The Author's Corner
Margot Adler (New York) is a National Public Radio correspondent based in NPR's New York Bureau. She can be heard regularly on All Things Considered®, Morning Edition®, and Weekend Edition®.
Adler specializes in in-depth features -- topics have included the debate over family values, the complexities of the right to die movement and the controversy over affirmative action. Most recently, Adler has explored the state of the middle class, the problems facing the NAACP, and how futuristic ideas have influenced Newt Gingrich's philosophy.
Adler joined the NPR staff as a general assignment reporter in 1979, after spending a year as an NPR freelance reporter covering New York City. In 1980, she documented the confrontation between radicals and the Ku Klux Klan in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1984, she reported and produced an acclaimed documentary on AIDS counselors in San Francisco. She covered the Winter Olympics in Calgary in 1988 and in Sarajevo in 1984. She has reported on homeless people living in the subways, on the efforts of religious groups to confront environmental problems, and on the only remaining American hospital for treating leprosy, in Louisiana.
From 1972 to 1990, Adler hosted a weekly live talk show on WBAI-FM/New York City. She is the author of the book, "Drawing Down the Moon," a study of contemporary nature religions. She is also co-producer of an award-winning radio drama, "War Day," and a lecturer and workshop leader.
Adler received a bachelor of arts degree in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master's degree from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University New York in 1970. She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 1982.
The granddaughter of Alfred Adler, the renowned Viennese psychiatrist, Adler was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and grew up in New York City.
We are proud to offer you this talk that we had with Margot Adler as our 1st anniversary gift to you. For many of you, myself included, Margot's book Drawing Down the Moon was our first glimpse into the real world of Wiccans/Pagans and Witches. The book has been a mainstay on many recommended reading lists for over a decade now and we here at TWPT felt that an interview with Margot would be a great way to kick off our second year on the web and to leap into the next century. No more introduction than that is needed and without further delay.....let me present TWPT's anniversary Author's Corner.
Drawing Down the Moon:
TWPT: Tell us a little about your spiritual history and how you came to be on the path that you are currently on.
MA: I grew up in a fairly atheistic household, perhaps an atheistic, Jewish, Marxist household would be more accurate, and yet, thinking back on it, my mother was a very spiritual person, and going through the books on her shelves, after she died in 1970, I found all these works by Alan Watts and books like "Zen and the Art of Archery", and such.
But for me, the two moments that really took me into a different world were events that happened in 5th and 7th grade, that I write about in my book "Heretic's Heart". I went to this amazing school called "City and Country" and in the fifth grade, on May 1st, they actually got all the parents to bring the kids to school at 4am, and we were driven out to the country where we picked armfuls of flowers as the sun rose. Then we went back to school, and strew flowers from classroom to classroom, singing medieval May Carols as we did so.Then we danced around the Maypole. It was an experience of joy and ecstatic connection that I will never forget. Singing has always been a very important part of my ceremonial life, but this really was the first experience of a ritual of emotion and beauty. Then, in 7th grade, we spent the whole year studying ancient Greece. I remember one extraordinary day when Edith Hamilton, who was the Joseph Campbell of her time, came to tea at our scruffy little school. The shabby library with its peeling paint had been transformed with tablecloths. Anyway, I fell in love with Athena and Artimis, wrote a play about the Trojan war, a musical actually, in which there were hymns to Zeus and poems sung by Hera and other gods. I think I decided on some really primal level that that was my religion - the ancient Greek one.
Many years went by, and politics, not religion dominated my life during most of the sixties. I became very involved with ecology during a time when I was reading the nature writers and reporting on many environmental stories - a year after the first earthday, around 1971, I started realizing that the environmental literature I was reading was not merely political but was deeply spiritual. I remember reading a statement by John Muir: "When you try and pick out something by itself, you find it hitched to everything else in the universe." I wanted a religion that understood the connectedness of the cosmos. Well, I started reading "Encounters with the Arch Druid" by John McPhee and wondered who the druids were. I also read "The religious roots of our Environmental Crisis", an article by the historian Arnold Toynbee, and it was the first time I really understood that the Pagan world view was a different and less exploitive world view than the dominant view in our culture. So, at that time, 1971, I started looking for "an environmental" religion, and through a lot of false starts found Paganism and Wicca.
I think if someone had told me of an organization that was reviving the Greek religion, the ancient Greek religion, that is, I would have run right over, but the only Pagan groups in my area seemed to be a Welsh Wicca group and Gardnerians, and so I ended up first in the former and then in the latter.
I initiated Gardnerian in 1973, and by 1976 was forming a Gardnerian coven. Even before that, a friend and I were running Manhattan Pagan Way, and conducting rituals in my home on the Sabbats. Soon I came to feel that the Wicca I was experiencing was led by very nice people, by and large, but they were not as intellectually interesting as the stuff I was reading in magazines like Nemeton and Green Egg, and that's what led me to explore outside my own coven and tradition, and ultimately led to Drawing Down the Moon.
TWPT: Have you always aspired to be a writer? When was it that you realized that being an author was something that appealed to you?
MA: Not really. For years I couldn't even say that I was a writer. Frankly, the written word always terrified me, because of its eternal quality. Once it is down in print, you can't take it back, and I am a very changeable person.
I've had trouble choosing magical names, and have changed mine. I could never have a tattoo, cause I would want it removed in a year or so. Radio is a medium that is very impermanent, in the sense that what you say on tape is often forgotten. So it took a long while to think about really working in print - such a definitive medium.
TWPT: When did the idea first come to you to do the book Drawing Down the Moon?
MA: It was odd... the first inkling was an astrologer who told me that I would write a book by the time I was 40. Actually I started writing Drawing Down the Moon in 1974 when I wasn't even 30, but it was the first time someone had said the word " book" to me. Then in 1973 or 1974, I had a very bizarre boyfriend, the kind of person you (much later on) say, "Thank god I got over that!", who was a writer and also a "space propagandist". He took me into a bar to meet his literary agent. We were sitting around talking, and she said, in that New York way, "What do you do?". I said I did a radio show on Pacifica, which was true at the time, and as I said this, I heard a voice in my head, which is not something that happens to me ordinarily because I am not a very occult oriented, or psychic person. The voice said, "You are standing on a nexus point in the universe, and what you do now, or say now, will change your life forever." I said, "I am also involved in Witchcraft", and the literary agent's eyes got very big and round. She asked for more and I told her that there was this movement and it communicated by magazines and journals (that was the truth at the time). She said, "Have you ever thought about writing a book?"
I said, "frankly no, the written word terrifies me." She said that she had just left a literary agency and was starting out on her own, and if I called her in a couple of weeks, she would show me the ropes about how to write a book proposal. I was terrified to call, but it was one of those moments. She had just left an agency and was striking out on her own, and she wanted clients. So she called me. She told me what to do and I spent six weeks, writing a sample chapter and a chapter outline ( all spurious, since it would totally change) along with a two page outline of the book.
She started sending it around to various publishers and it was rejected at a couple of places. It was seriously looked at by Anchor/Doubleday's editor, but they wanted a more serious book. I rewrote the proposal but in the meantime that editor left. The rewritten proposal then went on to another place where it was rejected again before ending up at Viking Publishers who liked what they saw and took it. I got a $7500 advance minus ten percent to the agent but in the beginning I only got about half that amount. Money went a lot further in 1975 so I spent the next 3 years writing, interviewing and researching to create Drawing Down the Moon. Of that time I spent a year on unemployment, a year doing radio announcing on the side, I spent time doing my show and the rest of the time I spent writing.
TWPT: Did you have a specific goal in mind that you wanted the book to meet?
MA: I think at the time my main goal was to show the broad breadth of the Pagan Movement. I was struck at how interesting some of it was, and how tied to certain movements it was, intellectual movements, the nature writings of people like Theodore Roszak, the ecology movement, the feminist movement, and the anarchist movement. Of course many of the groups I met didn't really care about those issues, and in fact there were many kinds of Paganism and Wicca. Part of me wanted to just show it all. In retrospect I realize that I was sort of angry at the middle of the road groups. I was much less mellow about certain issues, ecology and feminism, and I got really pissed off at a few people. I had this notion, admittedly naive, that everyone in the Craft would be a super ecologist and then when it wasn't true I got angry. I met a whole lot of people that were, quite frankly, just into the magic. Some of the chapters of my book, like the chapter, "Living on the Earth" reflect some of that anger. In fact, in one instance, a coven actually threw me out, after I told a misogynist guy to bleep off. Quite an awakening. I am a lot more mellow and older and wiser now.
The funny thing is, I have actually joked with Starhawk that when our two books came out, on the same day on different coasts, on some, almost unconscious level, we were writing about the Pagan movement we wanted to exist, not necessarily the one that did exist at the time. Sort of like the SCA is about the Middle Ages as some people would like, not as they were.
Now twenty years later, the Pagan movement actually bears more of a resemblance to the Pagan movement we wrote about than it did at the time. I would never be such an egotist to say we helped dream it into being in that form, but there is tiny element of that in there. At least, probably a few people picking up the book, whose heads were in that place, went out to form groups and joined the movement.
TWPT: What did you learn from the many interviews that you conducted in researching the book and did it change the way you approached your own spiritual path?
MA: I learned that there were some amazing people out there with fascinating ideas. I remember going to Dallas and seeing a ritual by a group that was so much more exciting and deeper than any ritual I had experienced in my own group. That gave me some real insight into the broad breadth of the movement. I had fascinating discussions with the people in CES, CAW, Feraferia, and that made me convinced that Wicca was sometimes not the most intellectually interesting part of the Pagan movement. I encountered feminist Wicca, which I had really not encountered until I started working on my book.... and that influenced me a lot. I had always seen myself as a feminist, but had never really taken a look at feminist Wicca, and the vibrancy of women's rituals affected me greatly - the power and spontaneity really influenced me.
TWPT: Did you have any idea that your book would be so popular that it would be on most recommended reading lists for those who were considering the Wiccan/Pagan paths? How does that make you feel knowing that you are for many seekers the introduction to these brand new worlds of spirituality?
MA: The book's real popularity didn't happen for the first few years. Viking only published five thousand copies, and Beacon bought the paperback rights for about $4000 dollars, and put out a paperback edition with a very unexciting cover with Janet Farrar on it. Then in 1986, the revised edition really took off, and that edition with the fabulous red and black cover and the big resource section was when I think it made a deep impact. I know I didn't get a single penny of royalties until after the revised edition came out. I think the fact that this book is read in small town libraries, in prisons, etc. is one of my favorite things about it. It is still the way many people come to understand Paganism. It is often the book people give their parents or someone else who they think will be very skittish learning about the Craft. I think on a very deep psychological level, I did write the book to be one that my atheist father could be proud of, and he was. He could always defend it intellectually, even though he hated all that "religion stuff". Looking back, I might have written more personally if I had written at a later point in my life. But other than that, I'm still very proud of it, and of the time and care I took with every footnote.
TWPT: Any chance that we might see a new revision of Drawing Down the Moon at some point in the future?
MA: I don't know. That's the truth. Any real revision, as opposed to just updating the resource list, would take a real big effort, and right now I am overbooked with my NPR job, hosting a constitutional law show, doing lectures and workshops, being a mom and having a family. So I can't conceive of putting out the effort I put out for Drawing Down the Moon. It actually took three whole years to do it.
There probably is a way of doing a new book on the Pagan Movement, an addition or something, but a real revision would take more effort than I am willing currently to give.
TWPT: What are some of the major changes that you have seen in the Pagan community since the publication of your revised edition in 1986? For better or worse.
MA: I think that there is a stronger "traditional" Wiccan community than before.
I think that there is much more mainstreaming of Wicca into the society. There has been an effect from all those TV shows, and movies and books. The newspapers don't cover Wicca only on Samhain. There are many more younger Wiccans but some of what I see is, the more things change, the more things remain the same. There are still petty squabbles and Witch wars, I was hoping those would go away! There are still people questioning everybody's credentials. Personally, I would put Doreen Valiente's wonderful phrase on every Craft publication. She once said. "The only Queen I bow before is the Queen of England." All this lady this and lord that - which we use in the Gardnerian trad and in many other trads, is totally bogus, and we should throw it out. It's ridiculous to use in a society that proudly threw out the King more than 200 years ago.
The Unitarian Pagans are bigger than ever, and several years ago the Unitarian Universalist Association officially welcomed the earth-based traditions by including earthbased spirituality in their list of six sources from which the UUA comes.... that's huge. While the UUA is definitely not for everyone, and one of the great things about Wicca is it's not an organized church, we now can say that one of the main religious organizations of this country, in fact the one that people like Thoreau and Emerson belonged to, is a welcoming place for Wicca... that's pretty monumental.
I think the main struggle for Wicca and all forms of Contemporary Paganism remains the tension between being more mainstream and organized and keeping the strength that a critic from the outside always has - which allows us to see the real problems with religion in America. I personally like the outsider role and am not sure about all this, "lets have churches, let's have seminaries, let's have paid clergy, lets be just like all the rest."
I don't think this tension will resolve, and it's an evolving situation, but it's probably the primary struggle going on in the movement. I still believe Wicca will always be a minority religion in this country.
TWPT: Everyone is very familiar with Drawing Down the Moon but may not be so familiar with Heretic's Heart. Tell me about this book and how it differs from Drawing Down the Moon.
MA: Well, first of all, it's very personal - and autobiographical. It's really several different books in one. It's partly about growing up in the fifties during the McCarthy period, as the child of lefties, and going to a very magical school. It begins with a whole chapter about my mother who was a very Aunty Mame character, very extraordinary in her own way. Much of the book is about the politics of the sixties. So, there is a chapter about Berkeley, and about the Free Speech Movement There is a chapter about what it was like to be a civil rights worker in Mississippi in the sixties.
There's a Chapter on Cuba. One of my favorite chapters is called, "A Left Wing Nun in the Summer of Love," and it's about being a politico, very puritanical at times, and not really able to deal well with the sexual revolution. I also think it has some of the best and wisest parts of the book. The most unusual aspect of the book is that there are three chapters that involve my love affair, mostly through the mail, with an American soldier in Vietnam, at the same time that I was a demonstrator against the war. I guess it's kind of my own version of "The Way We Were". Letters fill the book, between me and Marc, the soldier, between me and my mother, and journal entries from Mississippi, which makes it a very young voice, much of the time. The book ends with a chapter on finding Paganism and ritual in my life.
TWPT: Do you feel that there was a spiritual hunger that gripped the 60's generation and that there was more to this search than just sex, drugs and rock n' roll?
MA: Yes, but it was not only a spiritual search, it was a quest to remake everything, work, love, family, relationships, the way cities work, etc. You know how good science fiction novels really let you rethink the way we do everything. Think about a great classic like LeGuin's "The Dispossessed." It got you to question the way everything in our society worked, even the way the chairs were designed. The sixties was sort of like that, it said everything - what one should do with one's life, the way a university should teach, the way relationships should be defined, all were up for grabs... that was pretty exciting. Of course, it's been totally misunderstood as just a little pot party or something, with great music and paisley fashions. I think the most important thing about the sixties was that feeling that everything is fluid, which is so hard to come by today and of course the hard work people did for civil rights, to end the war and so forth.
TWPT: Why did you write Heretic's Heart and did it achieve its purpose?
MA: I originally wanted a place to publish the correspondence between Marc and I, the Vietnam soldier who I fell in love with through the mail in 1967.
And yet the correspondence didn't seem to be big enough for a book, so the book sort of grew around it. I am not sure it achieved its purpose. It's a much harder book to sell than "Drawing Down the Moon." You can tell that just by going into Amazon.com and looking up the numbers, and the number of citizen reviews. Drawing Down the Moon has been out 20 years, yet it remains in the 3000 to 4000 range. That's because it has a whole movement behind it. Sadly, the sixties doesn't really sell in the way Witchcraft does... so its a much harder book to get out in the world, although it got some great reviews. Even though it was visciously torn apart by the Wall Street Journal on the one hand, most of my friends say, "look it actually got reviewed by the WSJ, what more can you expect!"
TWPT: You are probably just as well known for your work with NPR as you are for your books, how did you start your career in radio?
MA: I started in radio during my senior year in college as a volunteer for Pacifica's KPFA in Berkeley. It was a fluke that I started in radio, just like many things in my life. It was my senior year in college, a rainy winter and I was fairly depressed. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I turned on the radio and heard his very interesting man read "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell. Then this person, who turned out to be the news director of KPFA, talked about his philosophy of news. Remember this was during the height of the Vietnam War, and headlines everywhere were full of lies and exaggerations, and Don, the news director, talked about simply calling things by their true name: China, not Red China, and so forth. I was fascinated by his talk and reading and volunteered to work once a week. Later, when I graduated, I started volunteering at WBAI in New York.
It was hard to get a job, though, these were the days, 1968, when I was actually told by the Program Director of WBAI, the great radical pacifica station that "women didn't do news," because their voices were too high. I finally agreed to work there as a volunteer doing a late night news cast, after my regular 9-5 job ended. One thing led to another and I got a job as a newscaster for $85 dollars a week. I worked for WBAI until 1977, and ended up at NPR a year later.
TWPT: What do you find satisfying about working in this medium? What stories do you find most stimulating or challenging?
MA: Actually, my favorite thing about radio is not something that happens on the news. I do talk about it quite a bit in Heretic's Heart. I spent five years at WBAI doing live free form radio. There is almost none of this kind of radio going on these days. There is talk radio, but most of that is strident - people giving their opinions and such. This was much dreamier. I would think of a topic, like why so many of us are really underemployed and alienated at work, or our feelings about having kids, or sex, or space travel, and I would choose some appropriate music. And I would talk about my own experiences and yearnings, and then open the phone lines. Much of it was personal, very experimental, people talked from the heart. Then I would receive scores of letters which I would read on the air and there would be a lot of responses and new calls. We really created a community on the air.
Tony Schwartz the advertising maven once said, "The thing about radio is people were born without earlids." Think about what that means. It means the sound is all around you, it isn't confined in a little box like a picture. So radio potentially is the medium of imagination and dreams.
So the news has never been the primary thing for me. I am not a news junkey, like many people I know. I never watch TV news, except occasionally C-span. I read a small part of the NY Times because I cover New York, but not nearly as much as you would think. I like stories that are about philosophical issues, about the places where politics and culture interface. For example I just finished a piece about Peter Singer, the author of Animal Liberation and Practical Ethics, and the piece explored the controversy surrounding him and his views, and contrasted his views with many disabled activists who have protested against him. That was a great piece to do because it was about deep ideas. Some of the stuff I do I have to do. We only have two people covering New York ( not counting a business reporter, and a media reporter) but if Giuliani or somebody does something noteworthy, we have to cover it, and quite frankly I could do without that stuff. .... particularly now that I am 53 years old.
TWPT: Do you ever get the opportunity to do programs on Paganism as an NPR correspondent?
MA: I have, in the past, done a few stories on Paganism, but not many. I did several Beltane features over the years, and several solstice features. But now that there is a Religion Reporter at NPR, they feel that because I am a spokesperson for a religion that I shouldn't report on that religion. So in general I rarely report on Wiccan events.
TWPT: Has being a Pagan ever given you any problems when it comes to working for NPR?
MA: Definitely, Yes. When I started working for NPR, my book had just come out, and I went on several big shows, like the Today Show and Donahue. So everyone knew that I was a Witch, and most thought it was pretty weird... but few people actually asked me about it. I think they felt comfortable with me being a reporter, because a reporter talks about what OTHERS do; they primarily use phrases like "he said, she said." Hosts, on the other hand, speak more of the time in "I" and they became very uncomfortable with me being a host.
Several times I was up for hosting positions, and on at least one or two occasions it was clear that my religion figured at least somewhat in their decision. One funny conversation took place perhaps ten years ago. When an NPR host told me I could not be his co-host because "There couldn't be two New York Jews." At which point I said to him, "Wow, I may be the first person that has faced discrimination on the basis of two different religions." At a later point, the head of the culture desk told me that she didn't think I should cover religion at all, since I was an eminent spokesperson in a religion. That has subsided and I have been able to do religion pieces but in general, having been there for more than 20 years, most people at NPR are pretty comfortable with me.
TWPT: Being a member of the media do you find that coverage of Wicca/Paganism as a religion is becoming more balanced and fair than it was in times past?
MA: What's striking (only in the last year or so), is that we are beginning to see articles about Pagans and Wiccans that are not on Halloween!!! And not all of them are cutsie. I do think the coverage is much more balanced than it was in the past.
TWPT: What kinds of involvement with the Pagan community do you currently pursue? Do you teach? Do you lecture? etc.
MA: I do a number of lectures and workshops around the country. Eclipse Neilson and I do a weekend gathering for about 40 women on both solstices in northern Connecticut every year, and that has become a wonderful tradition.
It's filled with the stuff I love most: singing, chanting, drumming and ritual. I also do a number of workshops around the country that happen to fall into my lap. I don't seek them out... but they sort of happen. I do a bunch of speeches, sermons at Unitarian Churches, and various other happenings. I used to do tons of stuff at places like Interface, Oasis, Eslen (half these places went belly up), but I've cut back on workshops because this year I am busy hosting a new constitutional law show from Philadelphia, as well as writing a new monthly column on Earth religions for Beliefnet, a new religion website. I do want time for a private life and my family. There are some growth centers, particularly Rowe Camp in Massachusetts and a few others that I do like to do things at.
TWPT: Ms. Adler, we here at the Wiccan/Pagan Times would like to thank you for your participation in our 1st anniversary Author's Corner and we wish you much success in all your future endeavors.