Monday, December 19, 2016

The Witches: Salem, 1692 -- How A Society Can Go Mad, Then and Now

Photo: from, at this address.

Incredibly thorough, this book seems somehow meticulous and yet all over the place at the same time. I mean that in a good way, though I could maybe understand those reviews I've read that appreciated that less than I did. I'm a guy whose thoughts are kinda all over the place anyway, yet I somehow manage to reel it all in and be very productive on most days (not lately, with a long-lasting sinus infection and head cold combination happening), and hopefully averagely productive on my worst.

This book is like that: it tells the whole Salem story, from every possible viewpoint, in a very omniscient POV that considers the victims, the accusers, the judges, the politicians who let it all happen, the social milieu, and the background history--often all in the same page or two. It never spins out of control, though a few times it may look like it's about to. It's written in a cyclone fashion, its winds reaching far, and like that storm it pulls it all together memorably.

And memorable this is. Its author, Stacy Schiff--a Pulitzer-Prize winner--clearly intended this to read like it does. It's almost Umberto Eco-like, except he really does spin out of control, especially after The Name of the Rose. And those who don't enjoy his ride will find his latest novels impossible to read. (I can read The Name of the Rose straight through, but it's mentally taxing, and his other books are just taxing, like James Joyce at his most internal.) Anyway, Schiff writes here in that whirlwind fashion, yet even the all-encompassing winds have everything under a microscope.

So though it's far-reaching, it's still concise and very readable. Its short asides or tangents exist to show the human side of the hysteria and tragedy. One passage, about a teenage girl, tracked down at her grandmother's house in another town, is chased by men with sticks and dogs. She gets away for awhile, but what must that have been like? Schiff offers the image, and imagines how it felt.

That's what I really took away from this. You get the facts, as you would expect to. You may know, for example, that Arthur Miller's The Crucible strayed a bit from the cold truth. John Proctor, for example, was not anything like Daniel Day-Lewis, even with bad teeth. In history, he was a plain-talking tavern owner in his 60s. He did not have a battle with his conscience; a great percentage of those who hanged did so pleading their ignorance for the entirety of their captivity. Those who "confessed" never saw jail time to begin with--except for one, who did hang anyway. That was George Burroughs, the town's former minister, and an extremely strong man who survived Indian massacres in Maine--and who was apparently despised for that, close and afar. His hanging is perhaps the book's, and Salem's, biggest mystery.

But you get the personal sides and the surrounding history. Indian attacks were common and a constant fear--to the point of hysteria. If that wasn't bad enough, you had catastrophic winters, rampant disease, socio-economic chasms (lots of homeless women and indentured servants, who were routinely raped and/or beaten), extreme gender bias (being an outspoken woman was not wise), a stifling belief system, and a theocracy that epitomizes the necessity for the Separation of Church and State that this country even now so often ignores and forgets.

You get it all. Because don't you want to understand why it happened? This is Nazism in a microcosm, right here in New England. In short, at first, if you were different, you were screwed. If you were a social undesirable, you were accused. Then, if you were in a position of economic power, like Rebecca Nurse and her family, you were accused. Predictably, it didn't stop until family members of the judges and politicians (especially Governor Phip's wife) were accused. How can Harvard-educated men, the wisest and the smartest in the country, take part in this, and allow it to happen? Well, here's how.

And it can happen again. Just take a town (or a country?) at social war with itself, and throw it a bone, and watch it all happen. There were dissenters, sure--until they were immediately accused and thrown in jail. That, predictably, shut them up real fast. The threat of that then quickly shut up potential dissenters, until finally nobody (besides a few untouchables in Boston, so close yet so far away) spoke up. It doesn't take much of an imagination to see this happening on a large scale.

Let's just hope it doesn't.

But here is how a community can go mad. And it's not from any one thing, but from a perfect storm of the worst elements of human nature: religious fundamentalism, ignorance, intolerance, e theocratic government, greed, jealousy, a male-dominated society, a conviction of belief over intelligence and common sense--even from the most educated men of their time. In a world where belief trumps knowledge (See what I did there?), where disinformation and misinformation is gospel, where belief in what you can't prove trumps what can be proven (I did it again.)--Well, how can disaster and chaos NOT happen?

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