For a while, almost a decade ago, I belonged somewhere. It was a new experience, but it didn’t feel strange. I never really thought about my place in the group consciously; the whole situation just kind of grew on me. It was an all-women’s book club, focusing on books influenced by the 3 Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. All of the members identified with one of those 3 religions: it was a precondition for joining. We’d sit around our host’s suburban Massachusetts dining room table, discussing the book at hand, sometimes veering off into tangents about our own lives. We had maybe 12 members at any time. Occasionally someone would leave and someone new would join, but the base membership was quite consistent.
In theory, this was not a good group for me. You’d think I’d hate being told to read a specific book. The membership criteria, which excluded anyone who didn’t identify as Christian, Muslim, or Jewish (and, oddly enough, also excluded Mormons even though they do identify as Christian) is just the sort of thing that would usually turn me off, since I love getting to know people and hearing ideas from the widest range of spiritual sources.
For years, though, I loved it. While most of the books are a blur to me now, I read them diligently each month. Far beyond the experience of reading, I relished discussing the books with the group. Little quirks and habits we had still make me smile, like our “whoever is holding the turtle has the floor” rule… which of course involved an adorable stuffed turtle.
I felt closer to some members than to others. I saw a few of them outside the club, but, for the most part, monthly meetings were enough for me. It was the entire organic experience of the group that attracted me: the way people interacted, the issues that offended people, the things that inspired them, the bonding over similar thoughts, the disagreements, and the arguments.
I was part member and part observer. I focused a lot of my attention on sitting back and enjoying the interpersonal show. But… and this was unusual for me… I felt truly a part of things too. I spoke often; laughed genuinely; felt real, engaged annoyance at times; and focused my full attention on the group while we sat around that table.
A city bus got me to these meetings with no problem, which was wonderful. (I don’t drive and often avoid activities in suburbs because of this.) But the bus schedule became spotty late at night, so one of the members — a woman who lived right in Boston — would always drive me back to my Cambridge home. This ride was one of my favorite parts of the experience. We would unpack that evening’s meeting, discussing the various interactions, wondering what this one’s outburst or that one’s silence might say about her life beyond the book club, or about overall group dynamics. A lifelong, avid observer of human behavior, I savored the opportunity to dissect an evening’s worth of drama with someone else who had experienced the same event.
Then, gradually, it all started to shift. Ironically, I’d say the very first inklings of problems surfaced during the biggest perk I ever received from the group: an all-expense-paid (except for airfare) trip to Turkey. The Turkish trip leaders — big-hearted, smart, passionate, and helpful young women — truly could not have been more fantastic. I experienced the fabulous city of Istanbul, the spectacular and surreal landscape of Cappadocia, the charming city of Urfa, and much more. My book club had many chapters in addition to mine, mostly in Massachusetts, and the trip included a few from my chapter and several from other Boston-area chapters. No major blowups happened, but the energy I felt was sometimes subtly hostile.
A woman from my chapter made a comment that I am “not the innocent little thing [I] pretend to be,” because I (teasingly, I thought) took exception to her characterization of our group as mostly quiet middle-aged women. Anyone could snap once, but she kept at it, with a kind of venom, claiming that I pretended to be one way but was actually another way. (I’m still unclear on exactly what she meant, but I am quite certain that she was wrong.)
Another woman, not from my chapter but from a city close to my own, once slapped me in the chest because I asked a question she didn’t like after a talk. I’m not talking about a little pat. I am not one to get upset over a friendly tap or pinch. This was a true slap; she hit me pretty hard. I was shocked and did not fight back: I froze in my usual way when someone attacks me unexpectedly. But I remembered this throughout the rest of the trip… and still do. I don’t recall what my question was, but I can promise you it wasn’t offensive, at least by most people’s standards. I remember it as being a brief little question, and I sensed that my slapper was simply annoyed that I was bothering the speaker with any question at all.
After we returned to Massachusetts and regular book club meetings resumed, the energy shifted more than slightly for me. I told the woman who drove me home (she didn’t go to Turkey with us) about our fellow group member’s claim that I pretend to be an “innocent little thing” when I am in fact something else, and I could feel her seizing up in hostility towards what I was saying. We had spent half our driving hours together gossiping and wondering about people — it’s not like this sort of talk was new. I guess she really liked the woman I was complaining about and didn’t want to hear my thoughts. Ever since then, there was a kind of wall between me and this woman who had so generously driven me home all those times. I would have pushed past it at any time, but it seems she was deeply offended by my comments about the other woman.
Someone in the group who I considered a true buddy moved to another area of the country and left the book club. Our meetings switched to someone else’s house; we lost more members and gained others. Many of those we gained were truly awesome souls who I really enjoyed. But the group was becoming much more rule-bound and much less flexible. They instituted a work-intensive screening process for selecting new books. They were less forgiving about missed meetings. If they suspected that someone hadn’t read the book that month, they noted it like a teacher might note that certain students have not been participating satisfactorily in class.
Why do I say “they” and not “we”? Because I wasn’t on board with any of it, and I suspect that I was far from alone here. But “they” had taken control of our little club. And they had a right to do it; they were probably in the majority.
During one meeting, they decided to prune their membership to include only people who supported their wishes. It seems that those in attendance that day all backed the majority’s goals, and they wanted to eliminate those who took a less intense approach to the group. I didn’t make it to the book club that day. Occasionally, I wonder what would have happened if I’d been there: how I might have reacted to the discussion, and whether the outcome for me would have been any different.
A few days after the meeting, I received an email from the woman who used to drive me home before our group switched locations, telling me that the members had decided to reach out to those who had seemed less committed lately, just to check in. She wanted to speak on the phone, and we had a hard time connecting. I had lots of other things on my mind and figured we’d connect at some point, but she was clearly very upset that she wasn’t reaching me.
At last, I bumped into her in Harvard Square, and we talked. She noted that I had missed a few meetings recently, and I explained: One was during my spring break; before the other one, I had been with friends far beyond public transportation, and they had been unable to drop me off on time for the meeting. Then she asked how I was feeling about the group in general, and I told her that I didn’t like the strictness that was taking over, particularly the need for people to take on specific jobs like screening potential books and writing reports on them for the group. I said that it felt like unpaid work, while, previously, the book club had been a fun diversion that I had really enjoyed. She laid out specific tasks that I would have to complete if I wanted to stay in the group — like screening a certain number of books over the summer — and I said I’d need to think about it and get back to her. Part of me knew that this group was no longer for me, but another, very persistent part missed what used to be, what I used to have, and harbored the notion that, if I stayed, I might have a chance of getting some of that back eventually.
As it turned out, I never got to decide. I was kicked out of the group. Technically, I was hounded into making the decision to leave, but, from my perspective, I was ousted. Shortly before this happened, a few other members stepped down. I suspect that they immediately decided to quit when they were called out on their participation issues… and that the core members were upset that I didn’t react the same way. But I’m not sure.
Though I was supposedly going to let the group know my plans by the end of the summer, before that time came, I received a chilling email from a different woman from the one who had contacted me previously. The two of them had apparently discussed my case — perhaps just between themselves, perhaps with the rest of the club. I wish I could share that message because receiving it was truly an experience: mostly in a bad way, but also in the sense that it taught me some valuable lessons, along the lines of keeping my guard up, protecting myself emotionally, and, most relevant here, never trusting that anyone has my best interests at heart, unless it’s someone I’ve known very well for quite a while. But I’m not sure about the legality or the ethics of sharing a private email that someone had meant for me alone.
I can share the message I sent back, which gives a real sense for the overall situation. The names are the only thing altered; I changed them to simple strings of like letters:
First: don’t worry — I am stepping down from the book club. But I do want to clarify some issues. I never said I didn’t like reading the book before the meetings. I’ll confess that I didn’t always finish the books, but I usually did read and enjoy them. I also never said that I don’t like leading the discussion. What I said was that I preferred when we didn’t have any discussion leader, since that allowed for freer conversation and didn’t put any one person or group on the spot. For that matter, I never said that I don’t like attending regularly. Rather, I explained to YYYY that I’d missed one recent meeting because it was rescheduled for a day right in the middle of my spring break vacation, and another because I was with friends who drove me out of town and found themselves unable to get me to ZZZZ’s house on time. When you don’t drive, you find yourself having to follow others’ schedules at times, and, unfortunately, this happened before our meeting. I certainly didn’t miss because something more interesting came up. I did say that I found the group much more fun when things were less structured, but I did not go as far as saying I don’t like it now. And finally, I did not say I preferred to let other people do the work for me. What I said was that the group seemed to be creating a lot of unpaid work for everyone. If it were up to me, no one would have to do this work: we’d just casually decide which books to read, like we used to do, and discuss them in a laid-back format. But I certainly understand that my preferences are not the way things have worked out, and the group as a whole certainly has a right to move towards a more structured situation.
I’m a bit chilled by the bald characterization of me as not liking commitments and responsibilities. On the other hand, I have to say that I am charmed by your honesty. I don’t get that sort of openness from most people. I don’t see your impression as being accurate, but your opinion is your opinion and it’s interesting to see. I’m even more chilled by your sense that I was somehow harming the group, but, again, that’s your opinion, and I appreciate your expressing it. I feel like I attended often and shared my thoughts with the group. I certainly don’t remember ever causing tension or anything like that.
Honestly (since we’re being very honest here) I would have greatly preferred to make this decision on my own, without feeling like I was being pushed out. I was moving towards leaving anyhow: you could have had the same outcome without the bad feeling. A more spiritual approach would have been to see what I decided on my own, and then, if I had decided to stay for a bit longer, to just make the rules clear, also making it clear that anyone who wasn’t up for following them should leave. That would have felt a lot more embracing and kind. But it is what it is and I do appreciate your stark honesty.
Again, no need to worry: I am stepping down. I hope all goes well for you this year.
NNNN wrote back, trying to be conciliatory, and letting me know that the mannerly approach here would be to email the entire group with my resignation. I replied:
I’m truly glad that you want to end up on a positive note. I just hope that you do not treat anyone else this way in the future. It felt chilling to see a whole list of things I had supposedly said… when in fact I had never actually said them. And I cringed to see just how badly you wanted me out of the group, when I never caused any friction during meetings. I am very happy to step down, so it worked out in my case. But I’m hoping you treat people with more kindness, empathy, and respect if this situation comes up again.
I was planning to write to the group before you suggested it. Of course I realized that this would be the right thing to do.
I hope you enjoy the rest of the summer.
With that, I was no longer a member of the one spiritually-oriented group I had ever felt truly a part of. For sure this is, on balance, a very good thing, considering how much the book club had changed since my earliest, happiest days there. Once in a while, I wonder who the group might have brought in since my exit, and how various people might be doing, but, in general, I feel relieved not to be a part of something that had grown away from my needs. For that matter, it was never truly spiritual in the way I would have wanted. Though I was probably the least religiously traditional of the group, the others rarely, if ever, wanted to discuss mystical longings or drives, or the possibility of soul survival after death. The focus was on learning specifics about the three faiths, and, honestly, that didn’t move me very much after a while. I had grown apart from the group’s concerns, and it was the right thing for me to give it up.
One of my main goals in joining the group was to meet people from Muslim backgrounds since that wasn’t happening for me otherwise… and this for sure came to pass. A few of my favorite people from the group were Muslim, and getting to know them was a deep pleasure. I’m just sad it all had to end as it did.
This organization’s most fundamental goal was to promote peace and friendship among groups that have often clashed. Thankfully, the problems I encountered felt completely unrelated to dynamics among the different religions. What did suffer a bit was my faith in the supportive power of all-women’s groups. More broadly, I feel a lingering sense of caution about supposedly caring groups of all kinds.
This club had once been a true highlight in my life — I’d get each new book with a feeling of excitement and happy anticipation, wondering how the upcoming discussion of it would go. For the entire day of the meeting, I would look towards the evening with a sense of optimism and even joy. Eventually, that all subsided. And, at last, I was kicked out. Despite all my wonderful memories, getting the boot will always be my final, most lasting impression of the group. It’s so unfortunate, and yet it’s also helpful that I learned, yet again, that I need to take care of myself and withhold my trust until I know, with clear-eyed conviction, that it’s warranted.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.