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Cut Me Loose | Book Review and Analysis

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.

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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.

 


16 Comments
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  • Tamar

    These two quotes of yours are full of power and truth. For these reasons, and more, I look forward to reading this book. “It’s impossible to read Cut Me Loose without considering how we can do better.” And, “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.””

    Thanks for a great review.

  • Michael A. Burstein

    I’d like the extra copy of the book for a few reasons. I’m fascinated by people’s spiritual (and other) journeys as I moved from lesser to greater observance. Like Ms. Vincent, I am from NYC and went to Harvard (although the college, not the graduate school.) I believe I would be a sympathetic reader of the book.

  • cipher

    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.

    You said essentially the same thing in the previous blog post. I don’t know if you realize how rare a phenomenon you are in your world.

    It seems that if they are seeking attention then they actually do need love and empathy. Why not give it to them?

    You know the rationale: “Because that will encourage others to leave.” (Meanwhile, if “Toyreh” represents absolute truth, why do they feel they need to defend it so vigorously? No one ever really addresses that one.)

    You’re a thoughtful man, but unfortunately, as I believe I told you recently concerning another issue about which you gave similarly excellent advice, your words will fall upon deaf ears.

  • Shades of Gray

    My reaction is to defend Leah’s parents, but it’s not a knee-jerk Orthodox reaction. I was impressed with Leah’s appearance on the Katie show; ironically, I thought, her idea of the beyond “vilification/romanticization” theme at the recent Federation sponsored Footsteps panel reflected well on, and is a credit to her parents. I am in favor of open, honest, constructive, and appropriate discussion about any and all issues shared by the Footsteps community, no matter how sensitive–whether issues in the Frum community of an intellectual or a faith-related nature, sexual, or xenophobic, so long as the discussion is fair.

    My concern is how her parents are perceived by readers of the subjective account of the book. First, just as in a divorce, there are also two sides to the story of Leah’s relationship with her parents. But even if her parents erred, out of fairness, their side of the story, as well as their motives and intentions needs to be told, so that people do not conclude, as in the Wall Street Journal review, that “Ms. Vincent never explains her parents’ vicious behavior….Her book should be read, not just as a warning of the very real dangers of the world, but also of the price to be paid when, in the name of religion, people forget humanity.”

    A person can make parenting errors, if Leah’s description of being overly strict is correct, and still have strengths and decent qualities. I hope such positive qualities are mentioned in the book. Also, just as a messy divorce should not be aired in public– even if one side is correct–neither do I think should issues concerning a private parenting relationship be publicly aired. Why cause pain to Leah’s family? There should be a way to raise legitimate and important issues that are a concern to both the Frum and formerly Frum communities without hurting one’s family. And even if one feels it’s necessary to criticize one’s family in print, it should at least be in a way that minimizes harm to them.

    I think that the all or nothing, vilification/romanticization dichotomy that Leah correctly eschewed at the Footsteps/Federation event, should likewise apply to how people think of her family, no matter what errors they may or may not have made.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      There is no debate or dispute that she was left to her own devices at 17. None. That is enough to justify the last line in the WSJ review.

      • Shades of Gray

        The family’s response was never heard in full. The courtrooms of the mind, to borrow Hanoch Teller’s felicitous title, should reflect an actual court where a judge fully listens to both sides. היו מתונים בדין

        Also as I pointed out, there is the way people perceive the family based on the alleged actions. One meaning of והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות is to judge literally, the *entire* person, in addition to the actions. Readers may not come up with a total picture of the family from her description. If the father is loving and does kindness and chesed, that should be reflected in a review article, as well, as it is part of his character. From an article titled “Torah Attitude: Parashas Emor: Judge the whole person” by Rabbi Avraham Kahn:

        “Judging the whole person–We have already mentioned that it says earlier in Pirkei Avos (1:6): “And you shall judge everyone favourably.” Some of the commentators point out that the literal translation is “And you shall judge the whole person favourably.” This teaches us that just as if we would take a passage from a book and read it out of context, we would not have a clear understanding of its proper meaning. The same thing happens if we take an individual’s situation out of context without looking at the broader picture. We cannot properly judge a person in the present if we do not know his past. There is always more to a situation than at first appears. Often we really do not know the person that well. We do not know all the details of what is happening in the person’s life at any particular time. By reminding ourselves that we do not necessarily know all the details we can train ourselves to always assume that there is a good reason why the person is acting contrary to our expectations. Just like the worker presumed that there were valid reasons why his employer had no money or property to pay his wages, we should assume that others have valid reasons for their behaviour as well. This is not an easy task. Most of us would flare up if we worked for three years only to be told that there was nothing left at the time to pay our wages. However, if we realize that we only see part of the whole person and his situation, we can understand that we cannot pass judgment, but must give the benefit of the doubt. As it says later (Pirkei Avos 2:5), “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place.” As long as you have not reached his place, i.e. have a clear picture of his complete situation, you must give him the benefit of the doubt.”

        • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

          I purposely left them out of the review? Are you addressing me? Or the WSJ?

          • Shades of Gray

            I thought the focus of your review was good.

            I’m responding to the predictable effect of her writing the book, as you noted in the post. I didn’t read it, but if her book and its publicity seem to cause the perception that the WSJ and others may have, my reaction is to offer something in defense of her parents out of fairness.

            • kweansmom

              I agree with you that we haven’t heard the parents’ side of the story, except for an excerpt from the letter read on the Katie Couric’s show. However, I think that one can judge the book and its value as a memoir without judging the accuracy of all the facts contained in it. (And I believe it has the standard “Some events may have been modified” disclaimer). I think most intelligent people can read a book like this with the understanding that they are hearing only one subjective perspective, and focus on the narrative without playing detective about the facts.

              I also wanted to add that Ms. Vincent did take some measures to protect her family’s identity, by using a different name in the book. Whether it was out of concern for them or under lawyer’s advice, I don’t know. At this point the family’s name is well-known.

              I, too, would like to hear more from the family, but I don’t expect to.

              • Ohr Ganuz

                She changed the names but anyone could figure out who the family is easily… in my opinion, nothing justifies this terrible cruelty to the family.

      • kweansmom

        I don’t know if there’s any debate. We haven’t heard from the parents
        .
        According to the book, at age 17 when she finished her year in seminary (no, she was not kicked out or brought back early by her parents, despite the impression given on the Katie Couric show), her mother found her an apartment and a job in Brooklyn and expected her to be self-supporting. Her older sisters went through the same experience; this was what the family expected from their daughters during the time between seminary and marriage.

        While I wouldn’t recommend letting a 17-year-old make their way on their own in NYC, she doesn’t seem to have been singled out for punishment in this way. If anything it reflects the family’s poverty rather than their fundamentalism.

        • Benignuman

          In addition her sisters were with her in New York at the same time. From her parents’ perspective she was going to be together with her sisters in New York.

          • kweansmom

            The book says the sisters had been living there in the past but there was no indication they were there at the same time. She keeps referring to the time “when my sisters had been in NY”.

            She says that was the pattern for all the single girls in her family, after a year in Israel, so to do otherwise would have aroused suspicion that something was wrong with her. While she feels her parents were more “generous” with the sisters while they were single, she admits that they didn’t “coddle” any of their kids.

            She describes the time as being totally friendless, Jewishly. Unlike her sisters she had no friends from seminary and she says she felt too shy to approach distant cousins for Shabbos meals. I find it hard to believe that her parents, having found her an apartment and a job, wouldn’t make a few calls to get her invited out for Shabbos meals, but that’s the way she presents it.

  • Debbie

    I think that the book probably contains useful lessons for all parents and educators. And for all people, really.

    I would like to be able to read it and say with sincerity “I hear you.”

  • Tzipora :-)

    Hi! I need the extra copy of the book, first I can’t afford it-nada, zilch, really!. 2nd in my line of work I find myself in a position where many teenage girls in troubled situations open up to me and seek my guidance/support or simply open up to me because I don’t judge them and I genuinely want to help them. I’ve traveled a rough road myself and speak publicly about it, the girls feel more comfortable talking to me perhaps for that reason…This book will help me gain more understanding and perspective. What I also really want to read about in the book is how she made it out of the dark mess to being successful, what an inspiration! I would love to read the whole story to inspire myself and others.

  • ednastvincent

    I think what struck me most about the book was the absolute lack of information about and engagement with Judaism this woman had, whether in spite of or because of her particular upbringing. At least, when men leave ultra-Orthodoxy, they tend leave for serious, intellectual reasons. They realize that they can’t square the Torah with science. They realize that they want the freedom to learn new subjects. They realize that the sources they were told had all the answers did not have the answers they needed.
    This woman was forced to leave Orthodoxy over a sweater. A SWEATER. She was forced out because she had written correspondence with a boy — about IDEAS. It says to me that the only thing — the *only* thing that matters for a girl in these communities is modesty. And by modesty, they mean that women should for all intents and purposes be invisible — without thoughts, without feelings, without bodies, without ideas.
    Simply by speaking aloud or wearing a ribbon in your hair — by doing anything — anything at all — that marks you as an individual — you could be cast out. Not only you, but your entire family. Read the wrong book and your sister is forced to marry an asshole. The entire system is built on shame. The ideas may be beautiful, but we don’t live in ideas. We live in communities. And there is nothing good about a community that tells a girl she is a filthy whore because she is wearing the wrong sweater. Nothing. Good.
    We are judged by how we treat the most vulnerable among us — the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the girl in the wrong sweater. Apparently, one’s standing the shidduch market is far more important than those sins.