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Witches of America
     

Witches of America

1.0 2
by Alex Mar
 

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Witches of America is a memoir of Alex Mar’s immersive five-year trip into the occult, as both a journalist and someone searching for her own faith. She explores modern Paganism—from its roots in 1950s England to its present-day American mecca in the San Francisco Bay Area; from a gathering of more than a thousand witches in the Illinois woods to the

Overview

Witches of America is a memoir of Alex Mar’s immersive five-year trip into the occult, as both a journalist and someone searching for her own faith. She explores modern Paganism—from its roots in 1950s England to its present-day American mecca in the San Francisco Bay Area; from a gathering of more than a thousand witches in the Illinois woods to the New Orleans branch of one of the world’s most influential magical societies—and decides to train in a coven herself. With keen intelligence and wit, Mar illuminates the world of witchcraft while grappling in fresh and unexpected ways with the question underlying every faith: Why do we choose to believe in anything at all? Whether evangelical Christian, Pagan priestess, or atheist, each of us craves a system of meaning to give structure to our lives. Sometimes we just find it in unexpected places.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Witches of America is a seeker's memoir told through a quilted veil: a collection of strong, journalistic profiles of several fascinating American practitioners of the occult . . . She is the perfect guide . . . Mar writes eloquently about the search for meaning, our pursuit of the sublime within the mundane and the invention of self." —Merritt Tierce, The New York Times Book Review

“Mar is an often amusing guide to the household altars and henges of 21st century paganism, in which Wiccans conduct classes via Skype and online distance learning. But what will resonate most with readers is her genuine and touching search for transcendence, which leads to a conviction that all of these strands of belief are ‘strategies for staying alive. Some are simply more elaborate and inexplicable than others.’” —Elizabeth Hand, Los Angeles Times

“Alex Mar's debut Witches of America, a fascinating exploration of Wiccan, Pagan, and occult culture in contemporary America, begins as something of an ethnography, but becomes even more captivating as Mar herself is drawn into these worlds. Avoiding the easy caricatures to which witchcraft often lends itself, Mar writes about her subject and its practitioners with empathy and genuine curiosity. Like her writing, Mar aches and stretches and yearns: she wants witchcraft to work for her—the way we all, at various points in our lives, want something seemingly fantastic to be true—and in reading her book, I wanted it for her, too. Ultimately, though, Witches of America is about the search for meaning, not its findings. Fortunately, Mar's is a deeply compelling one." —Katie Heaney, Buzzfeed

“Enlightening . . . Provide[s] illuminating answers about what witchcraft in America means" —Huffington Post

“This is a wonderful, no-nonsense account of, well, witches in America. But not the silly pointy hat witches—the actual, practicing Pagans. Mar spent five years researching the practice of this very real religion, which has over one million practitioners today. This is an account of the history of Paganism, its rituals, and practitioners, told without condescension or historical bias and rumor." —BookRiot

"Through chapters both captivating and amusing, Mar. . .assembles a fascinating exegesis on the modern state of faith." —The Believer

“[Witches of America] is propelled by Mar’s layered details and her rare and instinctive curiosity as well as her quiet graciousness toward her subjects.” —Oxford American

“Mar's book takes something seemingly sinister—in this case, the occult—and renders it accessible . . . Mar provides a sensitive, probing, and nuanced look at those who identify as pagan.” —Broadly

“With good humor about the silliness of some of the rituals Mar encounters, and prose that can take on the quality of an incantation, Witches of America is an empathetic but clear-eyed group portrait of people many might find easy to dismiss.” —Bookforum

“A weird and wonderful bildungsroman of sorts . . . As you read Witches of America . . . it's impossible not to contemplate the boundaries of your own spirituality, credulousness, and appetite for the gothic and spectral.” —ELLE

"A fascinating look at witchcraft in the U.S." —Bustle

“A top-notch read for pagans and open-minded seekers curious about the fascinating beginnings of American witchcraft and some of the various directions its form is taking.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“An open-minded, fascinating journey into the world of modern American paganism.” —Booklist

“An expertly crafted spiritual journey . . . Witches, priests and priestesses, and even a necromancer receive a sympathetic, humanizing treatment as Mar encourages empathy for the "outer edges" of society. Mar writes with clarity and candor, provides ample background information, and is neither preachy nor cheesy. She presents all her subjects as interesting individuals . . . Whatever one's spiritual inclinations, Mar's search for "something transcendent" is bewitching.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A wide-eyed observer governed by an unshakable curiosity, Mar's immersion in the multifaceted world of witchcraft (including a particularly chilling encounter with a necromancer) collectively broadened and enhanced her perspective about the craft itself—and will surely do the same for her readership. An enchanting and addictive report shedding much-needed light on a spiritualistic community obfuscated by historical misinterpretation and pop-culture derision.” —Kirkus Reviews

Witches of America is brave and sharp and tenaciously researched. I would never have described myself as someone 'interested in witchcraft'—Alex Mar's book left me feeling the fault had been mine.” —John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead

“Written with a beguiling blend of heart and wit, Witches of America sustains its thrall with something that runs much deeper than intrigue or pageantry. With the depth and scope of her curiosity, Alex Mar compelled me to follow her driving questions—about meaning, faith, and longing for community and wonder—on a breathless, deepening, and constantly surprising quest.” —Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams

“Like the best immersive subcultural reporting, Witches of America has its proper share of erotic charge (daggers, velvet, ritual nudity) and comic flair (a neurotic New Yorker meets an inedible Black Mass wafer). But what Alex Mar has actually achieved is something altogether more haunting. This is an intellectually serious and sweetly vulnerable work about connection both on and off the grid, and our common aspiration to lead lives spellbound and spellbinding.” —Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction

Witches of America could be seen as a Gulliverian journey through various oddball sects scattered from California to New England, all of which believe in salvation through Magic-but the book is so much more than that. This is a quest to come to terms with the Unknowable.” —Richard Price, author of Lush Life

“Whatever you thought about witches, be prepared to think again. In Witches of America, Alex Mar exposes what we fear most—our own power. To be a witch is to reimagine the world.” —Terry Tempest Williams, author of When Women Were Birds

The New York Times Book Review - Merritt Tierce
…a seeker's memoir told through a quilted veil: a collection of strong, journalistic profiles of several fascinating American practitioners of the occult…It is a unique and vital quality of Mar's approach that in her taking her subjects so seriously, we take her seriously in turn…Witches of America is a pastiche of history and biography, cultural anthropology and comparative theology. It's also a nice compendium of obscure arcana…[Mar's] shrewdly articulated hesitation is precisely what makes her a compelling Virgil. She anticipates our skepticism because she herself is skeptical, though she directs that skepticism inward—"to each her own" is our unspoken handrail down a strange stairway. If anything connects the various communities and traditions Mar writes about, it's this primacy of the individual soul and choice, which is, of course, the holy fabric of Americanness.
Publishers Weekly
★ 08/24/2015
Writer and filmmaker Mar was accustomed to developing an emotional connection to her research subjects, but when she began filming her 2010 documentary on the occult, American Mystic, she became more deeply invested in her subjects’ world than she expected. Taking readers on an expertly crafted spiritual journey through a pagan conference, a weekend with a Feri coven in a New England “faux castle,” and an initiation ceremony for the Ordo Templi Orientis (which follows the teachings of Aleister Crowley) deep in the Louisiana swamps, Mar pushes past vulnerability in search of guidance and conviction. Along the way she gives an overview of modern American witchcraft, introduces readers to a multitude of variations on magical tradition, and helps dispel myths regarding paganism and the occult. Witches, priests and priestesses, and even a necromancer receive a sympathetic, humanizing treatment as Mar encourages empathy for the “outer edges” of society. Mar writes with clarity and candor, provides ample background information, and is neither preachy nor cheesy. She presents all her subjects as interesting individuals. The book’s only flaw is an abrupt ending, leaving many unanswered questions: Does Mar stay involved with the New Orleans branch of the Ordo Templi Orientis? Does she find the revelation she is looking for? Whatever one’s spiritual inclinations, Mar’s search for “something transcendent” is bewitching. (Nov.)
Library Journal
★ 09/15/2015
Former Rolling Stone editor and filmmaker (American Mystic) Mar deftly weaves in her own story of agnostic searching as she chronicles the various threads of American pagan belief systems, creating a narrative equal parts diary, history lesson, ethnographic study, myth buster, and pagan gossip. After spending time filming the Feri priest Morpheus for her documentary, Mar found herself drawn to a course of study and exploration of the various pagan sects and magical practices, far exceeding the safety of suburban Wiccan covens. Her experiences and observations, some inspiring, some a tad disturbing, are fodder for reflection on what faith and belief actually mean and how they are influenced by cultural expectation and conditioning. The chapter on Satan and the melding of occultism to devil worship in the mind of the public, fueled by a sensationalist media, is an eye-opening exposé of the effects of damaging religious ignorance and intolerance. VERDICT A top-notch read for pagans and open-minded seekers curious about the fascinating beginnings of American witchcraft and some of the various directions its form is taking.—Janet Tapper, Univ. of Western States Lib., Portland, OR
Kirkus Reviews
2015-07-30
A self-avowed skeptic investigates the shadowy world of modern witchcraft. In this literary companion to the 2010 documentary American Mystic, which she directed, former Rolling Stone editor Mar dynamically illustrates her adventures journeying across America in search of witches, mystics, and polytheistic pagans. A cynical native New Yorker drawn to fringe communities "whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bond them closer together," the author first traveled to Northern California's Santa Clara County, where a "Feri priestess" named Morpheus has constructed the Stone City, a sanctuary for congregating covens to perform ritualistic ceremonies. While Mar outlines witchcraft's history as a movement through the celebrated work of Englishman Gerald Gardner, the "godfather of Wicca," the core of her book comprises profiles of the many witches she encountered. None of them are as fascinating as Morpheus, whom the author befriended deeply and honestly and who becomes an increasingly formidable influence. Though frequently overwhelmed, Mar's fascination with the occult suffuses the narrative via in-depth explorations of intensive Feri witch rituals, a weeklong Spirit Gathering in a forest clearing in rural Illinois, participation in the annual pagan PantheaCon conventions, trial-and-error Feri training, and witchcraft circles hosted in a New England castle. The author initially approached craft rituals involving "circling, trancing, banishing personal demons, and bumping up against the dead" with dubiety and great hesitancy, yet once familiarized with her surroundings, she was enveloped in the wonder and the enlightenment each group imparted. A wide-eyed observer governed by an unshakable curiosity, Mar's immersion in the multifaceted world of witchcraft (including a particularly chilling encounter with a necromancer) collectively broadened and enhanced her perspective about the craft itself—and will surely do the same for her readership. An enchanting and addictive report shedding much-needed light on a spiritualistic community obfuscated by historical misinterpretation and pop-culture derision.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374536435
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
10/11/2016
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
288
Sales rank:
322,567
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Witches of America


By Alex Mar

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Alex Mar
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70911-2



CHAPTER 1

Stone City


Witches are gathering.

Witches are gathering all across California, witches and their apprentices and little children and polyamorous collection of boyfriends and girlfriends. They are gathering for the season of death, the days leading up to the high holiday of Samhain. October is the time of year, they say, when the veil between the worlds becomes thin and the multitudes of the dead can reach across to touch you, brush your cheek, whisper in your ear, drink your whiskey. So the priestesses pull out their sporty West Coast vehicles, from gnarly pickups to gleaming, eco-friendly mini-mobiles, and they load up, with complicated tents and pillows and crockery and duffel bags full of ritual gear and brown paper bags crammed with discount groceries. They are leaving their cities for the mountains and the woodlands of this schizophrenic state: the rocks and the trees and the clearer skies will bring them closer, perhaps, to friends and family who have passed to the other side.

They spill out onto the highways, then fan out, leaving behind their tech ventures and professorships, their accounting firms and bio labs, their yoga studios and bookshops, heading toward covens in so many counties. Some go even farther, east into the hills, until their earth-worshipping caravan clears the electrical grid and finally comes to stop in a red clay clearing. Here, they start to unpack: all across the landscape, out come the coolers and sleeping bags, the exotic fabrics, the amulets, the baggies of herbs, the idols and carefully bundled wands. People are slipping into velvet, or black leather kilts. A priestess stands brushing out her long hair, uncut for twenty years. Another wraps a belt around her waist, heavy with stones and metalwork, then swings a cloak over her shoulders, so long it drags across the dirt.

This is Stone City, one hundred acres dedicated to witchcraft in Santa Clara County.

Beyond this property, back where everyone came from, the rest of the country celebrates Halloween, with their rubber masks, Blow Pops, and toilet paper. Here, far off the grid, at a recently installed stone henge the neighboring ranchers know nothing about, these citizens are preparing to summon their dead. Within a few hours, at dusk, they'll begin gathering in a circle, even the children, chanting the words to set things in motion.

* * *

I am not what you would call witchy. Raised in Manhattan, I confirm plenty of the stereotypes of a New Yorker: an overeducated liberal, a feminist, a skeptic long suspicious of organized religion, surrounded by friends — several of them artists, writers, and filmmakers — who consider agnosticism an uncomfortable level of devotion. I'm not prone to joining groups of any stripe, particularly the spiritual variety. I believe in something transcendent, but I've yet to meet someone with a convincing label for it.

At the same time, we each have a dimension hidden beneath our carefully cultivated surface, a piece of ourselves that we can't shake off or explain away. For me, it's this: I've always been drawn to the outer edges, the fringe — communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bind them closer together. As a writer, I took a stab at a novel about the life of David Koresh, in part because I envied the plain certainty of his followers; I cooked up thin excuses to report on a Billy Graham revival in Queens, visit a New Age commune in California, move into a convent in Houston. On one level, I've been driven by an easy curiosity, an attraction to the exotic and far-out — which the whole spectrum of belief has long seemed to me — but I've also been looking hard for those intangibles I might have in common with even the most alien congregation. As a natural outgrowth of this impulse, I am setting out to make a documentary about American forms of mysticism. Finally, through the drawn-out, painstaking production of a feature-length film, I'll come to understand what I've been chasing, beat it into a tangible product, a neat conversation piece, and move on.

This is what takes me to Stone City.

In the early evening, I find myself heading down a perilous, zigzagging road into the Middle of Nowhere, Northern California, a cliff drop always on my right, watching as ranching country turns to meth country and then who-knows-where as the light begins to fall.

I'm at the start of my odyssey across occult America, in the last available rental car from the San Francisco International Airport — a twelve-passenger van better suited to taking a kindergarten class on a field trip. Instead, it is carrying a wary New Yorker thirty challenging miles into old mining territory. The boat-on-wheels winds around shocking curves every twenty seconds, each time threatening to toss me headlong into a valley dotted with vultures. I head out past nouveaux villas; then scrappy working ranches; then trailer homes set few and far apart; and, finally, past the first in a string of ghost mines where so much magnesite was pulled from the ground long ago. Back then, for the miners, this would have been a drive full of expectation. A century and a half later, it is for me, too, but with a difference: this trip — not horse-drawn, but more nauseating for it — is leading me to Craft sanctuary land, land that belongs to Morpheus, a priestess who has steadily been making her name known among witches out west for fifteen years.

As the sky darkens, I rumble up the dirt driveway, past a metal-scraps heap, a shed built out of glass bottles, and an improvised chicken coop, to stop in front of a double-wide trailer in the twilight. Just then my headlights flash on a Doberman who, with pitch-perfect timing, comes bounding toward the car, barking until its fist-sized heart seems ready to burst.

Slightly stoned on Dramamine, I sit and watch, stock-still, as Cerberus is followed by a thin rail of a man in fatigues, combat boots, and white-man's cornrows.

"Heel!" he shouts, rapping his knuckles on the dog's head. This would be Shannon, Morpheus's husband.

I dismount from the van, step lightly past the dog-monster, and follow Shannon inside — into a bargain-basement Paul Bowles fantasyland. Everywhere there are lanterns covered in lace metalwork, leather pincushion seats, Moroccan wall hangings, animal skulls, and images of the goddess of this, the goddess of that. A clay statuette of Pan sits atop a library of occult titles like Transcendental Magic and Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. I am still getting my bearings when, across the threshold of bright purple carpeting, steps the priestess herself.

Morpheus: like me, in her thirties; in baggy jeans, tank top, and an ass-length braid of red hair. She is pale and lean, with large blue eyes — not at all intimidating. (What did I expect?) She approaches, carrying a pan of pre-made enchiladas.

The three of us sit at the dining-room table, by the cabinet of loaded rifles and underneath the generator-powered chandelier, Cerberus curled up like a cat at Morpheus's feet. We drink the cheap wine I've brought and settle into talking the rest of the night, Morpheus now and again busting out a big, broad laugh — geeky, unguarded. We discuss their plans for the solstice, initiation rites ("Not telling!"), and the Stone Circle — the henge this place is named for. They'd spent a year and a half erecting it, marking out the positions of the sun from season to season — "never mind dragging those half-ton rocks into place," she says. "Now we have nearly all our rituals up there."

Exhausted, and with little more to learn tonight — we'll get to know each other carefully, in stages — I turn in. Armed with a tiny flashlight and a sleeping bag, I make my way up the brush-covered hill toward a makeshift cabin somewhere in the distance. Once I reach a plateau, I stop in my tracks, because there it is: the Stone Circle, visible in the moonlight. A gathering of enormous standing stones, huge slabs buried in the ground to rise six feet tall, a very specific fantasy imposed on the landscape.

Once it's daylight, I see that Stone City alternates between untamable, prickly undergrowth and gutted stretches of dry red dirt. Here and there, dotting the land, are guest trailers, broken boats, outdoor hot tubs, goats and Polish roosters, evidence of the pantheon — altars built from Home Depot gazebo parts and statues ordered off eBay — a Maypole covered in last year's ribbons, a "meditation" labyrinth of palm-sized stones, the Stone Circle itself. This assembly of structures has been the single-minded project of the last few years, the excavation (with tractor and borrowed earthmover), then erection (with bare hands and pulleys and the occasional blowtorch) of a peculiar architecture. All this for Morpheus, priestess. Stone City is her place to practice witchcraft safely, and to gather people together for ritual and to build fires and drink and sing and (when the spirit strikes) have sex somewhere in the wilderness, where the bones of wild pigs are scattered.

I may not know it now, but my relationship with Morpheus will go beyond the making of a film, deepen and grow more complicated (she'll prove a lot more formidable than the blithe, skinny redhead who served me dinner). And through our relationship I will realize that this hidden dimension of myself, this curiosity about the outer edges of belief, is not something from which I can recover. Because I envy them, the believers. They have guidance; they have clarity; their days have structure and meaning. And, quietly, for a long time, I've coveted these things — after all, they're what most of us want badly, regardless of whether we consider ourselves lapsed Catholics or born-agains or strident atheists. Morpheus has perfect conviction in a world that I do not understand, and I feel compelled to step inside her belief. When I put my work aside, I have to admit that I am searching — hopefully, and with great reservation — for proof of something larger, whatever its name.

* * *

I have a closer connection to the occult than I'd first recognized. Before my immersion, my ideas about witchcraft had come from obvious sources. Halloween brought witches flying on broomsticks. The Wizard of Oz taught me that there are "good" witches (pretty blondes) and "bad" witches (green-skinned brunettes). History class, and a school production of The Crucible, sparked a macabre fascination with the seventeenth-century witch trials. But as I began visiting with priestesses and covens around the country, memories rose to the surface, and I learned that my impressions are also rooted in my family.

Like many Americans, I'm of a mess of backgrounds. When he was ten years old, my father emigrated from Crete, the ancient seat of some of the very gods that Christianity sought to snuff out — from the Mycenaeans' Zeus and Hephaestus to the bare-breasted, snake-wielding Minoan goddess. For me, as an American-born child, the church of my father's parents, even after centuries of Greek Orthodox Christianity, was still evocative of another world: the long black overcassock, the wizard's beard, and the imposing kamilavka of the priests; the palpably foreign, musky scent of the clouds of incense the altar boys would shake from censers as they trailed down the aisle; the Byzantine angles of the saints' heads, not in round, fleshy tones but flat, gold, abstract.

As for my mother, her family had moved from northern Spain to Cuba generations ago, and her Latin brand of Catholicism took on a fantastic quality. We lit candles in memory of family members, trying to lure their presence into the house through photographs, votives, trinkets they used to own. I imagined the incredible quiet of cathedrals we'd visit, and the shadowy chapels contained within, to be full of hidden information. The symbolism in paintings of the saints remained bizarre and enigmatic, often with more than a hint of violence — the martyred St. Ursula bleeding from the neck, gripping the arrow that shot her dead; St. Agatha carrying her dismembered breasts on a plate — and my younger self was a little terrified that communion involved the chance to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. Beyond that, the women in my mother's family were not immune to the notion of communications from the other side — true for quite a few Latin Catholic women. So my religious upbringing, though two flavors of Christian, was defined less by discipline and self-denial than by proximity to mystery.

My mother would tell me of how, in her town of Gibara, on the far eastern end of Cuba, a neighbor who'd given a dirty look to a brujo on the street awoke to find a dead rooster on her doorstep.

"All these sensitive cultural relativists — they don't understand that there is such a thing as a curse," she would say.

Years later, when I was in college and experimenting with visual art, I called my mother and told her that I had been making my own version of vévés (Vodou symbols that invoke spirits) on huge swaths of paper in my bedroom. She sighed, and in a practical, good-humored tone told me, "Look, you can do what you want, Alexa, but here's what you should do: you should stop playing with that stuff, go to a Catholic church, and get some holy water. You bless yourself and sprinkle it on those drawings. And then you throw them out."

My mother wasn't condemning all of Vodou practice; she was simply unimpressed with my amateur-hour dabbling in potentially serious spiritual business. So what did I do, a young woman getting a degree at Harvard in a department rife with the very "cultural relativists" my mother had sneered at? I did what I was told: I got hold of some holy water at the nearest church and followed her instructions. Better to be safe than risk awakening something unfriendly.

This idea — that spirits, good and bad, linger nearby, ready to intervene — has been handed down by the women on my mother's side. Two stories, told and retold quietly over the years, illustrate this best.

I was about nine years old when my mother first shared with me the story of her best friend's murder. They'd grown up together in Cuba, she and Mireya, but separated when my mother was sent far north, to a Catholic boarding school in Maine. The pair stayed in touch by writing letters every few weeks, my mother sharing the shock of her first snow and the travesty of American foods like peanut butter and sweet New England beans. After about a year, the letters stopped, as happens with long-distance friendships. Then, one night, my mother had a dream: Mireya was walking toward her, slowly, as if to give her a message. Suddenly a young man appeared and stepped between them — and, just as suddenly, he plunged a knife into Mireya's chest (my mother felt as if she had been stabbed). Several months later, my mother returned home for a visit and saw an old friend at a party. Hadn't she heard? Mireya had been killed by a boyfriend. My mother did the math: the murder had taken place just days before her dream. The dream had served, in a way, as Mireya's final letter.

Fast-forward a generation, to right after I'd left home for college. My mother's aunt Norma, perhaps the most no-nonsense woman in the family line, rang her up.

"Your mother keeps wandering around my apartment," she said, referring to my deceased grandmother. "She's worried. There's something wrong in your house."

But there was nothing wrong. My parents, recently retired, were preparing for a long vacation, an entire month in the South of France, leaving in a week's time. Since she had a checkup scheduled, my mother went in for her doctor's appointment and, that image of my grandmother fresh in her mind, asked for her annual mammogram early. She was quickly diagnosed with cancer that, had it been detected two or three weeks later, could have turned deadly. It seemed possible that maybe, just maybe, a spirit had reached across on her behalf.

None of us would claim that there are hard, verifiable facts in these stories — I can't emphasize enough how little patience my mother has for what she calls the "hippie-dippie." This is the woman who taught me to question church authority and sidestep the Pope completely. ("He's just some man who claims he knows what God thinks," she likes to say.) So is this witchy stuff or mere coincidence? I'm not sure. The world is full of strange and inexplicable business. There are many Americans — not just out-there Americans, but high-functioning people with mainstream jobs and houses with backyards — who have stories like those of my family. Stories of mysticism, of communications from the other side, whether handed down, hearsay, or their own. All you need to do is press a little harder, and out they come: from supermarket cashiers, retired cops, psychologists, high school jocks — it doesn't matter where they live or what they look like. The overriding culture trains us to dismiss these stories as New Age babble, signs of wayward fanaticism, rather than greet them with a healthy dose of curiosity — but Americans are compelled by the mysterious more often than we feel permitted to admit.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Witches of America by Alex Mar. Copyright © 2015 Alex Mar. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alex Mar is a writer based in New York City, her hometown. Her work has recently appeared in The Believer, the Oxford American, Elle, The New York Times Book Review, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015. Mar is also the director of the documentary feature film American Mystic. Witches of America is her first book.

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Witches of America 2.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This author has no ethics. Her shameful exploitation of a diverse and peaceful spirituality should be illegal. Save yourself time and money and pass on this mockery that tries to pass for an "overview of modern American witchcraft."
janmaarten More than 1 year ago
Are you an avid reader and/or enjoy a good book? Move along. These are not the druids you're looking for. Seeker of alternative spiritual practices? There are lots entry points that don't offer such shamefully exploitative bias along with it. Keep seeking. Cool with your current spiritual beliefs or are just curious about what those strange pagan folk are up to? This book will probably tickle your fancy, but you ought to consider it a work of historical fiction. Take it with the LARGEST brick of sodium chloride you can muster (salt, that is). Setting aside whatever drew your interest to this book, Witches of America is exceedingly hard to stomach. Why? For a start, the writing is atrocious, the narration is sophomoric, and there is NO ACTUAL POINT TO THIS BOOK. This is alluded to at the beginning and confessed at the end; Mar seeks knowledge, secrets, and power from a number of sources and does her utmost to avoid any substantive personal transformation or revelations that might be relevant to the reader (or even herself). This is her thesis! It's about as compelling as watching a movie where a bunch of strange and fascinating things happen while the protagonist is dragged along kicking and screaming that they won't ever change or grow - and you are also privy to their internal monologue for the duration where they over-analyze themselves in every single scene instead of being present. Honestly, this book had a lot of potential and every ounce of it was squandered because the author couldn't get out of her own damn way. Aside from seemingly out-of-context anecdotes that may, at best, create some kind of personal scandal for the author and her sources, you're not going to find any magical secrets or power in this book. The pointless nature of the book as well as the disclaimer at the end that events and characters (actual people) were altered to suit Alex Mar's personal definition of good narrative (I use the term "good" VERY loosely here) betrays this book for what it seems to be: 276 pages of titillating and sensationalized exploitation of an already-marginalized segment of the population, set to a tone of someone who is just innocently learning and embarking on their own (disingenuous) path into their world. Mar makes every character (again, actual people) into fascinating exotic caricatures and stereotypes. Which is perfect, because this book has been released just in time for Halloween! It's not hard to read through this book and replace the mentions of pagans, polytheists, and what-have-you with any other minority population - which is to say, if this same story had been written about African Americans, the LGBT community, Native Americans, Oaxacan, Yezidi, or Amish people (and so on), it would easily be considered for what it is - an atrocious and deplorable piece of writing. You know, kind of like what white folks have been doing to minority/fringe populations on a global scale for generations? Because they're just so... I don't know... exotic! So, if you're into reading pointless diaries that also needlessly exploit entire populations, throw your money in the general direction of this book. You could also set your money on fire, and you would likely get more value from that (warmth, for instance).
W-Allan More than 1 year ago
I resisted reading this memoir for many months after its initial release. And I think it is important to get a few bits of information out of the way at the beginning of this review. Yes, I am a witch. Yes, I know a few of the people written about in the book, but only peripherally. I have never met Alex Mar, nor have I attended any of the pagan cons/festivals/etc. So let's get to the review, shall we. I found the memoir to be less a anthropological look at witches of america, and more of a memoir of her involvement with very few different groups of witches in america. Clearly, this was book and adventure was not to be even in the same hemisphere as Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler (which is a phenomenal book, in its own right.) So understanding that this book is only going to cover the Feri Tradition, OTO, the TERFs known as a Wiccan group started by the transphobic and patriarchal upholding (much to her chagrin) Z. Budapest, an offshoot of the Feri Tradition ran by Morpheus, and a small group (possibly falsified) of necromancers in New Orleans. So given that you can see it is not a large subset of the much larger witch and/or pagan community. Mar is able to write clearly and succinctly about her relationship within these groups. Does she have some dubious (possibly insincere) methods of gathering and releasing the information? That I feel is up to the reader to decide. I personally did not find her to be, as other reviewers have stated, a liar in order to get confidential initiatory information just for a book and profit. Did it some of it end up in the book-yes. Again, any vows made and/or broken are now between Mrs. Mar, the Gods, and the groups she took the vows with. As I have not taken any such vows within the groups Mar worked with I can not speak to the amount of information she was verbally or otherwise instructed not to share. Thus, I trust that she has not violated any of vows. So moving on to the other part that seems to rile up the masses.Which is Mar's descriptions of people involved in the groups or rituals that are taking place. The most discussed description takes place on page 52. It reads (for those who have reviewed the book only based on hearsay) "Pagans of all shapes and sizes are dancing: horned or hippied out or dressed in flannel, barefoot or in rainbow-striped socks. Their frustration and anger and need are palpable. One very obese woman has chosen to go topless: her breasts are so pendulous they hang nearly to her navel, flattened into thick slabs. It is clear she is dancing because the word means something to her. She's dancing it off, waving her arms, her skin rippling, and her long, frizzed-out hair askew. A large-bodied misfit." I do not take offense to this description. It fits with the ritual, and what is occurring. At this point in the memoir Mar is still acting as a journalist. She is describing what she sees, and why this woman's body is important to the narrative of the book. I doubt many of us have seen an image such as this in person. The word the woman was dancing to was SHAME. She was dancing it away, destroying it. Mar was describing what she saw. And while some people take offense to a woman's being described the way it was I do not find Mar being exploitative her or even body shaming. Mar will go on to describe other people's bodies, and their clothing choices. Again, for me it helped evoke the people as real, and allowed me to find a connection to many of the individuals throughout the