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Long form gone wrong

A camera taking a picture of a shelf of Pagan books The reviews for “Witches of America” are in. The mainstream reviews are OK, but sound like a book that will be in the bargain bin within six months. The Pagan reviews, however, have been extremely critical of the author and her work, and this book’s impact on our community may be long-lived. The most in depth I’ve come across so far is Rhyd Wildermuth’s on Gods & Radicals.

 

Immersive, long-form journalism sounds like a tightrope walk. Last week, I was lucky enough to hear John Colapinto, author of “As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl“, and Åsne Seierstad, author of “The Bookseller of Kabul” and “One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway“, speak about their work. They talked about the tricky balance involved when you get deeply involved in someone’s life, sometimes literally living with them, in order to get the complete story. They talked about keeping themselves out of the story, about not changing the lives of their subjects (a sort of a journalist’s prime directive), and about balancing the truth with serving the needs of a good story and being fair to the subject. Tese two very accomplished journalists also talked about ways in which this balance has gone wrong for them, despite working very hard to get it all right.

 

“Witches of America” may be a memoir rather than journalism, and it is perhaps slightly less abhorrent in that context. Author Alex Mar can get away with a lot more if she doesn’t try to claim to be a reporter. However, after reading book reviews, book excerpts, Ms. Mar’s past writing, and interviews with her, I think she may be mistaking her aloofness for objectivity, and, unfortunately, some of the mainstream reviews seem to be treating this book as a piece of ethnography and journalism. NPR’s review even cites “finding the cultural research aspect of the book more engaging than Mar’s personal journey” without challenging some obviously faked stories (whether by the subject or by Ms. Mar). I wonder what Margot Adler would have said about this book.

 

After reading a bit about Alex Mar, I am not surprised that her subjects trusted her. It sounds like her documentary work was pretty good and she got close to some trusted people. Though I don’t know Morpheus Ravenna well, having only met her peripherally at an event, I also would have trusted someone sent by her. I probably still would; this train wreck isn’t Morpheus’ fault, or the fault of the other subjects. Even with a good reporter, there’s a risk of a quote taken out of context (don’t make jokes with reporters!) or a misunderstanding; with a lazy or biased journalist, the results can be even worse, and with someone willing to deceive about their purpose and use people in this way… well, one of the subjects, Karina, has commented publicly on Rhyd Wildermuth’s review: “As a living, breathing, feeling, embodied Human-Wild-Divine-Witch, betrayed and reduced to a one dimensional “character” within Mar’s book, I thank you for humanizing me and calling out the author for who and what she is.”

 

What I learned from this incident is to carefully read any past work I can find from a writer before engaging with them*. Alex Mar’s piece on polyamory shows so many of the same problems revealed in the reviews of “Witches of America”: superficial involvement, treating parts as representative of the whole, fixations on how people look, shallow analysis, and a definite feeling that she considers herself superior to her subjects. The comments section on that piece are similar in tone to reactions to “Witches in America”: the general public seems to think it is all in good fun – a little titillation, a little silliness, and maybe a little insight – while those inside the community, whether directly portrayed or not, feel betrayed, misunderstood, and even humiliated. While Alex Mar gloats that the New York Times “understands” her book, the Pagan community, which so often struggles to understand itself, can point and say “we may not be sure what we are, but we know we aren’t that”.

 

* Apologies to any future genuine seekers who happen to be writers, film makers, or “media” of any kind; you will be scrutinized. Ms. Mar was deceptive, so other “new Pagans” with media jobs will be suspected of the same.

 

Edited to add: The Coru Cathubodua Priesthood has released a statement about how they were deceived in relation to this book and I think their hard-earned words of warning are an important addition to the record.

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