Twice Born Souls: “Cut Me Loose,” by Leah Vincent
Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood
By: Leah Vincent
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 240 pages
Assuming there are no Malcolm Gladwellian coincidences, there must still be something to the fact that just as I received my copy of Leah Vincent’s memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, I kept falling into Internet wormholes that led me to articles on the science behind Loneliness.
Most articles stress only what Loneliness isn’t. It is not mourning, or clinical depression, or feeling disconnected from your significant other. It isn’t something that can be with any certainty tied to an age, an ethnicity, a gender, or a socio-economic bracket. In fact, one can be lonely when surrounded by people, because loneliness, according to the New Republic’s science writer Judith Shulevitz, is “an interior, subjective experience, not an external, objective condition.”
And then, as I was reading Vincent’s book, I gasped. I had come to the part where the young protagonist is living by herself in a basement in Brooklyn, struggling to get by on a pitiful salary and with not a friend to her name. It was one of the most wrenching depictions of true, bone-deep Loneliness I had ever read:
When I got home from work, I ate a slice of pizza or an apple for dinner, said my evening prayers slowly, showered for as long as I could stand, and then lay in bed in my nightgown, baking in the heat, worrying about my future as the moments dragged on.
One night, the boredom and the humidity became unbearable. I pulled on a skirt and blouse and walked through the dark streets. The traffic lights blinked at the empty roads. I skittered around the men gathered under plastic bodega awnings on the corners. From the park under the elevated train tracks, I could hear shouts and calls. Eventually, I returned to my crumpled sheets, to watching the low ceiling that hovered above my face.
By this point in the narrative, Vincent, who was raised in a small Yeshivish community in Pittsburgh, is well acquainted with Loneliness, but it wasn’t always that way. Unless you’re by nature a Lonely Person, it’s awfully difficult to feel solitary when you are the fifth of eleven children. Readers of this website will recognize the tableau of Vincent’s youth: the constantly pregnant mother, the house that whirls into action around yomim tovim, and the looming rabbinical presence, which in this case—lucky her—was Vincent’s father.
Vincent doesn’t linger much on her early years, though she’ll revisit the past often when times are tough. Instead, she jumps ahead to when she is sixteen, and about to leave her home to live with her aunt and uncle in Manchester, England. The idea is for young Vincent to acclimate herself to the large Yeshivish community there and attend the local Bais Yaakov for a year before matriculating at the esteemed Manchester Seminary.
Still, her sins are not mortal. In an attempt to nudge her back on the derech, Vincent’s parents suggest she spend the summer in Israel living with her sister and learning at a local seminary. Unfortunately for them, the seeds of doubt and discontent have already been planted, and things go from bad to worse. Vincent describes her childhood as ending “over the course of two phone calls, a few weeks apart.” The first is from her aunt and uncle, and the second from her mother. By the time the latter hangs up, Vincent will be—emotionally, at least—an orphan, and she will spend the better part of the next nine years grasping for affection and acceptance from anything and anyone.
Of all of her methods of self-soothing—cutting, restriction of food intake, and hazardous relationships with men—her promiscuity is the most agonizing for the reader to bear witness to. Not to diminish the emotional turmoil caused by more solitary means of self-destruction, but its her sexually impulsive activity that points to how deeply she has “despaired of cosmic heroism,” as anthropologist Dr. Ernest Becker once wrote, and how willing she is to make herself the plaything of another. During a one-night stand—most of her romances are very brief—she “tried to push as close as [she] could into nothingness.” She is actively seeking nihilism and self-obliteration during her trysts, which stands in stark contrast to the way her younger, more faithful self conceived of intercourse. (That’s the highbrow spin on it; in truth, the immediate, emotional reaction to a description of sex as the “splitting [of] tight flesh” is to make you just want to hug the poor girl.)
Without belaboring the obvious, Vincent explains how easily her Orthodox upbringing paved the way for her ill-fated entrée into the world of sugar daddies and careless lovers, another universe where a man’s satisfaction takes precedence above all. At a nadir, she decides to try her hand at Craigslist-facilitated prostitution. The episode begins almost comically, with Vincent donning the persona of a tough-as-nails hooker the way a little girl might put on her mother’s lipstick in front of a mirror and, pouting, view herself as wholly changed. “I could imagine myself in a tiny leather miniskirt, full breasts rising out of a glittery tank top, thick hair swirling over my shoulders as if an invisible fan whirled in front of my face… I envisioned a new apartment, a penthouse in Manhattan: all white carpeting and silk sheets… I’d be the baddest bad girl around.”
The simile above is reminiscent of Lacan’s Mirror Stage, which is the point in infancy when a baby begins to recognize her image in a mirror and understand her mastery of her own body. Obviously, Vincent was not at that point an infant, but her vamping for the male viewer shows how ill-equipped she was even in her early twenties to perceive of herself as her own supreme authority. By the time she tries her hand at prostitution, she has just about abandoned all religious practice, having held on to the last vestiges of faith for longer than she would have had she been ruled by intellect alone. Her hold on the Yeshivish way of life is a testament to its hold on her, and her final break from observance is experienced as a “relief in acknowledging the choice [she] had been edging closer to.”
Still, when asked to return to her parents’ house for her sister’s wedding, she finds she is overcome with nostalgia. This is the sting of a wound not yet fully healed: the loss of her family, her religion, and the future she had envisioned since girlhood. Several times in the book, Vincent pines for the devout child she once was, the maternal nurturing she was denied, the “familiar citrusy flavor of the chicken and the soft give of the warm bread on my tongue”—in short, the heimishe life. It’s a credit to her storytelling skills that she is able to confront what she has lost in her journey rather than focus solely on what she has gained. In these moments of what Brazilians would call saudade, her vulnerability is so potent it is damn near heartbreaking, for she has so obviously loved and lost.
It is easy to let the many competing sounds drown out one still small voice. In this case, the chatter around the book—the marketing machines whirring to life, the dissenting voices picking apart the writer’s character, the supporters rallying to decry fanaticism—threatens to overwhelm the clear, compelling message of self-actualization put forth by Vincent. At the end—which is undoubtedly not the last of her story—Vincent is no longer Lonely, but able to form meaningful, healthy bonds with others. She is on her way to Harvard, one of her brothers is flirting with secular life, and a romance is blossoming. But despite the happy outcome, it feels important not to compress Vincent’s story into girl-triumphs-over-religion. The victory is not that Vincent threw off the shackles of Orthodoxy, but that she did not allow herself to be destroyed during the agonizing, shaky transition.
Being born into frum life, too, isn’t itself the tragedy; rather it is the frum world’s insistence on making any transition away from it as difficult and as Lonely as possible. For all its virtues, which Vincent bravely recognizes, the Yeshivish world at large enables an intolerance of those who need to explore, question, writhe, smash idols (oh, I went there), fall, fly and sing. These are philosopher William James’ “twice-born” souls, the ones who experience what he calls a “crisis of meaning” and find themselves leaving their homes and lives behind in the name of reinvention. These people go by other names, too: poets, prophets, and precious babies, every one.Printable Version