Repetition and Expiation in Witch City


I’m carrying this over from The Virtue Blog, in case you don’t read it. This post is about my visit to Salem this summer with my family, and about some of the things that still haunt me about that visit.

If you believe that human nature inherently strives to embrace good and repudiate evil, you might see some affirmation of this in the fate of Salem, Massachusetts. I recently visited Salem to witness its evolution from the sleepy, working-class Boston suburb I once knew from childhood visits with my grandparents to the “Witch City” it is today, replete with police cars and fire trucks sporting the logo of a woman in a pointed hat on a broom, silhouetted against a full moon. Salem’s official and unofficial memorials to the witch persecutions of 1692 constitute a vibrant reclamation of diversity in a town that, more that 300 years later, is still best known for a brief, violent assertion of political and religious authority that famously scapegoated unconventional women, the poor, and those that defended them. To witness Salem’s contemporary celebration of everyday magic is to sense the yearning for justice that exists in human hearts and manifests itself through participatory gestures of generosity and tolerance, but it is also to reflect on the guilty, melancholic repetitions that can mark recognition of those common, human tendencies–cowardice, rage, envy, and intolerance–that reside in each of us.


In Salem today, official sites of mourning and memory exist alongside tawdry museums filled with lurid, full-sized dioramas depicting medieval dungeons, instruments of torture, and store mannequins dressed like Puritan matrons hanging from gallows. Contemporary Salem has occult boutiques on every corner peddling witch souvenirs and New Age collectibles to tourists while also selling candles, sage, incense, spell ingredients, Wiccan jewelry, and tarot cards to aspiring everyday witches and wizards. Witch tours start at dusk at the old Town Hall, variously led by history buffs, maritime enthusiasts, ghost story aficionados, sympathetic pagans, and practicing Wiccans. It is said that there are anywhere between 800 and 1600 witches living in Salem today, and there is even a Witches Education Bureau. A sculpture of Elizabeth Montgomery—the actress from the 1960s television series “Bewitched”—sits on a crescent moon in a town park. A brand new feminist group formed in Salem just this May gives thanks on their web page that such groups are easily started there because the town has “the coolest little aliens” residing in it.


Many countries have places that memorialize injustice, places where the act of remembering takes on ethical significance. In the U.S. these sites can be official, like the Wounded Knee Memorial that pays tribute to the 1890 massacre of Lakota men, women, and children by the U.S. Army; and unofficial, like Martin Luther King Jr.’s room at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, preserved for years by owner Walter Bailey to reflect the way it looked on the day the Civil Rights leader was fatally shot there, long before the hotel finally became The National Civil Rights Museum in 1991.

In its report “The Urge to Remember: The Role of Memorials in Social Reconstruction and Transitional Justice,” the Memorialization Working Group of the Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. identifies the goals of memorializing conflict and injustice as reconciliation and social reconstruction. The function of memorials, they argue, should be to create a place to mourn, a place that symbolizes a community’s or nation’s commitment to human rights, and a place where symbolic reparations can be offered to victims of injustice.

Salem’s great injustices were directed primarily at women, so it is fitting that the town has become a haven for witches and feminists. Tour guides in Salem like to point out the innocuous fountain in the middle of town, recently built on the site of the town’s original fresh water spring. This busy thoroughfare of shops and restaurants was once the perfect spot for public humiliation, where residents came daily to fetch fresh water, walking past offenders displayed in chains or locked to wooden racks as punishment for adultery, fornication, gossip, and general insubordination. Here women who talked too much were pinioned for hours with bridles on their heads and metal bits pulling their lips back from their teeth, their suffering a warning to others that scolds and social rebels would not be tolerated by the town fathers.



Photo by Kim Jones

The mournful old homesteads I remember visiting as a child still draw tourists; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s family House of the Seven Gables and Judge Jonathan Corwin’s “Witch House” hunch their shoulders suspiciously against the sky as scores of pilgrims pay their respects, marching through residential and commercial neighborhoods in search of clues as to why this particular town went out of its mind three hundred and twenty-four years ago, charging nearly two hundred people with witchcraft and brutally executing twenty of its citizens, including socially prominent elderly men and women in their seventies and eighties.


In the center of Salem sits the Old Burying Point, with many of its gravestones dating before 1700 and featuring winged skulls and angels on their arched tops. Next to this, running all along one side, a granite wall encloses a long rectangle, open at one end and punctuated by shade trees. Twenty stone benches jut out from the sides of the wall, each inscribed with a name and cause and date of death. This is the Salem Witch Trials Memorial.


The dates on the stones, all from 1692, are precise and evenly spaced throughout the summer: June 10, July 19, August 19, September 19, September 22. The memorial was dedicated by Elie Wiesel, who travelled there in 1992 to give a speech three hundred years after that terrible season. Looking around at the benches ringing the little yard, one is struck by how many memorial stones there are here. The number of benches, each with its quiet dignity, reminds us here that there were not three, or four, or five people executed for witchcraft in Salem, as movies about the trials often suggest, but the unthinkable number of twenty, with scores more languishing in prison, some in cells below sea level where the ocean crept in twice a day to torment them.


Salem Witch Trials Memorial. Photo by Michael Femia


The memorial itself stands in somber contrast to the tacky exuberance of Salem’s witch tourism. On one end, its artists designed the wall to look as if it had been lifted, flipped over, and separated from the rest of the structure, revealing stones on the ground carved with words taken from the defendants in their trial transcripts. While many of those hanged were buried anonymously on Gallows Hill, here the bench stones with the names of each victim, and the front stones with their words refuting accusations of witchcraft and sorcery, work together to resist the silencing and erasure performed by the executions.



Photo by John Hyun

The Memorial’s bench stones show Bridget Bishop as the first to die, a lone victim hanged in June. By the end of July we learn she was joined by five women, including Rebecca Nurse, a devout grandmother of 71 years. We see that four men and a woman were executed in August, including Giles Cory and his wife, who spoke out against the terror. Giles was pressed to death at the age of eighty for his famous refusal to stand trial, an act that meant certain death for him but the retention of his farm for his remaining family. In the dates, we note the shocking escalation of deaths, as nine more people are killed on one day in September.


Although more would be convicted and sentenced to death before they were pardoned and released, September 22 marks the end of the executions. Five people accused in Salem died in prison. Five more people escaped. The whole mess finally began to unravel in earnest when the governor’s wife was accused; those remaining in prison were eventually exonerated or had their charges dropped. Public outcry against the trials was immediate and sustained, and the next three centuries witnessed attempts by moral leaders and families of the victims to clear the names of those executed. However, while many convictions were overturned in


Photo by Nick Ares

1711, and still others as late as 1957, it was not until 2001 that Massachusetts finally exonerated all its convicted witches name by name.


Some scholars have argued that the weather is to blame for what happened in Salem, as the charges and arrests began during what has been termed the “Little Ice Age,” a period characterized by unusually cold winters and dry summers. Others blame the political and religious conflicts in Salem, Salem Village, and the surrounding towns, where many locals


Photo by Dex

enjoyed quarreling over property lines, inheritance laws, and religious doctrine. A strong case can be made for misogyny as one important factor in the trials, since the first people accused were uppity women, and class warfare as another, since the initial batch of accused were poor, and subsequent accusations were directed at wealthier landowners by those coveting their property and social status.


Climate change, political conflict, intolerance, misogyny, class warfare. We like to think that Salem could never happen again, but it is precisely this kind of forgetting that makes the work of memorializing injustice so important today. Salem has responded to its past with lively entrepreneurial exuberance, tolerance of diversity, and solemn respect, yet one can’t help marveling that a town that once turned on itself with such ferocity, and subsequently struggled for years to distance itself from those events, is now almost completely defined and shaped by that moment and its subsequent responses to it, living inside a story it tells over and over, as if compelled to echo that disaster, and the many voices that might have averted it, for eternity.


Photo by Jennifer Boyer

Fall Break


Late this summer, just as the time rolled around to stat ordering books for fall classes, I decided to give up my classes and take a 28-month administration job. I loved teaching, but I was tired. In fact, I was flat-out exhausted. I have never taught so much, and had so little to show for it. I had good will, sure, and a phone ringing off the hook with requests. Can you cover a comp class? Can you teach business writing? Legal writing? Sex in America? What about literature and film?

I like to tell people I can teach anything, and it’s true. I really can. I can teach ANYTHING. But I was exhausted from teaching. This past year I taught 12 courses at two different schools in three different departments on the quarter-system, in semesters, and in 6 or 8 week summer sessions, and I was just. Tired. Out. I know lots of contingent faculty teach much more than this at many more schools at any given time, so I understand that 12 classes is not at all remarkable. All my teaching was done within 10 miles of home–also fortunate. I was paid $4500 for each course–again, good money for a Humanities adjunct, since I’ve taught semester-long courses that only paid $1800 before.

Still, it was a scramble, and I was over it. I always felt like something was left undone. I always felt guilty about taking too long to grade papers. I often felt bad when students asked what else I was teaching, and I couldn’t give them much more to take. Bad for me. Bad for them. Disgusted that with a Ph.D., a law degree, and a huge love of teaching and course design, I couldn’t even get a full-time non-tenure track job somewhere. And I was ready for a job. I’m not young. I’ve been teaching since 1984. 1984, people. That is not a typo. Also, my, ahem, job instability means I have no retirement, and I feel I need some, even if–as a lot of people are now saying–nobody really gets to retire anymore.

So I quit my classes. I found other teachers for them. I didn’t order books. I took a job. A friend offered my a short-term job, and I took it.

Now I have a desk. I have an office. I see two other people most days. I drive a long way to work. I drive  a long way home. I make more money.

But I miss teaching.

You don’t miss teaching, my spouse says to me from under the pile of freshman papers in our kitchen. You miss your independence and flexibility. The papers rustle. I can just make out her voice.

She is right. A huge benefit of adjuncting is feeling like an independent contractor. I love that feeling. It perfectly fits with my hatred and mistrust of authority. Independent contractors are given nothing, so they owe nothing. Nobody owns them. What they give they give out of the goodness of their hearts. And we do give, don’t we? And we feel so sanctified by our suffering. And we like our freedom. And we get to be rebels. Holy rebels.

But I do miss teaching for itself. Teaching is the one job I have ever had that feels like unalienated labor to me. It is an natural extension of my nurturing slightly bossy oldest child bookworm self. I have done it so long, it is a part of me. It is an expression of my beliefs, my politics, my aesthetics. Sometimes I catch myself coming up with course ideas, and I realize that despite the lack of recognition, patents, royalties, job security, and legacy that is the part-timer’s lot, teaching is deeply creative, often political, and surprisingly engaging, even in its most basic or repetitive forms. My NTT spouse bemoans the limited range of courses she is allowed to teach, but still comes home some nights with a sparkle in her eye from the great class discussion she has just had for a hour or more–discussions about immigration, social justice, higher purpose, education. On any given night, cooking dinner is for me usually punctuated by her stories of particularly successful moments of her day, most of which have to do with teaching her classes.

We all need a challenge, and sometimes the scariest challenges are the ones that make us proudest. Teaching is always a challenge. It can be a really, really scary challenge. It can mean facing down a room full of people who initially fear you, or contemptuously dismiss you, or resent having to take a class with you. It can mean finding the faces that are interested and excited. It can mean setting afire the uncertain and bored ones. It often means gaining respect, accompanied, hopefully, by the sense of doing something useful, something for the greater good, something that might help people with their lives. It can mean facing down your own sense of unworthiness, or irrelevance. In a world that treats its teachers so badly, being a good teacher can be a huge triumph, making one feel useful, valuable, helpful, inspirational. Like housework, teaching starts over and over at its very beginning, in a messy room. Like art, teaching culminates in something beautiful and shared that sets everyone’s minds whirling.

I listen to her teaching stories, and I try not to be wistful. My brain isn’t wrung out. I don’t feel exploited–in fact, I feel pretty valued right now. I don’t have grading to do tonight. I don’t even have to answer emails if I don’t want to.

I guess I don’t miss those things at all. But I do miss teaching. And when this job ends, if it doesn’t get extended, I hope there will be some progress in unionizing adjuncts, and I hope there might be some fun classes I can teach (there are always the other kind), and I hope I get to try again, if only for a few years, to have those moments where I ride home on the train burning with triumph because the discussion I was worried about in the class I created at the school I wasn’t sure I fit into went really, really, really well.

Cheers to Anon

Today is LGBTQ family blogging day, so I thought I’d write something appropriately nuclear, but my cursor takes a turn towards the less known, lingering on a veiled part of our family, the anonymous donor whose eyebrows and fingertips convey little whispers of his shadow self as I watch my daughter move through her day.

One of my adjunct jobs is teaching some variation of a history of sexuality class at the “liberal” Catholic university in the city. The person who hired me and renews my half-time contract year after year (fingers crossed) feels a moral obligation to educate the students about sexuality, since our school does not provide birth control information or much in the way of sex ed. This means at some point in the term we cover the Lesbian Baby Boom.

My favorite part of teaching this topic is trying to get them to see how all kinds of families routinely use fertility clinics; they think gay people are the only ones using sperm donors, egg donors, or surrogates. My students smile and laugh, some of them admitting they had never thought about fertility clinics or assisted families before. I like telling them our family story, how we pored over the sperm donor charts, with their height, weight, ethnicity, eye color all laid out for our eugenicist musings. I talk about how carefully we weighed interests like music and math, only to have the clinic director flat-out nix us: “Nah. He doesn’t have any pregnancies.” Startled, we asked who did have pregnancies, and were given the number of a successful donor, who we “chose.”

What I don’t tell them is how much I wonder about him, and what he might have given–or not given–our child. Slow to ride a bike, running behind the faster kids, she seems anything but athletic, until she gets in the water. At 5 she can put her head all the way under and swim, holding her breath, through the blue pool, so much farther than the other kids her age. Her backstroke is amazing, and she is unafraid to float and dive, her bobbing head a sleek brown seal’s, joyous. Seemingly inattentive at times, slow to read, she can still perfectly recite stories she has heard only once. Reluctant to practice her preordained piano songs, she announces her desire for voice lessons, then rocks out to bossa nova mashups of My Heart Will Go On and whatever else she can find in the preprogrammed buttons on her electric keyboard. She can sing back any tune you sing to her, with perfect pitch. She insists on making birthday cards for her friends.

She has a keen sense of fashion, and of gender. I know I disappoint her with my butch refusal to wear dresses and girlie bathing suits. She throws together startling, interesting outfits that somehow always work.

A couple of years ago another two-mom family with a child from this donor contacted us, and sent us pictures of the donor as a child. I saw some little resemblances there, but what moves me are the ways my daughter looks like her half-sibling from another state. Their fingers taper to elegant points. Their eyebrows are set wide on their foreheads. Their little faces have the same shape.

I wonder if our donor can imagine how often I think of him, and thank him for his help in giving us this child, our nameless donor who once drew a picture of a cat on his information form, whose favorite color was purple, and who liked to dance and do long division in his head. Because of him, because of donor 232, whoever he is, I can’t be vanquished, even when I feel the world has defeated me. It is a cliche that children bring their parents joy, but cliches are often true, and I have a child who kisses me every morning when she goes off to school and and every afternoon when she gets home, who tells me about mermaid shows on Netflix and imagines a mermaid world in our urban neighborhood, who dreams of travel and loves counting to one hundred by twos. What can a person do in the face of this, but rise, sing, and swim?

the dark moon


March first, the beginning of the month that brings spring, in theory, feels like just another tarnished day in winter. The cold is relentless. It might be 24 degrees today; right now, it is 19. It snowed a little last night, and more snow is said to be coming.

My brother’s wife just posted this morning on Facebook that they had to put their dog down, prompting me to make a teary phone call to her voicemail. Part wolf and always wired a teensy bit wrong, the dog was a gift as a puppy to my brother from his dear friend, dead over a decade now from stomach cancer. His skeptical dog, soft and furry but never–by the look in his eye–quite approachable, guarded my brother’s family for years and is fiercely protective of my two little nieces. As he aged, he got more and more crabby, as we all do, but seemed fine. Then last week something startled him into a blind rage and he bit the oldest child, leaving bloody puncture wounds in her arm.

Something had to be wrong with the dog, right? You don’t just lash out at someone you’ve always loved and protected without something being terribly wrong? Maybe his brain was going. Maybe he didn’t know what he was doing. The thought unspoken: maybe he was sick of his children and his family. Maybe he was sick to death of winter, that house, his life, the food in his bowl. Maybe he just wanted to bite someone. Barricaded inside, unable to run in a yard full of four-foot snowdrifts in this terrible New England winter, he snapped.

This is the barren season. In our house, here in the frozen midwest, it has been so cold outside for so long, and we have just been hanging on to jobs that barely help make ends meet. We are all growing sick of this life. M has been so certain, so close to certain, that the department she interviewed with two weeks ago would invite her to campus. Think of the possibilities! Imagine that this long sojourn in the desert without a tenured job or even job security would end! Imagine one of us (her) with security, and the other with full-time work (me)! Living in an affordable place, a warm place, with more than 70 dollars in the bank until next Friday!

Alas, the month ended this week, and with it dwindles the hope we had that this scraping existence of renewable instructorships (her) and part-time piecemeal work (me) would miraculously transform into something happier, more secure, more satisfying. Still, no word. Maybe that department just doesn’t have it together? Maybe they will at least let her know next week, one way or another? Outside the window I hear shovels scraping snow off the gravel. Inside, the steam radiators whistle and moan. It is so cold, the air comes in under the floorboards and freezes my feet.

After she was denied tenure, M got a lawyer, and she and her lawyer became friends. Her lawyer, an old hippie-activist type, told her about a ritual she did every month at the new moon. She takes out her checkbook and writes a check to herself for the amount “paid in full,” and signs it Law of Abundance. She swears this makes good things come to you, especially money, but other things as well. A couple of years ago one of my coworkers did it at my urging, and her grandfather spontaneously gave her ten thousand dollars. Nothing like that has ever happened to us, but it’s a good story. And so, every new moon, we dutifully take out our checkbooks, and hope.

Today is the new month, the new season, the new moon. The calendar tells us it is the new moon, but we know in our bones it is not yet here. This is still the old moon, you see, and it feels like the old moon, the old year, the old season. Sometime this so-called new moon is called the dark moon. Though they are conflated on your calendar, in older times they were two separate occurrences. Wikipedia tells us that maritime records from the 19th century distinguished the dark moon, when no moon was visible against the backdrop of the sky, from the new moon, the first hopeful sliver. If the dark moon is the old moon, the new moon is the young moon. This is the time when promise remains indistinguishable, hidden against the dark. The young moon, the “real” new moon, is not here yet.

No one want to be tricked into being hopeful, but we bless the tiniest sliver of evidence that makes us feel as if our wishes might, just maybe might come true this time. This old moon is still with us, and the promising new moon isn’t going to come this time without dragging the old one with her, its shadow snagged on her bright raiment. This is how it always is. This is how it has always been.

Today is March first. March first is an order. March first, think later. Feel later. Lose it when spring finally comes, when a job finally comes, when you can smell things again, when the darkness seems a little less overwhelming. Just keep going. And write your check to the Law of Abundance.

a new day


Deep in my second year of adjunct teaching, I am blogging again. Occupying this world is strange and liminal, with surpassing joys and constant worry. Like many other adjunct teachers, I have a Ph.D. and publications, but can’t find tenure-track or even full-time work. Like many other adjunct teachers, I have a child. I don’t fit into the gender binary very well, so I don’t appeal to the conservative, patriarchal culture of academe. So here I am, no longer young, never normal, always in a hurry, blogging from queer trenches. In the trench with me is worry, my constant companion. Do I have a course this semester? Do I have health benefits? Will my teeth fall out? Can I buy groceries?

How can I look nice for school when all my clothes are old and cheap, faded to grey from constant use and laundering? How in heaven’s name will I make it through July, or August, or September, since adjuncts aren’t paid in the summer and are last in line behind tenured and full-time faculty for getting classes to teach? How will I make it through December, when one of my schools is out, or through January, when the other hasn’t started paying me yet?

How can I pay for school for my child? How do I explain that what I do is important and completely worthless at the same time? How do I explain that I am important and yet completely worthless at the same time?

Every day brings a new set of responsibilities, a new set of joys, new terrors from the student loan people and collection agencies. I walk along Lake Michigan on my way to teach freshman composition, and the wind from the frozen lake burns my cheeks, and the sun shines on my hair, warming my head even on these coldest of ten-degree days. The robins still live, resting on the heating grates as I walk by campus buildings. Winter’s homeless, they hunker down, knowing that the warm days, unimaginable now, are coming. These optimists have so little, but they quiver with hope, rising en masse as I trundle by, settling back down in their impermanent comfort. In the cold, on this day, I love them. And I love my walk to school, and I realize that for just a moment, my worries have lifted, and I catch myself, in the silver hot light of winter, rejoicing.