Although a self-proclaimed skeptic, Alex Mar has secretly longed for revelation, envying people with unshakable beliefs. And so when she set out to direct the documentary American Mystic, she was drawn deep into the world of present-day witchcraft. Most people hear "witches" and think of horror films and Halloween, but to the one million Americans who practice Paganism, it's a nature-worshipping, polytheistic, and very real religion.
Witches of America follows Mar on her trip into Paganism and the occult, from its roots in 1950s England to its current American mecca in the 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. She takes part in dozens of rituals, some vast and some intimate, alongside all sorts of people-single mothers, programmers, veterans, and one California priestess who becomes a close friend. This world gives Mar the freedom to confront what she believes is possible-or hopes might be.
With the wit of Susan Orlean and the insight of Leslie Jamison, Mar provides a fresh, unexpected take on faith in America. Whether evangelical, pagan priestess, or atheist, each of us craves a system of meaning to give structure to our lives, and we sometimes find it in unexpected places. Witches of America asks the central question: Why do we choose to believe in anything at all?
Alex Mar is the author of Witches of America, which was a New York Times Notable Book in nonfiction. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine, Wired, The New York Times Book Review, and The Guardian, among many other outlets, as well as The Best American Magazine Writing. She has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Feature Writing, and she is the director of the feature-length documentary American Mystic. She lives in the Hudson Valley and New York City. Her new nonfiction book, Seventy Times Seven, will be published by Penguin Press on March 28th, 2023 (watch the trailer below).
This book could quite easily be renamed "Eat, Prey, Learn Magic."
Alex Mar writes the sort of exploitative, voyeuristic narrative usually seen in 1950's era anthropological works. Particularly telling are her multiple admissions that she refuses vulnerability with the communities she later exploits, denigrates the living situations of some characters, reduces many of the women in the book to mere symbol.
Her description of a woman dancing shirtless is quite informative: “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 a word that 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.”
Reviews by witches, Pagans, and others in the communities she toured have thus far been horrified. There's a great feeling of misrepresentation that a reader unfamiliar with the groups she exploits may not hear.
But one thing is quite obvious: Alex Mar never learned magic; she only learned how to profit over those who do.
I've just started reading this today, but I've read a lot of one-star reviews on Amazon, most of which complain about the book being either exploitative, insensitive, inaccurate, voyeuristic, or otherwise culturally insensitive or culturally innappropriate.
An "exploitative, insensitive, inaccurate, voyeuristic, and otherwise culturally-insensitive and culturally innappropriate" depiction of an overwhelmingly white, North-American nouveau-religion pieced together from a mishmash of religious and cultural elements appropriated from multiple religions, creeds and cultures over a large span of history and geographical areas?
Suitably ironic, is what I'd call that.
There's a point when cultural relativism becomes too fucking meta (and not very self-aware) and you just have to call it. Game over, man. Game over. You don't get to profit from the tools others created in order to mitigate some of the damage you caused in the first place.
It remains to be seen whether the writing is up to par, but right now, in response to all the "haters gonna hate" one-star reviews, I'd have to say
I came to this thinking it could be an update to Margot Adler's pivotal Drawing Down the Moon. I wasn't aware of the pagan community's strongly negative responses while reading, but it turns out that Mar is reviled by many pagans. I just didn't think the book was that bad. It's not Adler, and it's kind of silly in parts, but the subject matter and many of these contemporary witches easily tip into silliness (no, I mean they're deadly serious, but ...).
When I was an undergraduate religious studies student I and most of my classmates noticed that after a studying religion we were much less inclined to tip over into participation. I visited a Wicca gathering and felt something/thought something, then walked away. The sociological and phenomenological study of religion kind of put a damper on that unhindered experience of the noumena. But Mar isn't a scholar of religion, she's a seeker. (She made a documentary film on her subjects, which I haven't seen, but want to.) And she often mentions being "embarrassed" by what she witnesses or is asked to do. She's conflicted. And that makes even a doubting reader want to follow her.
This is another of these recent works of journalistic nonfiction in which the author inserts herself into the story (like Rebecca Skloot in Henrietta Lax and Olivia Laing on the alcoholic writers). I've criticized that technique because I think it's sort of a thing nonfiction writers like to do right now, and it's not always useful to the account - and not always as honest as it appears. But putting Mar's personal experience into the book was necessary here. And maybe what upset the pagans is her embarrassment, and that she exposes too much of their rituals but tacitly disparages them when she doesn't find what she seeks (spiritually). But if I'm wrong and she is only pretending to want to be a witch, then the book holds disingenuous notes, and that's wouldn't make you any witchy friends, either.
There are some people who are upset by this book. I can understand and respect that. Here's what I think.
For the most part, I enjoyed the book. It wasn't what I thought it would be, and that is a look into the practices and beliefs of modern witches, without interference from the author. Instead, the author, Alex, takes center stage. She's on a journey, despite being an admitted skeptic. What Alex misses along the way is how many times she says she feels embarrassed by the expressions of faith she sees around her. It colors her descriptions of people and puts her in a less than flattering light. And that is part of what upsets so many people. The thing is, I never felt embarrassed by the people she met and practiced, and trained with. If anything, I felt embarrassed for Alex's lack of empathy and insight! Nonetheless, the book was interesting and I finished it in 2 days. I'd recommend it simply because I liked the people she met. They made the story interesting and I wish I could get an update on their stories.
Full Disclaimer: I am a born and raised New Orleanian. That's the first thing you need to know. The second thing is this: I wanted to love this book; I truly did. Instead I ended up hating it. I enjoyed the chapters and times spent with Morpheus and Karina, and their respective practices. However I suffered through the chapters with the New Orleans branch of the OTO. Why? The risk of reading non-fiction is that you may stumble upon a story where you've actually met the characters in real life. The "magicians of the Alombrados Oasis" are nothing more than quasi-gutterpunks eating semen cakes (page 121) in the some rich transplant's Bywater fun house. I had the displeasure of dealing with them for an event a while back and they are unprofessional, rude and basically running a long con while calling it a spiritual practice. I get why that looked bright and shiny to Alex Mar. Throughout her book, she comes across as a vapid, bored white woman longing to enrich her life by adding "I once joined a swamp coven back in the day" to her resume. These people are not spiritualists. They are not magicians. They're making this crap up as they go along and people like her fall for it hook, line and sinker.
All of that aside, I planned on finishing the book and just giving it a 1-2 star rating. I didn't even plan on writing this review. Where did I draw the line? The necromancer who poaches corpses in poor, abandoned (predominantly African American) cemeteries in Louisiana was the final straw for me. Nope. We're done. I ceased my reading about 50 pages shy of the finish line. First off, if that wretched ass-hat was actually telling the truth (he very well could be a compulsive liar and running his own con), then yes (as Alex notes), he and his band of fellow ass-hats would be subject to prosecution and jail time in our state. Why do I care? Because this has been a theme in the years after Hurricane Katrina. So many residents - primarily poor blacks - were displaced and have yet to return to the city. Entire neighborhoods washed away. In their place, people like this "Jonathan" have shown up. A loser with no other talents, who couldn't hack it anywhere else. They don't come to rebuild. They don't come to contribute. They literally come to dismantle and make a quick buck exploiting our culture (lots of people sell occult bullshit to tourists down here). A person who brags about vandalizing graves and dismembering corpses is not a person who has any worth to our city. But then again, I'm sure he was dying to talk to a writer and feel self-important for 10 minutes. Perspective: I don't think Alex Mar wrote on the covens of Dianic Wicca for a mere 10 page chapter because she was uninterested, but rather because they didn't want to let her into their inner circles and hand her privy information. Because those covens are the REAL deal. That being said, wonder why she went all the way down to New Orleans and DIDN'T meet up with Voodoo priestesses? Because those are communities and circles she never could have ingratiated her way into. Bored, transplant white kids? Sure, no problem! "Come interview us, OMG!! We'll, like, perform an animal sacrifice and kiss the magical sword of Rohan!"
Bottom line: thank Goddess for used book stores willing to reimburse me at least 30% of original price for this piece of crap.
The most interesting parts of this book are the explanations of various sects of witchcraft and occult beliefs and the descriptions of their practices. The least interesting parts are the author sharing her own half-hearted attempts to follow a few of these paths. It seems like the book isn't sure whether it wants to be straight nonfiction or personal memoir, so it falls short of both.
At one point, Mar says she's not writing from an anthropological perspective. That surprised me, because she constantly restates her removal from the rites, readings, people, and beliefs she encounters. I question the choice to add herself as a character. Her never-wavering skepticism is the only part of her own life she opens up about. This caused two problems for me that made it hard to access her narrative or relate to the memoir's main storyline. One: Her character shows no arc, change, or growth; she starts out skeptical, she remains skeptical throughout every trial she sets herself up for, and she ends up skeptical. Two: Because she exposes so little of her own story while putting herself at the center of the book, her descriptions of the practitioners in their most intimate moments of faith feel exploitative and judgmental. Had she offered any other alternate storyline of her own--even the writing of the book or the creation of the related film--I think both of these problems may have been less of a turn off.
Another issue is the extremely limited and strange selections she includes in her survey of American witchcraft. While she devotes an entire chapter to the unquestionable outlier of grave-robbing necromancy, she includes almost no investigation of green or earth-centered witchcraft or herb craft--a widely common segment with deep historical roots. She devotes literally two sentences to pagan belief systems founded and practiced by primarily non-white participants. Those two sentences either barely reference or entirely ignore Voodoo, Santería, Native American shamanic practices, and numerous other African-based, syncretic, or traditional belief systems, whose influence is apparent in newer forms of American paganism.
As it stands, the book leaves a bad taste in my mouth, or at least a wish to know more about the truly fascinating people and faiths she touches on (or omits).The film Mar also made, American Mystic, is a much better, more compassionate, interesting, diverse, and lyrical work in which she lets the subjects (including Morpheus) speak for themselves. I recommend watching that instead of reading this. I'll probably read Adler's book Drawing Down the Moon for an in depth study of witchcraft and its various practices.
Tis the season! 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. This is a great book to go with the new Stacy Schiff book out next week about the Salem witches!
I really enjoyed this book, but I can see why others didn't like it. This is a very honest perspective on modern white American neopagans, and at times it's so honest it's not very flattering. As a former neopagan and woman of color, from a culture often appropriated by white neopagans, I felt that was a refreshing and badly needed perspective.
I also really liked how personalized this story was, I struggle with how people pretend that absolute impartiality is possible when a human person is involved. Instead the author is honest about her own feelings and reactions to what she sees and experiences. I think it leant a great deal of credit to her accounts.
Spirituality is an intimate and highly individual experience. Seeing inside the authors head and heart through every age of her journey made the book all the richer for me.
I think this would be a great introduction to someone new to neopaganism, who themselves may be skeptical while also still curious and enchanted by it.
I feel super conflicted about this book. From an anthropological and sociological standpoint, this is a fascinating read. From a moral standpoint, this feels like an abuse of trust and just exploitative. I feel like sometimes she is looking down her nose at some of the people she has spoken to. In one instance, she talks about how some things are oathbound, then proceeds to talk about them, violating the trust placed in her by the oaths she swore to.
I was really disappointed. I expected more, because I found American Mystic so well done.
Daha ayrıntılı bir yorum da gelecek ama her ne kadar Mar'ın incelediği gruplar ilginç olsa da "gazeteci" kimliği ile aralarında bulunmasına rağmen kendini hikayenin baş karakteri yapmaya çalışması bir olmamış. Hatta çoğu yorumu da yer yer epey sinirlendirdi beni. * * * * * Bir süredir takipseyseniz siz de fark etmişsinizdir ki kurgu dışı kitap pek okuyamıyorum ben. Kurguyu bile genelde satırların altını çizerek, notlar alarak, çalışarak okuyorum zaten, kurgu dışı olunca bunu iyice abarttığımdan hem çok yoruluyorum hem de vallahi beynim çabuk yanıveriyor. Ancak ilgimi çeken konular söz konusu olduğunda işler değişiyor tabii ki. Amerika’nın Cadıları da bu sayede şans eseri keşfettiğim bir kitap oldu. İşler aynen şöyle gelişti: “Cadılar mııııı? At sepete!” Tanıtım yazısını bile okumadım ve elime geçtikten iki gün sonra falan daha fazla dayanamayıp hemen okumaya başladım. Pişman mıyım? Kesinlikle değilim çünkü asıl merak ettiğim taraf olan cadılar beni üzmedi. Ancak yazar Alex Mar için aynı şeyi ne yazık ki söyleyemeyeceğim.
Evet, üç-dört sayfada bir “keşke başka bir yazarın elinden çıksaydı bu kitap” dedim durdum. İlk başlarda daha bu cadılar ve cadı gruplarıyla yeni tanışıyor olması nedeniyle o gıcık tavırları takınıyordur diye düşündüm. Fakat içlerine girdikçe, kitap ilerledikçe bu durum değişmediği gibi daha da çekilmez bir hale geldi. Belki de Mar o insanların arasına, o ortamlara “gazeteci” kimliği ile girdiğini söylemese böyle düşünmezdim. Ben de gazetecilik mezunuyum, yıllardır basınla yakın çalışmaya devam ediyorum ve net bir şekilde şunu söyleyebilirim: hiçbir şeye gazeteci olarak bakmamış, bakamamış – Amerika’nın Cadıları biz gazetecinin bu grupları, o gruba ait insanları ve onların geleneklerini aktarışı değil, “Mar’ın onların arasına katılmaya çalışmasına dair anıları” şeklinde tasvir edebileceğim bir kitap. Okumayı düşünüyorsanız, konu ilginizi çekiyorsa bu aklınızda olsun derim. O zaman benim gibi bu açıdan hayal kırıklığına uğramazsınız.
I saw a review already on here that compared this book, correctly, to Eat Pray Love. My issues with this book are numerous. Some of them are simple issues I have with the questionable way she reveals knowledge from a mystery religion (which, honestly, who the fuck thinks that's ok?) and the way in which she seems to be perfectly content with exploiting real believers for the sake of her writing. Maybe that's all petty and perhaps I'm completely misreading Ms Mar's work. However, I also just think, at it's core, this is a poorly written work. She jumps back and forth between time lines and between parts of her own story and the story of witchcraft as a whole. Pieces don't fit together as well as they could and that's a shame because there is a wealth of information on the subjects that she's talking on. I had a lot of high hopes for this book but honestly this isn't what I wanted or expected.
I will not be finishing this. I haven't even made it through chapter 6 and it was a chore to get this far. The way the author has portrayed the very people whose trust she has sorely abused is angering. I rarely refuse to finish a book, let alone harbor a fantasy of flinging it across the room, but this one had my ire up within the first two chapters and it only built from there. I came across it at my library quite by accident and having not heard of it thought I would learn a bit of history and some of the paths people have chosen to undertake; not necessarily a lighthearted read, but perhaps intriguing. The history is certainly there, but it is overshadowed by the author's complete disregard and lack of understanding to what had been shared with her. Her seemingly repulsed attitude colors her narrative and does nothing more than turn it all into a big joke for her own amusement.
Even though I listed this as non-fiction, I have issues listing it as such. It would be better listed as a memoir because it is not an informational book instead it is a look into one woman's muddled mind and her failure to do any type of extensive homework into her subject matter. She fails to understand there is a difference between observing an Earth-based religion (Paganism), Wiccan, and being a practicing witch. While a person can be all three simultaneously, they seldom are. The title was meant to be provocative as opposed to being accurate.
When writing non-fiction in an effort to be informational, staying true to the actual content is pertinent. Author Alex Mar has not done homework and it shows. This reads as if some gossipy junior high tell all. Please. It reminds me of those unauthorized biographies where the writer doesn't want truth, but is interested in juicy tales even if they are conjecture.
Author Mar supposedly shares secret details. I reside in a relative large city with several active Pagan groups that have public meetings, celebrations, and observations of holidays. There is nothing secret about them or they wouldn't use Meet-up. The idea of pulling the veil off secret meetings will cause potential readers to buy the book in hopes of some form of titillation. The only secret organization I've ever been a part of was a masonic one and there were no noteworthy secrets to reveal.
Author Mar is also not opposed to injecting her own prejudicial leanings into the subject matter. She fails to be subjective, which is the first rule of journalism. She portrays herself as a seeker, but she is more of voyeur at best.
This particular book teaches nothing except about the author's own limitations and willingness to sink to yellow journalism to make a buck. It saddens me that her misinformation will cause hostility against the already beleaguered Pagan community. You can actually buy any of the Dummies books such Witchcraft & Wicca, Paganism and get more accurate information than Mar's book. Looking for something more in depth, try The Spiral Dance by Starhawk.
If Author Mar billed this more as her memoir, I would have rated it higher.
Hmm. Actually, thank you Alex Mar for writing this book. I wanted to know about this stuff. And I probably wanted an 'objective' report, on the front side. I wanted to know what are these people up to and is it real? I couldn't find anything like this anywhere else. I got the 'what', beautifully described. And I got a lot of dithering and doubt about how 'real' it is. I had the feeling that if Mar had been able to commit herself wholeheartedly she would have had a much deeper experience to report. And that might have led to her report being discounted as credulous by the mainstream audience her publisher is surely hoping will buy. Alex Mar is a good writer and a good reporter. If you have any interest in the Pagan scene you should absolutely read this book. I realize the author was between a rock and a hard place and took a lot of chances. And she's beautifully mapped out our search for meaning in an alienating culture. We want more and we want to be reconnected to what's really real. And some of us are willing to do some wacky stuff to get there. I want to know about that.
I feel so conflicted about this book. I can't help but feel my review is tainted by reading other reviews of people who were participants in the book but never gave consent to the author to publish their innermost experiences and sacred rituals. I can appreciate the author's search for spiritual meaning in her life but it felt so contrived and judgemental and now really icky knowing she didn't get consent. Why didn't she change the names of people at the very least? It was a fascinating read in a reality show kind of way but I didn't feel like it got to the complete heart of witchcraft and why people practice it. The necromancy chapter will haunt my dreams for many days to come. Can someone turn him into the police please?
Mar embeds in the modern American pagan community--in several of them, actually, since there's no such thing as a single monolithic pagan religion or body. Mainly she trains in the Feri tradition, a highly theatrical, Gaelic-infused version of paganism complete with SCA battles, hotel cons, and godly possessions. Feri seem like fairly groovy people, if a little off the beaten path of mainstream American values. Mar's adventures with OTO (Aleister Crowley's brand of Satan-worshipping witchcraft) folks made me feel a little less live-and-let-live, maybe because her hookup there is a male-dominated group and because its members seem to run the gamut from geekish antisocials to sociopaths who desecrate graves and steal body parts for rituals.
Reading this was an interesting experiment in testing my own religious tolerance and social attitudes. I'm perfectly fine with people building henges in the Southwest desert, setting up mystical witch academies, and harvesting roadkill. I'm less okay with basing a religious movement around disruption and selfishness (Crowley's main tenet was Do what thou wilt, although there are also proscriptions against harming others--not sure how that's supposed to work, exactly.) I'm not okay with bashing into people's gravesites and dismembering their bodies. Mar only talked with one person who did that, although he apparently has acolytes operating with him in New Orleans, where it's pretty easy to smash above-ground crypts and make off with bodies unnoticed by the overburdened police. My feeling is: this is the type of guy that ruins it for everyone. Go ahead with your ritual retreats in the swamps and forests, spend as much money as you want on witchy teachings, cast spells all day, I don't care. But once you start stealing bodies, targeting poor people who are buried in out-of-the-way and under-maintained places, then you're a big jerk and I hope there really are spirits and demons wafting around, and that they visit you for payback.
Summary: Religion is weird. Nobody questions mainstream religious conventions like prayer boxes or even possession or speaking in tongues, but we all pretty much feel like "magic" is a boondoggle. Mar makes an interesting, implicit case for re-examining that distinction, and she keeps an open mind long after I was fed up. Worth a read.
Mar, documentarian behind 2010’s American Mystic, presents an erudite, stirring chronicle of her highly personal journey of learning about unconventional religions. While she believes in something “transcendent,” though not necessarily the labels behind it, the somewhat agnostic Mar is drawn to the clarity, structure, and meaning that marks the faith of believers of all stripes, especially small religions like witchcraft and Wicca, etc. “I want,” she writes, “to grasp the moment that confidence becomes conviction; to know what it’s like to believe, without doubt, that you hold the key to the Mysteries, that you are capable of magic.” Mar is also sensitive enough about her own cultural prejudices to feel like an “anthropologist, an interloper” when she joins assorted proceedings. Her travels take her to New Orleans for exploring some voodoo, to a pagan sanctuary in California, and to South Dakota to visit with the Lakota. Mar encourages readers to greet experiences like this “with a healthy dose of curiosity,” and, as might any Harvard-educated author, Mar throws in history lessons, too. The modern Witchcraft movement, for instance, “…can be traced back to…one gnarled old Englishman: Gerald Gardner, godfather of Wicca.” Well-written, readable, and brainy—even if it sometimes covers intense subjects (truth: the Lakota sun dance is intense beyond imagining) or a bit googly-eyed, such as at PantheaCon in San Jose where the “…scent, a mix of patchouli and ash and hookahs and flowers that bloom at night, is the scent of everything priestess-y.” VERDICT This fascinating look at complex subjects isn’t for everyone (perhaps it’s not for anyone) as closed-minded folks won’t read it and practitioners won’t find much revelation or practicality. While it’s easy to ignore a group of religions that has only a million American adherents, it’s a great read for open-minded readers interested in assumptions being challenged.
Find reviews of books for men at Books for Dudes, Books for Dudes, the online reader's advisory column for men from Library Journal. Copyright Library Journal.
Haters gonna hate. Oops she didn't include every variety of every obscure tradition a person could possibly attach their ego to in her personal memoir. And double oops because she didn't find ultimate truth and wisdom in the one you chose. Once you're done looking to an outsider for validation of your spiritual choices go write your own book. So she's making money telling her story. That's why they publish books, kiddo. Did she betray the trust of some of her subjects? None of my business, and none of yours. And, for real, if Mar's not going to shame a grave robber for making out with a dead woman's head why would anyone read fat-shaming into an objective description of a person's body that serves to demonstrate the variety of people at an event and the variety of cathartic experience among them? I want to believe my fellow spiritual outsiders are smarter than all this. Mar wrote, and wrote well, about a particular chapter of her personal journey and she never owed any of us a damn thing. She shared about what it feels like to be among people who have the connection and belief you're looking for and to come up empty handed. She related the frustration of saying the words and lighting the candles and dancing the dance just like everyone else and not getting any closer to what you seek. We're up on the mountain looking for a shrub that'll catch fire and talk smack about our sinful friends but all we find are other people's rose bushes. It's lonely for perpetual seekers, so be kind.
I found this book fascinating for its up-close and rather remarkable reveal on the current position of Witches and witchcraft in America. At times, the inclusion of the author inserted into the story line was a little squirmy for me. But other than that, it fosters the sort of conversations about an outlier belief system that I think belongs in more of a mainstream conversation. This is not new, folks! And the simple question, "who am I and what do I believe" seem to be at the core of the book. Still, Mar seems brave and willing to place herself in these areas that most writers don't, and wouldn't. I also want to mention that I would never have sought this book out, if not for her appearance on Brad Listi's Otherppl radio show. I listened to her hour long interview with Brad that day and was riveted.
This is sometimes entertaining, more rarely informative, and ultimately just kinda whatever: is it snarky? is it not? is it confessional? is it condescending? is it funny? I feel bad because the more the author shares about her life and her garden variety personal problems (sorry girl) the harder it is to like this book b/c she's the main protagonist & frankly, she's not freaky enough. Also she can't help but mention when the ritual food is from Costco which feels really classist to me, although I am fine with repeated descriptions of breasts as pendulous, I guess that's my bias.
When I get rich I am starting a writing fellowship for fat, freaky and/or broke-down women to write books, added incentive if you can't thank your parents.
I applaud Mar for allowing herself into her narrative - and a narrative it most certainly is. There's, of course, something interesting about the idea of a book that looks dispassionately at witches in America today... but this story is far more interesting because there is a story. It's a story of belief and self-discovery, one that the author maybe didn't even know she was writing when she started - and that makes it all the better. Don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of facts and research here... but I was so wonderfully surprised (and deeply affected) by the final product. Magic indeed.
What a wonderfully readable and gloriously unclassifiable book this is! At once a probing, empathetic, and insightful look at religious subcultures (witches, Pagans, even a touch of voodoo), it doubles as a personal narrative exploring what it is to search for meaning. Mar writes with deep intelligence, humor, sympathy, and curiosity—using her own journey into oft-ignored corners of the world (physical and spiritual) to provide readers with an indelible trip of their own. Impossible to put down, it's a book you'll find yourself shoving into the arms of everyone you know.
This book is an excellent slice of pagan practice in America. I know it's controversial in certain circles but I hope that doesn't deter the author from writing essays updating her spiritual progress. You do you, Alex!
This was an interesting introduction to a few strains of paganism in America, via the author's personal spiritual/intellectual/social journey.
Some of the groups described here include nature-loving eclectic pagans, Gardnerian Wiccans, 2nd-Wave-Feminist Pagans, and a youthful, semi-hipster New Orleans-based outpost of Aleister Crowley's quasi-Masonic cult. The author also spent time with practitioners of a fourth style of witchery, one I found rather interesting: a mystery cult called Feri, originally synthesized by a married couple in the mid-20th century American West from the mix of cultural influences found in their agricultural-laborer and blue-collar communities.
Noticeably absent, except in second-hand glimpses, are the Louisiana voodoo and Hispanic santería traditions.
Here's the thing: Other than some helpfully informative historical sketches of the various sects, Witches of America is fundamentally one person's personal memoir, and that person happens to be very privileged -- class and race privileged, and, for lack of better terms, looks-privileged, thin-privileged and aesthetically oriented. In a word, she's a little bit shallow. That kind of threw into relief how the search for a belief community is as much a search for social fit as for spiritual truth. The author plays Goldilocks: the West Coast witches are too Ren Faire, the New Englanders are too white, the Midwest Wiccans too gentle and Boomerific; she finally seems most comfortable with some New Orleans Crowleyites, who seem to be preferred because this particular group of them are young, hot and not-so-vaguely BDSM-y.
So I wasn't always sympathetic to her personal vacillations. I would've preferred to hear more directly from the pagans themselves, from the people who actually did have conviction. On the other hand, the author is articulate about subjects that are by nature nebulous, and she delivers well-stated reflections at a reasonable frequency. I also have to credit the fact that experiencing this quest through a personal lens made the narrative feel immersive and even erotic at times.
Personally, I think the project would've been stronger -- though perhaps less entertaining -- with many more interviewees and a more formal journalistic method -- oral histories, structured interviews, that sort of thing. More rigor, more representation. Something like Studs Terkel's Working, but for witches.
Bottom line: Even though I would have taken this project in a different direction from the author's, this book was surprisingly often a page-turner for me.
(Edit to add: I myself knew very little about modern paganism or witchcraft before reading this book; my main attraction was a long fascination with the witch archetype in culture. After posting my review, I read some others and learned this book is controversial among pagans, a reaction I respect and can understand.)
I had put off reading this book for a long time based on some bad reviews that I had seen in Pagan Newsgroups. Many of the people who dismissed this book painted the author as a dabbler or dilettante and now that I have read the book I find that to me this was an unfair assessment. The author Alex Mar begins the work by meeting a major pagan and becoming introduced to paganism by going to Pagan Conventions and joining in some rituals. She later gets training in Wicca from a priestess and also joins OTO the order created by Alistair Crowley. The Story of these three individual experiences plus a few more are intertwined and the personal experience of the author is discussed in detail. The work is a "Warts and all" portrayal of Paganism in America at this time (With some perspective and History) with some of the people portrayed as human and fallible or not perfect. This is not a complete history of paganism but the bits about Gardener and Crowley as well as some other info are done quite well. I'm grateful for the fact that everyone portrayed was written as human beings and the good bits and not so good bits were all present. (Although I would not be able to find anyone in the book that was painted badly.) I think that the ending was sort of ambiguous but that is also an honestly. Many of the feelings that Mar conveyed are all felt by most pagans or are talked about in secret but not really talked about for fear of being seen as a "Bad Pagan" or "Doubter" and I find none of the disappointment that Mar felt to be bad or negative but honest and good for people to know about who comes into the craft. I would recommend this to anyone, especially if you have loved ones who are interested in what you do but are not always able to grasp what you are talking about when you tell them about your tradition/faith/beliefs.
I feel this is one of the more important books I have read in a long time, maybe just for me, maybe for others. Basically, I picked up the book trying to better understand nouveau witchcraft and how it is practiced today. As thought, there are many layers and thought leaders from the last 200 years (approximately) that have formed the basis for modern beliefs.
Mar does an excellent job of layering in history and cultural details with her own journey into occult practices. She details her personal growth and questioning of all beliefs, along with sharing real human stories around these faith groups. Go figure, like any religious group, the beliefs bring comfort and community to people of many backgrounds.
If you want the short and sweet description of this book, it can be boiled down to, “woman has an existential midlife crisis and joins a bunch of cults as a way to cope.”
At the beginning of the book and throughout, Alex Mar is struggling to come to terms with the fact that she is in her mid thirties. Recognizing the passage of time and yearning for some level of greater meaning and transcendence, she joins a number of occult groups and then decides it is entirely acceptable and professional to expose all of their secrets. Which I will get into further in a moment.
I struggled with this book from the very first chapter, there was something about Mar’s tone that was off putting in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. As I continued, it became clear that while Mar was searching for a way to connect with something larger and deeper than herself, she was simultaneously idolizing and looking down her nose at the people she was writing about. Mar seems to revel in the incredulous throughout this book, which ends up preventing her from reaching any sort of deeper conclusion or connection that she may have been searching for. I went into this book thinking, and hoping, it would be a piece of interesting investigative journalism. Which it technically is, but it’s wholly sensationalized and very much centered around Mar’s existential search for faith, rather than an informative dive into what the actual title of the book is. While that kind of journey can be heartwarming and relatable, I didn’t sign up to read a memoir, and yet that’s how this book reads.
In regards to it being a piece of investigative journalism, there were several troubling aspects that came up throughout. Mar continually treated her subjects, in writing and in person, quite honestly like shit. The way that she wrote about them was above all, fetishizing and idolizing, while simultaneously smug and skeptical in tone. Over the course of several years, this woman became these people’s friend, gained their trust, discovered their secrets, and then wrote about them and exposed them without any chance to redact or revise any of her writing. Which in all honesty is, a) bad writing b) bad journalism c) a bad thing to do as a “friend.” I don’t know if this is an across the board reaction of groups/individuals mentioned in the book, however, there is an official statement given by two people who were featured, Coru Cathubodua and Morpheus Ravenna, in its reviews on Amazon (it is the first one star review on the book), wholeheartedly denouncing the book and how they were represented.
A quote from that statement:
“Much of Ms. Mar's book inaccurately characterizes the structure and practices of our Order, then and now. Many of the events depicted that involve the Priesthood are paraphrased anecdotes translated through her own personal journey and story-driven narrative. We view the book as being “inspired by actual events.” Ms. Mar takes great liberties in what she does depict and sensationalizes many activities to the point of falsehood with no thought to how her lies would impact her subjects' lives and livelihoods. None of the events described therein should be considered accurate or representative of our religious beliefs, structures, values or attitudes. In addition, individuals who attended our public events were quoted and named by Ms. Mar without their knowledge or consent. As this book has caused and continues to cause direct harm to our members, our friends and community, we cannot, will not and do not stand by it. It is obvious in hindsight how we were preyed upon by Ms. Mar with her providing review rights and then rescinding them once she had the necessary materials and entree into our community.”
Mar writes as if she is present in the majority of things she talks about. While most of the info she is sharing is heresy, aside from the few rituals she did attend and a few campouts and festivals she went to as a guest. However, the majority of her info comes from someone else telling her about something (history, a tradition, a ritual, and experience, etc.). Yet, the way in which she cultivates the narrative of this information is in a way where it’s very easy to forget that she isn’t actually there and that this is all heresy. Which is good for narrative writing, bad for any kind of non-fiction work. It comes off as disingenuous to the reader, as it makes her out as an authority on these events and matters without having to do any of the work. There is a chapter in this book (Sympathy for the Necromancer) that I would bet money on as being straight up fiction. It describes an individual who breaks into graveyards and chops off the heads of corpses in order to do “Solomon Seal magick.” Which, quite honestly, who the fuck does that? Even if there was someone who was doing that a) they sure as hell are not representative of any sort of larger community that exists, b) they would have to be incredibly secretive in order to be successful (and not get caught!) and not at all likely to divulge that kind of information to Alex Mar who they probably have known for less than a month. It honestly felt like a straight up fabrication for shock value.
I will make a small note on her treatment of the historical figures she mentions (Gerald Gardner, Alister Crowley, etc.), because quite honestly I could go on a much longer rant about how her handling of these figures was lackluster. Mar really did nothing more than a Wikipedia page search and remix on the historic figures she mentions, while also sometimes throwing in some of the heresy and info she gets from the people she interviews. Which is incredibly disappointing and frustrating that she didn’t take any semblance of time to research beyond the minimum surface level (and honestly the numerous problematic aspects of these people) for the founding members of some of the groups she’s writing about.
Throughout the journey documented in this book, Mar appeared to need/be attracted to individuals who have a larger personality than she does, who “feel the world so much more strongly than she does” in hopes that they would help her find a way to accept/connect with a force bigger than herself. As a result she sought out the more radical, “out there,” and fringe aspects and individuals in the Pagan and Witchcraft communities. As an outsider to these communities, she went for the biggest and strangest people she could find and ended up writing about them in a way that was idolizing, dehumanizing, as well as sensationalized. Perhaps Mar thought that because many of these people were so “out there” that they must somehow be tapped into something bigger than themselves, and she wanted in. While focusing on these outlying personalities, she is wholly dismissive of the more quiet, mundane, day to day Pagan or Witch she comes across. People who are, forgive the phrase, “going to church to go to church” because in all likelihood she was relying on the “out there” aspects to help sell her book. If an outsider were to read this, someone who had had little to no exposure to modern day Pagans/Witch communities, they would walk away thinking that contemporary Pagans and Witches are BATSHIT crazy - which is in all honesty is hurtful and damaging to communities that already face unnecessary misunderstanding and ostracization.
There are brief instances where Mar has moments of clarity, and touches on the notion of yearning for deity, for god, for transcendence in a meaningless world. And then she turns around and says something completely off the cuff and sensationalist as a way to almost deflect from that moment of personal vulnerability. This book ended up having a whole lot of naval gazing, and any thoughtful points she attempts to or almost makes are somewhat negated because in the end it’s all about her and not about the people she’s discussing or the larger topics she’s attempting to touch on. The one aspect of this book that I can label as positive, is Mar’s honesty about her fear, her existential anxiety about her place in the universe, and her striving towards something like transcendence. Which I think is an important kind of narrative that many people grapple with. Mar, in the end, is still just naval gazing all the while looking down on the people she’s writing about. Mar is scared and unsure about her place in the universe and if it has any kind of meaning; but the people she’s writing about are grappling with that same kind of fear and anxiety - that’s why they do what they do! Mar simultaneously looks down on these believers and practitioners, exploits their secrets and their trust, all the while wanting to be one herself.
Alex Mar, I hope you sleep well at night because gods know I sure wouldn’t be able to after writing this book.
In between the autumnal equinox and the full moon, I started Alex Mar’s Witches of America. Mar is a journalist and documentarian who researches and profiles communities of believers. She is drawn to believers of all kinds, people sure enough of anything, spiritual or otherwise, to throw themselves into an unusual life with certainty and abandon. Witches of America details her five-year journey into different strains of contemporary paganism, from Feri Samhain celebrations to Gnostic Masses to PantheaCon. The witches and priestesses that she meets and the rituals she participates in are fascinating and compelling. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t really wrestle with some of the thornier aspects of paganism in the 21st century. Mar doesn’t engage with the appropriative nature of white people using Voodoo and Hoodoo practices, or praying to Santa Muerte, let alone the number of white people with dreadlocks. This book also has an aspect of cultural voyeurism that can rub readers the wrong way, and rubbed members of the pagan community the wrong way. But Witches of America is at its most compelling when Mar is interrogating her own complicated relationship with belief and faith. She, like many other 21st century modern, educated, urban women (myself included) wants to believe. —Nina (excerpted from Bookish's Staff Reads)