Monday, November 14, 2005

Unchosen: unsatisfying

I've finished Hella Winston's highly anticipated Unchosen: the Hidden Lives of Hassidic Rebels, and everyone can relax. It's not that good. Yes, it's a fun read -- she basically lets 5-6 hassidim who have left the fold tell their own stories, and how could that be boring? -- but I found it rather short on analysis. It didn't really come together properly, or add much that anyone who is familiar with those communities can't work out for themselves.
The main themes that emerge are the tremendous and often unbearable pressure members of these communities are under to conform; how cut off some members of the community feel from the rest of society, and how much resentment that causes in people who are naturally curious; quick and ultimately unsuitable marriages as a way to gain independence from pressurising parents; the enormous difficulty the rebels have in settling into life in the 'outside' world, particularly with few job skills and often, little English, and the completely seperate lives led by the women and men of the community (how little the men really knew and understood about their womenfolk was actually astounding). A minor theme is sexual abuse (including of men, in the mikveh) and sexual indiscretion in the community. Contrary to initial reports, the internet did not figure particularly -- one of the characters did use the internet as one of her many ways of exploring the 'outside' world, but it was just one aspect of her story -- and the character who chaptzem claimed was the well-known blogger 'Mindy' bore absolutely no resemblence to what we know about her from her blog. Interestingly, the flap of the book also contains a recommendation line by 'Hassidic blogger 'Shtreimel' (who, incidentally, makes a brief appearance on p. 17). I find it amusing that a comment by an anonymous, now defunct blogger, who was never read by that many people is now a respectable blurb!
The interviews which formed the basis of the book were all conducted in the course of Winston's research for her dissertation. To her credit, she brings the phenomenon to life. But I would actually have preferred for her to wait perhaps until she had finished her Ph.d and had a proper thesis around which to center the book; what's the big idea here? One obvious angle she should have pursued is the story from the other side -- the families who are left behind, the leaders who have to deal with these phenomena. We don't really hear from them. There's also so much more to be said about / by people who stay in the community despite their doubts and despite unhappiness, living double lives. From the book (let alone the blogworld...), one gets the impression that the communities are full of these. Again, what is the long-term effect on the community of all these rebels, these people leading double lives, these people feeling trapped, these people lying to themselves and to others? What does this do to a community? What are the prospects for this society?
In short, there's a better, fuller, meatier book on hassidic rebels still to be written. A promise unfulfilled.


Incidentally, early in the book -- in the introduction -- one of the hassidic women Winston interviews mentions a high rate of suicide in hassidic society. Winston follows up with some anecdotal evidence from doctors and therapists suggesting high levels of anxiety disorders and depression, but no figures on suicide. Does anyone know anything about this?

No comments: