Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Leah Vincent's "Cut Me Loose"

Leah Vincent is a writer and activist. The first person in her family to go to college, she earned a BA in psychology as a night student on a Presidential Scholarship at Brooklyn College before going on to earn a Master’s in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School as a Pforzheimer Fellow. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Unpious and The Jewish Daily Forward. Vincent is an advocate for reform within ultra-Orthodoxy and for the empowerment of former ultra-Orthodox Jews seeking a self-determined life. She is a co-producer of the It Gets Besser project and a member and board member of Footsteps, the only organization in the United States supporting formerly ultra-Orthodox individuals.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Cut Me Loose begins with “Hey Princess” --a symbolic quote, perhaps, in that it echoes one of the major themes in this book. In the general mythology of royalty, princesses are defined and made special by their relationship to the male authority figure, the king.

It was Nicholas, my 24-year-old Rastafarian boyfriend who was calling my 17-year-old self “princess” - a nickname that reminded me then of my estranged father’s nickname for me – Leahchke. Cut Me Loose explores how I defined myself by the love and then the rejection of both these men, how religion and sex and trauma shaped me to be a woman dependent on male approval (and then, how I broke free of that paradigm).

On page 99, I’m in the basement of a famous Manhattan club, and Nicholas asks me to take my clothes off. I was still wearing the modest attire of my ultra-Orthodox upbringing: a long skirt, long sleeve blouse, high socks. Although I had been branded a rebel, there were many pieces of my religious childhood I had not yet abandoned.

There’s a small amount of bittersweet pride captured on this page, for me, because I describe how, before complying, I asked Nicholas what his last name was (I didn’t know it). This basic question took a great deal of courage, as I was a quiet and shy girl, wary of ever questioning the men in my life.

I enjoy this page for many reasons, and it does seem to encapsulate the tone and ideas in this book. One other thing that is interesting to me about this page, is that it describes me getting undressed for the first time in front of Nicholas:
He watched with his arms folded as I flailed out of my shirt and skirt and removed my underwear and bra. He has never seen me without my clothes. No man ever had. My breasts, my stomach, my thighs-they seemed to take up too much space, chunks of unwieldy fat affixed to a trembling core. I backed up and sat on the bench, the metal cold on my bare behind.
I remember those sensations, and they reverberate within me now, as there seems to be some faint parallel between the raw and awkward vulnerability of revealing one’s body for the first time and the raw and awkward vulnerability of revealing the very personal secrets of my life to the world, in this memoir. Of course, the latter is an empowered act, a triumphant act, but it does, also, carry its intensities.
Learn more about the book and author at Leah Vincent's website and Facebook page.

--Marshal Zeringue