11: Alex Mar
writer and filmmaker
Alex Mar is a writer and filmmaker living in New York City, whose most recent work centers on exploring religion and spirituality. These topics were the focus of her 2010 documentary, American Mystic, and her first novel, Witches of America, which was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2015 and explores Alex’s experiences researching and experiencing the many facets of modern-day witchcraft. A Harvard graduate and former Rolling Stone editor, she has had recent work published in New York Magazine and The New York Times Book Review, among other publications, and has been a guest correspondent for such networks as CBS, ABC, and NPR.
This interview was conducted by Nicole Blackwood on October 26, 2016, in Alex’s Manhattan writing space. Emily Kimura photographed and witnessed the conversation.
NICOLE: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood.
ALEX: My mother is originally from Cuba and my father is originally from Greece. But I grew up in New York City and my mother – I think in relation to the second-wave feminist seventies moment – was really determined to dress me only in primary colors and overalls, so that I’d be able to run around the playground and really rough it up. She actually had her hair curled and was dressed like Shirley Temple as a little girl. It was like, super over-the-top girlishness…
ALEX: And my two best friends when I was really young were two boys, just by coincidence, and [I had] a younger brother who I was very close to. I never thought about it when I was younger, but I think it took all the way until college for me to develop more than just a couple of meaningful female friendships. I feel like sometimes girls in grade school and high school really divide between the girls who exclusively hang out in packs of girls, and the girls who are “guys’ friends.” I wasn’t boyish, but I was really attracted to kind of the mystery of what boys had access to. And now looking back, I realize it’s also connected to when I started writing, which was junior high. I started imagining what life might be like if there was some possibility of me becoming a professional writer. It seemed incredibly, impossibly romantic. The writers who I was attracted to were all male, and I think I was picking up on something that’s just in the culture, which is that the people having the biggest adventures, who are living on the most epic scale, and who are writing the great novels are all men. And that’s not true, of course, but that’s an idea that’s in the water. And it took me until college or my twenties or even my early thirties to really understand that that was a way that I’d be trained to think, just by what was around me.
NICOLE: Did you have conscious experiences dealing with that male access and feminine lack of access to certain activities or ideas?
ALEX: Well, I was close to both my parents, but I was really close to my dad growing up and developed some of his funny mannerisms and patterns of speech. He talks kind of like, Harvey Keitel, young DeNiro, seventies-New York-wise guy sometimes, when he wants to put on a show, and I really enjoyed that version of masculinity. So I think just in my home, I was really allowed to cultivate this idea that I was the equal of any boy. It wasn’t until much later, when I started having kind of a serious career in magazines and the workforce that I saw that there were some boundaries and tensions that you had to deal with as a woman. In general, I think I’ve been pretty lucky, but, of course there are frustrations, and I hate seeing gender come into play in the professional lives of my friends. I hate it. It’s very upsetting. But that’s a much bigger topic. [laughs]
NICOLE: So you touched upon your relationship with your father, but you talk a lot in Witches of America about your mother and her complicated ties to her spirituality in terms of being a feminist, being somewhat religious, and then not adhering to all the teachings of the Catholic Church. Can you talk about how that informed or developed your relationship to your spirituality and your feminism?
ALEX: My mother is a woman who embodies a lot of contradictions, and she’s totally aware of it and open about it. I’m after her; I have that in common with her. She really embraced a lot of old-school Catholic ritual and the beauty and mystery of that, how it’s really hypnotic to walk into a cathedral during mass, or to go into these dark alcoves and light candles to the saints. It’s a very Latin Catholic thing, to have photos of deceased relatives in the house, to light candles for them, and maybe even leave little offerings, or to do the same with specific saints. My mother really raised me with a sense of that kind of mystery. But she also taught me from a very young age that the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church was not something to be taken seriously. She separated for me a sense of deep spirituality from the way in which people in the mundane world try to organize things, and emphasized that just because you’re a religious person, doesn’t mean that you’re not prey to mundane pressures – sexism, the temptations of money, corruption, what have you. So it was pretty progressive – I mean, we had these conversations when I was like, eight. [laughs]
NICOLE: Oh, wow!
ALEX: She was an early starter with me. And she also introduced this idea that we go to church, we see these priests speak and we see the Pope on TV, but that doesn’t mean that women can’t also hold these positions of power. Just because the Catholic Church says that that’s not possible, doesn’t mean that that’s fair. And so by the time I was in high school, I was given a lot of room to develop my own ideas. I didn’t go on to become a serious practicing Catholic, but it’s really funny to look back once you’re an adult at the religious ideas and images that you were raised with. I’m kind of shocked at how much power it still has over the way I think about the universe. Like the idea of God as a handsome, young, bearded Jesus...it’s hard to let go of that on a gut level. And I think that’s something I have in common with a number of my liberal, relatively agnostic friends. However you’re raised really gets its hooks into you.
NICOLE: I would love to hear more about your relationship with Morpheus Ravenna [a practicing Pagan priestess, subject of American Mystic and Witches of America, and friend of Alex’s] – what drew you to her and kept you involved with Paganism and the Pagan community after you finished filming American Mystic?
ALEX: Well, it’s a funny thing. I think with people who work in nonfiction, whether it’s documentary or writing, you form an intense relationship with whoever you’re writing about, even if it’s just for a magazine piece. I’ve had friends over the years who are theater actors or film actors, and I think it’s comparable to that. There’s this family that comes together, this kind of motley crew. You’re all in it, and everyone says, “Great, give me your number, we’ll know each other for the rest of our lives,” and it just doesn’t happen; it’s very rare.
I assumed it would be the same with Morpheus. But I found that I could be myself with her in a way that was separate from the job of finishing a film. And I was so impressed by how formidable she was in ritual when she was dressed in leather corset, and black skirt, and all of this ritual jewelry, and chanting and leading ritual in this huge henge on her property…I mean, it was really a sight. But contrasting that with how low-key she was, and just how funny she was when we were hanging out – I really appreciated that. I admired how she’s someone who, at least when we met, was both very devout and also totally unafraid of skepticism and humor. So I could be very upfront with my questions and my doubts, and could joke around and it was fine. It wasn’t going to undermine how seriously she took what she was doing, and she understood that it wasn’t coming out of a place of disrespect. That combination of character traits, those two halves of her, really created this opening for me. And so I felt like I could then ask her for advice once the filming was over and say, “Look, I think there’s a lot more to be done. I’d like to maybe write about the people I’ve met, and about you, in a book, but I also think that this is the time in my life when I’d like to get closer [to religious practice]. The cameras are gone, the microphones are gone, it’s just me – what do you think? Do you have any advice? Is there anyone I should maybe reach out to about studying and training?” I think it’s the case with any spiritual pursuit; it becomes human. There’s a human connection between two people and that makes it more accessible for a second, and so then you get the guts to walk through the door.
NICOLE: Speaking of Morpheus, one thing that struck me about the Pagan community as you relay it is the role of females kind of being of two types, to generalize. There are women like Morpheus who have such strength in their absolute pursuit of religion, and then there are women who are hopping between the other world and the Pagan community, with other jobs and obligations. We’re usually told as women that there’s strength in that multiplicity, in being able to be more than one thing – for example, in being a working mom. I’m wondering if you could speak to that absoluteness or multiplicity as you saw it in the Pagan community.
ALEX: One thing that I really appreciate about the Pagan community, at least my experience of it, is that there wasn’t this separation between regular life and sacred things, because there’s a belief that nature is sacred; everything is sacred. Male and female forces are everywhere and they’re equal. There are multiple gods and goddesses, and there isn’t the sense that humans and animals are cowering beneath one divine male creator. There’s a lot more room for a mess that I think is closer to how people experience life. And so in the same way, being a mother and raising a couple of kids on your own, let’s say, and also being a high priestess of a coven – the kids would probably know all your covenmates, and it would be seen as sort of an extended family environment.
The big thing is to keep in mind is that with the Pagan community, there aren’t churches and cathedrals and synagogues. It’s your living room, it’s your covenmate’s living room, it’s the garage, it’s the woods up behind the house. You can choose to create a space. You can build an altar in your home – you’re expected to, or encouraged to. I did really appreciate the way that it reintroduced sacred spaces, little pockets, into regular life, instead of this idea that a lot of people I know have, which is that you go about your business, and if you’re up for it, you’ll make the huge effort to get dressed up, go meet up with your entire family, go to church because it’s Easter, do the Easter service, go home, change into your jeans, and be yourself again. And I think that kind of separation makes it even harder for people who want to have some sort of spiritual life to do that without feeling like it’s putting on a costume.
NICOLE: In Witches of America, you describe a ritual in which you felt a distinct connection to the women in your family in particular. This struck me because I think it’s somewhat rare for women today to feel that kind of generational connection, and so particularly with the feminine familial connection, in a lot of families it disappears. I was wondering if you could talk more about that, and about magic as a linking thread between these generations of women in your family?
ALEX: First of all, I think it’s a very American thing, the disintegration of family ties, the idea that nuclear families are the most flexible, and [that] venturing out to another city to get a job and start a new life is more important for a lot of people in this country than making other choices based on staying around family. But I’m first generation, so both sides of my family had totally different ideas about that. [laughs] And especially because my mother’s Cuban, there really is a warm kind of family connection amongst women in Latin families. And I’m totally generalizing, but no one’s going to think that’s a wildly controversial statement.
ALEX: And I think that what I said before about this business of Latin Catholicism having this kind of mystical strain to it, and the sense of your ancestors being in your house, and you have the photos out, and you light a candle…I think that there’s a kind of magic involved in that, or magical thinking. I don’t think my mother would disagree. I just don’t think she would ever use the word “witchcraft.”
In the Pagan community, there’s the high holiday, Samhain, which is this time of year [late October]. It’s very much about communing with the dead, because there’s this idea that right now, the boundary between the world of the living and the dead is very, very thin. And so there’s this real value put on, at least once a year, trying to actively commune with people you’ve lost in your life – blood relatives, maybe ancestors you either know you had a long time ago and can trace your roots to, or people in the past at some moment in history that you feel very connected to. It can be as loose as that. One thing I discovered while working on the book and having conversations with a lot of agnostics and atheists and artsy friends of mine between here and L.A. and London, whatever – [laughs] very hip people, people very concerned with sounding hip when they talk about spirituality.
NICOLE: [laughs] Sure.
ALEX: And I say that lovingly. But there were often moments in conversations with the last person I would expect, who would say, “Once I was staying with my folks and I really felt like my uncle who had died was present.” I think there is a little bit of room, even in this country, for people who have no personal spirituality or connection to mysticism to confess to still feeling a tie to a deceased family member without really knowing what to call that feeling. So the difference is that with Paganism, you can very openly commune with people you’ve lost. You have that in a number of different religions, but I think [it] is more raw and immediate in the witchcraft community.
NICOLE: Can you talk a little bit about what that was like, feeling that kind of connection to the women in your family during the ritual?
ALEX: I write about that Samhain weekend at a castle in New Hampshire. We’d been asked to invite in whichever of our blood ancestors we wanted to commune with, and it was a very…natural feeling, because there are people who I want to remember and feel like they’re still present in my life in some way. I mean, I think it’s honestly how most people deal with death. I don’t think even the most hardcore atheists are sitting there thinking, like, “Well, Grandma’s totally dead now.” I think most people allow themselves some private way of thinking about that person that lets them back into the room every now and then. So for me it was like that, just a little bit more pronounced and vivid. What’s funny about it, too, is that it made me aware of how disconnected I often let myself become from the people who helped to raise me and who I was so close to. It felt really important to have at least one time of the year when you’re supposed to spend the night really focused on what it was like to sit with, you know, your great-aunt or your grandmother. And so I was like, wow, people who have this as a regular part of their lives…it’s a beautiful thing. I didn’t need to call it “magic,” but that’s what they were calling it in the room.
NICOLE: In talking about the rituals still – obviously, there’s a certain amount of expectation to behave a certain way in regular life, and in ritual, all of that is gone and you shake off expectation. Thinking about this in the context of being a female and the expectations that are placed on women to have everything controlled, particularly in a bodily sense, I was wondering what it was like to be able to let go of that?
ALEX: One of the things that’s immediately apparent at these gatherings is, depending on the specific gathering, is that they’re very often clothing-optional for certain parts of the event or the experience. I always kept my clothes on [laughs] as someone who’s still relatively conservative, I guess. But the idea is that whether you’re twenty years old or eighty years old, your body belongs to you. You dress in a way that expresses who you are and what you want to bring into the ritual, so a lot of people will wear pieces of jewelry that they’ve charged, as they say, through ritual, or that just have some kind of personal meaning. Basically, there aren’t rules for how you’re supposed to appear. It’s whatever’s going to help you to walk into a circle and be really present and be able to practice magic. With the earlier forms of Wicca, or British Wicca, the tradition is to do ritual naked, or Skyclad. So it’s not about how you look, it’s not about an awareness of how you or other people look, it’s not about checking each other out. It’s about: here we are, completely exposed. There’s something really charged about that, how there aren’t all these layers of clothing and personal style between you and this moment you’re in, late at night, together, creating this space that is very much separate from the rest of the world. I never experienced circling like that, but it changes the way people look at each other. It’s a really sex-positive and very open-minded community. The idea is that if you’re not harming anyone else and there’s consent, there’s no judgment about how people express themselves sexually, but that’s kept very separate from the issue of whether or not your clothes are on. In [Witches of America], there were a couple moments when I pointed out how it was striking to see a very large woman or a much older woman naked, dancing with complete abandon in a huge crowd. I felt like it was important for me to comment on that as an outsider, just to acknowledge that you don’t see this in other places in this culture. And everyone else in the room is like, well, seen that before.
NICOLE: Do you think there’s anything you gleaned from that experience, in terms of what you said about choosing clothing or choosing how you present yourself, that you think could apply outside of ritual in your daily life as a woman?
ALEX: I was traveling a lot [while writing], and I wasn’t in New York City all that often while I was writing the book. I was based part of the time in New Orleans and other places, and once my life got back into the rhythm of being firmly in New York City…I think that New York City is really harsh on women. I don’t think about it in a very conscious way, but the standard here is extremely thin. There’s a range of fashions that are acceptable at a given time, or you can wear neutral clothes, but you’re aware that you’re wearing neutral clothes. It’s very rare that as a woman who’s also taking work meetings or going out to events at night, you’re not aware that there are certain rules for how you present your body. Everyone I know is aware of the times when they gain weight, and unfortunately it tends to even be a part of conversation when I meet up with some of my female friends, who are doing so many interesting things that this is the last thing anyone needs to talk about! The body image positivity of the Pagan community is, I think, something valuable. But it takes a lot of effort to bring those values into the day-to-day life that I feel that I’m living socially, culturally.
NICOLE: Can you speak to how your relationship to your womanhood and feminism changed or evolved through your experience researching and writing this book, if it did?
ALEX: These are all such small topics. Girlhood, womanhood…
ALEX: I think it was definitely positive for me to see so many women leading religious ceremonies, whether it was in the Bay Area, the woods in Illinois, a temple in New Orleans, [or] elsewhere. I hadn’t taken stock of how rarely I had seen that image before in my life. And also the idea that you could be both a woman with a sexual identity making independent choices in your life and still be accepted in your community as a spiritual leader…you don’t see that very often. I’ve always associated that with shutting down certain parts of your life. For me, it was the image of a nun as a very devout, serious woman. And I’ve met some amazing, intelligent, generous activist women who are nuns, [but] I’d always assumed that you would have to give up an important part of your identity and your sexuality and your independence in order to have that other dimension to your life.
NICOLE: Branching off of that – I know in Witches of America, you write about spending time with this subsection of Pagans who are very second-wave feminist. You write about being surprised, even jarred, by their ideology and language – can you speak about what it was like to see the waves of feminism within the ritual of the Pagan community?
ALEX: So I was in Illinois for a few days and nights at a gathering in a rural area of the state. For the first time ever, I took part in a ritual that was led by Dianic Wiccans. Dianic Wicca was created in the seventies as very much a second-wave feminist statement, saying that women should have a space that is completely theirs as a way to start to think about what it means to be a woman, especially in this culture, and to think about what women are capable of when men are just…not in the room. [laughs] So there was a lot of emphasis on talking about wombs and language that I think a lot of us associate with the seventies. I thought there was something amazing about it. I really respected these women, because I think we need more spaces that are exclusive to women in our culture now. It’s just that it’s a very different moment. Most of the women I know who are under forty or under fifty take certain things for granted as a way of looking to what the next step might be.
So one of the things I tried to tease out in that chapter was what on earth it could possibly look like, to have a women-only ritual space right now that felt relevant and wasn’t kind of alienating because it felt dated. I honestly don’t know what that could look like. How can you talk about the differences that come with being female in terms of your sexuality, in terms of menstruation, in terms of the possibility of pregnancy, in terms of motherhood, or the possibility of motherhood, or the decision not to become a mother – all this stuff that sounds so obvious that actually has a huge impact on our personal lives and also on our much bigger life decisions. I think it’s kind of a shame that the language of that sounds so corny today. I’d love for someone to kind of point the way towards a solution. I worry that those of us who didn’t go through second-wave feminism and instead came afterward have been trained to feel that sounding and acting tough in a male-dominated environment is somehow to have won the battle. And so I really admired the extreme vulnerability in the woods that day with these women.
NICOLE: Can you speak a little bit about the connotations of the word “witch”? I know that when most people hear that word, it’s very much associated, first of all, with females, and with a lot of negativity, so much so that you spoke to The Wild Hunt about not using that word at first in the Pagan community because you weren’t sure if it was offensive.
ALEX: As of right now, when people in this country talk about witchcraft, what they’re usually referring to is Paganism. To be a witch today usually means to be a Pagan priest or priestess, but then there’s all different kinds of folk witchcraft, and there’s the folk use of the word “witch,” which could be applied as much as you want all over the place. And that’s where the derogatory uses survives. Of course, centuries ago, it was used as a word to label women as outsiders, and in league with the Devil, and often it was applied for political reasons, or as a way of reaffirming the status quo culturally. If you had a woman who was not married, a widow living on her own, a woman who practiced natural healing with herbs, or a woman who simply didn’t fit comfortably into the Christian order in a certain town, that person became vulnerable and hard to explain away socially, and so the label “witch” became something that was used. And everyone knows the story of Salem.
So for a lot of people in the Pagan movement, using the word “witch” was a way of reclaiming the word and taking the power of all of these negative associations that had, as labels, stuck specifically on women most of the time, and using that power to play off of the ways in which women even today are seen as sort of inherently dangerous [laughs] – especially women who own their sexuality in some way, who are independent in some way, and who don’t define themselves exclusively as “good Christians.” That’s still seen as relatively dangerous, depending on what part of the country you’re in.
It’s interesting…if you google “Hillary Clinton witch,” you’ll come up with something like 1.25 million hits. It’s an insane number. And a lot of it is extreme right-wing whatever, mutterings about the Illuminati that no one needs to pay attention to, but it’s very funny that that’s still language that’s seen as a powerful way of condemning and dismissing and erasing a woman who has some kind of position of influence. The irony in that in 2016 is that there’s an entire population in this country now, an entire demographic that would see that as just an affirmation of her as a strong woman. [laughs] But of course, the GOP doesn’t really warm to that interpretation.
NICOLE: What do you think women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
ALEX: Mentorship. This is completely unscientific, purely my own theory, but I think the feminism of the seventies gave women a way to come together, and then we moved into the eighties and nineties, and that was sort of absorbed by capitalism and professionalism. It became more desirable and more of a display of strength on the part of women to go it on their own. I feel like there have probably been waves where there’s been that ebb and flow that way, and I’m hoping that now we’re in a moment where more women feel that strength is gained in numbers, in sharing, and in lifting each other up, rather than the kind of old-school strategy of needing to fit into a boy’s club as seamlessly as possible and believing that assimilating into that culture professionally is the most important move you can make. I hope that what we’re seeing now instead is women trying to dismantle that kind of professional structure and create something where we can define more of the terms.
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