November 2015

K M McCann

nonfiction

Witches of America by Alex Mar

Several years ago, I interviewed a woman who told me that she first met Satan when she was ten years old. "It was plain as day," she said, "he came to me while I was outside playing and I knew it was the Devil because of the horns." She said the meeting resulted in her gift of psychic vision and led to a lifelong interest in spirituality. The rendezvous with Satan empowered rather than frightened her. She admitted feeling guilt over such an easy and congenial meeting with the Prince of Darkness, expecting maybe something more formidable such as a contract on her eternal soul, but nothing of the sort happened. It has always been my assumption that if the Devil were to appear to any of us, he would do so as a friendly tempter or some other steward of hedonic pleasure.

For the witch, however, the horned entity that my interview subject met is not the Devil of Judeo-Christian lore, he is Cernunnos, or the Green Man. The trickster aspects still apply, but Cernunnos is one of several gods who roam the ethers, sharing sacred space with humans. The gods are not to be feared, but appreciated, revered, sometimes worshipped, and the length to which that devotion extends remains entirely within the witch's control. The witch does not view humans as dumb skin suits lounging earthbound, shaken hither and thither at the whims of an angry, jealous, and sometimes loving patriarch. Instead, a witch may access many realms and encounter varied beings, and, if she is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually devout enough, she, like all of us, has the capacity to love the entire world.

It is this witchy subculture into which Alex Mar attempted to immerse herself in her book, Witches of America. The title suggests a sort of meta-analysis and evokes the notion of an encyclopedic look at witchery in the United States. But do not be fooled: Mar's book glimpses only a few sects of witchcraft and by no means presents a total picture of the religion itself. It does, however, detail one woman's personal search to make sense of spirituality and devotion.

What Mar seeks, aside from the obvious story, is a reason to step outside the conventional, reductionist Western mindset and allow herself to believe in something beyond what she sees in the material world. Her approach, which could be aptly described as a clamoring for justification, is itself flawed and circular. Seeking a logical explanation for faith is a problem that has plagued philosophy for most of recorded Western history. Mar wants to feel what it must be like to have faith in the divine (any divine), though she goes about her search with the ulterior motive to report and to publish, which runs counter to the requisite "letting go" that epitomizes transcendent experience.

Although she doesn't apply the qualitative objective rigor of an anthropologist or a social scientist, Mar does admirably immerse herself into her selected subculture, and gleans meaning from it in an effort to more deeply understand herself. She spends several years with her subjects, supposedly trying to tap into the essence of the divine that moves them, though she never fully lets go and therefore remains little more than a spiritual tourist. One thing that Mar does with aplomb, however, is turn her critical eye toward herself and deeply explore her motives, intentions, and personal barriers to belief. In this regard, her book captures the spirit of memoir -- to examine and reveal the truth about oneself to the fullest extent.

I admire Mar's tenacity and her raw reportage of what she views as her personal shortcomings. Although she is neither a theologian, philosopher, social scientist, nor anthropologist, she is a keen reporter who kept me riveted from page one. Despite being entertained, I never fully believed that Mar considered witchcraft a valid and potential spiritual choice for herself; there was something artificial about her forays into what she openly called "fringe religion." There was a sense that, even in the swamps of Louisiana during her Minerval initiation into the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), the sect founded by Aleister Crowley in the early twentieth century; even while "taking kala" at a New Hampshire castle during a Feri ritual, she snuck her notebook out and recorded, moment by moment, a la Samuel Richardson's Pamela, with a constant eye to story rather than allowing herself to be fully immersed in the experience and to be transformed by it.

But, to be fair, some degree of contrivance is necessary in memoir, so the fault here is not entirely Mar's. As readers of memoir know all too well, the genre can quickly go from authentic to theatrical, and become a story "lived" with no other purpose than to package and entertain. Mar's book, and its subject -- the search for truth and faith -- was clearly a concentrated extension of her excellent documentary film, American Mystic. It was through filming American Mystic that Mar met the beautiful and talented Morpheus, the Feri-trained Priestess of the California Morrigan cult, who subsequently paved Mar's way into the different sects of witchcraft she was able to sample for her book.

Mar openly struggles to make sense of her witchy dabblings in terms of what is required, and what she may lack, in order to fully embrace witchcraft as her spiritual path du jour. Laudable is Mar's commitment to the OTO initiation and her charming discussions with a New Orleans necromancer who collects severed heads for magical spell work, likewise her lack of surprise when discussing a dead raven named Cruach who serves as a Morrigan coven member. Mar's ability to report detail sans flamboyance is admirable; she approaches the devotees with a genuine interest and compassion that gains their trust, and therefore enables her to share stunning insights with the reader. Mar always keeps a careful watch on her own reactions, examining how far she is willing to go in her journey and whether she can throw reductionism to the wayside and embrace a glimmer of transcendence. Whether or not Mar ever embraces the divine is a question left unanswered; the search, after all, is a dominant theme in Witches of America, and she intelligently and nakedly portrays her attempt to deconstruct thoughts regarding faith.

Overall, I found this a delightful and riveting read and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Mar's film, or to anyone who is interested in a cursory introduction to witchcraft in the United States. While Mar's experiences are limited to specific sects of witchcraft, she nevertheless handles the topic of her personal search for spirituality with poise. Alex Mar's search for meaning in Witches of America has the potential to resonate with any reader, regardless of religion or spiritual path.

Witches of America by Alex Mar
Sarah Crichton Books
ISBN: 978-0374291372
288 pages