Culture, Identity, Religion, Sex & Gender

On the Anatomy of a Memoir(ist): An Interview with Leah Vincent

You can read more of Leah’s work at the Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe Series.

On February 10, Leah Vincent and I met in early afternoon around Union Square. Over cups of hot tea, we discussed her recently published memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin & Salvation After My Ultra Orthodox Girlhood, which traces her body’s exit from her Haredi upbringing in Pittsburgh to her acceptance at Harvard University–and the detours in-between.   For the course of an hour, we delved into the mise-en-scène of writing a book, bodily contaminations, and what it means to live like a zombie orphan.


Gaydol HaDor: I’m curious about your habits of writing.  I don’t think in any of your other interviews, people have asked: where do you write?  When do you write?  Do you have specific habits around the craft?
Leah Vincent: No.  And I feel very guilty about this.  I feel like I need to be more disciplined.  And that’s my constant resolution—to get more disciplined about it.  I have a toddler.  So my writing revolves around whatever time the babysitter is there and [whether] I don’t have other pressing things.  I write on the couch, or chair, on my bed.  With my laptop. And just type frantically. I’m a really big believer in the shitty first drafts.  So I’m just always trying to just push myself to write whenever it comes and not judge it.  And come back to it.  And rework it and rework it and rework it.
I try to write everyday.  It’s also depends.  It’s very project bound.  So when I was in this book, and especially once the draft was done, I worked very heavily with my editor to shape that final draft.  So, as soon as she gave me something, it was so exciting to get to work with somebody on it.  Because it’s so solitary.  I spent two years working on it beforehand.  And suddenly I’d have something with comments.  I’d throw myself into it.  It was just like this drug.  Any moment I could grab to work on the edits and to write was just incredibly exciting.  I would love to be able to say, “I sit down in my office from 9 AM to 5 PM.”  That does not happen at all. Of course, every time I come to a difficult scene, I’m checking on Facebook every ten seconds.  Something on Twitter has become very, very important instantly.  I know that I should shut off the internet, but I don’t.  It’s a very organic, meandering engagement.
I’m particularly interested in women writers.  I’m particularly interested in female memoir writers.  But let’s say women writers—and particularly mothers who have to balance their motherhood with their profession.  That’s really interesting to me.  I think a little bit about that–about how I feel like I have to push harder.  Even in the most understanding relationship with my husband and a progressive world and community, I still have to push to make the space.  I feel like if I could go to an office everyday, doing something like being a pediatrician, I’d have the time for my work.  But because I’m a writer, somehow I have to fight a little bit harder to be taken seriously–by myself maybe more than anybody else (laughs).  I’m allowed to say, “I’m not taking everything else.  I’m just writing for two hours.” There’s this constant pushing of the space that one needs to live and that one has to do on one’s own.
GHD: That’s an interesting sense of immediacy, too–all these other things that you’re balancing at the same time.  That probably changes the tempo of your writing.
LV: Yes.  Especially when you’re writing something that’s so emotional.  I’m not distanced from this material.  Life is just woven together.  The book.  The rest of my life. There’s no separate spheres really, which, in a way, is a great blessing.  Because it means that the work I’m doing is like my lifeblood.  It’s personal to me.  To me, it’s so thrilling because it’s something that I care so much about.   But, on the other hand, if I was a pediatrician or a plumber, I’d be like, “wait, this is my work life and this is my personal life.”  And that might be nice to have that space.
GHD: Do you keep a notebook for your writing?
LV: I keep like seven notebooks.  Not even notebooks.  Documents.  I’m so organized in all aspects of my life but my writing is schizophrenic.  There’s bit and pieces everywhere.  So I have my diary notebook, where I try to records some thoughts.  And I just started doing dailies, where you’re supposed to write three pages.  So I have that.  And then I just started a secret poetry blog, where I try to write a poem every day about my life going on.  So I have that.  And then I have my to-do list.  And then I’m sometimes carrying notes.  And then I have my phone, which has forty-six documents from the past week alone.  So it’s a little bit totally crazy, but somehow the magic works and it comes together.  And one day, I will get more organized with it.
GHD: Do you see your work as a break or a continuation of an older genre of literature—something like the Autobiography of Solomon Maimon or the treatises of that other rabble rouser, Baruch Spinoza?
LV: I’ve not read enough of Spinoza or at all of the first [writer] you mentioned, but I definitely think we have a claim to the Haskalah.  Before OTD [Off the Derech] became as popular as it was two, three years ago, I was saying we have to call ourselves Maskilim, not because we’re identical to the original Maskilim, but because we carry some of their spirit forward and it’s important for us to realize that we have a lineage.  That we’re not coming out of nowhere. It’s not, obviously, an unbroken chain.  The themes are very different.  For example, they are, for the most part, much more intellectual than say, my book is.  But I’m proud to claim them. I don’t know how they would feel about being claimed, but I’m proud to claim them (laughs).  And I think we should.
On the one hand, you’re working within the construct of the frum community, which assumes that historical precedence gives you validity.  I think that’s part of the urge to claim the connection to them.  And I think there’s value to that.  I don’t just dismiss that.  But, on the other hand, I think you’re right.  People got angry at me for saying let’s call ourselves Maskilim, but I was never saying it literally.  Obviously, literally, I’m not saying I’m the same as them.  I do think that, especially when you’ve been rejected, as some of us have, by everyone we knew and cared about, to claim kinship with people who are dead, to be able to look out onto a much wider world, and say, “listen, the immediate world has rejected me, but I’m going to find family or intellectual counterparts or people I can to connect to.” I think that’s hugely powerful.  I wouldn’t want to deny myself or other people who find comfort and confidence and ideas and inspiration from that.
GHD: People have been presumably going off the derech since the legal bricklayers paved the path.  But leaving the Haredi world is no longer enough—there’s a drive now to change it, whether it be through writing, protests, billboards, or non-profits. Having spoken to people who went off the derech over twenty to twenty-five years ago, they’ve noticed that change, too.  How do you account for this change?  Why do you think that there’s been a cultural shift now?

LV: I think that context is important.  I really firmly believe the Ultra-Orthodox community did not exist, in its current incarnation, a hundred years ago and even fifty years ago.  And even in my lifetime, I’m thirty-two, I’ve seen a dramatic change in the Ultra-Orthodox community.  I can’t speak as authoritatively to the Hasidic world, which I know is different.  The Yeshivish world, twenty years ago, was a lot more was open to influences and realities of the outside world than it is today.  So I think you could exist in it without feeling like you were existing in something that was caged or enclosed in the way it is now.  I think that the more the Haredi community tightens its grip, the more you’re going to have a backlash because the more you need to have a backlash.
The OTD community really only formed in the way it has in the past three years really.  Five years maybe.  Three years definitely there’s definitely been a big change.  Part of that is about the internet.  A huge part of that is about the internet.  But part of that is that there’s something to really talk about.  I respect the right of people to live in many different ways.  I don’t have a fundamental problem, a foundational problem, with Yeshivish life.  I have a problem with certain parts of it that have become worse and worse and worse now.  So now there’s something to talk about.  That is what I think you see.  I think we’re becoming activists because of what we see and what we feel we have an obligation to change.  I don’t think that it existed in the same extreme way now as it existed thirty years ago.
GHD: Your book is so much about the body and the bodily–contamination, purity, modesty, just to name a few.  The disciplining of the body.  The regulating of it.  It reads like the memoir of a body. When your mother prohibited you from eating on the plates when you returned home, didn’t it function as a metaphor, too? Or do you think the OTD body, in your case, was understood in strictly literal terms—as a “real” site of contamination?
LV: First, I’m so delighted by your question. For me, as a writer, I’m so interested in the body and sexuality.  Very much so. The woman’s body.  I’m delighted that someone picked that up and could talk to me about that.
I think what you’re asking is: was my mother literally thinking I’m going to spread disease?  So I don’t know.  There’s no way of knowing.  Only my mother knows.  I thought, at the time, that she was being literal.  That she literally did not understand how sexually transmitted diseases could work—or whatever she thought I had.  And that she thought I could literally somehow pass this thing on.  When I look back that seems kind of ridiculous.  It seems that she’s more likely sending me a message and a message to the other children that I am the Other.  But I do remember at the time being confused myself.  I was struggling to put together pieces and knowledge about the world.  And as far as I knew, I couldn’t give somebody a disease.  My sense was that she literally believed it.  But it’s hard to know because only she could answer that.
I don’t underline enough it in the book, but I think a lot of my parents’ actions, the message I always got was: they’re protecting their other children.  There definitely is this contamination anxiety.  People say, how could your parents do this to you?  I don’t think that they were doing this to me.  I think they were being good parents to all the other kids they had in the family.
GHD: The subtitle of “Cut me Loose” has a particularly Christian undertone: “Sin and Salvation after my Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood.”  Did you create it?  Does it render your narrative more marketable for non-Jewish consumption?
LV: The title definitely did come together with a team.  And the publisher had a big say in that.  And they really helped me shape it.  Perhaps that was part of the reasoning.  But I actually find peoples’ surprise and pushback about this (and you’re not the first person who said this to me), “this is Christian,” kind of surprising.  Because, as a girl, salvation was huge in my mind.  Except for we never called it “salvation.”  We called it Moshiach.  My life revolved around Moshiach.  I think that very Christian themes around salvation are rife in Ultra-Orthodox Judaism today and people are just thrown off by the terminology.  But I think that we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t think we don’t have Jesus complexes or salvation complexes or whatever you think are really Christian ideas woven that are really deeply into modern day Judaism.
GHD: What would it mean to write a Haredi exodus narrative saturated with failure without a narrative arc of redemption—for all of those estranged, melancholic OTD folks for whom it doesn’t get besser?
LV: I am fascinated by this idea—like the narrative arc, just in general, as a memoirist.  That we are pushed as women, in particular, to have redemption.  And life does not generally follow that kind of convention.  I’m actually just finishing my second book, which really picks this apart.
There’s this essay I wrote after Deb Tambor’s suicide, where I came out as saying I still have an awareness of dark and even suicidal thoughts within me.  It was a very big deal for me to confess that, especially with this book coming out.  And I really wanted to say, yes, my life has gotten better—and I will stand behind It Gets Besser.  I think that it does.  I think that we have the power to make our lives and move our lives.  I think it’s important.  But I also think that it’s a myth to believe that anybody who goes through great trauma will ever come to a place of rainbows and sunshine forever after that.  We are shaped by our scars that we carry with us for the rest of our lives.  I really struggle with the idea of truth telling and how to tell the truth.  And I’m glad that I told the story this way because there is truth in this narrative.  And my life now is vastly better than it ever was.  It’s just existing on a whole different plane.  But I am very interested in this idea that not everybody gets to experience such a dramatic arc and that, no matter what, we still carry these scars with us.  I think we need to find a way to balance being encouraging of people.  And I will stand behind this truth that it does get better, but also acknowledging that no matter where we are in life, we all struggle.  Those of us who have gone through great trauma–that’s always going to be a part of our lives.
GHD: The postcolonial theorist, Gayatri Spivak, once wrote that the history of colonial-imperialism could be summed up as “white men saving brown women from brown men.”  I think the language of saving is curious when talking about Haredim.  Most state powers don’t have vested interests in “liberating” Haredi women by starting wars.  But, even so, how do you strike that balance—that fine line between the ways that Haredi women’s bodies are disciplined, their choices are made, their education, while refusing apologetics, while, at the same time, resisting that secular urge to “liberate” them, to paint them as people robbed of agency and choice?
LV: This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately—and trying to figure out how to express it.  I wish I had more sophisticated academic training to be able to express it better than I will.
Progressives are too nice.  We all know this, I guess.  Or a lot of us say this.  Progressives are too nice. I resent this idea of progressives’ respect for extremism—to the detriment of some people.  I guess the way that I’ve come down to it is: there is a hierarchy of moral or ethical rights.  And a community does not get the right to self-autonomy until it’s fulfilled the right of allowing people to leave.  I am very into this idea of the self-determined life.  That’s my huge thing.  So who am I to criticize frum people for living how they want?  But I don’t think you get the right to a self-determined life unless you let people leave.  I feel that there’s this hierarchy that has to be fulfilled.  There has to be one step and then the other.  That’s how I’ve started to resolve it.  I wish I knew how to say it fancier than that.  But I feel like until the Haredi world let’s people leave, I’m going to criticize the fact that they don’t let people leave and I’m going to criticize them on the two other major issues which I care most about, which is the role and rights of women and the safety of children.  And if people can leave easily, then people could say that I should have to lower the temperature on some of my other issues.
GHD: You express a powerful sense of kinship with men of color you met as you were leaving the Haredi world.  Did you feel a shared sense of marginalization?
LV: I think that initially came from a place of noble kinship.  Yes.  And that really started much earlier when I started to object to the idea of the word, shvartze, and people using that.  And the racism that exists in the frum world.  And I got into trouble with that.  And I think that was very noble.  But when I look back to what happened later on, I’m embarrassed.  I think that I exoticized black men in a way that’s embarrassing and shameful—to sexualize and exoticize them because they were different.  So that is not quite so noble.  And I don’t take myself to task for that because throughout this book, I really wanted to give the reader the perspective of the girl going through it.  I don’t know how accountable you can hold a girl who has no knowledge of anything. I think being raised frum you don’t see outsiders as fully human.  As much as I wanted to prove to my family that “look, these ‘schvartzes’ are the same as us, I can relate to them, and they’ll be good to me,” I was, in a way, treating them, in my affinity for them, in the opposite, but same way.  Does that make sense?  And there’s some embarrassment when I look back and read that.
GHD: You mention in the book that your grandfather marched with black preachers in the 1960’s and that “your father had called his own father ‘Dad.’”  How does this collective forgetting occur?
LV: I don’t know if it’s a collective forgetting as much as a collective wishful thinking.  I think that after a trauma like the Holocaust, whatever grows in that ground is going to be warped.  I think it’s inevitable.  Like I said when we were talking about my own trauma beforehand, of course I still carry that trauma with me as healthy and wonderful as my life is now.
After the Holocaust, we saw this springing up of the Yeshivish community, which, fueled by that great intensity and trauma, was able to create this myth that they had existed forever.  And forget that this is not the case.  And forget that many members, like my father, came from much more progressive backgrounds—and Orthodox Judaism in the 1960’s looked like nothing like Orthodox Judaism in the 1990’s.  And nobody was willing to admit that.  And I think that this terrible trauma is really responsible for so much of this—and I think it’s played out in different Jewish communities in different ways.  And this is the way that it played out in the Yeshivish community.
GHD: You dream that “a bar of soap was forced between my legs, inside me.  My thighs, pelvis, and jaw seized as its hard edges violated me.”  Does purity produce violence?  Or, alternatively, is the injunction to be pure, as a religious woman, an inherently violent one?
LV: I don’t say explicitly in the book, but I always felt afterwards, looking back, that this vision—it wasn’t actually a dream, it was more of an obsessive-compulsive thought sort of as I was falling asleep.  My mother used say to me, or all of the children, when we were going to say a bad word: “I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap.”  That was her threat.  So there is this link to childhood—to this obsessive thought that came to me and then to the violence later on.
I think very strongly that modesty produces sexual violence.  Violence is a broad term—the way I use it.  I don’t mean that modesty leads to rape as much as I mean that obsessions with modesty (and I don’t mean modesty in the dictionary, but I mean modesty the way the religious world sees it), leads to an oversexualization of women that is damaging and terrifying.  When a three year old girl’s face needs to be blurred out from a newspaper, the message you’re sending is that: “I, a man, am so sexually aroused by the sight of a three year old girl’s face that I’m going to spontaneously ejaculate or masturbate to this girl.” That’s the complete message there.  And, to me, maybe that’s not violence, but that’s deeply, deeply troubling.  And I find this obsession with tznius, that is sort of the mainstay of what it means to be a frum woman, incredibly troubling—for what it says about human sexuality in the frum community and what it says about a woman and her relationship to sexuality in the frum community.
GHD: You begin the memoir by inscribing your father into the past, despite the fact that he’s still alive: “my father, Rabbi Shaul Kaplan, was a short, stiff-shouldered man.”  Not is.  Is he dead to you?
LV: Is he dead to me?  He’s not dead to me as a person.  He’s still not dead to me as a father.  I think it’s very complex.  It would be so easy to say it’s one way or the other.  It would be hard to talk about him in the present tense, although I do sometimes.  I was being interviewed somewhere.  I don’t remember, maybe on Leonard Lopate, and I said: “I loved my father.”  And then as soon as I said it, I heard myself saying that, and I had to say, “I love him, also, now.”  It’s not just a story about the past.  He is a person who is alive today.  And I engage with him today.  But I don’t have a relationship with him anymore, so in a way, the relationship is dead and the person I have to relate is not the person walking on the earth today, but the person who existed in the past.
I often call myself a “zombie orphan.”  It’s like a special kind of orphanhood where your parents are alive, but they treat you like your dead.  And it comes with its own rules.  Like zombies.  They pop up into life and you think they’re going to be there for you and then they disappoint you by going for your guts.  It is a zombie orphanhood.  And it’s a very strange state to be in—where you never get to visit somebody’s grave and cry for them.  Instead, you have cold distance and then engagement that’s terrifying.  And then the distance of a seeming death.  And then sometimes you get engaged again.  To have my father issue a statement that he still loves me, while calling me a liar or whatever else he said to Katie Couric and to Tablet, when he didn’t call me after my baby was born—
It’s a zombie orphanhood, where you kind of have this very weird and painful and strange relationship.  And where, in a way, for me, I’ve never been able to give up hope that we can reconcile because I know he’s still alive and because we have had this weird, strange contact.  But I can’t give up.  And that hope has been incredibly damaging to me.  But I hold on to it.  That one day somehow, this will all be cleaned up.  The mess.  And he’ll find a way that I can have a father again.
It’s unlikely.

3 thoughts on “On the Anatomy of a Memoir(ist): An Interview with Leah Vincent

  1. This is one of the most thoughtful, intellectually honest, and subtle interviews I have read about “ultra-Orthodoxy and women” – a complex that tends to be reduced to unfortunate tropisms by either (or really, many) side/s. Really great.

  2. Honestly, I was more impressed by the person being interviewed than the interviewer. The jargon and references to yesterday’s theorists became tiresome. Someone needs a shower (to wash off the prestenchiousness.)

  3. There was no Yeshivish world 25 years ago. There was Ohr Samayach and that’s pretty much it unless you include also Aish. I don’t — Aish is very Litvish but it is also very subversive. As to the Chasidishe velt, well, it depends what you mean. There is no single oilam of Chasidim. I became and remain a Chasid.
    I also march in Pride with bekeshe and shtriemel. Should I let someone who wants firm answers for his soft head define me? No. I’d rather let closeted GLBTQ frummies do that. Quite a few silently watch me and a few even publicly oppose me. They get points for that, I suppose, because it helps with their cover.
    So, Leah — define yourself. And realise, please, that there is no such thing as off the derekh. You may be on the sidewalk or the side of the road, but you’re never off the derekh.

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