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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 Paganismfrom 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 societiesand 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.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Witches of America
By Alex Mar
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2015 Alex Mar
All rights reserved.
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.
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.
Table of Contents
1. Stone City
2. Little Witch
3. Naked in the New Forest
4. Keep Your Weapons Peace-Bonded!
5. The Feri Current
6. Diana of the Prairies
7. The Mass
8. The Vetting Process
9. Cycle One
10. Morpheus and the Morrigan
11. Making Priests
12. The Binding
13. Proof; or, The Creeping of Your Skin
14. Coru Cathubodua
15. Three Nights at the Castle
16. The Small Question of Satan
17. Sympathy for the Necromancer
18. And the Crows Will Eat My Eyes
19. Enter the Swamp
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Alex Mar
"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 . . . 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."
The classic Halloween-season figure of the witch the tall- hatted crone with the flying broomstick, the Weird Sister stirring the cauldron and giving forth poisoned prophecy to a doomed Scot has long been pushed aside, at least in twenty- first-century America, by the updated and generally more glamorous version that emerged in a spate of late-'90s movies and TV (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Craft, and Charmed) and continues to show up in more recent cable fare (American Horror Story, True Blood).
But while witchcraft can provide emotive metaphors and plot devices alike for pop culture, its current representation onscreen doesn't come any closer to the expansive and manifold worlds of American witchery, paganism and magical practice than a yellowing Broom Hilda strip.
In Witches of America, writer and filmmaker Alex Mar aims for something of a corrective, taking readers with her on an excursion into the visionary, ecstatic, and defiantly antinomian world of covens and magical societies, pagan gatherings and druidic fellowships that exist like a just-hidden set of alternate villages across the country. Some of the people she encounters are visionary, some hedonistic, some secretive, and one or two will leave readers with a distinct chill. All offer a prism through which Mar's kaleidoscopic narrative cycles.
But rather than mounting up a countercultural road trip through occult exotica, Mar offers us a seat on a very different sort of journey her own quest in search of connection to something else: "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." The resulting work traces a pilgrimage that eventually leads the writer into experiences of intensity and beauty that defy the stereotypes that cluster around this subject.
Alex Mar sat down with me in her publisher's very un-witchy offices to talk about what makes American witches so particularly interesting. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. Bill Tipper
á The Barnes & Noble Review: There are so many interviews and experiences that are woven into Witches of America. How long did it take you to complete this project?
Alex Mar: The material in this book and the relationships in this book actually go back about six years in some cases. Morpheus, who as you know is one of the central characters in the book . . . my relationship with her started with the documentary that I had been working on.
BNR: American Mystic.
AM: Yes. The idea of consciously researching and writing a book started about three and a half years ago. So all in all, a relatively fast process.
BNR: American Mystic focused on three different kind of people from three very different American mystical traditions, one of whom is Morpheus, and she became one of the people that you profile rather deeply in this book.
AM: Yes, exactly. It's funny, because six years ago (just as background) I remember telling people about the film project, and saying, "There's this woman who is one of the central characters, and she's a witch," and the reaction, even from my really savvy friends in New York and California, was, "What on earth does that mean?" A little bit of intimidation or some buying into certain ideas they'd been fed as kids, that we'd all been fed back in the day. But now, over the last year and a half or two years in particular, I would talk about my book with friends or people I'd just met, and they would instead say, "Oh, are they Pagans? Are they Wiccans?" That actually says a lot about something shifting over the last several years, which is really fascinating to see, to get an overview of.
BNR: Quite a lot of the book relates careful and precise descriptions of rituals you attended or were involved in. In the past, you've recorded your subjects on film. For the book, did you take notes during these ceremonies?
AM: I take notes heavily in the middle of all of these experiences, and the notes are very detailed and often feed into sometimes verbatim into passages that are in the book. I do that with my long-form journalism as well. What I discovered, not surprisingly, is that writing about rituals is really challenging for a few reasons. One is the amount of privacy and, in some cases, all-out just complete secrecy around them, so there is a question of access. But how do you capture that situation? You're taking pictures and you're not recording anything. Also, your own experience is going to be completely subjective, by definition. A ritual is potentially an ecstatic situation; it's a group scenario.
BNR: Most of the rituals that you describe in this book, though not all of them, are rituals that you participated in as part of your experience of that particular aspect of Wiccan or pagan or occult life in America. You're going to gatherings. You are spending time with various groups. Then, in two cases really, Feri and with the OTO, you are pursuing initiation really into these traditions.
AM: There is this decision at a certain point to train I didn't go into this project assuming that would happen. I knew that I wanted to go deeper: I committed to this project with the idea that, in more of a sort of typical journalistic faction, I would kind of be this loose, accessible, relatable framework to this research. "Look at me as a reader. We have something in common. We're both kind of maybe slightly skeptical about all this business. But I'm really level- headed, and let's just check out what's going on because it's very curious." And very quickly, I realized in order to be honest with myself and the reader, I'd have to be a lot more personal in the writing.
BNR: It was almost as if you initially imaged that your contract with the reader would require you to be this skeptic, this anthropologist who would stand aside or guide through and comment, but not get too much of yourself involved.
AM: To not get dirty. [Laughs] A big part of it, too, is that I've never identified myself in any way as a "confessional writer." For me personally, that's a little bit icky. Not in other people's work, but just in terms of how I work. The reality is that writing about faith of any stripe is completely, fundamentally an embarrassing undertaking. There's no way of getting around that. You have to become vulnerable, and talk about these big topics what you believe in, and your search for meaning in your own life. That stuff is really raw, and there isn't really a fashionable way of doing it. You just have to be kind of willing to talk about where you're coming from, and your own insecurities about those questions.
That was something I wanted to make a part of the book. I just realized that was unavoidable, especially if all of these other people were willing to really share their stories with me. There's a lot of scenarios in this book that are really quite private. Covens worshiping under certain circumstances and different kinds of techniques, blood offerings, and the whole concept of sex magic, and different kinds of rituals that lead to initiation that are very private and this is not the kind of stuff that people go around sharing with strangers.
BNR: This is a point that I feel is a good idea to make clear that the book simultaneously does the work I imagine you think it needed to do: Exploding myths about crazy ritual practices.
BNR: You mention blood offerings and sex magic. In a way, I want say to the potential reader of this book: Don't worry, they are real things, but they are also things that are, in a sense, more personal symbolic on one level and typically, for most of these groups, involved with personal relationships rather than some stereotypical . . .
AM: . . . freaky cult scenario. [Laughs] I appreciate you making that comment.
BNR: But it's an interesting place. A person who is living a rather ordinary life by other standards in an American community, but who goes to do these kinds of things with her coven, would have plenty of good reasons to keep that private, even if what's going on in that realm is really no more shocking or strange than any religious ceremony that we think of as ordinary.
AM: Oh, definitely. I don't know that I would have written this book if I felt that it was somehow only about witchcraft, or paganism. To my mind, I was always setting up to write a book about why any of us choose to believe in anything at all, any system of belief, and that witchcraft is on the same spectrum as Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Buddhism, whatever.
The practices in Witches of America seem a lot more exotic because it's a minority religion, and there's a lot of ideas that come from Hollywood and Pop culture that frighten us when we hear the word "witchcraft" or even the word "ritual." But taking the Sacrament in the Catholic Church is just rife with scary-seeming symbolism, and if you wanted to look at it that way, drinking the blood of Christ and eating his body, the stories of the martyrs. I talk about that a little bit in the book because that's part of my background.
I was regularly in touch with Morpheus in particular. She's incredibly brave, because I must say, she never censored anything that we experienced together, or that she shared with me, or that she knew I had heard her talk about. Really intimate practices. Her one concern ultimately was just, "Gosh, people are going to think that I'm completely whacked-out." I assured her that once the manuscript was more or less complete, people were reading it here at the publishing house, and they just weren't . . . No one was having a dramatic reaction to what I thought was some of the most out-there material, and to me, I really felt that was a huge success, because it meant that the context was there, that you understood this person was a human being who had this government job at one point, and becomes increasingly serious about her spiritual practice, and then starts her own priesthood, and then there are extremely specific kinds of rituals that she conducts so that she can have more of a relationship with her particular goddess, Morgan.
BNR: She moves from being part of one tradition to almost wanting to found or be a new founder of her own vision. With your title in mind, as I was reading her story, that seemed like a pioneering American story, the restlessness and moving forward into her vision.
AM: That was really on my mind the whole time, definitely. I see this as intrinsically an American movement. I think one of the issues that people have with the Pagan community or the witchcraft movement in this country is, if you put aside the baggage that any individual might have with the word "witchcraft,", there is this fundamental discomfort with any kind of religious community or practice that is younger. "Did someone just one day wake up and make this up?"
But there is a beginning to the timeline of any religious movement, even, obviously, Christianity, which, no one needs to say, is the predominant religion in this country.
BNR: To redirect maybe a little: I think what you're getting at is that what makes American witchcraft and paganism and alternative spirituality (to use a fuzzy word, but something to contain all the different subtraditions) specific is that there a belief that you can remake and gather, you can gather up these threads that are there, and fashion something new that's meaningful.
AM: Definitely this sort of all-American sense of self-transformation, your right to realize a new identity for yourself. The example I would give to my own friends along the way: So many times, I met a version of this, where there would be a woman who, let's say, works at Trader Joe's in the Bay Area, and that has certain limitations to what she can make happen in her life or what kind of apartment she can live in or whatever. But on the weekends and on certain sort of personal holidays that are not visible to the rest of America, she's the high priestess of whatever coven, and dresses in robes, and gets together with these other practitioners, and has this entire other world that is elevated and that connects her to something much bigger than herself. There's no middleman.
It's a way to create a complete new, elevated identity for yourself. I don't mean to make it sound superficial either. But I was really touched by the amount of reinvention of the Self that's a big part of this community. There are so many people who I met who are working class or lower middle class, self- taught to a ridiculous degree, in a number of cases. Of course, there are people outside of that paradigm. But I met so many people who fit that description and just had this incredible double life that they found really rewarding, and I also thought was very brave.
BNR: On the subject of that double life, the sense that I got from so many of the portraits in this book is that that doubleness was, in more cases, a satisfying secret than a sense of oppressed being in the closet, as it were.
BNR: Do you think that's accurate?
AM: Are there people in the broom closet?
BNR: In the broom closet.
AM: There are still people in the broom closet, as they put it (which I think it a hilarious way of putting it, and people say it with a straight face). People would say that if they had a government job, or if they worked for a school, or had some kind of job that involved children, there is still this concern that it might affect their employment, for no real reason except just general fears and prejudices.
I did run into some people in certain parts of the South who were very committed to using aliases. One woman agreed to meet with me, but I had to meet with her at a truck stop diner alongside the highway in the middle of the afternoon one day, as a kind of neutral meeting place, before she would agree to let me come to a ritual she was having in her house up in the mountains. Fair enough.
It's a mix. I think there is a real shift right now, as I was describing, over the last several years, that I sort of witnessed, that people now know what the word Pagan means and they're not scared by it, or they hear "Wiccan" and they think more kind of environmentalist than terrifying hag. [Laughs] So there's that.
But also, in terms of the occult practices in the book, I met a number of occultists involved in something that is also something that's quite private. OTO remains somewhat of a secret society, to some degree, depending on the individual and how alternative their public lifestyle is.
BNR: I want to ask you to talk about the two traditions that you went further with. There are groups you visited, gatherings you went to, where you met a lot of people, and outlined what life is like in those circles. But with the Feri and with the OTO, you take us further as readers.
BNR: Can you talk a little about Feri, which is the craft practice or craft tradition that you spend more time with in this book? It's a fascinating one in that it's American- grown.
AM: It's actually incredibly thrilling . . . I could not believe someone had not written this book already. I absolutely could not get over this fact. I don't want to put this in overly lofty terms, but there is an aspect of this that's like being around at the moment where Jesus and the Disciples are hanging out, and it's the first hundred years, and everyone is trying to figure out how does this then become codified into a church structure?
Or you could use any other major religion as an example. Because this is that moment. This movement has only been around for maybe sixty years in this country. Now it's becoming much more visible, and you can see how the structure that it's taking and sort of the key players. You can still trace this back to the first people in this country, who were the big movers . . .
BNR: The leaders of the movement often are people who were trained by or related to the people who founded these traditions.
AM: Exactly. So that's totally exciting.
BNR: You do a marvelous job of portraying the founder of Feri. Can you tell us a little about Victor Anderson?
AM: He's fascinating because there's this element of a spiritual savant to his story. This idea that his family ends up in the Northwest, and somehow, surrounded by a collection of Dust Bowl refugees, and there's a mix of ethnicities, and there are migrant farm laborers, and it's this very all-American collection, like a collection of nomads. He claimed that at a very young age, at NINE years old, he was initiated in the woods in Oregon. As a child, he just stumbled into this forest clearing where he encountered a woman who was sitting in a circle, who then supposedly initiated him magically and sexually into what he would later call the Feri tradition.
His background, though, is Christian. His partner, Cora Anderson, had a Baptist family. So it's fascinating to think that there was this Northwest, small-town Christian community veneer, and underneath it you have the beginnings of these covens. He then started training people privately in this magic that grew to become quite ecstatic, with voodoo influences, and became eventually what Morpheus was initiated in later on. The current so-called "grandmaster" of Feri, one of his last serious students, described him to me as being like Yoda. She didn't know how else to explain to her own children what Victor was like as someone to train with. He would just sit in a rocking chair all day, and his disciples would come, and sit at his feet, and he would go on and on, and deliver this stream-of- consciousness about spiritual practices and ideas that he'd acquired over what he thought were many, many lifetimes.
BNR: People have often said the difference between a cult and a religion is basically how long it lasts. I simply mean we have plenty of experience in America with charismatic people who founded spiritual or quasi-spiritual groups around their own belief systems, they get followers, and then something happens to that group, and it often happens because of the power concentrated in the people at its center that takes it apart or leaves people hurt, or does destructive things in a really demonstrable way.
Feri is an interesting example of something that feels like it could have gone in that direction, but maybe because of him or maybe because of something else about it, instead seems to have just continued on, building something that looks like it's very different.
AM: From the stories I've been told and I've read, there's definitely the sense that Victor could be very impatient, and had very strong ideas about what was correct or not, in some cases, but that he and his wife, Cora, lived basically in poverty their entire lives, and relied on the occasional generosity of their students or friends, and their whole idea was to teach spiritual practices to whoever found them and managed to be stubborn enough to kind of convince him to take them on as students.
I think the most important practical form of employment he had was playing the accordion at the local Elks Lodge or something clearly not a moneymaking venture.
BNR: So maybe the difference between him and a cult leader is that he wasn't interested in taking from other people.
AM: I think that's part of it, yes. I should also say that Cora worked as a nurse or a chef at a hospital, something really simple and modest.
Between the documentary and this book, and some of my shorter-form journalism, I felt like I had to have a way of assessing for myself, when I was in kind of a "cult" scenario. My definition of a cult: It's the three kinds of funny business funny money, funny sex, and a funny attachment to one individual. That's a very crass way of putting it, but I think that's the deal.
I was very wary of anything, any community that was structured on money, any community that was structured around bringing up . . . earlier I had mentioned sex magic . . . I think it's fine. I was very comfortable with the fact that sexuality is a positive thing in the witchcraft community, but it's not prescriptive. There's no mandate about how this is supposed to go down, and what role sex is supposed to play in any one individual's life. That's very different.
BNR: In the book you cite even circumstances where, if there's a group where someone is accused of misusing their power with initiates or people, that becomes a scandal in and of itself within the community. People in these traditions don't have any real tolerance broadly for that kind of use of power to get sex or what have you.
AM: No. Actually in that section in the book I thought it was important to just give an instance of a scandal within, in that case, the Feri community, because it also says something about a very delicate balance between how to keep practice "oath-bound," like secret oath-bound magical practices; and also to be responsible and ethical and have some awareness of what is actually going on from coven to coven. It's a lot of stridently independent individuals getting together, and there isn't really oversight in some sort of authoritative way, so how do you strike a balance between all of these individual covens and traditions, and the sense that there has to be accountability.
BNR: One of my favorite moments in one of your little notes was at one of the gatherings that you attend. You mentioned this posted sign: "Sometimes participants, excited by the freedoms and possibilities at pagan gatherings, get involved in new sexual relationships without considering how these will impact themselves and existing relationships after the festival ends. Take time to reflect."
AM: [Laughs] Oh my God, I loved it.
BNR: That is the most thoughtful . . .
AM: Totally great, right. That's from pagan spirit gatherings, or gatherings as they call it. That's a couple of thousand pagans in rural Illinois, Midwest central. That gathering really is in the spirit of the sort of late '60s–early '70s ethos. There's got to be a way for us all to get together, enjoy ourselves, be completely free, maybe be a little bit naked, maybe feel, you know, friendly towards each in a new and special way. But, you know, within reason, there's a way . . . Yeah, the wording is so charming.
It was really important to me to have different levels of intimacy in the book. Also, I just wanted to know more. I wanted to get closer, and I felt I'd sort of been keeping things at an arm's length. Some of us go and take part in, like, a ritual, with 400 witches in the Doubletree Hotel in California [at the PanTheaCon conference]. That's one thing, that's one version of an experience. But in a ritual like that, all of those people go home and practice with their own covens, and that's where the real intimacy happens.
BNR: As you got more personal and as you took this journey into this ritual world that is very, very interesting and I want to say very lovingly represented, in terms of both the detail of what you went through, but also the personalities and the people who you become close to in this experience . . . What was that like for you? Was it scary? Was it something you were uncertain about as you were doing it, or did you feel certain, like, "Yes, this is what I should be doing; this is where I want to go."
AM: Well, I felt propelled forward by more than a book project. I am definitely someone who, from a very young age, was always drawn to this sense that there were mysteries out there with an M the Mysteries, as people say. Not really knowing what that meant. Knowing that I felt uncomfortable in most churches that I was taken to. With the sense that maybe there is something darker and deeper and bigger out there that each individual has a way to access somehow.
I really tried to let myself connect with this much younger version of me, in a way, and to stop censoring that impulse and to be less self-conscious, in a way. I talk about this in the book. I grew up in New York City. Most of my friends are artists of different kinds, agnostics or atheists, and fashionably so in certain circles. Especially in the part of the book where I was living in New Orleans, I basically cut myself off from my actual social circle; from my normal life, if you want to put it that way. It was a pretty dizzying time, and pretty confusing.
One thing that Karina, when I was training with her, would talk about is, it makes sense, especially when you're just starting to explore this stuff more seriously, that things are going to come to the surface. You're actually looking at parts of yourself and your own psychology that most people usually keep at a distance, as a way of getting through your mundane life. The question of what you believe in, who you really are, whether or not there are gods and goddesses these are things you don't really want to sit around contemplating all day long if your M.O. is being a productive member of society potentially.
So I found it to be a whole new world of stimuli. There was a certain amount of upheaval. It was a really confusing time.
BNR: Not unlike what anyone might experience going on a religious retreat or a pilgrimage. That kind of commitment to that reflective and self-investigative work.
AM: Yes. I think that's true. The other part of it, too, is I was really committed to being honest to the reader, but also being honest with myself about whatever shape this exploration would end up taking to really be honest with myself about that. Who am I kidding? We all know this. There is a long-standing tradition that's very American of works of memoir, about like the personal journey where you start out confused, and your life is a shambles, and you have all of these existential questions, and then you go on a certain path or you encounter a special community, and you come out the other side with all of these answers, and then you're here as the author to share those answers with the reader in some kind of very satisfying transformative narrative kind of way. Right?
That's just not me. I think most of the time that glosses over all of the personal confusion that goes into these kinds of existential questions, and it doesn't matter whether or not you're a devout Christian or a pagan or what have you. I just think there's a lot more doubt involved in faith.
It was a messy time for me. I think that's reflected in the later chapters, and it's something I tried to be honest about. I also hope that ultimately that's more relatable for some readers. I wrote about being kind of envious of a number of the people I encountered. Someone like Morpheus, for instance. I mean, her conviction is profound. You can bounce a quarter off of it. But yeah . . . I wish that I could just sort of step into that. But it is not that easy. And most of the people in this book have spent a couple of decades in some cases, more than that, practicing and studying. Where they're at, at this point, is hard-earned. But also, maybe some people are meant to just long for that answer and not necessarily find it. I don't know.
BNR: You say that when we have these encounters with something greater than ourselves, that's not something to turn away from. Do you like that is a lesson, or do you think that is something that you did come to understand in a way you hadn't before?
AM: I think part of this whole several-years- long experience helped me to realize that we sometimes put a lot of emphasis on trying to give a name to what gives our lives meaning, and we're sometimes driven by the desire to have, like, an explicit community that reflects that back to us. I think just the fact of being so deeply engaged in asking these questions, that has to be enough.
BNR: Do you wake up a different person at some point?
AM: I think I did with this book. But I think that at a certain point I woke up and said, "Well, I'm an artist." My entire life, every day, is structured around asking these questions, and spending time with people I only barely have any business to be spending intimate time with, and trying hopefully to get at something bigger. Maybe that's just my practice.
October 28, 2015
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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."
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).
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