Leah Vincent, though happily married, hasn't taken her husband's surname. But "Vincent" isn't the last name she grew up with. She does not share it with her father, a prominent Orthodox rabbi from Pittsburgh or any of her ten siblings. She assumed "Vincent" in her 20s when she was briefly married to a roommate in need of a green card. He got to remain in the United States and she got to forge a new identity, one that is separate from the strict religious upbringing she was looking to escape.
"Growing up with such an influential father, every time I said my own name, I was reminded that my father was disappointed in me and everything I had left behind," Vincent, 31, told me in advance of the publication of her memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood. "Now every time I say my name, it's like a fresh slate. Nobody else gets to decide what Vincent means."
The story of how she became Vincent—the first in her family to attend college, a recipient of a Harvard masters degree, mother of a young daughter, and most significantly, a formerly ultra-Orthodox Jew—comprises the narrative arc of the book.
It starts with Vincent as a devout young girl in Pittsburgh, who has wholly accepted her role as a woman in her community and the life plan that had been preordained—marriage and motherhood—and both as soon as possible. "I also thought it was the only possibility," Vincent said. "It's like asking a penguin, 'How do you feel about growing up to be a penguin?' It's like—'I'm a penguin. This is my calling.'"
It wasn't until her teens that she started to realize that she might not be a penguin: She had asked some inappropriate questions and had a G-rated flirtation with a boy. Once discovered by her parents and family, the young Vincent was pushed aside, put on the family back burner, so to speak, waiting for marriage and for her life to begin. (Not that she was on track for such an outcome, given her reputation for minor transgressions.)
"It's a gigantic waste of talent and opportunity to sit around waiting for some man to give you permission to fill a role," Vincent commented.
Many of the reviews of Vincent's book are likely to focus on the details of her Orthodox upbringing, exoticizing the unfamiliar elements such as the strictures of kashrut (rules pertaining to what is and isn't permissible to eat) and the Sabbath and strict codes of female modesty. But Cut Me Loose isn't particularly salacious in recounting the details of the ultra-Orthodox experience. (If you're looking for a more scandal-driven tome, Deborah Feldman's 2012 bestseller Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection Of My Hasidic Roots might be a more appropriate choice. Scandal is baked right into the title.) Vincent's agenda doesn't seem to be lifting the veil on her former community and sensationalizing ultra-Orthodox life. Besides, stating the facts plainly is often sensational enough for the uninitiated.
That's not to say the reader won't learn a great deal about the Orthodox community from reading this memoir. But if you can resist the urge to engage in pop culture anthropologizing and mentally set aside the exotic details, what emerges is a more universal story of feminist awakening. Vincent journeys from a black and white space, where gender roles are rigidly enforced to a grayer space where women have more options, but not as many we'd like. (For instance, women don't have the option to be unattractive in our so-called "enlightened" society.)
"When I told the story, it was very important to me that this was a girl's story, of coming into womanhood, and the religious aspect is the background of the story," she commented.
Indeed, her first sexual experience will resonate with far too many women—she was raped by a man she knew. But Vincent doesn't label the encounter as such in the prose. "It was very important to me as I was making decisions about how to tell the story to tell it in the voice of the girl who was experiencing it as she was experiencing it. It was really an evolution of voice," Vincent said of her decision to not use "rape" to describe that experience. "And as I was going through that experience, I did not think that was rape. I thought rape only occurred if you were in a dark alley and being held down by four men and being raped as you screamed and shouted."
You can chalk this naiveté up to her sheltered religious upbringing, but as recent news stories demonstrate, it's not just Orthodox women (and men) who have this misconception about rape. From young women in high school all the way up to Republican lawmakers to the U.S. military, many still believe that "dark alley stranger rape" is the only "real" kind of rape. (I'm looking at you, Todd "legitimate rape" Akin.)
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Another commonality that the ex-religious share with many feminists is the experience of being "gas lighted." Those that have left the Orthodox community are often labeled as "crazy" or "mentally ill" by the ones who remain in the fold. Vincent's own father, when interviewed about the forthcoming memoir, has labeled her this way.
"It really fucks with your sense of self and your ability to trust yourself when the person you respect most in the world telling you that you're crazy and you're a liar. You can't help but doubt yourself in a very serious way," she said of the accusations leveled at her.
It took Vincent a long time, years even, to shake the feeling that she was corrupted and didn't deserve happiness. Long after she had dropped the external markers of religiosity—her modest clothes and dietary restrictions—she still judged her actions based off of the standards with which she was raised.
"Even though I put on pants and was having sex with people, it doesn't meant that my brain bounced back into normal, un-fundamentalist religion shape," she said.
Related: A Look at Love, Illuminated.
Progress, whether it's on a personal or movement level, is rarely perfectly linear. To paraphrase Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat—Two steps forward, two steps back. Or something like that.
But that's part of the victory for Vincent—being able to see and appreciate gray when she had been taught to think exclusively in black and white. Though she knows it's not exactly feminist, she spends most of the book bouncing from one man to the next, hoping that one of them can set her straight and put her on a path, whether it's towards marriage, motherhood, or a career.
"I think the idea is still in my brain today..." Vincent observed, "I think it's in a lot of women's brains—that the men in their lives can save them on some level. But now I have a much larger idea that lives alongside that one, that I can save myself and that I have saved myself."