Editor’s note: This essay originally was delivered as a presentation at TOS-Con 2019 and retains the quality of the oral presentation. Notes have been added to elaborate certain points and provide citations.
Deborah Feldman was born into an orthodox Jewish community in New York City, where she was raised to defer, obey, and yield her will to the religious authorities who had planned out her life in advance. In her memoir, Unorthodox, she explains that she graduated early from high school, “because there [was] no point in wasting another year in pursuit of an education [I didn’t] need. . . . I [would] never be allowed to find work. . . . [A]ny effort invested in my education after this point would be a complete waste.”1 She knew something was wrong with the society in which she lived, but she didn’t yet know what to do about it.
At the age of seventeen, Feldman was put into an arranged marriage with a man she had known only for half an hour. Once she became a mother, she yearned for an education. “I [was] exhausted by the years I [had] spent pretending to be pious and chastising myself for my faithlessness,” she said. “I want[ed] to be free . . . to acknowledge myself for who I am, free to present my true face to the world.”2 She enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College—telling her husband it was for a business degree—but found in literature a doorway to another world. She left the orthodox community and became a best-selling author and journalist.
A similar story is told by Yeonmi Park, who escaped the totalitarian slavery of North Korea in 2007. In her book In Order to Live, she explains that
every subject we learned—math, science, reading, music—was delivered with a dose of propaganda. . . . In North Korea, it’s not enough for the government to control where you go, what you learn, where you work, and what you say. They need to control you through your emotions, making you a slave to the state by destroying your individuality, and your ability to react to situations based on your own experience.3
After she escaped, she attended a school where on one occasion she was asked what her favorite color was. She found herself unable to answer. The very idea of having a favorite anything puzzled her. “Why would anyone care about what ‘I’ wanted,” she thought. “There was no ‘I’ in North Korea—only ‘we. . . .’ It took me a long time to start thinking for myself and to understand why my own opinions mattered.”4
Another intellectually heroic woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, had a similar background. She was born in Somalia and raised in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Given a strict Muslim upbringing, she received a meager education—mostly memorizing the Koran. At last she escaped to the Netherlands in 1992 and, soon after, enrolled in a university to study political science. She was impressed by how the Dutch valued freedom. “Four hundred years ago, when European thinkers severed the hard bands of church dogma that had constrained people’s minds, Holland was the center of free thought,” she writes in her memoir, Infidel.
The Enlightenment cut European culture from its roots in old fixed ideas of magic, kingship, social hierarchy, and the domination of priests, and regrafted it onto a great strong trunk that supported the equality of each individual, and his right to free opinions and self-rule—so long as he did not threaten civic peace and the freedom of others. . . . And here, this commitment to freedom took hold of me, too.5
These stories are at once horrifying and inspiring.6 That these remarkable women from such diverse backgrounds ultimately found freedom and a world of ideas and experiences to enrich their lives is a cause for celebration and for reflecting on how fortunate we are—those of us who did not face such daunting odds. It’s also cause for reflection on the millions of people today who still live in the silent, senseless darkness of ignorance and terror.
Yet it’s worth remembering that in the light of history, the experiences these women escaped are not only not rare, but are in fact how most people have lived for most of their lives in most of the nations of the world. Illiteracy, ignorance, poverty, hunger, and disease are by a wide margin the most common state of affairs in which humanity has found itself. It is only in the past two centuries that a portion of the human race has risen out of darkness into enlightenment. And it has done so in a manner very much like the stories these women tell.
Escaping the Darkness
What I mean is that although these are stories of personal liberation and discovery, Western civilization as a whole went through something similar on a culture-wide level beginning around 1700, in a period that we, appropriately enough, call the Enlightenment. . . .
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