I feel like I’m one of the last people on earth to make a response to Alex Mar’s Witches of America. However, between the stress of finals, work, and applying to graduate school, there just hasn’t been much time to do any writing. There are a lot of reviews out there, some of them good, most of them bad. People have reacted to this book in the most extreme ways. From deeming Mar a manipulative and vindictive spiritual tourist to insinuating that this book will single-handedly be the cause of “The Burning Times” 2.0.
What has stricken me the most about these histrionic reviews are that they are being written by people who haven’t even read the book. Instead, they are going off the word of others and running with it. The hallmark of which is the common response of people, “Thank you for reading this so we don’t have to.” This, to me, says a lot about the laziness and lack of scholarship on the part of the Pagan community. “Thank you for writing this review so that I don’t have to form my own educated opinion” is more like it.
There is so much more to Alex Mar than what is being presented in the majority of the reviews. After reading the book it is clear to me how much has been taken out of context and twisted. So, even though there are now at least a few insightful responses to Witches of America, I’d like to make my own.
First, consider that Mar is approaching the matter from an outside perspective. Therefore, she isn’t going to sugarcoat things the way an insider would. For example, when she discusses the attendees at PantheaCon (pg. 39). She goes into vivid detail about their costumes which include glitter-glued fairy wings, rubber horns, and velvet capes. She isn’t concerned with how society will view these people, because she isn’t one of them. That may seem harsh but think about it. If you, as a Pagan were writing a book that would potentially be read by outsiders, would you write about the gritty details or would you write with a filter? Of course you would write with a filter. It’s natural to want to come off as more palatable to the public. That’s what has been happening within the Wiccan community from the very start (ex. the ‘spells are just like prayers’ argument).
Furthermore, this book is meant to be a memoir, not an anthropological view of Witchcraft in the United States. The title may be confusing but once you start reading, it becomes apparent that this book is more about Mar than the Witches she writes about.
So with these things in mind, let us move forward.
In the beginning of the book Mar writes that, “I’ve been driven by an easy curiosity, an attraction to the exotic and far-out – which the whole spectrum of belief has seemed to me – but I’ve also been looking hard for those intangibles I might have in common with even the most alien congregation” (pg. 4-5). At first glance it would seem that maybe Mar is indeed a ‘spiritual tourist’ (whatever that means). But her statement is deeper than that and deserves a closer look. She is someone who wants to believe in something (which will become very apparent as the book goes on). However, belief is something that seems exotic or strange to her. Therefore, she has made it her goal to seek out different paths in order to find one that resonates with her. Does this make her an awful person? Surely not, as the majority of us have gone through similar experiences in our lives. If this is what makes her a ‘spiritual tourist’, than we all are. And don’t you dare protest! I see your Buddha over there on your altar and that dream catcher hanging above your bed.
The problem with Mar is that she doesn’t seem to have an understanding of what it means to believe in something. For one, she approaches belief as if it’s an outside force. While attempting her OTO Minerval she remarks that, “I try to think of this time in the swamp as a time of endurance destined to culminate in a revelation – it has to. This is how this works. If I can just push though to the other side, a troop of occultists will be waiting there with an answer, a sign, a solution – my epiphany!” (pg. 260). She doesn’t realize that the answers, solutions, and epiphanies are meant to come from within. Even if someone hands you spirituality on a silver platter, belief will not happen without your own internal working. Unfortunately this is something Mar just doesn’t get, “In other words, I’m hoping that, as a reward for sheer determination, a revelation will be foisted on me from the outside” (pg. 260).
Another problem is that she doesn’t have a concept of the work that goes into belief and spirituality as a whole. Throughout the book she acts as if belief is something that either immediately and effortlessly happens or doesn’t happen at all. This leads her to consistently feeling disappointed and giving up.
Finally, whenever Mar actually begins to experience feelings of belief, she immediately writes it off. For example, after having a visceral scrying experience, Mar insinuates that it was simply the result of exhaustion (pg. 200). For whatever reason, she just will not let herself believe. The most troubling instance of this occurs, again, during her Minerval initiation. If there is one path that Mar really resonated with, it was the OTO. However, despite her positive experiences she writes that, “I am not sure whether I believe a revelation is still possible, or if at this point I’m conning myself. In light of my divorce from Karina, and my lingering doubts that I’ll ever metamorphose into a believer – a believer of anything – I think I’m viewing this journey into the swamp as a Hail Mary pass. Please! Bully me! Shove me ahead! Push me into belief!” (pg. 255).
In summation, Mar is desperate to believe in something, “I want to be disturbed, shaken into believing” (pg. 116). She believes that this will require little work, happen instantaneously, and be the result of some outside factor.
However there is still more to Alex Mar. Why is she so desperate to believe in something? If she is consistently faced with disappointment, why does she keep trying? And why, when she experiences something approaching belief, does she walk away?
The answer to these questions lie in examining Mar as a person.
It is blatantly clear that Alex Mar has some self-esteem issues
This comes through in the way that she views the women (Morpheus and Karina for example). These women are described in great detail and Mar gushes about the presence they give off. It goes beyond adoration to a deeper level of idolization. She wants what these women have, and that is the power that comes with belief. At one point Mar makes a telling statement about Morpheus, “What she’s fighting for is the part of her that rises above that, that exceeds those assumptions, those limitations, and transforms her into the person inside her head. the person she’s willing herself to be: a priestess with her own priesthood, the devotee of a war goddess, the product of her own perfect invention” (pg. 250). The belief that these women have is so powerful it has transformed their lives and given them purpose. More than belief itself, we come to see that Mar is looking for a purpose in life, “And in that process, the shapeless disappointments of pedestrian life give way, and everything you do suddenly has heft and meaning. A clear path of action emerges” (pg. 55).
The problem for Mar is that she can’t seem to wrap her head around why she can’t access this power. In fact, at times it comes off as her being rather condescending. She is remarks several times about how she is well educated, upper class, and surrounded by friends. For all intents and purposes, she is living the American dream. Yet something deeper is missing. How can these women who are single mothers with low income, overweight, or living in dusty stone city be living a happier and more authentic life than her? And while she clearly admires these women there are times when she makes revealing comments such as, “Right now I feel as if I exist in a liminal place, a borderland between to zones: one occupied by smart, upwardly mobile agnostics, and the other by possibly unbalanced super devotees of obscure practices” (pg 174).
Therein lies the disconnect with Mar. In some way she feels that she is better than these people. That, in spite of her friendships with them and her obvious envy, at the end of the day she is more intelligent, more balanced, and more entitled than they are. She wants what they have but she doesn’t want to become one of them. She is so afraid of letting go of her social standards and how people will view her as a result.
Alex Mar is frustrating. She is typically American (in her desire for quick and easy spirituality). But she is not a manipulative and vindictive spiritual tourist. She is not an oath-breaker or body shamer. She is solely someone who has found her life lacking and is desperate to fill that void. Unfortunately, because of a misunderstanding of spirituality, a lack self-esteem and personal unawareness, other deep-rooted psychological reasons, she systemically fails.
Of course, this is all my own speculation. However, whether because of internal or external reasons, what it all boils down is that Paganism, Wicca, or Witchcraft simply just didn’t resonate with Alex Mar. We cannot shame her for leaving a path that she didn’t respond to anymore than the religions that many of us left behind can shame us.
In the end I encourage anyone who is interested to read Witches of America. It is not the be-all-end-all of Witchcraft. I don’t think it’s a necessary book to read. You won’t be missing much if you don’t. But, if you don’t read it, don’t make comments and responses to it. There is much more to this book and its author than what surface level garbage is being shit out by the masses.