I have conflicting feelings about this book and the ethics of it, but a book review is first and foremost about the book, and in the case of the book, I quite liked it. Part of this is my own identification with the author; her struggles are struggles that are currently prevalent in my life.
The book tells the story of Alex Mar, and her exploration in Pagan religions in America during and following the production of her documentary American Mystic. Unlike American Mystic, this book is not an exploration of American Paganism, or intended to give information on it to the reader. There is plenty of information, but this is grounding for Alex Mar to discuss a personal spiritual endeavor. I think it would be dishonest to try to understand this as a sociological or anthropological texts (which it would seriously fail us) when Mar is honest about the book as a personal story.
Mar illustrates the magnetism of the spiritual leaders she finds herself drawn to, the charisma and inspiration of these individuals come through the page to the readers, making one ready to convert themselves. She is brutally honest; and, as would be the case if any of us were brutally honest, she says some cringe-worthy things. She maintains a maybe unhealthy dose of skepticism, fighting any sense of spiritual opening and closing herself off whenever she finds herself vulnerable in groups.
Mar is constantly self-questioning; some have taken offense to this as a negative voyeuristic judgement of the people around her, but to me it seemed clearly a judgement only directed at herself. She cannot find her spiritual truth, but she reaches it through these people because she believes they are reaching theirs. Mar, in this way, has a solid respect for these people and their beliefs.
In a deeply personal way, Mar shows the pull of these traditions, the rich history, and the deep effect they have on their members. She shows us with total honesty the brief moments that she can enter into this spiritual world, and does not hide her hopes and fears. She acknowledges her own drives; she does not lie. Mar wants the deep secrets of the world, and she wants the charisma and insight of the spiritual leaders she sees, and despite these questionable motivations, she does the right thing, she tries to learn things the right way, and most importantly she does not lie to us and pretend she lacks these motivations, which I think will become the main evidence that makes me more forgiving of some of the transgressions that others take issue with.
The truth in this memoir is a touchstone for me. I take a certain comfort in Mar’s struggles, which may be coloring my opinion and making this a bit too personal. Maybe I’m too forgiving because of it. However, this book is a comfort. These traditions are ones I wouldn’t personally enter, but I understand, and I can understand because of her total transparency at least with the leader if not with the individuals she interacts with, why she reaches for these traditions. I recognize the search, and the struggle to let go and enter into something bigger.
At this point, I will enter more into an argument surrounding this book rather than a book review.
However, I do have some problems with this book. In telling her story, she dragged a lot of people somewhere they didn’t want to be. While she did restrain from telling certain religious secrets, she did at points reveal too much, and the problem of consent given for her to do this is in question in a way that cannot be ignored. The traditions that she describes her are some of the more sensationalist ones active, which (no judgement on these traditions) does give an inadequate overall view of what most American pagans are life, and she does not adequately announce this fact to the reader. I can’t help but question if these were chosen for the sake of the book, or because they truly did speak to her most.
However, being a memoir, and extremely personal type of writing, I find myself not able to judge her as harshly as others might. There is a problem of intent that I cannot identify. However, as someone personally reaching for a religious tradition and a spiritual tradition, I understand this memoir and some of the unsavory descriptions of those she practices with as a personal struggle with a desire to believe. Sensational traditions have a particular pull, ritualistic traditions have a particular familiarity to those of us from Catholic and Orthodox backgrounds, and if Mar is being honest with us, she is honestly describing a personal struggle with things that she respects, even when sometimes she says things that may seem contrary to this. The idea that she somehow is not allowed to search spiritually or right about that searching is really ridiculous, especially when she is honest about her own position and failings.
In the process of being honest about her experiences, she overshared about others, but malicious intent does not seem to be there, and I find it hard to believe that she doesn’t care for or respect the people she speaks of. I also find evidence of her sincerity in this: when she recognizes, finally, a tradition is not for her, she leaves it, she does not stick around for the sake of knowledge, for the sake of the voyeuristic study she has been accused of. She is honest with herself and with her teacher, and leaves the tradition and its secrets behind.
All in all, my rating will be based on book quality, being a book review and not a morality review.
Note: I want to admit that I have definitely failed to read up enough on some of the arguments against this book, in a desire to describe my own opinions and impressions adequately and with minimal outside influence. However, I find this article enlightening and would suggest reading it for a rather nuanced understanding from someone in the community.