Title: Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood
Author: Leah Vincent
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Available: Barnes and Noble | Kobo | iBookstore | The Book Depository | Powell's
From the Publisher: In the vein of Prozac Nation and Girl, Interrupted, an electrifying memoir about a young woman's promiscuous and self-destructive spiral after being cast out of her ultra-Orthodox Jewish family
Leah Vincent was born into the Yeshivish community, a fundamentalist sect of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. As the daughter of an influential rabbi, Leah and her ten siblings were raised to worship two things: God and the men who ruled their world. But the tradition-bound future Leah envisioned for herself was cut short when, at sixteen, she was caught exchanging letters with a male friend, a violation of religious law that forbids contact between members of the opposite sex. Leah's parents were unforgiving. Afraid, in part, that her behavior would affect the marriage prospects of their other children, they put her on a plane and cut off ties. Cast out in New York City, without a father or husband tethering her to the Orthodox community, Leah was unprepared to navigate the freedoms of secular life. She spent the next few years using her sexuality as a way of attracting the male approval she had been conditioned to seek out as a child, while becoming increasingly unfaithful to the religious dogma of her past. Fast-paced, mesmerizing, and brutally honest, Cut Me Loose tells the story of one woman's harrowing struggle to define herself as an individual. Through Leah's eyes, we confront not only the oppressive world of religious fundamentalism, but also the broader issues that face even the most secular young women as they grapple with sexuality and identity.
Trigger Warning: There are scenes of rape and cutting in this memoir. If these could potentially be harmful to you, please proceed with caution. While I haven’t quoted any of those specific scenes, I do reference them below.
Leah Vincent has written her memoir – Cut Me Loose – and, while we may not have shared the same experiences (I don’t come from an Orthodox Jewish background), the feelings she experienced are all too familiar to me. This will probably be the most personal review I have ever written here.
Leaving your faith, especially when it’s a faith you’ve been indoctrinated into, is a big fucking deal.
A love of tradition became an obsession with the law. This is the way it always was, insisted this new group, who would come to be called the ultra-Orthodox or Yeshivish. The remnants of the Orthodox Jewish community, reeling in the aftermath of the Holocaust, did not argue. And so the Yeshivish developed a story line that extended into the past, as if this way of life had always existed, and pushed forward into the future, as if it always must exist, unchanged.
When Leah was fifteen, she was sent away from her family to study in Manchester because she began asking questions. Questions like, “Can you repeat that in English?” when the men were speaking in Arabic and Hebrew at the dinner table. Or because she asked her father to stop using a racist word and instead call her neighbors “African Americans.” These were signs that she was corrupt and unruly.
Our house sat kitty-corner to the synagogue, so in the summer, with the windows of the sanctuary cantilevered ajar and our small bathroom window open, I could hear Kaddish while sitting on the toilet. Whenever this happened, I’d have to clap my hands over my ears. As an observant Jew, you could not hear Kaddish and not respond, “May his great Name be blessed forever and ever,” but you also could not speak of God in the bathroom.
While in Manchester, Leah befriended Shalamit and begin to spend time with her family. Shalamit’s older brother would actually speak to Leah – it is forbidden to speak between the sexes – and he encouraged her to think outside of the box. Suddenly Leah began to consider the idea of going to college or learning the Talmud. She wrote him letters in secret to foster philosophical debate and open her mind. She also enjoyed being a little bit rebellious.
When you live in a very small, restricted world and it suddenly opens up to you in dreams and possibilities – it can be very frightening.
I had heard stories about those who left our Yeshivish community. They would up drug addicts, prostitutes, or dead.
When you’re taught that the world is only one way, and that all other ways are wrong, it can physically hurt you inside when you begin to question that one way. Or when you begin to rationalize the choices you make that are different.
I’m just having some feelings.
When Leah broached the idea of college with her mother, she was threatened with a psychiatric hospital. And then she was sent to live with her sister in Jerusalem for the summer, to study at seminary before she entered Manchester Seminary in the fall. Her life was set in a very specific path: Seminary, move to New York, get married, and have children. That was how it was done. That was how it was always done.
But Shalamit’s mother found the letters she’d written to her older brother. Everyone found out about it and she was forbidden to return to Manchester. Her parents were ashamed of her. Her father would no longer speak to her. She was virtually an outcast.
Sin was a short-lived pleasure that only caused pain. I needed to stop coming up with stupid ideas. I needed to keep my head down and be good.
It’s common to return to the known when you begin to feel alone. For Leah, that was “being good.” Returning to orthodoxy. She believed that if she did everything the way she was supposed to, she would regain the love of her parents and her family, that she would return to her path and find a man to love and marry. A good chunk of the memoir is Leah struggling to do what she’s “supposed to do” in order to find favor with her family.
But when she finally returned to the States after her year away, she was left on her own. Her mother found her an apartment and a job, but wouldn’t even talk to her on the telephone.
Leah had no family. She had no community. And at this point, she hadn’t even fully left her faith yet; she’d simply been curious.
In her desperation to extinguish the loneliness, she met a man. She believed she loved this man, but she rebuffed most of his physical advances. She would kiss him and let him touch her, but she still held her virginity as precious. But one day, even though she said no, he took it anyway. And instead of recognizing the act as rape, Leah’s desperation made her worried that she’d done something wrong and he wouldn’t want her anymore. Even when she finally did walk away from him, it wasn’t because he forced her.
There were other men after Nicholas. Sex became a commodity for Leah. I believe that when women are taught that they are worth less than a man, but that their sex holds power over a man, often women will turn to sex to find their worth when faith becomes questionable.
And when you’re that alone in the world, and you’re feeling the kind of powerful and confusing emotions that come with turning your world inside out and upside down – something has to give. There has to be a release. For Leah, that release came in cutting. It was her coping mechanism for trying to live in two worlds simultaneously.
Eventually, she attempted suicide.
There was no emergency room for formerly ultra-Orthodox young women who were overwhelmed, confused, lost. But young women with half a bottle of aspirin in their stomachs could go right to the ER.
When I read Leah’s story, I see my own. And it cuts me to the core. I didn’t fall quite as far as she did, and I haven’t risen out of the ashes as far as she has now. Walking away from my own faith – faith that began in baptist fundamentalism – left me in a similar position – lonely and desperate for connection and feeling. I’ve made stupid choices as a result of it. I’ve never been suicidal, but I have wished I were dead. I have used sex to find my worth when I couldn’t find it on my own. I have needed men to give me value and permission to live the life I wanted to live.
Unlike Leah, I still have family to turn to. I’m lucky; I know that.
Leah’s story tells not only of the dangers of fundamentalism, but of the courage it takes to walk away from everything you’ve ever known and build a new life. I know that I told a lot of her story here, and that’s unusual for me. But there is much left unsaid. Her story is much bigger than what I have told you, and I hope you choose to read it. It will be hard to read at times, but her candid writing style exposes every truth and emotion. I found myself turning pages faster to find out what was happening to her, though at times I had to reread sections to make sure I didn’t misunderstand the emotional horror I was reading.
And I’ll leave you with this: Leah gets her happy ending. But you already knew that, or there wouldn’t be a book to read in the first place.