Thursday, February 13, 2014

Escape from Ultra-Orthodoxy: Leah Vincent's brave, astonishing memoir: Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood

Some books just grab you by the throat. What would you do if you had been raised to worship only God and the men who ruled your world? Leah Vincent grew up in a Yeshivish community, and when, at sixteen,  she dared to exchange letters with a male, she found herself cast out by her family into New York City, where she often by using her sexuality to survive. Brutal and bruising, Cut Me Loose is about how we find our freedom, and what that freedom might cost. I'm honored to host Leah here today.

You are incredibly brave. At 16, after exchanging letters with a male friend, your parents, ultra-Orthodox Jews, put you on a plane and cut off ties. How were you able to hold it together and become a dazzling author? Did you ever imagine that this would be the outcome of your life?

Thank you Caroline. It was a very long journey – and I did a whole lot of falling apart along the way. It took radical hope, and a willingness to pick myself up after I fell down, again and again and again, to get to where I am. When I was going through the worst of it, as a teenager and in my early twenties, it was inconceivable to me that I’d be as happy and blessed as I am now, with a new family, friends and community that support me, and a life busy doing what I love.  

What sparked the writing of this book and what surprised you as you were writing it? 

I had promised myself, that if I survived, I would write this book. About a year after finishing graduate school, I heard about the suicide of another former ultra-Orthodox Jew and it moved me to fulfill that promise. Hearing about this tragedy reminded me that there were still so many people out there struggling, and that telling my story might help them feel less alone and might help raise awareness about how challenging it can be to leave ultra-Orthodoxy.

I was surprised by how difficult it was to write this story. I thought I could just transcribe my dairies, but it takes a lot more thoughtfulness and self-awareness and technique to effectively convey a personal story to the public.

So much of the memoir is also about how women are taught to find male approval, even in an Orthodox setting, and how that transformed into your trying to find male approval through sex. Can you talk about that please?

Yes, this seeking of male approval was particularly intense in the patriarchal community I was raised in, and once I found myself on my own, the hunger to please the men in my life translated into a very toxic relationship with my sexuality. But even outside ultra-Orthodoxy, many women are groomed to spend an inordinate amount of energy vying for male approval. It’s such a waste of energy and potential. It’s so important to have a strong sense of self permission and not rely exclusively on the approval of people around us. That said, it is natural to want the approval of authority figures, so it’s important to expose our daughters to strong female role models to emulate, so that the hunger for approval is directed towards someone young girls can one day imagine becoming.

How difficult was it to write such a dazzlingly honest book? Did you fear repercussions? 

Very difficult. And looking back over the past few weeks, I can say that in some ways talking about it in the public sphere has been even more difficult than the actual writing. Although revisiting some of these memories was painful, writing for a reader felt intimate and safe, but standing tall and sharing my story on the radio or in newspapers has been even more challenging. I am deeply grateful to my friends who have supported me and loved me as I grapple with confronting my ghosts and finding my strength. That said, the whole experience has been an enormously gratifying one and I am so appreciative that I have this opportunity.

I did fear repercussions. Other former ultra-Orthodox Jews who have spoken openly about their lives have faced a fierce backlash and I expected the same. It hasn’t been as bad as I had expected, but I am still vigilant about raising awareness when it happens – I don’t mind the things people say about me – I mind the message that bashing sends to others in the ultra-Orthodox community who are contemplating leaving. Ultra-Orthodox leaders who bash dissenters need to be held accountable.

You've not only transcended your past life, you've created a new one, becoming an activist. What prompted this decision and can you talk about it?

In the past few years the community of former ultra-Orthodox Jews has blossomed, and it’s a fascinating, creative and passionate community. There are many people who are struggling to leave ultra-Orthodoxy for a self-determined life and I believe it’s a moral imperative to support them. I’m involved in Footsteps, the only organization in the United States serving ultra-Orthodox Jews, and a number of other advocacy projects that support these individuals. It’s very exciting to be working with my peers on these fundamental human rights issues.  

What's obsessing you now and why?

What’s obsessing me now is the question of truth and women—how hard it is sometimes for women to speak openly about the more painful aspects of their lives, but how much value there is when we do so, and then how much backlash – both inner and outer—that we have to face when we do, and how to support each other so we can live in a world where we don’t have to suffocate our “shadow” sides.

What question didn't I ask that I should have? 

These are all great questions!
I love to talk about memoir in general, to give a context to the story I tell. I learned a lot about memoir as I was writing my book, and since we all tell the stories of our lives to ourselves and the people we know, I think it can be interesting for readers to think about memoir as well. Think about this art of how we construct the narratives of our lives, think about the choices we all have, in who we cast in which roles, where we find the arcs of redemption, where we find the opportunity to mark a milestone, to start a new chapter, how much judgment and analysis we overlay on the past, how much compassion we can have for the characters in our life, and when we should choose to share our deepest stories with the world.

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