Alex Mar is a non-fiction writer and film director based in New York City. Her documentary feature American Mystic premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival and inspired her first book Witches of America (FSG 2015). We spoke over the telephone about her foray into present day paganism and witchcraft in the United States, her evolving friendship with the priestess and diviner Morpheus Ravenna, and the challenges presented by writing nuanced non-fiction accounts of rituals where the unseen occurs.
The Millions: As fascinating as I found Morpheus and the other characters who populate Witches of America, I remained most fascinated by you and your unfolding process as a curious observer and, eventually, a participant subject to bouts of skepticism and wonder. Are you a reliable narrator?
Alex Mar: Oh, that’s a great question. Go right for the jugular! Well, I can start first by saying when I took on this project I had no intention of becoming such a huge part of the book. I have never been someone who identified as some sort of confessional writer. It had not been part of my work until then. The conversation I had with my publisher had been, “I will be this relatable framing device for this project so the reader can journey along with me and mostly the spotlight will be on everyone I am meeting with.” What I discovered really quickly is that approach rang hollow. It just seemed incredibly unfair to be asking so many people to share with me all the intimate details about their faith and for me to hang back. I realized that I had to be honest with the reader about my own doubts, about my own completely embarrassing existential questions, all of that. And as time went by and these relationships deepened for me, you know, my participation became inevitable as someone who is a persistent and curious person. I mean, you can’t really be surrounded by people who are claiming to practice magic and not push that further and not want to know what might be behind the next curtain. And there is curtain after curtain after curtain in this community.
The question of being a reliable narrator is an interesting one. There is a long-standing very American tradition of a certain kind of memoir where someone who has a lot of self-doubt immerses herself in a new world and comes out the other side with all kinds of answers having had a transformative experience. That is an all-American literary form that comes with its own problems and complexities. I never assumed this would be a neatly structured experience for me. I really tried to be as transparent as possible — about the rituals that I was taking part in and the complicated friendships I was forming with some of the witches I met and my relationship with the occult society in New Orleans — all of it felt incredibly complicated and confusing after a certain point. I tried to be really accurate about the real messy feelings that came with my level of involvement as opposed to something that would be more easily digestible.
TM: And that seems to me to be in keeping with the topic at hand: belief and the occult and the unseen. It’s not math, you know, 1+1…
AM: Religion in general, faith, belief, I think it’s got to be some of the most humiliating stuff to write about. I mean I think it’s something that smart, savvy people are wary of talking about unless they are in a very intimate circle of friends. It’s very vulnerable and it exposes you to questions like how do you calculate the value of your life on a daily basis and are you satisfied with who you are when you wake up in the morning. And so to explore that was inherently challenging. And with a real constant awareness that my average reader may be very skeptical and that I can relate to that and yet how can I somehow explain to that person that this is a terrain that I think is worth exploring and worth getting closer to. Any human being who has a pulse has an excited response, on kind of a childhood level, to the word “witchcraft” or the word “magic” — and as an adult how do you give yourself permission to look at that and turn it over and try to figure out what this community might be about and what part of it might relatable and legitimate instead of easily dismissed.
TM: How many people in the United States consider themselves to be practitioners of witchcraft and has the number been growing?
AM: Yes, that’s something I include in the first chapter and it’s tricky because obviously you are accounting for a margin of error for people who are practicing in secret and who would not fill out a national survey about their religious preference. Based on the current research, you could responsibly get to between 850,000 and 1 million Americans who are practitioners.
TM: I have been thinking about what it means to practice in secret or not. I read an article in the Los Angeles Times that came out during Pope Francis’s visit to the United States and it talked about an increase in young people joining religious orders and wearing the traditional vestments and habits, and how that can create a lot of surprise among family and friends and the general public. And the sense of purpose and clarity this life choice, or calling, brings is expressed through the traditional dress…
AM: I wrote a piece for the Oxford American about a Dominican convent in Houston. I was really curious about why a woman around my age would decide to marry God. I also visited a cloistered community about two hours away. And they have a lot of young women in their 20s and 30s and that was so fascinating to me. And I completely agree that there is a through-line. The attraction very much seems to be discovering a belief system that comes with all these traditions and rituals that gives meaning to daily life. I think that people are, on the one hand, intimidated to have all these open-ended choices, and there is great comfort in being able to ascribe to a system. This is something I talk about in the book, that I have a genuine envy for people who are made of a constitution where this can bring them satisfaction. As much as I value my independence, fiercely so, at the same time the fact that I don’t subscribe to a particular religious system does not mean I have solved these questions about why I am alive and what purpose anything I do has in the world.
Meeting someone like Morpheus, who is one of the major characters in the book, and in the time that I knew her she really rose up as an important priestess on the West Coast, meeting her was really a turning point for me early on because here was someone who was hyper-smart and really articulate, very funny, who really took her practice seriously, but didn’t expect you to, and who when she wasn’t in the middle of a ritual was really a low-key, laid-back, normal person. And she was so highly relatable to me and we enjoyed each other’s company. There was a real surprise to that. At the same time, she had this spiritual double-life that was really fulfilling to her that seemed so foreign and alien to me.
TM: Can you say something about the individual versus the group in witchcraft practice?
AM: The thing about the witchcraft community that is so interesting is that witchcraft is a mystical tradition. There is no middleman. You don’t need to go to some priest to help you commune with your god. You can go direct to your source. I think that’s incredibly attractive to a lot of the younger generation. Some of the witches I met would argue that there shouldn’t be any congregants. You should either be a priest/ess or you are not serious enough about your practice. You can also decide which gods or goddesses you have more of a relationship with and that is dependent on the coven you train with or your personal exploration.
One of the reasons I called the book Witches of America is not only because it’s about witches in this country, but it’s also a uniquely all-American religious movement that just hasn’t been talked about in enough depth. It’s a new chapter in religious history in this country. Here is a religion that is all about self-realization, there is a kind of pioneer spirit to it, you can transform yourself to the high priestess of such-and-such. You don’t have to inherit the beliefs of your family.
A really big issue in this community is that there are so many people who are working class and lower-middle class who are mainly self-taught or who went to a community college and who have jobs where they work at the supermarket or as a receptionist at some office downtown — they are not people of means. And yet, at the same time, on the weekends, their co-workers have no idea that they have this other dimension to their lives. And I was really impressed by that because it was a way for a number of people who I met to take control of their identity and to have a life that was, in their minds, a lot more enigmatic and in touch with the capital “M” mystery in the universe, while knowing you will probably never be able to afford to rent a bigger apartment or get a bigger car. And that seemed to me so American. To find a way to work around the system to create a new version of yourself and the path doesn’t have to matter and certain factors of your background and upbringing don’t have to matter. You can jump past that and choose to have another dimension to your life. And while it isn’t universal, it was definitely a huge trend within the community.
TM: Can you talk a little about witchcraft as a movement, and specifically as a political movement?
AM: There are definitely ways in which the pagan movement intersects with politics in this country. It goes back to the 1950s in the south of England and Gerald Gardner, the godfather of Wicca. There were a number of English Royal Air Force vets who were part of the first wave of American witches. There was a bridge between England and the U.S. in that way. But when it really took off was with the rise of counter-culture in the 1960s and second-wave feminism in the 1970s. That is a very clear way in which witchcraft and liberal politics have always had a relationship in this country.
As a smart and independent woman, it’s total common sense to me that I would have so many issues with mainstream religion. There really haven’t been many options presented to me where I feel like I’ve been treated as an equal within a religious context. But the witchcraft movement is a totally different scenario. Pagans believe that male and female forces have equal sway in the universe. There was a strong goddess movement that got going in the 1970s around feminism with the idea that a female force had created the universe and that was really essential as a way of correcting social injustice at the time.
And moving away from gender, the money question is interesting. You have these various pagan practices and local communities built up around witchcraft traditions and there is no meaningful fundraising because there are no synagogues, there are no brick-and-mortar churches, there is a very firm belief that you have a tree and dirt and a rock, that is all you need for a place of worship. You can build an altar in your home as a serious place of personal worship. Morpheus for a while had a property out in Santa Clara County, in California, where she and a number of pagan volunteers had actually erected a physical henge made out of massive stones they dragged from all around their property. Everyone would get together on the major holidays and they would have rituals outside under the moon surrounded by these huge rocks, but otherwise it was just dirt and people would camp out there. It’s interesting when you remove big money from how you define religious practice because I think in this country that’s really antithetical to a lot of people. It’s a real equalizer. It means that you can be a huge part of how your religious practice is being realized.
TM: Can you say something about your transition from outside observer and chronicler to a student of Feri? And specifically can you talk about your struggle with prayer?
AM: There naturally came a point at which I couldn’t really hold myself at arm’s length anymore. I wasn’t going to get any closer to answering my own questions. There are rituals that people have in large groups and yet more intense intimate practice is saved for when people are within their own coven or within smaller groups in private. That’s a different kind of animal. And I wanted to understand better what was possible when people got together in these more intimate scenarios.
A big part of if was getting to know Morpheus so well. She’s a complicated witch. She’s a Feri initiate [and] over the course of me knowing her she started a brand new priesthood — she had this pagan sanctuary where she held rituals for all the pagans around the Bay Area who were able to come. I wanted to get closer to whatever it was she was tapping into. After a certain point, I just went for it and reached out to her and asked her to recommend a teacher to me, who I could study Feri with. It felt a little scary to me. There is a big difference between exploring witchcraft in an intellectual way as a writer, thinking about it terms of these great portraits I am creating of these pagan priestesses…there is a huge gulf, it turns out, between that and saying in a sentence that you would like to study witchcraft, that you would like to train in witchcraft. I was surprised because I am an incredibly open-minded person and I am not necessarily that conventional or traditional. I realized that the word “witch” has a lot of power for me. It’s a scary word to apply to yourself. There was a little shock to me in the realization that I wanted to go that far.
In terms of the prayer thing, it turns out that when you train with a serious pagan priestess you are expected to develop a relationship with the gods. And this was such a foreign concept. I really had to grapple with the fact that I was entertaining becoming a devout person. I was drawn in, to a great degree, by the flashy rituals and the daggers and chalices and the chanting under the moon, but at the end of the day it’s also asking the question of whether or not you are capable of being a devout person who believes that there are forces out in the universe that you can work with. And that was a kind of big leap for me. There are parts of that that are attractive. And parts where the skeptical New Yorker in me had trouble and wrestled with that.
TM: Where are you presently in terms of your journey with the occult?
AM: I am still very open to possibilities. I would not label myself anything in particular.
TM: Do you still have your David Koresh novel in the wings or have you abandoned that child?
AM: I kind of taught myself how to write by drafting a novel, which is not that unique as a process. At this point, I very much identify as a non-fiction writer. I don’t really see much of a distinction between the level of artistry that you can bring to fiction versus non-fiction. I do feel much more grounded in my work when I can draw from the lives of people who are living and breathing right now. To me it gives a kind of purpose and drive to the work that I don’t find in experimenting with fiction. And it’s exciting to realize that about yourself. To say, “this is my zone.” There was something wildly ambitious about saying I am going to write this book about this entire community and I am presuming a level of intimacy that doesn’t really exist yet and how am I going to make this happen. For me personally, there is great satisfaction in this book because I believe it’s a very real, palpable slice of the witchcraft community right now in this country. You can read this book and really be immersed in that world in an accurate way. And I love the scope and ambition of that and it’s very much a non-fiction process.
TM: I really enjoyed the juxtapositions present in the slice of contemporary witchcraft that you offer — the spare scene in nature where a ritual is about to unfold versus the big hotel where pagan practitioners gather for the annual PantheaCon conference.
AM: Writing about rituals in general I found to be one of the surprise, massive, mind-blowing, back-breaking challenges of writing this book. The onus is on you as the writer to put the reader in that space and that moment in time and give them the feeling of everything that was going on in that room in the dark with all those other people, and, at the same time, you can’t simply list everything that took place, every ritual gesture, every line that was chanted, what everyone was wearing. You really have to be incredibly selective. You kind of have to conjure up this event and truncate it and give the reader enough of a sense of why on earth this is happening, the fact that there is a logic to it, and also the ecstatic feeling of being in that room, that is sort of like the feeling of being at a concert or something — how do you convey all of that.
And, of course, there are a number of different kinds of ritual scenarios in the book, and each one brings something different. It goes from the ritual of about 400 people in a double ballroom in a DoubleTree Hotel in San José, where the floor is carpeted in a room that is usually used for corporate events, and then there are the kinds of really intimate initiation-type ceremonies that Morpheus told me about that I wasn’t even allowed to be part of. With her in particular, our relationship ended up spanning five or six years and to see her supposedly channeling a goddess in a room with 400 people and then to have her show me the scar on her arm from where she makes a cut to make the blood offering when she is alone with her priesthood, getting a sense of her whole range of experience was amazing. I am pretty grateful that she has the patience to stick with me and a sense of humor to put up with these long invasive conversations and also welcoming me into these scenarios.
TM: I read your article “Sky Burial” that appeared in Oxford American last year. I found it so interesting and unexpected and bizarre. I was very moved by your discussion about death and excarnation. Is that article connected to Witches of America?
AM: Yes. Later on in the book, I mention this question in the pagan community: how do we want our bodies handled when we die. Because this is a community that doesn’t feel necessarily connected to Christian traditions, let’s say. And going back historically there are different pagan communities that had very different funereal rites than what goes on in funeral parlors in America. Morpheus one day shared with me that she has always had this fantasy that when she dies she wants to be excarnated or have a sky burial performed, which is something mostly associated with certain Tibetan monks, where your body is left exposed to the elements or to birds of prey. And your bones are collected and your skull is collected and used in rituals. So her fantasy was to have her body laid out that way and eaten by ravens and other corvids and have her bones made into a beautiful and decorated altar where all the witches she had worked with over the years and had been close with could visit and use her bones to perform ritual and consult her skull as a sort of oracle. I thought this image was so completely amazing. It’s such an exalted way to be preserved, on the one hand, and very macabre, on the other. That actually led me to the question: is sky burial actually technically possible under any imaginable circumstance in this country.
Maybe this is one of the ways in which certain elements of the pagan community are more universal than we realize. There is something there that isn’t just about calling yourself a “pagan” or a “witch.” It’s a desire for a different way of connecting to life and to death.
TM: Can we talk about your chapter “Sympathy for the Necromancer,” which strikes a different, darker tone. Were you scared by your conversation with “Jonathan” at any point?
AM: It was very disturbing to realize that this was the reality of his practice. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to being completely stunned by someone I have spent time with for my writing. The truth is that any religious community will have its extremists. I wanted to be able to address that in contrast to the majority of this community.
There is this larger existential questioning that all the people in this book are going through and I am going through and the dark side of that is that our fear of death can warp us. Part of what that chapter is about is a desire for control over life and death that isn’t human.