suggest paying attention to where she does this, and asking yourself if you see patterns in where and how this remains (again, in a book with multiple editing passes, one presumes, and certainly plenty of time for reflection.)

While in the last day of finishing this commentary up, I happened to go to a fantastic talk by Mary Beard, the Classics scholar, at which someone asked a question that got her talking about the portrayal of women in Roman history. She talked about how little direct material we have to go on, but also talked about how the myths and stories that people tell about other people tell us a lot about the author - what things they fear, what things they think they're supposed to fear, what the worst things they think can happen.

I think that's very true of this book: it is illuminating about the author not because of what she says, but because of what she chooses to focus on (and what she chooses to ignore), and what she thinks we, the readers, will find most titilating or upsetting.

Finally


And this is no small thing, but it's hard to describe: this is a book with very little joy in it. Very little delight. Very little unabashed curiousity or exploration. When Mar is around most people, you get this sense that she's hoping some of their interesting will rub off on her.

That's not the Craft I know. The Craft I know is people of all shapes, all sizes, all degrees of formal education, all kinds of jobs. But it is, by and large, people who are curious about the world around them, engaged with other people (and not just for what it can get for them), learning, being open to change (even while they keep a bit of critical thought going too.) People who swim in the beauty and joy of the world and their religious practice.

And most of all, people who are open to the wonder of the world, and the potential of things we don't understand and can't control to change us.

Other resources


The publisher's website includes the front blurb as well as some reviews
Mar's own website.
Google Books has substantial excerpts
Nerdist.com interview with Mar
Barnes and Nobel review and interview with Mar

Reviews, general


The Amazon page has excerpts from published reviews
GoodReads reviews
NPR review by Genevieve Valentine(discusses what she thinks was and was not successful in the book, more critical than many mainstream reviews but for different reasons than many of the Pagan community reviews.
New York Times Sunday Book Review (Positive, but with a good summary of content)
Huffington Post review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
Wall Street Journal review : Negative about the book, but also disrespectful of those mentioned in it (the review author is a history professor at Notre Dame)
Elle magazine review
LA Times review
The Country Bookworm : general review, but from someone who's thoughtful about the reactions of the witchcraft communities to the book.
Interview with the author

Reviews from within the Pagan community include


Review from Gwydion Blackrose who was at the Samhain gathering of the Blackheart Feri line that is extensively described in the book.
"A Review of Alex Mar’s "Witches of America" from Segomâros Widugeni on Patheos
"An Alternative look at "Witches of America" from David Salisbury on Patheos
"Witches of America – A Review" from John Beckett on Patheos
"Eat, Pray, Learn Magic: Alex Mar's Spiritual Tourism" by Rhyd Wildermuth at Godsandradicals.org

Comments


I'd be interested from comments from others - if you've read the book, have thoughts about the effect of this kind of book on the community, etc.

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(no subject)

Date: Thursday, November 12th, 2015 04:37 pm (UTC)
synecdochic: torso of a man wearing jeans, hands bound with belt (Default)
From: [personal profile] synecdochic
I just....wow, if you can make that mistake, you really weren't paying attention.
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