Leah Vincent was born into the Yeshivish community, an ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism, in Pittsburgh.
"Yeshivish Judaism life is defined by religious law," Vincent tells NPR's Arun Rath. "We keep extra-strict laws of kosher, observe the Sabbath every week, maintain a separation of the sexes and a degree of isolation from the outside world."
When she was 16, she was caught exchanging letters with a male friend. Contact with men is forbidden in her sect, and she was cast out from her community.
In her memoir, Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, Vincent shares her journey after exile.
"I'm almost embarrassed now when I share stories with other people who have similar journeys," says Vincent. "I wasn't the feminist; I wasn't the forward-thinking intellectual. I just was a teenager. And I made some mistakes, but I desperately — for years — clung to this desire to stay within the world I grew up in."
At 17, she moved to New York City, a hub for the Yeshivish community. New York is where many parents send their children to see a matchmaker and get married. But for Vincent, all ties were severed.
"I just ended up in this precarious position where I was branded a rebel and a bad girl, but I had no desire on my own to move out into the world. I still loved our way of life," she says.
Alone in a vastly different world, Vincent experienced a collapse of her faith.
"This is a story about a lot of sex and sexual trauma," she says, "but then, I grew up in this very sheltered world. I think when girls are raised in communities or homes that obsess over modesty ... it leaves them very vulnerable to the type of things that I went through."
On her perceptions of her religious community as a child
When I was a child, it was a really a beautiful and wonderful thing. I was one of 11 children and it was kind of easy to get lost in that, but I felt like I was doing what God wanted and that imbued my daily life with so much meaning and joy and intensity. ... It was only when my adolescence started to unfold and I started to have desires and interests that went beyond the world I was supposed to fit into that things started to become more tense and more conflict arose.
On how her sheltered childhood contributed to her promiscuity
I was raised where my most important goal was to always stay modest because I believed I had some huge sexual power that could cause men to sin. And engaging with that power in certain ways — most of them unhealthily in the beginning — became a coping mechanism.
But I think if I was raised in a home where I had been taught that I had many tools and many things that were important about my life and many things I could contribute to the world, I think that my life would not have gone from one extreme to the other as it did.
On her relationship with her family now
Most of my family won't speak to me anymore. But ... I have one brother who also left ultra-Orthodoxy after I did, and he and I have a wonderful relationship. ... It's so beautiful after having lost everybody — he has a son and I have a daughter, and they can play together, and I can know that I'm giving my child some family, even though I lost so much.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
Leah Vincent had already traveled an amazing distance by the time she was an adult. Vincent grew up in a Yeshivish community in Pennsylvania but was forced to leave as a teenager and eventually ended up cut off completely alone in New York City.
The Yeshivish are an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect. Religion is at the center of their life and strict rules regulate all daily activities. Especially restricted are any interactions with the opposite sex. But Leah says when she was young, the rules didn't feel oppressive.
LEAH VINCENT: When I was a child, it was really a beautiful and wonderful thing. You know, I was one of 11 children, and it was kind of easy to get lost in that. But I felt like I was doing what God wanted. And that imbued my daily life with so much meaning and joy and intensity, which was really very wonderful to feel like God had reached down from the sky and tapped me on the shoulder and chosen me to be his daughter, which is how it was phrased to us.
It was only when my adolescence started to unfold and I started to have desires and interests that went beyond the world I was supposed to fit into that things started to become more tense and more conflicts arose.
RATH: And those desires, what happens is you end up expressing them in a way which outside of the community would look quite innocuous and even kind of sweet and innocent. Can you talk about how that came to pass?
VINCENT: Sure. So there were a few big moments that really symbolizes tension that was building. One of them was I was sent away to a more Yeshivish, more religious school in Manchester, England. And I befriended a girl who had a very cute older brother. And girls were not allowed to talk to boys, but because he was my friend's older brother, I had some contact with him. And he was not as Yeshivish as my family, and he introduced me to the idea of going to college, that one could be religious and a good person and still go to college, which was forbidden in my sect.
And maybe I was, you know, probably pretty heavily influenced by the fact that I was 15 and had a major crush on this guy, but I started thinking, you know, I want to go to college. And I called my mom back home in Pittsburgh, and I said, I am thinking about going to college. It's something I want to do. And she said: If you try to go to college, we'll have you locked up. So they reacted very strongly to this desire.
And then a little bit later on, I was in Israel. It was found out that I had been writing letters to the same boy, and it really led to a big break between me and my extended family and my community.
RATH: And you were just - as you said, you were just exchanging notes with this boy. But that was something that was absolutely forbidden, unacceptable.
VINCENT: Yeah. There was not allowed to be any contact between adolescent girls and boys. And once it was known that I was talking to a boy, I was meanly moved to sort of a second-class citizenship because, you know, I wasn't pure, I wasn't good. I had done - violated some taboo.
And I just ended up in this precarious position where I was branded a rebel and a bad girl, but I had no desire on my own to move out into the world. I still loved our way of life. I just made a few mistakes.
RATH: Well, it's one of the things that's so sad about this part of your journey is that it's not like you're not a nonbeliever. You're not even questioning your faith, your belief in God or even the morality of it that deeply. It's just a couple of things that completely turned it upside down for you.
VINCENT: Yeah. I'm almost embarrassed now when I share stories with other, like, people who have similar journeys. Like, I wasn't the feminist. I wasn't the forward-thinking intellectual. I just was a teenager. And I made some mistakes. But I desperately, for years, clung to this desire to stay within the world I grew up in.
RATH: So how did you wind up in New York City?
VINCENT: So that was kind of a common move. That's where the really large Yeshivish community is. And so people who have families outside of that will send their daughters and their sons to New York to be matched up by a matchmaker to get married. So that was kind of expected. What was unexpected was the lack of support and communication that came along with that.
So I was 17 in New York City and nobody was trying to find me - nobody was talking about, OK, so we'll try to find you a match. Nobody was really talking to me period. So I was in the right place, but nothing else was lined up.
RATH: It was also hard to imagine. So you grew up, to put it mildly, in a very sheltered, you know, very sheltered childhood and - but then you're in New York City, kind of sin central.
VINCENT: Yeah. And, you know, perhaps another way to talk about it is that this is a story of about a lot of sex and sexual trauma. And yet I grew up in - I don't know if that's the center for sin that you're looking at - and - but then I grew up in this very sheltered world.
But I actually think it's not as paradoxical as it might look at first glance, because I think when girls are raised in communities or homes that obsess over modesty, they're actually - it's just like a dust cloth over this sexuality that ends up defining them.
And when they're put in other circumstances, it leaves them very vulnerable to the kind of things that I went through. I was raised where my most important goal was to always stay modest because I believe I had some huge sexual power that could cause men to sin. And engaging with that power in different ways, most of them unhealthily at the beginning, became a coping mechanism.
But I think if I was raised in a home where I had been taught that I had many tools and many things that were important about my life and many things I could contribute to the world, I think that it wouldn't have been quite - my life would not have gone from one extreme to the other as it did.
RATH: Have - do you have any communication now with your family or your old community?
VINCENT: Most of my family won't speak to me anymore. But as I mention in the book, I have one brother who also left ultra-Orthodoxy after I did, and he and I have a wonderful relationship. And he has a family, and it's so beautiful, after having lost everybody. He has a son, and I have a daughter, and they can play together. And I can know that I'm giving my child some family, even though I lost so much.
RATH: Leah Vincent's new book is called "Cut Me Loose: Sin And Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood." Leah, thank you so much.
VINCENT: Thank you so much. My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.