Sunday, June 14, 2015

Book Review: Cut Me Loose

I was in the library on Friday picking out books and was about to go to check out when I noticed "Cut Me Loose" sitting by itself at the end of a half-empty shelf. I took it out and read it over Shabbos. It was not what I expected.

I had some idea of what it was about, having read some reviews around the blogosphere when it came out a year ago. I knew that the book chronicled Leah Vincent's journey away from the religion of her Yeshivish upbringing, and that part of that journey had included clashes with her family and ill-advised sexual encounters. I was expecting a story about how she had become disenchanted with Orthodox Judaism, had made some mistakes learning to integrate with general society, and had ultimately been successful in doing so. I was expecting to root for her against the forces of frum society that had wronged and alienated so many of us who frequent the skeptic blogs (or these days, facebook posts). Instead, I found myself saddened by what Leah had experienced, but also sympathetic to the people around her who were dealing with a clearly unstable person.

The book is well-written and engaging. I didn't want to put it down. The book is published by Doubleday and seems intended for a general audience, but there were many nuances that I think would be lost on someone who had never been a part of the yeshivish community. Not because  one had to be a part of the community to understand, but because these things weren't explained. Nor would it have been difficult or cumbersome to include explanations. Here and there, the author does explain. For instance, when she writes that her father was often invited to speak at the Agudah conventions, she adds that it is a powerful Orthodox lobbying group. It's an addition of half a sentence that gives the reader context. Yet in many other places that addition is missing. For instance, she describes her brothers running up and down the stairs shouting Hebrew words (which she transliterates), but neglects to mention that they were singing a song (easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Jewish music of the era), instead leaving the impression that the little boys in her crazy religious family shouted Hebrew incantations while playing. In another place she describes having day-dreamed about having Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon officiate at her wedding, but neglects to explain his stature (easily done: "dean of the largest yeshiva in the United States"), leaving a typical reader without any understanding of the  daydream's significance. In yet another she describes a conversation with her sister where she is asked to "promise without a promise," a literal translation of "bli neder" that sounds ridiculous, as do many idioms when taken literally.

For much of the first half of the book, I felt angry as her family over reacted to her transgressions. She's banned from the seminary of her choice when it's discovered she's been corresponding with a boy. Her parents cut off her allowance when she spends a month's worth of money on a borderline-untznius sweater. Her sister, who she is staying with, hides letters Leah's friend sends to her, and only pretends to mail the letters Leah writes. When she moves to New York, she can barely afford necessities on her minimum-wage income, and often goes without meals. When she calls her mother, desperate for help, her mother tells her to stop being so dramatic, and sends her only twenty dollars.

As the book progresses, and she describes more and more of her dysfunctional behavior, I began to suspect that rather than the victim of circumstance and religious extremism her narrative implies, she was instead someone with a serious clinical disorder. I'm not qualified to make a diagnosis, and even if I were, you can't diagnose someone without having evaluated them in person, but what she describes seems like a textbook case of Borderline Personality Disorder. People who go OTD are too often dismissed in the frum world as unbalanced, and I'm loathe to perpetuate the stereotype, but in this case I think it may be accurate.

The diagnostic criteria for BPD include, " A pervasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of context." Leah's relationships with men, to which she devotes a lot of space, are highly unstable and frequently end abruptly. She often makes impulsive decisions with negative consequences, like blowing a month's worth of money on a sweater, going to a club and allowing a man to have sex with her on the dance floor, or suddenly deciding to stop eating. 

"Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment." Leah's narrative is one of constant abandonment, first by her family, then by her community, and then by the string of men she throws herself at in a desperate attempt to find self-worth in her sexuality. 

"A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation," an accurate description of Leah's relationships with her family and especially with her "boyfriends," each of whom is described as wonderful, life changing, and the love of her life while she is dating him, but is reduced to his basest traits as soon as they break up.

"Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, Substance Abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)." She engages in impulsive, damaging sex on almost every page. Several times she describes impulsively spending money she needed for food or other necessities on things like the sweater mentioned above or high-priced cocktails at a bar. And sprinkled though the book are accounts of binge-eating in an attempt to control her emotions or fill an emotional emptiness.

"Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior." Through much of the second half of the book Leah regularly cuts herself to relieve her psychological distress, and several times describes imagining killing herself, including an incident where she actually swallows a bottle of painkillers and another where she almost slashes her wrists, stopping only after she had already made a small cut deep enough to leave a scar.

"Chronic feelings of emptiness," which she describes after her estrangement from her family, which led her to constantly look for another man as each of her relationships failed, and, as mentioned above, she sometimes attempted to fill with food.

Leah recounts a childhood conversation with her mother in which her mother dismissed mental disorders as a scam dreamt up by pharmaceutical companies to sell drugs. Yet her father in a published letter claimed that Leah had been under the care of a psychiatrist since she was thirteen. I don't know which is the more accurate version of events, but if it is true that Leah has BPD, and that she has been treated since she was a young teenager, it casts her story in a different light than the one she is trying to tell. Her parents deciding not to give her attention when she acts out are not the actions of cruel and distant parents, but the reasonable (if perhaps mistaken) reaction of people who have for years been dealing with their daughter's destructive outbursts. Her mother dismissing her plea for help when she can't make ends meet isn't the actions of a callous and uncaring woman, but that of someone used to dramatic pronouncements and irresponsible behavior. Her description of her final encounter with her father, and his refusal to engage when she tearfully asks him why he cut her off and no longer expresses love is not the actions of a man who has tossed his daughter aside for small infractions of religious law, but of a father who has long ago reached the end of his rope, and is refusing to be dragged yet again into the toxic quagmire that experience has taught him engaging with his daughter inevitably leads to.

I don't doubt that Leah's description of events is how she perceived them, and that she experienced them that way makes me sad for her. I want to go back in time and comfort the lonely, miserable girl she was. And yet, I can't help but think that if I could, it would just be the beginning of another toxic relationship for her, where she would try to seduce me and build an ultimately destructive relationship if she was successful, or berate herself as disgusting undesirable garbage if she failed.

At the end of the book, where in a few pages she describes how she finally turned her life around, got into Harvard, got married, and had a child, she mentions that her family still regards her as crazy and toxic. It's heavily implied that this is because she's no longer observant.  Maybe. Or maybe they regard her that way because, for most of her life, that's what she was.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Practical Beliefs, part 2

Part 1

I think that we can answer the first question, " How do we determine what, if any, of what we experience is real?" with another question, "What difference does it make?" This may seem unsatisfying at first, but bear with me.

Suppose that I'm hungry. Does it matter if the world I experience isn't real? If, say, I'm a conscious computer program, and  there is no such thing as a human stomach, or food, or a mouth? If I respond to my hunger by eating, the unpleasant sensation of hunger will go away, and I'll have the pleasurable experiences of eating food, the smell, taste, and feel of something tasty and satisfying. If I ignore my hunger, I'll experience increasingly painful hunger pangs. Therefore whether or not there is such a thing as a stomach or food in an objective sense, I am forced to behave as if they are real.

Whatever there may be "out there," I am forced by my subjective experiences of pleasure and pain to treat what I perceive as real. Once I am treating my perceptions as real, I can form beliefs about them, such as, "If I eat food, I won't be hungry for a while." These beliefs may or may not mirror an objective reality, but that doesn't matter. They're practical beliefs about my consistent perceptions that allow me to navigate the world I experience. I can empirically explore that world, learning how it functions and adding or altering my practical beliefs about it based on what I learn.

Whether or not what I experience is objectively real truly makes no difference, so long as my experience is consistent. My subjective experience forces me to treat my perceptions as if they are real, and I can build a consistent system of beliefs on that experience. Whether or not what I experience is real is an interesting question in the abstract, what difference does it make?

Which brings us to the second question, "Are we justified in making any and all claims about reality, given that all claims are equally unprovable?" We can make any and all claims about some objective reality "out there," but again, what difference does it make? Unless there is something I experience, I can't form practical beliefs about it. I can guess at what things are like outside the Matrix, but those are just guesses.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Practical Beliefs, part 1

The question of how we know what we know is a complicated one, with an entire branch of philosophy, epistemology, devoted to it. The biggest problem is that there's almost nothing that we can know for certain. All of our information about the world comes to us through our senses, and we have no way of knowing if what are senses tell us reflects anything  "out there," whether there is an objectively real world that is reflected in our sense data or if everything we experience is an illusion.

Descartes illustrated the problem by positing a deceptive demon who fed him sights, sounds, smells etc. to simulate a reality that doesn't really exist.  Since 1999 The Matrix has been the go-to analogy. The world experienced by those in the Matrix is a perfect illusion. How can any of us know if we are in the Matrix? And, since we may be in the Matrix, how can we know what is real? Or even if there is anything at all?

Descartes found one thing we can be certain of: we each can be certain of our own existence. If we experience things and think about things, there must be something doing the experiencing and thinking.  It may be something completely unlike what we think ourselves to be, something not remotely human, but there has to be something that is doing the thinking. Descartes famously summed up this single ontological certainty as, "Cogito, ergo sum," "I think, therefore I am."

But what now? If all we can be certain of is our individual existence, how do we determine what, if any, of what we experience is real? And are we justified in making any and all claims about reality, given that all claims are equally unprovable?