Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood By Leah Vincent.
Penguin Books| May 12, 2015|256 pages |$16.00| ISBN: 978-0-14-312741-3
Leah Vincent divides Orthodox Jews in three groups: Hasidic; Modern Orthodox –“semiassimilated into modern life—and Yeshivish –“committed to the centrality of the yeshivas—study halls where men ponder ancient legal texts.” It sounds a lot like the Amish. No television or modern technology. Little higher education. Young girls get married off as teenagers to start families at age 16 if possible. It’s a fundamentalist religion that many don’t understand and with knowledge/education and other options might disagree with it.
At the beginning echoing back to a teenage voice Vincent explains how she began to question the Yeshivish lifestyle and faith as a teen when she became interested in boys. That seems to be the main issue with which she struggles: “Yeshivish girls were not permitted to talk to boys. We were not allowed even to think of them. Since adolescence had arrived, my desire had roiled within, getting larger in the small container of my skin. My feelings were intensified and distorted in their repression. Nearly every boy I saw became a swoon-worthy Prince Charming.”
At 16 she’s sent to a Yeshivish school in Manchester, England where she meets a boy and they begin a correspondence. Her parents find out and she’s banished first to Israel as a semi-last resort. Vincent writes: “Though I understood the smallest brush with promiscuity spread around a girl and her family like toxic ink in a fishbowl, my banishment from Manchester was crushing. I was not a loudmouthed slutty girl who laughed at Jewish law. I was a girl who cried real tears over the destruction of the Temples every Tisha B’Av. I was a girl who would never sneak a kosher candy bar that did not carry the extra-strict cholov Yiroel certification. I wanted to be good. I was good. I had just been curious.”
Vincent then attends a school in Jerusalem. Her parents aren’t happy but don’t give up immediately. However, when she’s caught hanging around with boys her parents cast her out to live and work alone in New York. At first tries to stick to her Orthodox ways by eating Kosher, dressing modestly but soon enough isolated, confused and alone she spirals into a self-destructive phase. She cuts her arms. “The cutting gave me such release, I returned to it again and again and again in the days that followed, until it became a regular habit. 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.”
She has unsafe sex. She puts herself into situations where she’s raped and abused. Vincent quite explicitly describes the sexual situations. Perhaps she thought it would intensify or explain her turmoil. For someone so downtrodden she manages to work, pay her bills and attend college. At college she has an affair with a married professor 40 years her senior. The misguided father figure affair.
“I had chosen freedom, and I had paid the price: The loss of my family. Too much heartbreak. PID [pelvic inflammatory disease]. But where was my delicious free-for-all? Where was all the candy sweetness of sin I had been so direly warned about? Wasn’t that supposed to come along with its toxicity? All I seemed to encounter was rejection and disappointment. What other commandments would I have to break to access the goodies?”
Being agnostic, I don’t understand the draw of religions that don’t value women, that want to keep women in domesticated roles, bearing as many children as possible and never becoming educated. Strict religions and cults intrigue me. How can these strict religions and cults exist in the modern world? That’s why this memoir intrigued me. Vincent writes well. A bit more on her college experiences besides the affair with the teacher and her drive to attend Harvard for graduate school would make this much better.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin Random House.