Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Lessons from Salem

“There’s a thousand witches in town, still.” So says the man holding a sign at a crosswalk recommending the voters of Salem, Massachusetts, cast their ballots for a man named McCarthy. 

“Really?” says my friend, Chris. “A thousand? That seems like a lot. How do you determine…”

But then, the light changed and Chris and I continued with our adventure through the once mean streets of Salem, without continuing to chat with McCarthy’s supporters, or even to learn what this McCarthy’s platform might be for Witch City.

Instead, we wandered along the red-painted historic trail through the garish Halloweeny-ness of the city. Whiteboards outside bars offered tarot and palm readings, one shoppe sells nothing but Harry Potter wands. Chris and I crossed through the graveyard, taking a slow saunter through the memorial to the twenty Puritans killed by their friends, families, neighbors and fellows in faith in the hysteria of 1692. Someone before us had placed a dandelion blossom on each of the granite benches. I resisted the urge to build a little cairn on Giles Corey’s.

In the gift shop of the Witch Dungeon museum, we found the answer to Chris’s question of how you determine the number of witches in town—an authentic copy of the witch tests used, printed up on faux parchment. One of the tests: if you prick the accused with a pin or needle and they do not feel pain or bleed, then they are guilty and must die.

We went to the Dungeon—a rebuild copy of the original. It was claustrophobic with the twenty-people on the tour. I do not let myself imagine what it would have been with fifty, with 150. I try to not think of the tidal-river flooded floor, of standing in salty ice water with river rats and human filth sloshing around my shackle-chaffed ankles. When you are cold, underfed, and dehydrated, your veins constrict, your circulation and reflexes slow. When I am very cold, my hands look blue and bloodless, like corpse fingers. If you pricked them with a pin, I might not bleed quickly. I might not feel the pain. Women, more than men, have poor circulation in our extremities.

Outside the dungeon, the town focuses on the occult and the absurd. Buy a witch hat, any color! Get your authentic dragon’s blood here! Vote for McCarthy! Only there, in the dim dankness of this dungeon, did I find what I sought—the perspective of the victims, a recognition that they were never witches, there was no magic spells, no Devil or evil any larger or smaller than what horror we humans have and do and will visit upon ourselves, on each other. In short, in the dark, the truth appeared.

I’ve been frightened by the Salem Witch Trials since I learned of them at six or seven. First it was the thought that some nameless evil could descend on me—a little girl. Then it was the recognition that innocent people were accused and killed on the say so of children, and on the nebulous understanding of the cause. It was as if my high school history books were still tacitly admitting that the Devil—in a very Puritanical, Biblical, literal sense of the Beast—might have been present in Salem in those horrible months. I heard the arguments about moldy grain giving the accusing girls hallucinations. I’ve read about other instances of teenage girls coming down with group manias.

What is rarely said explicitly is that the Puritans were to blame for Salem.  We blame the children’s imaginations, we blame the grains, we blame the West Indian slave woman. We don’t blame a conservative and constrictive all-powerful patriarchy, we don’t blame a way of life that sets up genocidal expansion and the fear that breeds. Perhaps we are too proud of being a Puritan-born nation, perhaps we are still afraid to name the powerful, or to live with a history that is as bloody and frightening as it is courageous and industrious. It is always easier to point fingers any which way but towards ourselves. History is written by the victors, the survivors, the powerful. In this case, written by the men and sons of Salem who needed some shield against their guilt, perhaps.

The tour guide in the dungeon gave the cleanest explanation of how such horror became real. To the Puritans, anything that wasn’t work or church was superfluous, was evidence of the Devil at work. This includes stories and games and laughing and expressions of human joy. The town was newly settled, Native Americans were not yet exterminated and would raid the town in deadly fights for what had been their grandparents’ lands. So the Puritans of Salem lived with a constant threat of death. I think of how on thin the nerves of people in war zones today are worn—the paranoia and despair and depression and fear and post-traumatic stress of people in Syria, in Palestine, in Iraq, Afghanistan, of any group living without reasonable certainty that today is not their last on this earth.

This is a toxic combination of fear and grief and guilt and repression.  In such straits, I would be tempted to believe in anything that promised anything better, even if I had to be dead to enjoy it. Faith, and the (cold, in this instance) comfort of a community of faith in such a life, would have been more vital than food or water. And then, to have those very people turn against you, shackle you in the darkness, condemn you to death…you would have nothing left, your community, your God, seemingly abandoning you.

And to be a child in that stark world—I would probably have been institutionalized if I hadn’t been allowed to express my imagination as a child. Into the repressed soup of Salem, Tituba arrives as a slave in the house of the minister. Not being brought up in this world, she is nonetheless put in charge of teaching a group of local girls how to be good Puritan housewives or servants. Any normal person confronted with a group of girls ages nine to seventeen would probably resort to some storytelling and humor, at the very least, to hold their attention darning socks or bonnets.  But then, the minister comes home, sees the work of the Devil in his own home, through the mouthpiece of this black woman, and beats Tituba almost to death in front of his nine-year-old daughter and the other girls.

His daughter becomes immediately paralyzed, I would guess with fear. But the Puritan doctor says it is witchcraft and the Devil, because that is the only group accepted answer. And so, sick with fear at the adults in her life, probably confused by the attention she’s being given, the girl names Tituba as the witch. Who promptly confesses, because that’s the only way to possible avoid death. And, the insidious thing here is that every confessor has to name other names. Tituba picks Sarah Goode, the only woman possibly lower on the social ladder of Salem than herself. Sarah’s daughter was also accused. She wasn’t killed, but, at the age of four, Dorcas Goode is kept in the Dungeon and watched her mother hang to death on Gallow’s Hill.

If there is a devil, if there is evil in this world, then it’s roots and horns and magicks and cloven-hooves are within our own so-human selves. Still.

But the other side of that bitter coin is that, bubbled and boiled down, the root cause of the Salem Witch Trials was that Puritans did not know to love their children, did not know to be flexible and how to share with their neighbors, how to see any viewpoint but their own. If that sounds familiar today, as thousands of people are put in dire straits and the leaders of this society act like idiotic children, it should be no surprise. These are our forebearers. When that willful idiocy is the problem, then the reverse is the solution—love, flexibility, open-mindedness, and, the courage and imagination to do these vital things, away from the dominant power structure. 

The witch hunt ended shortly after the girls could be rented out. Pay a fee—I’m guessing to a father or brother or husband or uncle, even a woman who could find the Devil couldn’t be trusted with money—and take a witch-finder girl to your community and she’d name your enemies as in league with the Devil. Once their corruption was exposed, they lost their power.

What a thought...

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