The Collective Ghosts of Salem
Article ID: 15129
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: July 22nd. 2012
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I have written one book: "The Afflicted Girls: A Novel of Salem, " published at the end of 2009, but a process begun in 1993 when I first picked the 1692 Salem Witch Hunt as the subject for a screenplay. My research in those hard-to-imagine pre-internet days consisted of reading every book on Salem available in the Los Angeles Public Library, although some were too old and decrepit to be forwarded to my branch. I also searched through two university reference libraries. Of course, there were a handful of books I was able to take home for study.
Sometime while taking notes, I got bitten by the ghostly bug still haunting Salem that hunts for blood and an audience. And sometimes I had to implore the books I was skimming to help me weed out dramatic irrelevancies. In the end I had collected more than a thousand disparate but novel facts, most of which were later incorporated into my novel… 126 single-spaced typewritten pages, indexed by character, subject, and strangeness, each item prompting its own unique scrutinization and speculation, because of my having learned at film school that motivation is key to a well constructed dramatic story.
I asked: Why would an indentured nineteen-year-old girl in Salem Village accuse a minister of witchcraft, a man she hasn’t seen for years but once dwelt with in childhood after being orphaned on the Maine frontier? And what was the relationship between that minister and her Salem master? And why would the wife of her master simultaneously accuse an elderly neighbor of murdering her newborns? And not just one infant, but several? Hmmm. Only when I applied modern lenses did it all begin to make sense. And yet one puzzle remained elusive... until I coincidentally read an article in my local newspaper that hinted at the logical answer.
A bit more research, and the mystery of “the afflictions” that sparked a 300-year-old Witch-hunt was solved. As my understanding of Salem evolved, and that mysterious gestalt came into focus, I began building gossamer bridges. Using my modest intellect and a well-developed intuition (from meditation) , I let my left-brain analytical mind align with my right side inner-listening, sensing, and seeing; a mindful collaboration, known to most Pagans, as well as to historical novelists, detectives and scientists, who also pursue Aha! moments.
Angling (and real-ing) each of my characters through every applicable lens: psychology and depression—post-partum, post-traumatic—infanticide, rape, middle-aged impotence, child-spousal-elder abuse, alcoholism, class warfare, teenage angst, drug-taking, eco-warfare, sexual experimentation, superstition, seven deadly sins, and spiritual belief—I sought possibilities and probabilities beyond historical records. Wherever a characteristic shoe fit, I let a character wear it.
Historical scholarship has begun to address these omissions. But back when I was writing my screenplay, it was absent. Only after publishing my novel did I learn how there were thousands of 17th century New Englanders charged with lewd speech, fornication, adultery, bigamy, rape, child molestation, incest, sodomy, bestiality, and infanticide. A 1693 sermon by Cotton Mather: “A Holy Rebuke to the Unclean Spirit, ” marks the execution of two women “for murdering of their bastard children.”
Because contrary to popular belief, Puritans appear not to have repressed their sexual instincts at all. There were wild, mixed-sex parties at Harvard Divinity School in the late 17th century, as well as roving bands of local youth sneaking out after midnight seeking drunken revels. A result, perhaps, of their fathers and ministers couching sermons and stern warnings in erotic terms?
“If they offer to ravish our hearts, we must cry out as the seized virgin, and call in help from heaven, to rescue us from the rape they offer us, ” one preached. While Cotton Mather pledged: “to lead a life of heavenly ejacuations, ” and his minister father Increase Mather taught: “Those not yet changed by regenerating grace of the spirit of God usually live in some unclean lust or another. Either fornication, or self-pollution (masturbation) , or other wanton pranks of darkness.”
In Sunday sermons, Puritan ministers repeatedly warned their male parishioners against using their “members as weapons of unrighteousness.” For, as Rev. John Rogers pointed out: “Every child of Adam is a lump of uncleanness.” And these same men, hyperventilating about sex, were the ones who manipulated and dominated the judicial system; punishing perpetrators and victims equally, believing that a female who was forced to have sex, “who had no delight in the act, ” could not possibly conceive... because she had to have an orgasm for conception to occur. Should she get pregnant, there soon came a trial, conviction, a painful corporeal punishment, and branding as a harlot.
It’s why most teenage girls, when indentured to other households by their parents, felt powerless to resist abuse, and remained utterly vulnerable to the advances of older masters, masters’ sons, and neighbors. The historical records of Essex County, where my story is set, state that between the years 1645 and 1685 over 100 women and girls were convicted of bearing illegitimate children. How about the rest? I would guess far too many miscarriages, abortions, and births resulting from rape have passed through time unreported. Of these, I suspect, some were suffered in the shadows of the witch-hunt.
Historical characters all once lived flesh and blood lives in societies as messy and complex as ours. Mercy Lewis, Abigail Williams, Bridget Bishop, the Putnams and Porters, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Reverend Parris, Tituba and John Indian, Cotton Mather were each very much alive in 1692. Yet, for the last 300 years—as factoids—they’ve been mere wisps standing in guard of the most vague of personal histories. Perhaps, by becoming characters in a historical novel, they’ll be able to bear witness to an intuitive rearrangement of fact, and their collective ghosts—with nothing shameful enough to hide from a modern world, or an interested fiction reader—can reach out from that infamous story’s otherside to offer us plausible new conclusions.
Copyright: copyright Suzy Witten 2011
Location: Los Angeles, California
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