Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions (Seal Press, April) is a collection of personal stories written by women who left strict religious communities they had voluntarily joined or been born into. Editors Susan Tive (formerly an Orthodox Jew) and Cami Ostman (formerly Pentecostal) talked about what led them to compile the collection.
How did you decide to write this book?
Ostman): Susan and I met in a memoir-writing class in Bellingham, Wash. We spent a year together with other students working on our personal memoirs.
Tive: My memoir was about the 10-plus years I lived as an Orthodox Jew and my decision to leave. It was a real revelation to meet Cami; we started sharing our stories. It was so profoundly helpful to me to speak to other women who had been through this experience, even though they had been in different religious communities. There was so much we had in common. It was so healing and powerful to share those experiences. I thought, ‘One day, I want to share it with others. There’s got to be a lot of us out there who have gone through this.’
Do you define yourselves as atheists now?
Ostman: I’m more of an agnostic, and on some days I still believe in God.
Tive: I would define myself as spiritual but unaffiliated with an organized religion.
You use the term “extreme religion” in the title. How do you define that?
Ostman: We made the decision to let women define that for themselves in the process of collecting these stories. We didn’t want to impose our definition.
Tive: We were looking for women involved in the fundamentalist extreme of whatever branch of religion.
How did you find all these personal testimonies?
Ostman: We’re both pretty avid readers. We started with writers we already read and looked for people who had written memoirs.
Tive: For a year, I went to the memoir section of bookstores and scanned every single shelf looking for women who had written about this, and getting contact information and emailing them and telling them about the project. We also got some referrals.
Did you come to any conclusions about women leaving strict religious communities behind?
Ostman: It seemed really consistent that a lot of women joined for structure, for community, for guidance in their lives.
Tive: There’s sort of a reaction to the abundance of choices women have in secular society. There’s a lack of guidance of how to make use of those choices. [Religion] gives you limitations that are very attractive when you’ve been overwhelmed by possibilities. [These women] agree to a set of restrictions that are starkly different than what they experienced before they took on the religious practice.
How do theses stories fit in with the overall march of feminism in the U.S.?
Tive: The anthology questions both women’s freedom in secular society and the ways extreme religions are letting women down. It’s not black and white--it’s the predicament of women searching for a place to be women. They’re being let down by the constructs of secular society and by the extremities of religion.
Ostman: Some women are coming from an angry place looking back; some women are coming from a nostalgic place. There are a lot of different tones. There are no hard answers. There are multiple realities here.
What’s the cost of leaving a tight-knit religious community?
Ostman: When women make a decision to leave it’s heartrending. There’s a lot to leave behind, community, casseroles in hard times, people who have been a part of your life that you may never be allowed to speak to again. There can be a lot of grief in losing God as well.
Tive: In some cases, it could mean losing one’s children or a relationship with one’s children. You’re facing a complete reinvention of yourself. You’re either back out in the secular world, or out for the first time in your life and trying to negotiate that transition. It’s a very different world with a new set of rules.