A Tale for the Times: The Black Witch by Laurie Forest

One of the perks of being connected to a bookstore is getting access to advanced reader copies of books that haven’t been published yet. I’ve had the pleasure of being able to read The Black Witch by Laurie Forest recently (I believe it’s released in early May).

Now, I’ve talked about a handful of books on my blog in the past, but generally it doesn’t feel too important to talk about what I read unless is makes a significant impact on the topics I like to cover.

This book does that, but I have other reasons for also talking about it.

It’s caught the ire of a small faction of vocal, well-meaning, but ultimately…shall we say, reactive…people on Twitter and Goodreads. The majority of these people are declaring this book racist, homophobic, and all around terrible. Most haven’t even read the book and are going on, from what I can tell, basically one person’s review.

Thus, this is as much a post about how I personally relate to the book as it is a defense of an important read for our time that has fallen prey to what I consider an unfair campaign.

I read the review before I read the book, and I could only think about how everything seemed out of context. If I cherry-picked statements from The Handmaid’s Tale, I could also write an angry review about how sexist that book is…but just because characters say, think, and do prejudicial things doesn’t automatically mean that the author is condoning that.

I’ve read enough theme-driven books to come to expect that problematic attitudes are often portrayed as a form of social commentary. After all, writing fiction has been one of the most time-honored ways of critiquing reality since fiction was invented.

So I decided to read the book and judge for myself.

What I found was a story that I might have written. A story about a character who grows up in a religious cult that has taken over the government and who begins to encounter other worldviews for the first time when she goes to university.

Sound familiar?

Hell, parts of it could have been my autobiography, if you take out the glitter skin (which I would probably consider having cosmetic surgery to achieve) and the mythical peoples and creatures (God, I wish I lived in a world with dragons).

I read a good portion of the book waiting to be offended, ready to throw it across the room and rage about how the author failed to address something. I really really really looked for it.

But I couldn’t find it.

All I could see was the incredibly, poignantly realistic struggle of the main character as she questions first small portions of her beliefs and then larger ones. I could feel her fear of the repercussions of such a controlling culture should her brother’s same-sex attraction be discovered or her best friend’s romantic involvement with a Lupine (wolf shape-shifter) be found out. I could relate to the chasm of doubt that opens up once the foundation of her worldview begins to crumble.

The world is a prejudicial world, yes.

The main character (along with most of the other characters) has her fair share of prejudices and stereotypes, yes.

But the story arc is not one of condoning or overlooking prejudice. It is one of changing, learning, and growing.

From experience, I know that journey is hard.

And that’s why this book is important.

There aren’t enough books that portray the journey out of extremist, isolationist beliefs. In the documentary “Join Us,” I learned that the U.S. is one of the biggest harbors for cults in the world, with millions of people having experience with a cult in some fashion throughout their lives. Yet, little to no attention is given to the invisible survivors.

Stories have always been important in the way that they can offer a kind of map through a struggle.

The Count of Monte Cristo, Harry Potter, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Lord of the Rings are just a handful of the ones that were influential in helping me break out of my cult. They stimulated me to think about my own world and the parallels between my world and the problematic aspects of those worlds.

Orwell opened my eyes to the gaslighting and manipulation of the IFB. Harry Potter, Frodo, Edmond Dantes–they showed me that it was possible to resist and that it was worth fighting for freedom and standing up to power abuse, even with little hope of succeeding.

Had I had access to The Black Witch at the time, I think it also would have been one of those that deeply influenced my journey out because it could have shown me a model of someone who leans into the questions and uncertainty rather than retreating from them.

It’s a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to someone who is struggling with leaving an extremist position, and I’d feel confident that the book would in no way reinforce prejudicial thinking.

It’s not that I don’t have complaints about the book. There were times when the writing fell short, got clunky, or succumbed to derivative tropes. I would also encourage the author to think about at least some portrayal of ethical, consensual sexuality that doesn’t involve life-mating or a form of marriage.

But the story isn’t ruined by those shortcomings. The strengths of the plot and the importance of the message far outweigh the weaknesses.

Some are saying a book like this shouldn’t exist in 2017, but I think this is exactly the kind of story we need in 2017. I can only hope that the current backlash against it will spur those who most need to read it into picking up the book.

And to those who think that the change in the main character is too slow, I’d just like to say, “Check your privilege.”

I say it cheekily because I legitimately hate that phrase and the weaponized way that it is typically used, but it is indeed a privilege to never have had to question the very foundations of your worldview—to never grapple with the fear that you might actually be damning yourself to hell for rejecting a doctrine that has been taught to you as the absolute truth of God.

Until you go through that kind of existential crisis, you can’t understand how terrifying and difficult it is….or maybe you could if you opened yourself up to empathizing with the main character. 😉

Because of the backlash against this book, I feel the need to make a note about comments on this post. If you’re not respectful, I won’t approve the comment, no matter what you have to say. If you’re unsure of my comment policy, you can check it out here.  

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The Resurrection of my Normal Sunday

Apparently tomorrow is Easter. I did not realize that until someone told me yesterday. I was actually kind of pleased that it has slipped my consciousness so thoroughly.

Unlike Christmas, Easter has never been a favorite holiday and not one that I’ve been desperate to reclaim after the cult. Underneath all the itchy frilly dresses, white gloves, and hats that my parents would dress me in as a toddler, it was a mildly terrifying holiday.

They said it was a day to celebrate Christ’s victory over the grave…but really it was one more opportunity when visitors would be in the church and they could be scared with the idea that the whole point of Easter was because we were all going to hell if we didn’t repent.

It was a holiday of guilt, when those of us who believed were shamed for the fact that we were so evil that Jesus had to die a horribly painful death in order for us to have a shot at forgiveness.

We celebrated the resurrection while thoroughly blaming ourselves for making it necessary.

How dare we be sinful?

How dare we continue to sin even after salvation?

I was taught that every time I sinned, I was crucifying Jesus all over again—that he felt the pain of dying afresh with each new prideful thought or delay in obedience. And yet, I was also taught it was impossible to be sinless. The very assumption that I hadn’t sinned in a day was a sin itself.

There was no escaping that guilt.

The story of Jesus’ death no longer carries that same weight. I see it as one of several life/death/life stories of gods across different traditions. In fact, the concept of resurrection, on its own, is a beautiful one. It’s the seed of the phoenix symbolism, the hope that even after destruction new life can come.

I have come to appreciate resurrection stories.  In fact, they become my focus at Winter Solstice.

But while the story no longer seems threatening, the day of Easter always has been, up until this year. For the first time, I don’t feel that internal dread as Easter approaches. To me, finally, it’s just another Sunday.

 

Springing into the Future

I can feel the stirrings of spring. There’s that certain smell of the earth re-awakening, the energy of plants getting ready to burst forth into growth and bloom, even the mud seems to hold the promise of transitions.

I wonder if the earth feels as apprehensive and excited as I do on the cusp of my own transition of graduation.

In my last tarot reading, “The World” came up as my card moving into the future, and it feels so fitting—the end of a journey, the beginning of another, the promise of the fulfillment of having everything as it should be.

There are days when I can feel the promise of new things to come, and it fills me with joy. I want to jump into the unknown and discover what’s on the other side, certain that there is something wonderful to discover on this crazy-assed path I’ve chosen.

I wish I could just hang on to the good feelings: the hope, anticipation, joy, and confidence.

But with “The World” there also comes the fear of becoming the fool once again. I have completed a phase of my journey, and with that end comes a new beginning where I am no longer the “seasoned” student but the new professional.

I have to balance the doubt that is in that. With hope comes the possibility of failure, and I can’t entirely say I know what I’m doing. Can anyone starting on a new phase of life?

I have to balance the fear because I can’t get rid of it…but also because I shouldn’t. Those fears want to protect me. They’re meant to help me.

Yes, sometimes they also try to hold me back, convince me I’m not good enough to be a professional, I’m not experienced enough to graduate, and I’m a damn fool for thinking I can make it on my own.

I try to see the good even in those messages.

As I watch the seasons war it out, with winter dumping snow in defiance of spring, I realize I must allow the hope and fear to war within me. I must be willing to embrace each as they present, trusting that the fears are not working against the hope so much as against careless naiveté. I can trust my path even while questioning my steps.

The spring always wins in the end, and that is where its strength lies. No matter how many times a warmer week is followed by a weekend of whiteout snow and ice, the trees, the grass, the flowers—they know they will succeed.

Just as I know that somehow I will find my way to where I need to be.

 

 

The Art of Intentional Imperfection

As I’ve been getting acquainted with my creativity again, I’ve been thinking about my own perfectionism. Somewhere along the way, I picked up this silly little idea that creativity is about making art…and art needs to be perfect.

Perhaps it’s related to my own personality.

Perhaps it’s related to something in society that conveys the idea that only good art is worth our attention.

Perhaps it’s related to something I learned from my brother or parents about how to get affirmation and praise.

Perhaps it’s related to the cult, where I was taught that anything less than perfection is a sin.

Where it comes from matters less than how it’s affected my life. For almost a decade, I refused to sing in public, even for things like celebrating a birthday. I’ve shied away from playing my violin if others are around to hear, especially if I am trying to learn a new song. I’ve avoided trying out new hobbies that I am interested in for fear that I’ll be unable to do them well enough to warrant the time, money, and effort put in.

And I’ve come to this realization—perfection is the death of creativity.

An artist friend of mine once told me that if I’m freezing up in front of a canvas, I should intentionally make a mark on the canvas because it will free me from the pressure of making my painting perfect. I don’t know if that is a universal idea that beginning artists learn or if that was her version of overcoming the “blank page” syndrome, but it works!

There’s something about setting out to intentionally be imperfect that holds a special (magical) power.

When I approach music, writing, painting—basically anything that requires a modicum of creativity—with the intention to “create art,” I find myself blinded by the pressure to make good art.

Not just good art—great art! Gallery-worthy, publishing-worthy, concert-worthy art.

And it’s downright debilitating because I usually can’t hope to be that good, especially not the first time I attempt something.

However, when I set out to be intentionally imperfect, something frees up in me. Suddenly the music or writing or whatnot becomes an avenue of play…and that’s really what creativity is about.

Creativity came effortlessly to me (and most others) as a child because I had permission to have fun, make mistakes, and explore without needing to have a finished project that measured up to some standard.

My first poem consisted of rhyming nonsense words that I put together because I liked the sound and rhythm even though it didn’t “make sense.” I was thrilled with that poem even though when I showed it to others they didn’t understand.

There is a small-scale effort to glorify imperfection. The whole “it’s the flaws that make it beautiful, special, etc. etc.”

And sometimes that is very true. I have stumbled upon some happy accidents by making what seemed to be a mistake into something that added character and uniqueness to what I was creating.

But trying to rewrite imperfection as a quirky form of perfection misses the point, I think.

When I’ve been playing with my watercolors lately, there have certainly been times when I was thrilled with what came out of an unplanned action…but there have also been times when I groaned, crumpled up my painting, and started over.

And that was okay!

Because the magic of intentional imperfection is that even if it turns out to be “trash,” that’s not failure. If I’m having fun, learning more about the medium of creativity I’m using, and allowing myself to play—I’m getting exactly the “product” I need.