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.  

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.

 

That Time a Cult Survivor Attended a Winter Solstice Ceremony and Survived

I worked up the courage to go to a solstice ceremony this past week. I haven’t been to an actual religious ceremony in years, mostly because I can’t stand being in churches or church-like buildings–but a good portion of that also stems from the distrust I carry.

Since the ceremony was taking place outside, that removed the problem of the setting being an unnecessary trigger.

I have been curious about some of the public sabbat ceremonies held in my area for quite some time, and with the help of a new friend, I finally convinced myself to check it out.

Much of it was familiar enough from reading Starhawk that I could understand what was going on. I think it was good that I had that map because I might otherwise have been too insecure to stick it out.

There was the opening of the circle and calling in the four directions, followed by a short soliloquy about the symbolism of the solstice from who I assume was the High Priestess.

I was jumping out of my skin with apprehension, but I also found it really powerful to be in the company of people who honored nature and who didn’t deny the integration of darkness with light.

It was similar to church in some very small ways, but it was also significantly different from church—more than any other type of ceremony I’ve been to. Even when I checked out a Buddhist meditation, that felt more “churchy” than not. This one felt like the “churchy” feeling was residual for me, not due to the ceremony itself.

After the High Priestess finished her piece, people were invited to bring a stick up to the central fire and burn it with their solstice intention.

My readers who come from the IFB will probably chuckle or cringe to read that. A symbolic stick-burning was a very integral part of the indoctrination experience at the summer camp we would often be sent to. Four days after being separated from everything and everyone familiar, being run around ragged, and listening to sermons on hellfire morning, afternoon, and evening, The Wilds would “invite” us to throw a stick in the fire to represent surrendering our lives.

Summer after summer I would be pressured into showing my submission after being systematically terrified of dying on the drive home if I didn’t, so I fully expected to be freaked out of my mind when I heard the invitation at this ceremony.

But it was, again, different. No one was asking me to give up anything in the process of participating. I was setting my own intention. I could share it or keep it private.

And it was actually beautiful to hear the things that people were wishing for the world—things like peace, love, and healing. Even for a ceremony that acknowledged and embraced darkness, there was none of the “darkness” of the hatred and judgment and othering of the IFB.

Then came the dancing…and that’s when my participation meter maxed out.

I wanted to dance. I loved the idea of dancing as part of a religious ceremony. I was desperately cold by then and would have appreciated the warmth of dancing near the fire.

But I’ve also spent too much time studying the ways that people are influenced by cultic groups. I know that dancing in a group or singing in a group can be a subtle way to create a lack of oxygen, decreasing critical thinking and potentially even stimulating a trance-like state. Group participation increases the conformity and belonging drive. The combination of all of that can be a vulnerable mix.

Not a bad mix, per se. Dancing, singing, chanting, etc. can also be used to stimulate spiritual experiences that are entirely healthy.

However, I couldn’t know what would happen during or after the dance. I was new to this group and needed to keep my wits about me. I needed to know I was safe, that someone else wouldn’t try to make demands or interfere with my process while I was in a vulnerable state.

I simply couldn’t know that about this group the first time.

I felt awkward dropping out to the edge of the circle and watching. Part of me was afraid that it would be considered inappropriate, but I also knew that dropping out would be a good test of the safety of the group. If someone tried to coerce or pressure me into participating, that would tell me that my own limitations weren’t respected and that there may be more toxic elements to this group.

Spoiler alert: that never happened.

I was able to withdraw and stand at the edge, watching, without any interference. Moreover, I was able to observe, with my critical thinking, observing mind, that those who participated in the experience had nothing to fear regarding others trying to influence them during that process. No one tried to recruit new members to join the group. No one tried to pressure attendees to give money.

After the dancing, the dancers regrounded their energy. I was able to rejoin for the closing of the circle and farewell to the directions.

And that was the end.

In some ways, this feels like a huge milestone for me even though all I really did was go to a public place and stand at the fringes of a group, barely participating. What was happening inside was far more significant than it seemed on the surface.

I was healing and teaching myself that I can hold my boundaries in group situations that are unfamiliar.

Ultimately, I was able to face down some of my own fears and participate in something truly lovely while respecting my limitations and enjoying an actual ceremony that didn’t feel at all cultic.

It was a lovely Solstice gift to myself.

 

 

Irreconcilable Differences

The last month or so has been incredibly intense for me. Back in the beginning of the summer, I wrote about how I had reached a point where I was no longer satisfied with merely avoiding conflict with my family at the expense of myself, keeping a delicate balance that indicated more about the fragility of the relationship than it did about actual peace. I resolved to pursue allowing myself to be more present in visits, not hiding out of fear of a fight.

Little did I know what door I was opening. Before I even had a chance to challenge myself to live up to my own dedication to authenticity, I found myself embroiled in a toxic stew of insults, cold shoulders, and hostility. Maybe they had always been there and I was just more aware. Maybe this visit was coincidentally bad. It’s hard to say.

Being around my family in that way, with everyone interacting with each other as if they were held hostage rather than fulfilling a desire to see me, opened my eyes.

For the first time, I realized that I don’t really ever interact with my family—I interact with the cult. I am not part of that family anymore. I am a stranger. I could not one of them because I am not of the cult.

For the first time, I realized that nothing has really changed. They may not be able to physically abuse me anymore, but the psychological game was still present, jerking me around.

For the first time, I realized I couldn’t save my parents—from the cult, from the awareness that their abuse had hurt me, or from the consequences that accompanied not taking responsibility for that abuse.

For the first time, I thought about how if this were a friendship, I would have ended it years ago. If it were a marriage, I would have gotten a divorce.

It was then that I knew I couldn’t maintain a relationship with them. I was healthier when they weren’t in my life. The more I tried to hold onto them while they strung me along, the more I betrayed myself.

I wasn’t able to take action on that knowledge until a few weeks ago.

There’s something primal and terrifying about letting go of the illusion of family even if you’ve never had the actual experience of a loving family. Yet each time I tried to talk myself out of this move, telling myself it was “one bad visit” and that “things could get better,” I knew I couldn’t bear to walk into that house ever again.

My own pain is to be expected—managed even.

What intrigues me is the response that others have.

For the most part, we have gotten over the stigma of divorce. There are still pockets of judgment, but they are rare these days. If I were to tell the average person that I was divorcing my husband because he had been physically and emotionally abusive and had refused to take responsibility for that or make any effort to change, I would be praised for the strength it took to make my decision and offered assistance and comfort. If I never wanted to speak to him again after the divorce, no one would question that.

We’ve come to accept that break ups with romantic partners, while unfortunate and painful, are sometimes necessary.

That is not guaranteed to be true for blood relatives.

There is no legal recourse to divorce my parents. Articles and self-help guides that offer support and advice on parent-child relationships more often talk about reconciliation after confrontation or setting boundaries.

If I choose to tell someone that I have chosen to cut my family off, I’m just as likely to be accused of being unforgiving and over-dramatic as I am to be offered comfort and support.

And I don’t understand why that is…

What is it about shared genes that makes toxic relationships something to cling to when, in other circumstances, it would be considered more unhealthy not to end the relationship?

My decision did not come easily. It was years in the making and driven by a multitude of incidents. This last visit was merely the final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back and came at a time when I had tremendous support to help me through. I don’t think it is meant to be an easy decision, but I wonder if it might have been easier if there had been just a smidge more acceptance for the idea that break ups are sometimes just as necessary with family as they are with partners.

There is a part of me that wants to keep this private because of how painful it is, but I realize if I do that, I contribute to the stigma. If I am willing to talk about my journey when boundary-setting or confrontation are on the table, but I shy away from sharing when I realize that there are irreconcilable differences, I am no better as an author and blogger than the self-help books that I resent right now.

So I share my pain, aware that others may read in horror, judging…but mostly hoping that some who read realize they aren’t alone.

 

Reclaiming Healing Part IV: The Relationship

Over the month of September, I’ve been exploring what healing means to me, starting with dismantling the idea that healing is a destination. From there, I explored healing as a multi-faceted phenomenon and as a progressive cycle of Underworld journeying.

For this final week on reclaiming healing, I’ve been thinking about how healing is a relationship to myself as well as to my trauma and wounds. It’s about being able to meet myself wherever I am.

Remember in the story of Inanna how the only function of the creatures sent to rescue Inanna from the Underworld was to wail alongside Ereshkigal, empathize with her until she had spent her grief. Then she released Inanna and the two were able to integrate some of the aspects of the other—to heal the split between the Goddess of Heaven and her shadow side.

Pulling away from myself in moments of pain and trying to make the memories or feelings go away only makes things worse. That’s when I get an angry Underworld goddess who tortures me.

Rather, leaning into myself in those moments, greeting the sadness and memories, listening to them the way I might listen to a friend or child—there’s magic in that because relationships are magic.

Relationships are healing.

Especially when trauma has been caused by a relationship, I think the view of healing as relational is particularly important. Trauma needs safety in order to heal, and the more safe I can make my internal world, the more my trauma will be able to tell its story and feel heard and held.

With healing as an internal relationship, the ebbs and flows of the various emotions and memories are an invitation to draw closer to myself, to love myself more, to listen deeper, and to be present.

Suddenly whatever is happening in that moment is exactly what needs to happen. Whether I’m feeling strong and capable in the face of something which used to terrify me or whether I’m cradling myself as I cry after a nightmare, I’m healing in that moment because I’m being with myself.

At the same time, I don’t expect myself to be the sole relational support for my healing. Other healing relationships are important too, including my therapist, my partner, my friends.

The trick is that they can provide an external safety and relationship to support my healing, but I have to, in turn, have that internal relationship in order to actually heal.

Often with relational trauma, that internal relationship has to be built. It starts off as an acquaintance and grows as the relationship is deemed tolerable.

My therapist had to create a holding environment where I could briefly meet with my shadow parts before pushing them away again (going back to the progressive cycle!). I couldn’t tolerate extended contact with myself. That had to be developed up along with my self-compassion, tolerance for pain, and ability to stabilize and anchor to my core.

But the more I got to know myself, the more I came to understand that I was strong enough to be with the intensity of my emotions. I was strong enough to hear the stories of the parts I had tried to bury.

Today, I can invite my difficult parts and emotions to come in, sit down, and drink tea with me.

Not always, of course. I still have moments of trying to push away or “move on” to the point of erasing them. That’s where I know I need more healing–when I don’t feel capable of meeting myself and, as Rumi describes, welcoming all of my emotions as my guides in healing.

 

Reclaiming Healing Part III:Journeying to the Underworld

In the last two posts, I began exploring what healing means to me, starting with dismantling the myth that healing is some sort of final destination. Last week, I focused on the multifaceted nature of healing (e.g. it’s not just one thing). Now I want to somewhat return to the idea of healing as a journey metaphor.

One of the earliest ways that I came to think about healing was in the context of the story of Inanna.

Inanna decides to visit the Underworld when she hears about her sister (shadow self) grieving the death of her husband.

As Inanna takes the journey into the Underworld, she has to pass through seven gates. At each gate she is required to give up one of her Goddess symbols until she gets down there stark naked. She goes into the court where her sister is grieving, but rather than empathize with the pain she sees, she mocks her sister.

In a rage, Ereshkigal orders Inanna to be hung on meat hooks, where Inanna stays for some time. Eventually her lady’s maid/friend/person, Ninshubur, realizes that she isn’t coming back on her own and goes around to all the other gods seeking assistance with getting Inanna back. One of the gods eventually takes pity and creates these creatures that go with Ninshubur down to the Underworld.

Once down there, they begin weeping and grieving with Ereshkigal, and they do that until Ereshkigal releases Inanna.

When Inanna returns to the upper world, she brings with her characteristics of the Underworld goddess.

In turn, it’s hinted that Ereshkigal is pregnant  (a characteristic of the role that Inanna played with fertility and life). So each goddess integrates portions of the other.

Thereafter, Inanna spends part of her time in the upper world and part of her time in the Underworld, and the changing of the seasons is born.

While Inanna’s is hardly the only goddess myth that involves a goddess going down into the Underworld, it’s significant to me in that Inanna does so voluntarily (as opposed to being kidnapped or tricked). I love the image of an intentional, cyclic descent into the dark places of the soul in order to integrate and retrieve those lost, wounded parts of the self.

However, it’s not a static cycle either. Inanna doesn’t repeat the same journey each time. She doesn’t forget what happened in the Underworld. She doesn’t lose what she gained down there. Each time she descends, though we don’t get a tale all over again, it’s implied that she maintains what she has accomplished and the integration she has achieved.

Even the seasons themselves, one of the most profound demonstrations of cycles, are not static. They build on each other.

Healing is not easy. It’s not always pleasant. Often times, it can feel like I am revisiting the same topic over and over, yet the story of Inanna reminds me that while there might be similarities in the process of descent, pain, stripping away of that which protects me, and meeting my fragmented, shadow parts, I am never actually taking the same journey twice.

Healing is a progressive cycle. Each time around, something is different. Maybe it’s that I recognize the things that got me stuck before and avoid them more easily or that I take yet another step towards a decision that I know I need to make but haven’t been able to follow through on yet.

Most often, there is some element of further integration with a part of me that was too emotionally raw to integrate all at one swoop. Repeated journeys into the same territory allow me to do pieces of work that would overwhelm me otherwise. The journey is necessary in exactly the way that it is happening. There’s only so much I can process and face at one time before I need to come back up for air and recuperation.

We live in a society that wants a quick fix for everything, from health to wealth, that I think we have somewhat forgotten that the most important things cannot be done quickly. This is true especially for healing, I think. No one has the resources to stay in the Underworld non-stop. Trying to force more to happen than is ready to happen only causes more damage as the wounds “hang us on meat hooks.”

My contention with the destination myth revolved around the finality of the journey, but Inanna’s story symbolizes how healing can indeed be a journey and a cycle at the same time.

It’s a journey whose destination is to revisit the shadow and the Underworld on a regular, intentional basis in order to further integrate the parts that have been lost down there.

It’s a journey that doesn’t devalue the role of recurrent themes or emotions as evidence of having failed to heal. Rather it portrays them as normal parts of the process that need empathy rather than scoffing and judgment.

 

 

Reclaiming Healing Part II: Spinning the Web

Welcome to part 2 of my reclaiming healing mini-series. If you missed part 1, you can find it here. This week I’m going to begin exploring one of the aspects of healing that stand out to me as I explore the meaning of the concept for myself.

But first, a relevant tangent.

In my dedication to radical self-care, I have learned that there is a nauseating pop-culture view of wellness that makes me want to smack people…and then there is the more nuanced concept of wellness as developed by researchers.

If I were to listen to pop culture, I would think that wellness was a light switch with two positions, Well or Not Well. Usually it’s relegated to one or two facotrs, e.g. physical wellness or emotional wellness.

But when I look at wellness more deeply, I realize that it’s a multi-faceted, ever-changing thing. And it’s not so much about obtaining perfection in all of the facets as it is about balancing them and obtaining the best functioning of them all in that period of time.

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One version of the wellness wheel. Source: SAMHSA

Thus, someone can have a physical health problem and still be relatively well if they have a strong support network, a healthy environment, plenty of resources, methods of caring for themselves emotionally and physically, and a way of finding hope or meaning through the experience.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. I think as a society we have a tendency to reduce healing to as simplistic and ineffective a model as we do wellness, but if we were to actually look at a visual representation of healing, I’d bet double the amount I owe on student loans that it would be more like the wellness wheel than like a light switch.

Last week, I talked quite a bit about physical healing and the parallels I see to emotional/psychological healing, but it doesn’t just have parallels. The mind and body are astounding in the way they relate to each other, and science is just beginning to scratch the surface of how interrelated they can be around trauma (for a deeper look, check out Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score).

In the healing work I have done around my sexual abuse, I have had to learn how to respect that mind-body connection and the reality that memory is stored in my muscles as much as in my brain. Both my body and my mind have to heal, but they require different kinds of healing practices. Counseling has been invaluable to my mental and emotional healing, but it took working with a physical therapist to address some of the physical damage.

But like wellness, healing is not just emotional and physical. Growing up in a cult is a relational trauma, and there has been a social component to my healing as well. I’ve had to learn how to trust again. I’ve had to learn how to take relational chances and open up to people—how to ask for help or reach out for support. And most importantly, I’ve had to learn how to set boundaries.

The cult was also a spiritually abusive place though, so healing my spiritual life has been a large focus of my journey. Much of that has taken the form of exploring Paganism and Goddess spirituality…which could also be seen as a healing of my gender identity as I created new ways of thinking about the feminine that didn’t root it in shame, inferiority, and perversity.

Already I have loosely and easily covered several of the wellness wheel spokes. I could go on and on tracing a map of healing in a myriad of places. I use the wellness wheel as a jumping off point for visualizing, but it could be just as easily portrayed as a web.

The short of it is: healing is simply not simple. It’s multifaceted in a gorgeously complex and interdependent way.