Corrections or additions?
This article by Phyllis Maguire
was prepared for the March 6, 2002 edition of
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
A Conversation with Margot Adler
Her resume is an eclectic one: National correspondent.
Political radical. Serious student of the U.S. Constitution. Pagan
But ever since Margot Adler grew up as the daughter of Marxist parents
during the McCarthy era, her life has been defined by diversity.
who is National Public Radio’s New York bureau chief and host of NPR’s
"Justice Talking," appears at Barnes & Noble in MarketFair
as featured speaker for women’s history month, on Friday, March 8,
at 8 p.m.
She has been participating in and commenting on that history for
decades. Jailed briefly for her 1964 activities with the Free Speech
Movement at University of California, Berkeley, Adler spent summers
registering black voters in Mississippi and cutting sugar cane in
Cuba as a member of the Venceremos Brigade.
She joined NPR in 1979 as a general assignment reporter, and for the
past three years has moderated "Justice Talking," a weekly
series of debates on sweeping legal controversies being decided in
the nation’s courts.
She has also been actively engaged in what she calls "earth-based
religions" — the growing American paganist movement that she
chronicled in her encyclopedic book, "Drawing Down the Moon,"
first published in 1979 and revised in 1986. She treated her
as well as her early political and spiritual experiences, in her 1997
memoir "Heretic’s Heart: A Journey Through Spirit and
Women have swelled the ranks of the U.S. pagan community, Adler says
in an animated phone interview from her New York office. The trend
is part of a wave of women’s spiritual exploration that has been
for the past 30 years. Women’s spirituality will certainly be one
of the topics during her Princeton talk — particularly since she
has been in "a feminist religious rage" since September 11.
(She was originally scheduled to speak September 14, but that was
"It started when I read the part of Mohammed Atta’s will about
not wanting women to touch his dead body," she says. "There
was almost like this smell in my nostrils, something very familiar,
and then I realized that it reminded me of the `Maleus
The reference is to a 1484 papal decree authorizing the use of the
Inquisition against heretics suspected of witchcraft. "There was
something very inquisitional about it."
The senseless loss of life in September revealed "a religious
problem," Adler continues. "Within the foundational texts
of the so-called `great’ religions, among all the beautiful poetry
and wisdom, there is an emphasis on martyrdom and the afterlife that
gives justification to the suicide bomber."
By contrast, she points out that earth-based pagan traditions offer
a very different perspective. "They say that deity is not above
or below us or in some other dimension, but all around us here and
now," she says. "That’s always been a very powerful message,
but particularly so when you look at the logical extension of
that `there is only one answer, and we’re going to give it to you,
even if we have to kill you for it.’"
The need to bring the divine into the present has been apparent, she
adds, in the shrines that have blossomed in New York, memorials that
have sprung up in front of apartment buildings or on chain link fences
festooned with Post-it notes of personal messages.
"To me, the shrines represent an incredible bursting forth of
popular religion, a need to connect to some type of spiritual reality
that overflowed the churches, synagogues, and mosques." she says.
"They have become a ritual way for us to meditate on the attacks
and larger issues."
Her own altar there in her office, she says, features along with
and crystals a vial of well water from Ireland, an "I Love NY
More Than Ever" candle, and a Zena action figure.
Another extraordinary dimension in the wake of the
the sense of community in New York, where Adler was raised and now
lives with her husband and 11-year-old son.
"New York never seemed a part of America because it was always
too out there, too dressed in black, too crazy and sexual," Adler
says. "But suddenly New York is part of America and loved by
and in the months since the attack, I have felt a bond with this
that I never felt before."
That’s heady stuff for a woman who in her memoir wrote that, as a
16-year-old, much of the grief that united the country after John
Kennedy’s assassination passed her by. Her parents and their friends,
after all, had supported the Cuban revolution.
One of her grandmothers was an illiterate Russian, while one of her
grandfathers was Alfred Adler, the Viennese psychiatrist (part of
the Freud-Adler-Jung trio) who coined the terms "lifestyle"
and "inferiority complex." Both Adler’s parents turned their
backs on their Jewish roots, embraced socialist causes, and raised
her — Adler notes with laughter — as "a red diaper
She grew up knowing her parents’ beliefs were considered dangerous
in what in "Heretic’s Heart" she called "the spiritual
winter" of the 1950s. By high school, she’d demonstrated against
segregated lunch counters at Woolworth’s; fallen in love with the
Latin Masses she went to with Catholic friends; and drawn into her
robust fantasy life the figures of Greek goddesses she’d been
to at her alternative school in Greenwich Village.
Her mother, who was "Auntie Mame-like and very embarrassing"
to her as a child, urged her to quit grubbing for grades and to make
her life richer. She describes her as an exuberant woman, who although
she died when Adler was fairly young, remains a major force in her
life. Her years at U.C. Berkeley were punctuated not only by politics,
but an extraordinary correspondence — reprinted in "Heretic’s
Heart" — that Adler maintained with a GI in Vietnam.
a brief romance when he returned home, they have remained friends
Coming back east for a master’s in journalism from Columbia, Adler
began her radio career with a talk show at WBAI in New York. By then,
she’d refused to sign on for any of the political "isms" —
communism, socialism — that tugged at her during her protest days.
While still active in political and feminist causes, she immersed
herself in the rituals and traditions of neopaganism, a spiritual
path that puzzled many of her fellow radical reformers. Her religious
practices now draw on Celtic, Greek, Aruban, and Cuban traditions,
and in addition to her work for NPR, Adler leads several workshops
every year on spirituality, ritual, and song.
She measures the spreading appeal of Wicca and neopaganism by the
fact that sales of "Drawing Down the Moon" continue to grow.
By contrast, she says, "Heretic’s Heart" is a much harder
sell, a fact she chalks up to what she sees as a successful
campaign to re-define the ’60s as an age of profligacy, instead of
necessary social change.
"The ’60s have been vilified as a time that destroyed a
she says. "As a result, it’s become a lot harder to get across
the view that it was a time when we really began to explore the
of what work and relationship mean, and how to create a society
from the one we had."
She is, she admits, "very worried" about the present political
climate, seeing in this administration "people who would like
to return to a 1950s type of political and social winter," she
says. Compounding the problem is the fact that the country now lacks
"a really smart and deep left, so we don’t really have very
people on either side."
But she takes heart from the fact that much of the public’s apparent
acceptance of the country’s current leaders is "artificial,"
based more on a sense of heightened alert than shared political
She also finds it encouraging that the Internet connects us to a
"It is extremely easy for anybody who is reasonably educated,"
she says, "to find out in one minute that all of Europe thinks
we are completely off the wall."
She does not find it paradoxical that someone with a lifetime of
activism and diverse spiritual influences now follows the polemical
twists and turns of the rule of law. "What I find fascinating
about `Justice Talking’ is that I often start the program completely
disagreeing with one of the guests — but by the end, I’m no longer
sure what I think about the topic." In fact, her radio work, her
political activity, and her spiritual explorations can all achieve
what she sees as a key objective.
"It’s important," Adler says, "to turn the world upside
down, so people can see it in a new light."
609-897-9250. The writer, New York bureau chief for National Public
Radio, and host of NPR’s "Justice Talking." Free. Friday,
March 8, 8 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.