MY GODDAMN FLESHby Amy Deneson
Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood
(Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2014)
As the daughter of a respected rabbi, Leah Vincent was born into a world that worshiped messiahs, men, and modesty in suburban Pittsburg. A middle child in a Yeshivish family of 13 devoted to an ultra-orthodox sect of Judaism, Vincent writes, “I had been groomed to handle men—God, my father, my future husband—with relentless worship. I carried that lesson from my childhood…like a butterfly dragging its cocoon.” Vincent’s coming-of-age memoir is a dark journey of hacking her way out of a stifling religious community—through questioning, cutting, and exploring her sexuality—in order to go frei, Hebrew for free. While Cut Me Loose is about a girl shedding her skin, it also provokes the question over whether anyone can truly escape the culture in which he or she was weaned.
At age 16, Vincent visits an older sister in Israel and comes face to face with the life she fantasizes will soon be hers: A graduate of the prestigious Manchester Seminary at 17, married by 18, and a mother by 19, raising the first of eight to 10 children. This first-hand experience with the heat of the Holy Land, endless bowls of soggy Cheerios being gummed by constantly crying babies, her sister’s harried, cockeyed wig, and perpetually dissatisfied husband, Vincent finds herself asking: Is this it?
“Was this, I wondered, the gorgeous, idealized union I had longed for all of my life?” Vincent questions her pre-ordained destiny amongst other adolescent doubts of faith in soul-baring letters to a girlfriend and a foreboded boy. As part of a shomer negiah community, in which laws forbid unmarried men and women from touching, Vincent writes, “My feelings were intensified and distorted in their repression.”
When her letters are intercepted, Vincent’s youthful umbrage is sufficient to revoke her invitation to the seminary in the fall, permanently disrupting her life’s trajectory toward becoming ideal marriage material. In what they hope will be remedial, her family forces her to study at a seminary for the newly converted in Israel. Collectively, they shun her emotionally and then abandon her financially after Vincent buys a sweater too formfitting to be modest.
Despondent, Vincent is left to fend for herself by cleaning toilets and clinging to her first boyfriend. After her first kiss becomes her first breakup. Alone and “defenseless before the possibility of love,” Vincent encounters her first “sleazeball,” first grope, first onslaught of self-mortification. “The feeling was exquisite, but my mind, shocked at the permissiveness of my body, raced with horror at what I was allowing him to do.”
In an effort to marry her off, Vincent’s parents move her to Brooklyn to live within the Yeshivish community in the Kensington neighborhood, and, at age 17, join “each girl holding her breath as she waited to be picked—by a matchmaker, by a prospective mother-in-law, by a man—so her life could begin.” When her prospects fail to materialize, Vincent meets a Rastafarian hanging around a basketball court. Hoping he will save her—if from nothing else, her overwhelming loneliness—Vincent suffers a devastating first experience with consent.
Afterwards, Vincent recoils from the secular world, wondering if perhaps her parents have been right all along. She is hopeful when her brother sets her up with a Yeshivish bad boy. “Duvi might be a miracle,” she swoons. “This is God proving his mightiness, and he will smooth the path, reverse the past, save me entirely.” 16 days after their first date at a kosher restaurant on Avenue J, he proposes. They consummate their commitment passionately, reasoning they’ll be doing so for the rest of their lives. A week later Duvi ends the engagement, insisting it is God’s will, and then forces himself upon her. “I was reduced to Duvi’s vessel,” she writes, heartbroken over believing a man—on earth or in heaven—might hold her interests at heart, let alone save her: “After [Duvi], there was only silence.” And then a litany of one-night stands, including an eviscerating experience with being a Craigslist prostitute. “The choice I made that morning felt inevitable,” Vincent recalls, nodding to influences beyond the base need for money. “Girls who left the Yeshivish life always became sluts and whores. This had been taught to me all of my life. I could never turn into a healthy irreligious woman…the journey out of the cloistered community I had been raised in was too difficult. The distance from modest girl to free woman could not be traversed.”
At a welcomed (to this reader) turning point, Vincent rises from despair and is admitted to Brooklyn College with a full scholarship. In her family’s eyes, Vincent pursuit of higher education was considered as self-destructive as pre-marital sex. As a child, her academic desires were met with threats from her mother that she would be locked up in a psychiatric hospital. A threat not unlike her mother’s promise to sit shiva for Vincent, if she discovered her daughter was sexually active, grieving over her as if she were dead. Vincent recalls feeling, at that first class, “as tense and frightened as if I were trying to hurl my body through a glass wall.”
As a constant reminder that she is “off the path,” she attends classes in Flatbush, home to the largest population of ultra-orthodox Jews outside of Israel. Homesick, on Hanukkah, overwhelmed by sadness and no longer able to contain her conflicting emotions, she cuts herself. “The relief I found in cutting my skin helped me cope as I lived my split life of religion and college, modesty and loneliness, hope and memory.”
In a devastating spiral of depression and self-mutilation, Vincent drops out of college, out of life, cuts instead of praying, starves and binges instead of eating, despairs instead of dreaming. “I couldn’t pretend that I believed in my ability to engineer my own life successfully. I had become the living embodiment of all those cautionary tales I had been told, how leaving Yeshivish life ensured a miserable existence.” Distraught, she ultimately cuts her wrist. Heretofore, she had contained her wounds to parts that could be covered by the modest apparel she still wore. The first peel jolts her to the realization that this was her blood, her body that she was hurting. The repression that had been inflicted upon her, she was now inflicting upon herself: “This is my goddamn flesh.” It didn’t belong to god, her father, her future husband, or past boyfriends, or sexual partners; her body, she realizes, belonged to her.
Vincent re-enrolls in college and gets involved in a therapeutic, father-surrogacy relationship with a married professor, whom she calls “Pupa.” “His constant affection gave me the self-assurance I needed to make sex mine.”
In the midst of this affair, she returns home for a sister’s engagement party. Sitting at the table, eating off a paper plate with disposable cutlery—lest she contaminate others with her secularity by sharing the Shabbos china—she realizes she had misunderstood her longing for them, for her desire to return home.
Vincent isn’t homesick for this “family of foreigners, their religiosity and gender divisions” rendering them incapable of welcoming and loving her. Instead, “Homesickness was the ache for the girl I used to be, that sexless, fuzzy-haired child, so blindly confident that she would have an easy life, always protected by a vigilant God.” She says goodbye to this romanticized ideal of a life—and to her mother, who, at Vincent’s final effort to connect, merely offers a helpless shrug; her father, a cold rebuff.
“Why had I held on to my love for this place, for these people?” Vincent asks but doesn’t answer in Cut Me Loose. Generations of memoirists, along with their readers, will trod similar tracks of thought, contemplating: Even if one succeeds in cutting herself loose; will we ever be free from the culture in which we were raised?
While Cut Me Loose is an emancipation story of Vincent becoming acquainted with her mind and saving her own life, this memoir is not a magnanimous exploration of the lives of faith—whether those beliefs are in a religion or in oneself. Unlike other memoirs in the escape-from-fundamentalism genre, Vincent does not provide a voyeuristic peep into a cloistered community. Readers are left outside, as excluded as Vincent purportedly felt, baffled over unbending beliefs that created incomprehensible customs.
Palpable on these pages is that Vincent is still righteously angry over enduring the neglect of a belief system that supersedes caring for one’s children. Vincent channels this anger well in her incisive prose and masterfully edited storytelling that is sure to resonate. In the first two short chapters, we skip from a finger-sucking Vincent at age nine to a 15-year-old being sent off to a seminary in England with the flip of a page. Each word becoming one to heed or follow.
Vincent’s attempts to speak truth to power will inspire some readers. In a touching scene with her younger brother, she writes, “I wanted to do anything to make his path easier than mine had been.”
Indeed, in the final pages, it does get better. At the professor’s prompting, Vincent sets her sights on studying at Harvard. “I had always been taught that people who left the Yeshivish community were failures. I had almost succumbed entirely to that stereotype.
Accepted, she pulls out the suitcase she has been lugging since she left her father’s home as “a subdued teenage girl in a long blue skirt.” Back then, she had crossed out her sister’s name and written her own, at some point, she had crossed out her father’s surname, and written one of her own creation. “Leah Vincent, a woman without a history.” Her future, along with those she helps along the way, looks promising.
Amy Deneson is a writer in New York. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Salon, and Curve magazine, amongst others. She is currently writing a memoir about growing up in the Christian purity culture.