News of Karen Brown’s recent death came via email from a mutual friend of ours, Christine Downing.
There are many things that can be said about Karen’s life and career, including that she won prizes for her life’s work Mama Lola in scholarly associations in the fields of religion and anthropology, that her work has been influential in bringing the study of Vodou into the scholarly mainstream, and that it has been inspiring to women of color.
Here I will focus on the years when our friendship provided crucial support for our audacious scholarly work. I first met Karen through the New York Feminist Scholars in Religion, a group Anne Barstow and I organized in 1974 that nurtured work on women and religion for many of us, including besides me and Karen, Judith Plaskow, Naomi Goldenberg, Ellen Umansky, Lynn Gottlieb, Beverly Harrison, Nelle Morton, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza.
My friendship with Karen was sparked by the explosion that occurred in the New York feminist scholars group when Anne Barstow and I spoke in the fall of 1976 about our attractions to the Goddess. Our presentations evoked a great conflagration, which I remember as coalescing around Beverly Harrison’s authoritative and authoritarian statement that there can be no ethics in Goddess religion because ethics comes from a transcendent source—not from nature. Karen was among those who responded tentatively that she was not so sure Beverly was right.
In the discussions that continued over the academic year, Karen and I exchanged meaningful glances, supported each others’ comments, and finally met for a few longer conversations shortly before I left New York to take up a new teaching position in California. Karen was then in the process of leaving her husband and moving into the magnificently quirky loft apartment that she would decorate with Haitian art in Tribeca on the lower west side of New York City.
I offered to do a house blessing for Karen’s new apartment, and she agreed. We blessed the thresholds and the corners of each room with salt and water and incense, and Karen spoke of the new life she hoped to begin in her new home. Later Karen told me that Alourdres (Mama Lola) insisted on blessing the house again and that the rituals were nearly the same.
During the years Karen lived in the Lower West Side from 1977 to 2001 or 2002, I stayed with her several times a year when conferences and lectures brought me to and through New York and on my way back and forth from teaching in Greece in the summers. During that time we had many long and intimate conversations in which the details of our lives were interwoven with the details of our work.
Our friendship was important to both of us, not only because we were pioneers in the study of women and religion, but also because within it we were becoming a minority within a minority as our work took us outside an increasingly Christian-dominated field. Our conversations ranged fluidly around many subjects including: leaving Christianity; the importance of female symbolism for divinity; whether we need male Gods of war or not; religions that focus on the divine and human connection to nature; similarities and differences between Goddess and Vodou rituals and altars; healing; female leadership styles; the experience of living between cultures; and our common struggles to find a voice in which to write about what we were discovering.
Karen and I were in the process of rejecting the dispassionate voice of scholarly objectivity and searching for a way to write that combined scholarly research with the passion to know the world more deeply and to think about it clearly that inspired our work. Our conversations with each other were a lifeline, as we had no role models for the personal paths we were exploring or for the new ways of writing our scholarship with which we were experimenting. We quite literally “heard each other into speech” to quote the phrase Nelle Morton used to name the importance of our female conversations.
I happened to visit Karen shortly after she underwent her initiation into Vodou, which was at about the same time that I experienced what felt to me like revelation at the temple of Aphrodite in Lesbos. We both felt that we must incorporate these moments into our writings, but we also were afraid to do so because we feared that others would call us heretics and dismiss our writing as unscholarly. Karen and I spoke publicly of these experiences on a panel organized by Rita Gross at the American Academy of Religion in 1985 that was published in Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 3/1 (1987).
Karen received more scholarly recognition for her transgressions than I have. This is in part due to a greater interest in difference among anthropologists than among theologians. However, Karen often told me that scholarly recognition is not the only way to judge the importance of feminist contributions and reminded me that my work has had a major impact within and outside the academy.
One day Karen and I were discussing whether she could fully embrace Haitian culture and whether I would become Greek. Invoking the Vodou concept of living “between the worlds” of the spirit and ordinary reality, she said that this was how she understood herself: she could never be nor would she want to be Haitian, but neither would she ever be fully American or Christian again. She added that one of the reasons she felt comfortable living between worlds was that she had never felt comfortable in her own culture.
In the intervening years, I have thought about this conversation many times. While there was once a time when I wanted to become Greek and leave my American culture behind, I have come to realize that this is not possible. Like Karen, I live between worlds and find my greatest comfort in belonging to two worlds and to neither. This insight is only one of the many gifts I gained though my friendship with Karen McCarthy Brown.
Remembering Karen, let us bless the Source of Life, and the cycles of birth, death, and regeneration.
Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter)–space available on the spring and fall 2015 tours. Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions; and forthcoming next year, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Photos by Martha Ackelsberg.