I am in a cab on my way to the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where I am meeting Alex Mar, the author of Witches of America, when I get a text from her: "They are taking me to the mausoleum at 10, but I'm wandering till then..."
Mar is doing a reading from her book, which came out on October 20, as part of the cemetery's "Into the Veil" event. But the text message, taken out of context, sums up fairly succinctly what is so appealing about Witches of America—the image of Mar, casually traipsing through a graveyard at night while waiting to be taken to a mausoleum, would be very much at home in the book. (She later reads from a chapter about breaking into a cemetery with a group of drunken occultists in New Orleans in order to pray to Santa Muerte, a folk saint of death with a predilection for sugar and alcohol.)
The Green-Wood event is full to capacity, and, when I arrive, filled with revelers clad in witchy capes and lace. There are pop-up bars spread throughout the property; later, in the catacombs, I see someone vaping in a burial chamber, leaning against a wall filled with corpses. Like opening a cemetery to potential tomb-vapers, Mar's book takes something seemingly sinister—in this case, the occult—and renders it accessible to the average person. It is easy to gawk at or sensationalize modern-day witchcraft (especially given America's fraught relationship with the subject), but Witches of America does much more than that: in it, Mar provides a sensitive, probing, and nuanced look at those who identify as pagan through a series of profiles interspersed with her own personal experience immersing herself in the communities she encounters.
Very early on, I realized that was sort of artificial to be writing about different peoples' intimate beliefs and ritual practices and not to involve myself as well.
The book, written over the course of six years, chronicles Mar's journey into certain groups within the massive, complex, somewhat indefinable pagan population in this country; in addition to providing the reader with an in-depth look at different witchcraft practices, Witches of America also follows Mar as she goes from observer of, to participant in, the occult. Throughout the course of the book, she participates in various rituals and ceremonies; witnesses a possession by a Celtic goddess of battle, strife, and fertility; joins a coven devoted to the Feri branch of paganism, an ecstatic tradition that places a strong emphasis on sensuality, as well as a New Orleans branch of Ordo Templi Orientis, a secret society founded by notorious occultist Aleister Crowley; convenes with her ancestors in a castle; and, in one uncharacteristically dark chapter, interviews a necromancer whose obsession with black magic drives him to decapitate corpses ("There was a moment, in fact, where I did think I was going to go the bad route and fall fully into [Ted] Bundy Alley," he says at one point).
"Part of me wanted to create a portrait, at least a slice, of the Pagan community right now that was written for a mainstream audience," says Mar when I interview her, carefully noting that her book only serves as a cross-section of certain groups, not as a reflection of paganism as a whole (with nearly 1 million estimated practitioners and countless offshoots, that's far beyond the scope of a single book).
The more involved Mar became in various pagan communities across the country, she says, the more she felt it would be dishonest to approach the subject from a clinical and detached perspective. "Very early on, I realized that was sort of artificial to be writing about different peoples' intimate beliefs and ritual practices and not to involve myself as well and where I'm coming from and be honest about that. It just didn't make sense," she says. "I'm not naturally a confessional writer; I don't want to be dissecting my emotions on the page. But, if you're dealing with ritual and personal spirituality, it's so subjective. You can't write about it like it's a science."
Despite her purported disinterested in the confessional, when Mar does dissect her emotions, she does so thoughtfully, precisely. Although the book examines faith and spirituality at length, she's not chasing after an apotheosis or some sort of world-shattering communion with the Goddess (which would be an extremely annoying personal journey to read about). Rather, she's trying to negotiate her own struggle with faith in general: She wants "to be disturbed, shaken into being." At the same time, she is very open about her ambivalence, about her frustrations about her ambivalence, about her self-consciousness as her ambivalence ebbs and resurfaces throughout the course of her research and studies.
If you were in this room with me, you might also have a moment of, OK, I've never witnessed a possession before, this is incredibly intense.
"As a way to avoid having a non-Pagan audience immediately dismiss certain moments that they thought were too exotic or too alien, I wanted to use my own bits of self-consciousness as a bridge," she says. "As if to say, 'I'm acknowledging that if you were in this room with me, you might also have a moment of, OK, I've never witnessed a possession before, this is incredibly intense, I'm processing this, I'm trying to figure out how I feel about it.'"
To wit: During a Feri ritual meant to exorcise the demons of "Shame, Fear, Obsession, Rage, and Greed," where Wiccan Priestesses lead a crowd of assembled Pagans in dancing ecstatically, Mar writes that she wants to "sob, deeply, the kind where, if you let it out, will come for three days without stopping." Then her self-consciousness catches up: "I don't cave. Having denied myself the release of, I guess, a nervous breakdown, I feel simply uncovered, a lame exhibitionist. What would my people think if they saw me here?" Later in course of her initiation into paganism, after she has a vision during a two-and-a-half hour Feri ritual, she writes, "No one will believe me—no one outside these witchy circles—and I'm too smart to think otherwise."
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Ultimately, though, the question is much larger than Will anyone believe me? or even Do I believe this myself? "Does any of this stuff work, who does it work for, and how is it possible to find meaning in your life? If you're not going to connect with a particular community, then how do you get through your days and how do you think about yourself?" Mar asks. "I'm going down this existential rabbit hole, but it's definitely very messy. It's a messy topic, and I wanted to be honest about my own amount of personal confusion."