Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood

By Leah Vincent

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 228 pp. $25.95

‘Cut Me Loose” is a dark memoir offering a glimpse into the austere and uncompromising nature of a fundamentalist religious group and a young girl’s survival after being exiled from it. Raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Pittsburgh, Leah Vincent always admired her father, a prominent and influential rabbi. The fifth of 11 children, she was his devoted disciple, accepting his religious doctrine as God’s will. She had planned to do as generations of women before her did: dedicate her life to serving God and her husband.

All that changed at age 16, when she began mildly questioning her faith. When she hinted at her interest in attending college, her mother threatened to have her locked up in a psychiatric hospital. Soon after, she was caught exchanging innocent letters with an Orthodox Jewish boy and wearing a form-fitting sweater. Her sheltered community considered these minor indiscretions to be in direct violation of its strict religious law and ostracized her. Afraid that her “sinful” behavior would “poison [their] family’s reputation” and potentially ruin her siblings’ marriage prospects, her parents joined the ostracism. Stranded without any emotional and very little financial support, she moved to Brooklyn, alone, at age 17. Isolated in a strange city with no connections and ill-equipped to navigate modern, secular society, Vincent spiraled into a deep depression, engaging in promiscuity and self-harm in the form of cutting and starvation.

Her stories, especially about her family, are gripping and at times almost unthinkably tragic. At 19, she attempted suicide. Her father persuaded her siblings that this cry for help was a play for attention, and the entire family ignored her. Devastated by her loneliness, Vincent engaged in ever-riskier behavior; for a time she even prostituted herself on Craigslist. “I would fall into the prophecy of doom; I would jump into it, feetfirst,” she writes. “I would be a smashing success at being bad.”

‘CUT ME LOOSE Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood’ By Leah Vincent ( / )

After enrolling in Brooklyn College and finding an unlikely mentor, she turned her life around and made a new path for herself. She decided to focus on getting a master’s degree at Harvard University. “I’d have a new label to carry for the rest of my life: Harvard student,” she writes. “Nobody could take that away from me. Nobody could ever again convince me that I was worthless.”

Readers will appreciate Vincent’s uncensored honesty in sharing the horrors of her past. However, after empathizing with her struggle to survive and gain self-respect, they may feel somewhat dissatisfied with the abrupt end to the story. A few more details on the positive aspects of her recent life, especially her time at Harvard and starting her own family, would have been welcome.

— Megan McDonough