A book like Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent is going to elicit predictable reactions. Many of these reactions will come from people who have not even read the book. But they already know Leah and her story. These knee-jerk reactions will come from two seemingly opposite camps. Those who have left Orthodox Judaism will see Leah as a heroine with a story that may reflect their own. Those who are living Orthodox Jewish lives will see Leah as a villain or victim and use her history or story to discredit her. What follows might be one of the only reviews of the book from an Orthodox Jew who recommends Cut Me Loose but not the life of its protagonist.
If you’re wondering, why I would recommend, or even acknowledge Cut Me Loose please read on.
The book is different than other books in this niche. Other books tell stories of religion and faith, obedience and rebellion. Cut Me Loose had so little of that. Instead it was a book about a 17 year old girl transitioning from one life to a new life. The backdrop to this story begins with her first life as a Yeshivishe out of town girl, and concludes with her successful integration into the secular world. But it’s almost incidental. The real story is on the inside. While it’s true that part of her story involved negative associations with Orthodox Judaism, that is not the essence of her story.
Reading Leah’s difficult journey is a bitter pill to swallow. Too many terrible things happened to her, or as was often the case, she did to herself. I know Leah, and it was painfully voyeuristic, almost too voyeuristic, to read the details of her darkest moments. No one should ever have to endure the challenges Leah writes about in her book. The world can be a cruel place, and some people encounter more cruelty in their lives than others.
There is a negative stereotype that people who leave Orthodox Judaism are destined to a life of drugs, masochism, and meaningless sexual encounters. Unfortunately, Leah seemingly does everything she can to perpetuate these stereotypes. She was all alone in a giant scary world at 17 years old. It’s insane when you think about it. Her deterioration was to be expected. It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Too much of our education relies upon demonizing the outside. This has many negative consequences. For some, it just becomes their guide map as they clumsily plod along in a new world.
Incredibly, this is despite the fact that most yeshivish people actually live very much in the secular world. In fact, I would say that in many way they are more like Modern Orthodoxy than Hasidic Jews in this respect. Yet, all their engagement almost handicaps them because they are fooled into thinking they get the outside world and when they realize they don’t, it can be far worse than the experience of someone who knows that they are clueless out there. This is a unique feature of the yeshivish community.
Fortunately, Leah’s story has a happy ending. I cried when I read the last page. When Leah is able to succeed in her new world, we all breathe a collective sigh of relief. But when she thrives in that world, our hearts soar. The kind of success we are talking about is the kind of success that religious life gifts to some people. But for those who live on the outside of that world, a world devoid of the familiar structure and markers of success, it can sometimes take more to live a proud, gratifying life. It took a lot for Leah to get there, but when we get to the end of this story we can see that Leah has arrived. It’s a genuinely happy moment and validates this incredible book.
A memoir will inevitably stray from precision. Memories are subjective and somewhat fluid. Leah’s life may or may not have been exactly the way she describes. That’s not really the point. She still experienced her life in the way it was described. Certainly, much of the book rings true to my ears. Not because I have first hand information about Leah’s story, but because I have anecdotes from my own life and the lives of others that reflect similar experiences.
I want to address two things from inside the book and one thing that’s happening outside the book.
There was one line in the book that gave me chills. At one point Leah’s family is instructed by their parents not to acknowledge Leah and basically ignore her in a time of great difficulty for Leah. The argument is that Leah is only doing it for attention and therefore, the logic goes, they should not give her any attention and she will stop.
I don’t agree. If someone is seeking attention, the response is not to ignore their antics and let it all sort itself out. Some might say that the proper respond would be to ascertain the reason for the attention seeking behavior. This is admittedly better than ignoring it altogether, but I think this misses the mark as well.
It seems to me that the best thing to do when someone is seeking attention is to give them attention. And I don’t mean that we should give them the exact sort of attention that they are “asking for” with their negative behavior. Rather, if someone is craving attention and they are acting on it, I think we can assume that this person is dealing with some sort of pain that needs love and care. We may not be able to fix their pain, but we must acknowledge it. In fact, this is exactly what was happening in Leah’s story. She did need attention. And by attention, we mean love. We mean care. We mean affection. We mean any sort of familial bond. She did something stupid to try and get their attention. As immature as it might be to seek attention with immature behavior, it’s at least as immature to think that if someone is doing something for attention then I am not obligated to give them any love or care. If someone craves attention, then the proper thing to do is to love them and empathize with them.
This is important as a parenting and educational tactic. Sometimes children act out as they seek attention. We need to be aware that if they are seeking attention, they might just need some extra loving and we would be remiss if we ignored their pain simply because they “are asking for attention.”
Similarly, when we are dealing with those who have left Orthodox Judaism it is too easy to say “they are just looking for attention” and summarily dismiss them. It seems that if they are seeking attention then they actually do need love and empathy. Why not give it to them?
The second thing that must be addressed is mental health. Clearly, Leah’s mental health was a mess throughout the book. She required serious help. In the frum community we know where to go to ask a question about halacha. There is an entire hierarchal system for handling questions of religious significance. But we don’t have a mechanism for addressing the needs or pleas of those who are in need of emotional help. Whether it’s victims of abuse or any other reason, or even without a reason, there will always be questions of mental health in all communities. We need to work on this. We need better awareness in our schools. Teachers and administrators need to know the signs of mental health issues and they need a plan for handling issues.
Too many things in our community are brushed aside because authority figures are not concerned enough with mental health. The social stigma is too great and the shidduch resume price too dear, for us to be forthcoming and proactive on mental health. That must change first. Then we can begin the process of training those who see our children and teens on a regular basis in best practices. We are woefully behind in all of this. Part of the reason for this could be the over reliance on Torah for things not actually in the Torah. Another part of it is a skepticism of science, especially softer sciences. Whatever the reason, we should do as much as we can to prevent our children from having to face the demons that Leah had to defeat.
The one thing outside the book is the inevitable backlash. Defenders of her family and especially of her father are expected to come to their defense. Full credit to Leah for not using her family name in her book or even in her life. It’s clear that she wants to disassociate from them but also to disassociate them from the book and her life. I think it’s admirable not to want to stick it to them. But still, people will say Leah is a liar. Others will say she’s clearly nuts. Personally, I don’t think so. But I also think such discussion is irrelevant.
Issues are raised in this book. Whether they happened to Leah or not, they exist. The worst response to criticism is attacking the critic. Yet, that’s precisely what tends to happen. This is really not about Leah or her family. It’s about handling the real issues raised in this and other books. It’s about how to react to those who experience anxiety in the frum world and how we treat those who have left. It’s about providing our children with the tools they need to survive in our world but also outside our world. These issues don’t disappear if you discredit Leah Vincent. They still need to be addressed.
So I ask that if you encounter this sort of criticism of her book, you politely ask that they keep the conversation substantive and not ad hominem. Instead, invite a discussion about the issues and elicit thoughtful responses. That would be so much better.
I recommend Cut Me Loose for adults who read secular novels. If you don’t read secular novels, the graphic content might take you somewhere you’d rather not go. But if you are the kind of person who would watch a movie, a TV show (even on Netflix), or read a lot, this book should be added to your list.
But why do I recommend this book? Is it to promote the idea that leaving Orthodox Judaism is a great idea? Not at all. Some people think that people who read books of this nature will be more likely to leave Orthodox Judaism. I disagree.
In my experience, the thing that is most harmful for people on the fringe of Orthodox Judaism is not reading about criticism or people who leave. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. Pretending that there are no issues or sweeping issues under the carpet is their biggest gripe. Like most things, it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup. We cannot be afraid to address our issues. It’s impossible to read Cut Me Loose without considering how we can do better. We owe it to ourselves to reflect on our failings. The voice in this book is not one of unrepentant critic. It is the voice of someone who so badly wanted to stay in the fold but just couldn’t. The title is about herself. She is asking her own self to cut herself loose. It’s a clever double entendre that you’ll understand after you read the book and you’ll see that leaving was her last resort. She needed to leave because it was too hurtful and harmful to stay. The latent criticisms in the book are coming from a place of yearning and disappointment, not from a place of hatred and resentment. On one level, reading Cut Me Loose can serve as a reflection of our culture to inspire improvement.
Further, seeing others who have struggled with matters of faith and observance is actually helpful to most people. The feelings of isolation and loneliness that accompany struggling with observance can be even worse than the actual struggles. Giving a voice to the struggles can be so comforting. Simply the acknowledgment that there are challenges and pain can mean everything to those dealing with these issues. Knowing you’re not alone or that you’re not crazy can be the greatest gift of all. Cut Me Loose can certainly help in this regard.
Finally, the thing that I believe we must give all our brothers and sisters who have left Orthodox Judaism is acknowledgment. We may not be able to heal their wounds, or fix their pain, but we can let them know that we are aware of their wounds and that we can see their pain. Sometimes the best thing we can do is tell those who have left that we hear them. We hear their stories. We hear their struggles. We hear their criticism. I recommend this book because we need to tell those who have left three of the most powerful words in the English language: “I hear you.”
Perhaps, through increased discussion of our issues, awareness of common struggles, and acknowledgement of pain, we can do our part to help the next Leah avoid the trauma she experienced. Perhaps we can ensure that a daughter does not lose her parents and siblings. Perhaps we can see those who have left, as valuable contributors to society even if they don’t live the life we chose for ourselves. It’s a lot to put on a book. But Leah’s exquisite writing just might be the thing to do it.
Disclaimers: I received an advance copy of the book for review. I also purchased a copy of the book to support Leah. If you give me a good reason to send you my extra copy, it’s yours. I’ll choose a winner in a few days. As an Amazon Affiliate, I receive a small commission of all book sales generated by the links in this article.
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) January 22, 2014