A friend of mine, former Patheos blogger Niki Whiting, recently wrote a review of Alex Mar’s book Witches in America, and posted it to her Facebook account. The book has been fairly popular among the general population, but received poorly among most Pagans. Several reviews have already been written, notably from John Beckett, Segomâros Widugeni, David Salisbury, Jason Mankey, and perhaps most famously by Rhyd Wildermuth, who rocked his ten ways to Sunday.
Witches is a book that I’ve been struggling to finish myself ever since it was published. For me, Mar’s hypocrisy makes it almost impossible for me to engage with the book. It is a similar phenomenon I feel when watching the antics of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott on The Office: that character makes me feel so embarrassed for him that the embarrassment carries over into how I actually feel. Like Scott, Mar’s antics are so over the top, the embarrassment I feel for her ends up making me feel embarrassed to be a Pagan seeker. Especially one who writes of the journeys on my own path for all to see.
Niki’s review is one of the cleanest, most succinct accounts I’ve read of the hypocrisy that I react to most strongly and so, with her permission, I have re-posted it here.
So, I finished Alex Mar’s Witches of America. For those not in the loop, this is a mainstream book about a woman’s spiritual “journey,” involving traditions I am involved with and people I know personally. It has been favorably reviewed in mainstream publications, including NPR, and reviled among those in the actual Pagan world.
I don’t need to rehash the questionable ethics Mar displayed to the communities involved, but for those unfamiliar with this kerfuffle, please note that she did not change any names or details, including those of minors, with the exception of one person, who the wider community suspects scammed her.
I admit I expected much more from this book, seeing as how it is published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, a quality publisher. What we get is a series of undergraduate reports from a college level “Intro to 20th Century Paganism” mashed together with what could be her LiveJournal. Except…. Mar is an accomplished writer in her 30s.
(I should say I skimmed a few sections: I refused to read about anyone’s initiatory experiences, especially as conveyed in Mar’s artless writing.)
Some wondered if Pagans and witches were so upset with this book because of what she says about the groups she’s in. This is not it. No one else has said it, but I will: many of her feelings about her experiences and her opinions of certain groups and people I shared at one point! I’ve been in ritual and wondered what the hell was going on, feeling out of place, and so on. To trot out my favorite quote: “You’re not *wrong*, Walter; you’re just an asshole.”
Two examples, if I may. Two examples that I have not seen addressed in any reviews, but to me are the shining examples of what a failure this book is.
Throughout the book Mar describes her yearning for Secrets, for the je ne sais quoi that a certain priestess has in spades. Yet, again and again the Mysteries are laid out before her and she swots them away because they do not fit her preconceived notions, nor do they get her what she wants.
Early on in the book she describes living with the Jesus Movement, a tiny Christian sect in California, hoping to convince them to be filmed for her documentary. She mentions how exhausting it was to smile just right all the time. Instead of *being* a trustworthy person, she tries to convince them she’s trustworthy.
Finally, the group lets her know that they decline the offer to be filmed. Instead, they tell her “What we would really like is for you to become our sister.” They offer her a place in their community. Rather than reflect with humility on the gift being offered her, Mar is “disturbed, nauseous…. I’d been emotionally sideswiped.” Sure, there is disappointment in having the project “derailed,” but she views the relationships built over the months together as a waste.
This section, not 50 pages in, let me know right away what kind of person was narrating this story. She could be handed the keys to the kingdom and she would throw them away assuming the shed was of no worth.
The second example comes 50 pages later. Mar has found a teacher to study with. She is filling out the extensive vetting questionnaire. Mar writes “the cynic in me realizes that this would be a neat document for someone to have her in back pocket if we were ever to part ways unhappily. So while remaining pretty candid in my responses, I double-check for any comments I’d hate to have get out. After all, Karina is literally compiling a file on me.”
The stark irony of this stopped me cold. There is no reflection here about the fact that Mar herself is compiling a file and she *will* give away information. She shares intimate stories and deeply personal details of people she claims to be friends with. This is a place where I would hope an editor stopped and said, “Is this all you want to say about this?”
And that is crux of this book’s deepest flaws: for all of her angst, Mar is incapable of self-reflection in any meaningful way. The books seems to want to be a hip, darker version of Eat, Pray, Love – a flawed book that I quite liked. Sadly, Eat, Pray, Love may as well be a Pulitzer prize winning book of deep insight in comparison.
In the end, the people portrayed in Witches of America come across as complex and very human people. Mar, however, reveals herself as shallow, deeply insecure, and riddled with status-anxiety.
This book is a failure of a memoir and/or a sociological book. It is an embarrassment and should not have been published.
Avoid it all costs.