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.


  1. Didn't read it because I don't like books with so much hatred.

    BTW, Shulem Deen's book is excellent, certainly a worthwhile read. You and Shulem have similar online personas. Both of you are patient and deliberate debaters. I admire both of your writings tremendously.

  2. I agree with your analysis of Leah's book, however, I've only read excerpts of it. To me it even feels something like a hit job on the OTD community, since it feeds a lot of stereotypes that are commonly parroted in religious communities. We left just for the sex, or the bacon, or because Shabbat was too hard, or whatever.

    If there is a lesson here it's that insular communities have a hard time dealing with mental illness. We've known that for a long time.

  3. Side question: Is mental illness more common among Jews in general or Orthodox Jews ? We know there is a propensity for certain genetic diseases among Jews - inbreeding no doubt. Given Orthodox culture MAY have a reluctance to get a diagnosis or seek help for mental illness would anybody know the answer.

  4. I cant help but regard Orthodox Judaism itself as a form of OCD. How to wipe your butt, passover cleaning, rituals fand regulations or just about every second of your life and on and on. Can such a system actually create mental illness ?

  5. Excellent review! I was looking forward to the book since I know some of her family members well and have OTD sympathies myself, but I was dissapointed. In Leah's other writing she speaks out against marginalizing OTD people with the mental illness canard, but her own book reinforces that and other negative stereotypes. I really wanted to see things her way but I can't help but think that in light of the bizarre behavior she describes her family could have been well meaning but simply exhausted. It's still heartbreaking though, that she put herself into a hospital as cry for attention and help and got none. But parents are in a difficult position when their children cry out for negative attention; if you give it to them you reinforce the negative behavior. I think the response should be to provide positive attention, as Rabbi Fink argues in his review of the same book, but I recognize that may not always be easy.