Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Penguin Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Trigger Warning: This post discusses violence against women.
Leah Vincent was born into an ultra-Orthodox Yeshivish Jewish family. As she grew up and began to question the values and rules she had been taught, the future she had imagined for herself as a wife and mother was threatened. After being caught exchanging letters with a boy she was shunned by her family and found herself isolated and unprepared for life in the secular world. This book is the story of her leaving “the path” and developing new ambitions and a new identity for herself.
This book seems to be polarising, garnering both highly negative and highly positive reviews. Many of the negative reviews seem to be from religious people who feel that the author's view of Yeshivish life is unfair or exaggerated. Not being Jewish I can't comment on that, so I will just talk about what's in the book itself. I found it absolutely heartbreaking to read about a teenage girl being so alone in the world. She was a believer and seemed to be trying so hard to be a good person as she saw it, but was punished for such minor offences as exchanging some fairly innocent letters with a boy, or buying a sweater that was a bit too form fitting.The misogyny evident in some of the talk of modesty is disturbing. The following struck me as a rather creepy comment for a man to make to his twelve year old niece.
One evening when I was twelve or thirteen I'd been washing dishes when Uncle Tzuki, my mother's brother who was visiting from Chicago, stopped in the empty kitchen.
“Your walk is prust,” he said to me. I froze, my hand clutching the plate I was rinsing, the hot water burning my fingers. Uncle Tzuki shook his head, eyes on the floor, long beard wagging. “You need to watch yourself,” he said gently and walked away.
Prust? Prust meant “vulgar, slutty.” Even the word pust had to be dealt with gingerly, like dog poop on your show. How could a walk be prust? It was one more thing to add to the list.
It was only when she had already been cast out of the Yeshivish community that Vincent finally felt able to enrol university. I felt like cheering for her at that point for being so brave. She was the first person in her family to attend university, and graduated with a perfect GPA before being accepted into graduate school at Harvard. I have to wonder how many equally brilliant young women were held back from professional careers because of their parents' beliefs.
Vincent writes frankly about her sex life, which seems to have upset a lot of readers. Personally I do not agree with the sex scenes in this book being described as “smut” since they are clearly not there to titillate when there is nothing sexy about them. Having never even been taught the basics about sex Vincent did not know how to set healthy boundaries with men. Having been told all her life that all men had a monstrous sex drive they could barely control around immodest women, being rejected by a man made her feel like there was something wrong with her. She didn't know how to use protection, having worked out what little she knew of female anatomy from the diagram on a tampon box. She made a lot of mistakes, which are painful to read about, but their inclusion is necessary to understand how far she has come now that this book is published.
Vincent has also been criticised for talking publicly about being raped. I applaud her courage for speaking out about what happened to her, both for her own sake and for all other women.
I am going to say “I was raped" for every girl and woman who isn't allowed to say it. Doesn't know she can. Is punished if she does. I'm going to keep on disturbing people by saying “I was raped” until they are more offended by the act of rape than the words that recount it.”
Cut Me Loose is a moving, at times harrowing story of a young woman rejecting religious oppression and finding her own way in the world. It's not an easy book to read, but it's an inspiring and important one.