Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty

Source of book: I own this


First, let me start with a controversial opinion: Eudora Welty is a better writer than William Faulkner. This is not to say that Faulkner is a bad writer - he’s quite good, actually. I just think that Welty is better. Also, her snappy response to the inevitable question (by Salman Rushdie) about Faulkner is too good to resist repeating here:


I couldn’t think of a proper question, and so, in a sort of blurt, I uttered the words: “William Faulkner!”

She turned and looked at me benevolently. “Yes, dear,” she said. “What about him?” 

What about him indeed, I thought, panicking a little. “On the whole,” I ended up asking, “would you say that he has been a help or a hindrance to you?”

“Well, dear, neither one,” she replied. “It’s like having a big mountain in the neighborhood. It’s very nice to know it’s there, but it doesn’t help you do your work.”

This was a fine reply, but I dared to ask one question more. “So do you not think of Faulkner as one of the writers who are closest to you?”

“Oh, no, dear,” she replied, affecting shock. “I’m from Jackson. He’s from Oxford. It’s miles away.”


I have reasons for this belief. The main one is that, whatever Faulkner’s strengths, he doesn’t have much of a sense of humor, so his pointed criticism of Southern society is unrelentingly harsh and cold. He lacks the ability to see not the merely bad but the laughable; this may come from a lack of affection for his characters. 


Welty, on the other hand, always seems to have a bit of a chuckle in the background. She loves her Southern characters enough to laugh at them, to tease a bit, to see the unintentional comedy in their lives. And, in her ability to see this side of things, she actually is able to be more perceptive, more descriptive, more authentic, even. Her view is always from the inside, not outside. 


This is the first novel of hers I have read, having previously read two of her short story collections, A Curtain of Green, and The Wide Net. The Optimist’s Daughter was her last novel, written in 1972. Okay, actually, it was first a short story, written in 1969, then substantially revised and expanded and published in 1972. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, which is why I chose it over Welty’s other novels. (I do intend to read the others, but thought I would start with this one.) 


The Optimist’s Daughter is an examination of love and grief, class relations, the awkwardness of remarriage, and memory, among other things.


The main character in the novel is Laurel, the “optimist’s daughter.” The optimist is Judge McKelva, a well loved and respected Southern lawyer who combines his optimistic outlook on life with a kindness and sense of ethics which endear him even to those unhappy with his judicial decisions. 


When the book opens, Laurel has returned from her life in Chicago to be with her father as he has an operation for a detached retina. For reasons that are not clear, he never manages to recover, and eventually dies, likely with the end accelerated by the actions of his second wife. 


Ah yes, Wanda Fay, the second wife. She is younger than Laurel, and seems to have married the judge for his money after the two met at a bar conference. Laurel’s mother, Becky, had died some years earlier, leaving the judge and Laurel both bereft. 


Fay is, let’s just say, a real piece of work. She is abrasive, selfish, clueless, selfish, jealous, selfish, and did I mention selfish? She is the definition of a narcissist, and, as most narcissists are, deeply lonely, pathetic, and unhappy. How bad is she? Well, when the judge is given his diagnosis, her response is “I don’t see why this had to happen to me.” 


When it becomes clear to Laurel that her father is slowly fading, Fay responds by lashing out at him, revealing that she has cheated on him, and mostly wants his money. This appears to push him over the edge, and he dies soon thereafter. 


Things go even crazier after that, though. The two of them have to travel with the body back to his small hometown, and then endure the very public wake and funeral. This includes, of course, not merely close friends, but most of the town. 


But then, Major Bullock, longtime friend of the judge, manages to make things even more difficult. He has taken it on himself to locate and invite all of Fay’s family - who are pretty much white trash from Texas. They descend en masse on the wake, and bulldoze their way through any sense of propriety. I can’t even begin to describe all the stuff that goes down, but some of it is laugh out loud hilarious while also being beyond traumatic not just for Laurel, but particularly for Fay, who had previously claimed that all her family was dead - and probably wished they were. 


Fay is persuaded to go back to Texas for the weekend with her family, leaving Laurel to sort through her memories of her parents before Fay returns to take possession of the house. In an ironic twist for everyone, Fay gets the house and its possessions, which mean nothing to her and a lot more to Laurel - and perhaps even more to the other residents of the town, who have always hated Fay. But Laurel gets the money, so Fay is stuck in a large house surrounded by people who hate her, a family who wants to open a boarding house there (!!), and not a single person she can call a friend. 


Laurel is in many ways similar to Fay (although obviously not as vulgar or narcissistic), as she was widowed young, and lives alone in the big city. The divergence is clear, however. When Laurel returns, she finds friendship and affection in her old hometown, and even though she will not be staying, she finds a grounding in her memories and in the memories of others who knew and loved her father. Fay just manages to make her own sad life even more difficult. 


The concept of “vision” is used as a metaphor throughout the book. Judge McKelva loses his vision before he dies. So did Becky, although in her case it was due to a brain tumor that also took her reason before she died. But Fay is and remains blind in the metaphorical sense throughout the book. Laurel has her eyes opened to both the past and the future. Curtains and blinds and light and vision are recurring elements, contributing to the metaphor. 


There are so many remarkable passages in this book, which is fairly short. It packs so much into a small space, just like a great short story will. The way that Welty makes Fay into a somewhat sympathetic character, despite her obvious flaws and difficult personality is fascinating. Likewise, Fay’s vulgar family may be out of step with Southern gentility, but they genuinely seem to love Fay, even though she has rejected them. Again, this is why humor can serve as its own insight into character, and it is through the funny parts that Welty elicits the most pathos. 


The sections where Laurel remembers the stories her parents told her of their own childhoods are likewise excellent. Unlike some flashbacks, which seem there just for background or explanation, the way Welty handles them, they shed genuine light on everything that comes before in the story, as well as everything that happens afterward. It is hard to explain, but there were many moments of “oh my, that explains things” throughout. 


I didn’t write down much in the way of quotes, in part because the book is an organic whole, and most of the lines are brilliant in context, and don’t necessarily translate outside of it. There were a couple, however, that I thought were worth mentioning. 


First is the description of the undertaker, whose obvious pride in his preparation of his corpses is one of the amusing moments. 


Then a man stepped out from behind the green and presented a full, square face with its small features pulled to the center - what Laurel’s mother had called “a Baptist face.”


I guess we can add that to the short tie, big gut, and sciatica for our portrait of the Baptist deacon. 


The other one happens after Major Bullock manages to give a series of stories about the late judge that are, to put it mildly, an exaggeration. Flattering exaggeration, but definitely exaggeration. A discussion ensues between Laurel, who is horrified, and Miss Adele, who sees things a bit differently. 


“He never would have stood for lies being told about him. Not at any time. Not ever.”

“Yes he would,” said Miss Adele. “If the truth might hurt the wrong person.”


That’s fascinating, in no small part for its insight into how the judge was perceived - as a person concerned with avoiding hurt to others. His greatest optimism was, in essence, his optimism about other people, his desire to think the best of them. 


I thought The Optimist’s Daughter was a real gem of a book, perfectly written, compelling, and thoughtful. I have loved everything I have read of Welty’s, and this one was no disappointment. Don’t be content to read Faulkner, and maybe a story by Flannery O’Connor, and leave it at that. Welty was one of the greats of American literature, and it is time she got her full due respect. 


Thursday, November 17, 2022

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild

Source of book: I own this


From time to time, I borrow one of my wife’s Persephone Books, for a change of pace. Here is what I wrote to introduce the last one:


My wife discovered the small British book publisher, Persephone Books, a few years back, when she was looking for her own copy of The Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, if my memory serves. Although it could have been Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson. In any event, the publisher describes its goal as:


Persephone Books reprints forgotten twentieth century novels, short stories, cookery books and memoirs by (mostly) women writers. They appeal to the discerning reader who prefers books that are neither too literary nor too commercial, and are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget. 


From the three I have read so far, I would say this is accurate. These books aren’t in the pantheon of classics, but aren’t exactly fluff either. They are interesting, and represent a different kind of literature than either genre boilerplates or the heavy and turgid literary novels which characterized much of the 20th Century. One might say that they fall in a traditionally disrespected category: women’s literature. For much of history, women were given little shot at literacy - that was for men only. This wasn’t universal, of course, and it started to crack in a serious way with the Feminist movement, which insisted that women were the equals of men - and should be educated accordingly. That said, with the explosion of literate women, the fusty old men who had controlled social standards felt they had to denigrate “novels” as less worthy than the old Greek and Roman “classics” (which, conveniently, were taught only to men.) This prejudice against the things women read - and write - continues into our own time, with “chick lit” incurring particular dismissal, even as male-oriented boilerplate books feature the same (or worse) imaginative and formulaic writing.


In addition to the two listed above, I read Good Evening, Miss Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, and Mariana by Monica Dickens.




I have never before read any Noel Streatfeild (and yes, that is how it is spelled), although my wife informs me that her childrens book, Ballet Shoes, is considered a classic. My wife requested this book as a present a few years ago, but I ended up being the first one to read it. 


Streatfeild had an interesting life. She grew up as the daughter of a bishop, and the one considered to be “plain” in comparison to her sisters. World War One gave her the opportunity to break free from her regimented life, through her acting in charity performances. As an adult, she became a theater actor, but as she grew older, roles started drying up. She switch to a career as an author, and eventually became a significant success. She is most famous for her children’s books, but wrote a few dozen books for adults as well. Saplings is probably the best known, and many are out of print these days. Perhaps as copyright finally releases its hold on the 20th Century body of literature, others will be revived. 


Streatfeild was also notable for inclusion of same-sex relationships in her books, long before homosexuality was de-criminalized in her native England. There is significant evidence that she herself was a lesbian, although it does not appear she ever had a significant romantic relationship with anyone. Her crushes are recorded in her writings, and her books contain plenty of subtle references to a general fear of sexuality. 


Unlike her books for children, which are usually set in the Victorian Era, Saplings, published in 1945, has a very contemporary setting - World War Two. It is the story of the disintegration of a family due to the trauma of war and its own weaknesses. 


Alex and Lena are the parents of four young children: Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Tuesday. Alex is a loving and nurturing parent, the one who genuinely understands his children, and is close to them. Lena, on the other hand, is more concerned with performing the role of parent than she is comfortable with it. She has some narcissistic traits, although hardly the worst I have seen or experienced, but the real problem is that she sees herself primarily in relationship to a man. Her identity is as a wife or lover, and sex is necessary for her emotional well-being. 


Overall, the family is fairly happy at the start of the story. But the storm clouds are approaching in the form of unrest in Europe, with predictions that war will soon occur. 


And it certainly does, leading to a series of events that traumatize the children, particularly Laurel, as the oldest and the one whose self-esteem is the most fragile. Perhaps the one who survives the best is Kim, as he is handsome and highly intelligent and extroverted, and he finds a niche for himself wherever he goes, and thus doesn’t depend as much on affirmation from his family. 


As Jeremy Holmes puts it in the perceptive Afterword:


She takes a happy, successful, middle-class pre-war English family…’beautiful, orderly, full of children,’ with holidays at the seaside, a comfortable house in Regent’s Park, a glamorous mother and successful industrialist for a father, nannies and nurses, prep schools and public schools - and then tracks in miserable detail the disintegration and devastation which war brought to tens of thousands of such families.


The first trauma is the removal of children from London in anticipation of the bombings. Alex is not able to leave, because he works for some sort of company who switches to munitions for the war effort. Lena also refuses to leave, because she cannot handle being away from Alex and just with the children. Initially, they go to Alex’s parents place, and boarding school for the older two. But when the home is requisitioned for a military headquarters, this stability is taken from them as well.


But the worst happens when Alex is killed by a bomb, which leads to a series of breakdowns by Lena, culminating in a suicide attempt. 


There is a lot more that happens too, that contributes to the problem. Laurel is removed from the school at which she is thriving, and placed in one where she doesn’t fit in - not least because Lena refuses to use a precious clothing coupon for the correct uniform. Tony believes that Alex was still alive in the rubble of the apartment, and is haunted by panic attacks, believing he is responsible for not saving his father. Tuesday starts wetting the bed. Only Kim seems able to thrive. 


The story follows the family until near the end of the war, a period of five years, that sees them grow up substantially. The ending is kind of ambiguous, because we never do see the outcome. There is the hope that Laurel will finally get the affirmation she needs from her grandfather, Tony is doing better, but Tuesday seems to be dissociating more and more. It isn’t all darkness, but Streatfeild is pretty clear that there is still a lot of unresolved trauma. 


Overall, the writing is pretty good, although the depth of characterization seemed like it was almost great, but not quite. I’m not sure how to explain it, but I would say good but not great, if that makes any sense. The characters are definitely compelling, and mostly very nuanced. 


Streatfeild isn’t a psychologist, so the effects of trauma are described - shown, not told, so to speak - and in ways that mostly avoid any clinical terms. The book shifts throughout between the different characters - all four children, and occasionally Lena - so the reader can get inside the heads of multiple people throughout the course of the story. Laurel probably gets the most attention, and her story is in many ways the most heart-rending, because she is a likable person who can’t seem to accept being modestly good at a variety of things as a positive. She feels she has to be “great” at something, or she is worthless. When Alex was alive, he was able to help her emotionally, but after he dies, everyone else just takes her for granted as a “good kid” until she isn’t, and then dismisses her as a “problem child” thereafter. One line stood out as a perfect description of her quandary. 


Each month or two she tried to be first-class at something. She had discovered that if you were admittedly good at something, it seemed to allow you to be just ordinary about everything else.


I sympathize a lot with Laurel. I have a few things I am decent at, but I am not truly great at anything. I am a good enough violinist (good enough to enjoy playing and have opportunities) but I know my limitations all too well. I do okay at law, but I am not brilliant. I am, as Alex tells Laurel, an “all-arounder.” I have a wide range of things I have some competence at, just like Laurel. Probably the difference is that I have, as I have gotten older, become more content with being ordinary. 


Alex is perceptive, and it is clear that he gets this from his father. I love his explanation to Tony about how parents (and everyone really) tend to do things that they think are for one reason, and often do not realize the real psychological reason behind things. 


“What I meant was that the reason isn’t the one she thinks it is.” 


In context, this explains the way Lena and another mother in the book react to their children and the separation from them due to the war. Lena claims to miss the children, but she doesn’t realize how deep her psychological need is to be connected to a man - in this case Alex, but later in the book, Walter, then Charles. 


One of the incidents that shows how trauma can be compounded by unthinking words is interesting to me. People (Lena particularly) keep saying “That’s what dad would have liked, isn’t it?” when telling the children what to do. And, to a degree, how to feel. A lot of the “stiff upper lip” stuff, when what the children really need is emotional support. 


Another incident that very much resonated with me is when Laurel, struggling with everything from school to puberty, finds temporary relief in pouring her heart into mothering Tuesday. But this too ends poorly. 


There was satisfaction for her ego in her mental picture of herself. She broke away from Laurel, the unsuccessful schoolgirl, and became Laurel the mother. The pain, when it was forced on her that Tuesday did not need her, was very great. 


I recognized something in this. I believe that my mother (who had a huge amount of childhood trauma) struggled with the same feeling as we grew up. Her identity was so wrapped up in motherhood (and very much in being a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom) that it was devastating for her when we started to be independent, to no longer need her. My teen years were a lot harder than they needed to be, and, looking back, this was a factor. Just like Lena didn’t understand why she did what she did, I think my parents never have understood how their fears of no longer being needed led to their involving us in a cult that limited our choices and futures, but promised a lifetime role for parents. Likewise, I believe that this need to be needed meant that it would never be possible for there to be a healthy adult relationship. Either I had to stay emotionally needy and thoroughly enmeshed, or my independence and emotional closeness with my spouse instead of my mother would be seen as a threat. Or at least as a devastating loss. As Streatfeild points out, this is a form of narcissism, the need to have the lives of one’s children be about the parent. 


As a parent, I understand this to a degree. It isn’t just joyful, but a bit sad when children grow up and leave the home, in a way. I will miss them terribly, and not being needed after being needed is a change. It is tempting to try to “fix” them even when we should leave well enough alone. But the transition needs to be made for a healthy relationship to survive.  


There are some other fascinating lines. One is an aside about the way men view women. 


The men had felt, without saying so, that Alex had done well for himself. Lena was smart, pretty, always had her house in perfect control. She was not clever like Lindsey and Dot, but she was a damn good wife and you did not really want women to be clever. 


I wish I could say this is an outdated viewpoint, but it seems to be all too alive and well. 


Another line is from Alice, the serene and competent cousin. She looks after Laurel to a degree, although she really cannot understand how to help her emotionally. (That is really too great of a burden for any child, but Alice’s strengths are elsewhere.) 


“Really! I wish I didn’t have to grow up. Do you know, Alice, I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve not been told things wrong. I mean, we’re told that children behave badly and grown-ups are always right. I wonder if we shan’t find that grown-ups do worse things than children.”

“I’ve thought that a long time,” Alice yawned. 


Isn’t that the truth. To a significant extent, the falsehood pushed by people from James Dobson to Bill Gothard (the two men who had the most poisonous effect in our family) is that children are inherently evil, and that only strict discipline (meaning beating and emotional manipulation) can cure them of it. Adults, in contrast, are always right. I mean that literally. The teaching was that God spoke to parents about their children, and thus were to be treated by their children as always right. 


Let’s just say that not only is this damaging to the children, it isn’t something you just switch off, which is why Fundie parents are rarely able to stop believing they are always right and should be able to continue to control their adult children. As a result, disagreement becomes personal. And appropriate boundaries are regularly violated. (That’s a whole post in and of itself.) I’m trying to remember where I read it (unsuccessfully) but the idea that parents “did their best” is problematic, and not just because it is usually bullshit. Instead, we need to realize that it is children who do their best - they are the vulnerable ones in the equation, not the parents, and the responsibility is on the parents to allow children to be who they are, not to try to “fix” them, or expect that they exist to not inconvenience their parents. 


I should mention one other line in connection with this. It also comes from the Afterward, and is a pretty good summary of the core issue with Lena and with so many parents.


The difference between them is that Mrs. Parker can imaginatively identify with her children and so see them as separate beings, whereas for Lena they are objects to be dealt with at her own convenience. 


A key feature of secure attachment is the capacity of parents to be attuned and responsive to their children when distressed or threatened.


This really hit home for me. Don’t get me wrong - there were definitely times when my parents could be responsive to my emotional needs, particularly when I was a small child. They did a pretty good job when we were young. It was during the teen years and after that things progressively went downhill. 


I think one particular incident in the book devastated me the most. Laurel thrives at her first boarding school, in part because of a sympathetic and emotionally intelligent teacher. After the first year, and after Alex is killed, Lena places her in a different one, for reasons that are selfish at best. Laurel protests, but Lena is unwilling or probably just unable to understand Laurel’s distress. This cavalier disregard of Laurel’s needs is really what triggers Laurel’s downward spiral. 


This reminded me too much of a similar incident in my teens. Before I started my senior year of high school, my parents decided to not just attend Gothard’s seminars, but actually join the homeschooling portion of his cult. 


I objected.


And my objections were overruled. 


Probably more than any other time, that was when I realized that my feelings and needs were not that important to my parents. That was the big one, the big decision that has profoundly affected my life. Not just emotionally either. 


Because Gothard did not permit families to remain in the program if a child went to college, I did not have a meaningful opportunity to get a normal higher education. My parents did not and do not understand how much I was looking forward to college, to learning a variety of things across a spectrum of disciplines. I knew that joining Gothard’s cult would be the end of that dream, and I was right. At that time, Gothard had nothing to offer besides working for minimum wage (or for free!) in his organization. He promised “apprenticeships” but it was all smoke and mirrors. There was nothing there, and anyone who hadn’t drunk the kool aid could see it. 


It wasn’t until nearly a year after I should have started college that the law school opened. That was my chance - really the only one realistically available to me - and took it. Yes, at 18 I could have moved out and paid my way through college with loans, but that was a huge step for someone who lacked access to high school guidance counselors, and would have had to do everything without parental support. 


And yes, I am a bit bitter that my sister got to thrive at college a few years later, but that favoritism is a whole other matter. 


So, I ended up in law, not by choice, but because that is what I had available. It isn’t a bad gig, at least the way I have done it, and the lack of student debt was certainly helpful. However, I really would have preferred a choice. And I very much would have preferred that my needs and desires be taken into account when it came to such an important life choice. 


Also, since one of the reasons law works for me is that my wife has a stable paycheck and health insurance, it sure would have been nice if my parents had appreciated that, rather than antagonize her over having a career. 


Back to that observation, a key reason I loathe Gothard and Dobson and the rest is that they taught parents like mine to view children as objects, rather than as separate beings. To these false teachers, we children existed to further their fucked-up culture war against other humans different from them, rather than as inherently valuable in ourselves. Our worth was tied to whether we furthered political goals - ones created by a bunch of racist and misogynist old men nostalgic for the days of Jim Crow. 


The thing that makes me saddest about all of this is that I do not believe my parents were inherently like this. Which is why they were good parents of small children. Without these toxic teachings, I think they may have been able to make a better transition to a healthy adult relationship. But they were taught from the start that the point of parenting was to break our wills, to make us obey, to form us into an ideal of “godliness” that was really about politics and culture. I cannot understand any other way that their acceptance of us as children could eventually become so conditional on our political and cultural preferences. That acceptance or rejection could turn on things like clothing and gender roles. 


It makes me sad, because it was avoidable, and because it was a choice. 


I’d like to end on a bit lighter of a note. After Alex is killed, Lena is introduced to a friend of her mother’s, an American paramilitary man named Walter. The kids adore him, and he seems to be a genuinely nice man. The problem? Well, he has an estranged wife and kids back in the States, and is thus unavailable for more than a fling. (Note: this is NOT adultery, because Lena isn’t married to (owned by) a man.) Walter is the one, in fact, who goes out of his way to never let the kids know he is more than a friend. 


Unfortunately, this eventually ends badly. A relative finds out what is going on and brutally confronts Lena, leading to her attempted suicide, and the farming out of the kids to relatives - yet another trauma. 


However, during the time the affair is going on, Grandfather hears of it. He pokes around a little, determines that the kids are doing as well as could be expected, and decides to do….nothing. 


As he puts it, “I feel this is an occasion for masterly inactivity.” 


That is outstanding. And it is the right decision. Now if only childless (and unhappily married) Aunt Lindsey could have done the same…


Saplings is an interesting book, neither entirely pessimistic or optimistic. The trauma is real and always will be. The mistakes Lena (and others) make will always have a negative impact - particularly for Lena, who may well end up estranged from her children when they grow up. The book is a reminder that children, however resilient we claim they are, will be damaged by trauma, damaged by being treated as objects rather than people, damaged by having their emotional needs ignored and dismissed. 


In that sense, this book was ahead of its time, written in an era when children were still largely expected to be seen and not heard, and to devote their childhoods to never inconveniencing the adults that brought them into the world. Streatfeild had the nerve to insist otherwise, to advocate for the emotional needs of children, and, we can only hope, help break the cycle of trauma that reverberates in so many families. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

In Defense of Witches by Mona Chollet

“They didn’t burn witches. They burned women.”


Source of book: Borrowed from the library


Let’s get that straight at the outset. Witchcraft doesn’t actually exist - or I suspect a lot of people would use it. There is no “magic” that allows one to inflict harm on others through the use of supernatural powers. Or you can bet that the 9-11 terrorists would have used that instead of going through the trouble of learning to fly jetliners. Women do not have a special line to the Devil, or you can bet that abused women would have availed themselves of that. 




But women are. 


And they burned women. 


The question is, why? Why did this happen at a particular time in history? And in a particular place? A particular culture? 


And, more important for us today, how do those “reasons” for murdering women affect us today? How are they embedded in our thinking? In what ways do we punish women today for those reasons? 


That is what this book is about. 


The historical facts are pretty clear. During the early modern period, between 1400 and 1782, between 40,000 and 60,000 were murdered as suspected witches. Most of the victims were women, although some men were also accused. Most were over the age of 40 - old for the time - and a significant number were unmarried or childless. 


Something few know or remember is that during the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church dismissed belief in witches as pagan superstition, a leftover from the pre-Christian beliefs in Europe. Furthermore, the “proof text” that people cite from the Old Testament for the killing of witches probably doesn’t even say what we think it says. There was plenty of argument over the translation, but the word that was translated as “witch” in the Bibles of the time of the witch hunts - notably the Geneva Bible and the King James Version - is better translated “poisoner.” As with a number of our most familiar texts, the KJV made some specific translation decisions - including some deliberate mistranslations - for political and theological reasons. This is one of those cases. 


 It wasn’t until the eventual rise of inquisitions (before the infamous one that nobody expects) that the belief in witchcraft and the revival of persecutions of certain kinds of women came into being. 


It is not a coincidence that other things were happening in European culture at that time, of course. There was a great deal of political and social upheaval. The Black Death killed a third of the population, crops failed repeatedly due to a regional change in climate. The stranglehold of Catholicism on doctrine was being challenged by reformers, the printing press and increasing literacy gave revolutionary ideas the ability to sweep across political boundaries. 


Human nature, unfortunately, has a tendency to search for scapegoats during times of stress, whether the Jews in Nazi Germany or LGBTQ people during the late Comstock era or Communists in the McCarthy era. (And many, many more, of course.) Find the person who is different, or who fails to meet cultural expectations, and you have a potential victim of scapegoating. Oh, and also, you need someone who is relatively powerless. 


Mona Chollet makes the case for some specific reasons that (mostly) women were targeted in the witch hunts. The most strongly supported by the evidence is that women who lacked relatives to defend them were particularly vulnerable, and that this often included childless women, particularly those widowed. Wealthy women were rarely targeted, although within the spectrum of poverty, those who were just a bit better off could be the objects of jealousy and seen as a chance at unjust enrichment. 


Chollet goes beyond these, though, in making an argument that then as now, women who fail to “fulfill their role” are targeted as dangerous to society, and singled out for punishment. While this argument is the subject of dispute as to how historically supported it is - in large part because cultures do not perfectly correspond, and teasing out what was religious horseshit from the possible deeper motivations isn’t easy. I would also say that there are some times in this book that Chollet, who is a journalist and writer, not a historian, gets some details wrong. (The most obvious to me is the continued crediting of James Sims for the invention of the speculum, ignoring the evidence that it dates at least back to the Roman Empire. Sims was a total asshole, but he wasn’t particularly original, so don’t give him credit for what he didn’t do.) 


To a degree, trying to figure out the “why” for any case of witch hunting (or the holocaust) is never going to lead to a final conclusion. Every evil is complicated, because humans are complicated, and predicting how and when a mob turns is frustratingly difficult. It requires a confluence of factors that are imperfectly understood at best, although patterns can be seen. 


With that caveat, I do think that Chollet has correctly identified a significant common thread that connects misogyny over the last 700 years, and probably before that. Whether or not we can ever determine how it spilled over into mass murder or not doesn’t change the fact that women have been and are persecuted now for essentially the same “crimes.”


This book was translated from the French by Sophie R. Lewis, and has a bit of a British flavor (this will be obvious from the slang in certain quotes), but is quite readable. I see plenty of influence from Chollet’s compatriot Simone de Beauvoir. The book was published in France in 2018, but only this year was translated into English and published in the United States. 


Perhaps a good place to start is in the forward, by Carmen Maria Machado. When we think of witches, what do we envision?


I imagine I can tell you some things about her. She is a woman, single and childless. She has her own little house, which she may or may not share with an animal. She is an artist, or a craftswoman, or a scientist, if you imagine magic as a kind of science. She has an undeniable air of poise and wonderful sense of style. Whether or not she is evil (after all, we have The Wizard of Oz, Grimms’ fairy tales, and decades of Disney movies to contend with), it cannot be denied that she is wily, self-satisfied, and in charge of her own affairs. She commands respect. She is, to interesting people, someone worth learning from, if not emulating entirely. She is what happens when women get to direct the warp and weft of their own lives.


This will set the tone for the specific issues that Chollet will examine: independence from male control, choice in childbearing, aging and its separation of women from their objectification by men, and women’s competence outside of childbearing and domesticity. 


That, after all, is what makes a woman a “witch.” I hate to have to say it, but these are the very things that Christian Patriarchy teaches are evil in a woman, and the traits that women like my wife have in abundance. Oh, and the exact issues that led to my parents’ mistreatment of my wife and the destruction of the relationship. We mostly do not kill women as openly - although women are still more likely to be murdered by an intimate partner than anyone else - but we do punish women for having the nerve to insist on full personhood. 


In the long introduction, Chollet has some interesting things to say about the present, and I think this line applies both to misogyny and to the rise of Trumpism. 


Truth be told, it is precisely because the witch-hunts speak to us of our own time that we have excellent reasons not to face up to them. Venturing down this path means confronting the most wretched aspects of humanity. The witch-hunts demonstrate, first, the stubborn tendency of all societies to find a scapegoat for their misfortunes and to lock themselves into a spiral of irrationality, cut off from all reasonable challenge, until the accumulation of hate-filled discourse and obsessional hostility justify a turn to physical violence, perceived as the legitimate defense of a beleaguered society. 


One need only read recent calls to fascism by mainstream right wing publications to see this in action. “Spiral of irrationality” is perhaps generous. Later, Chollet, writing about how the witch-hunts sprang into being out of a longer tradition of hate, has this to say. 


Centuries of hatred and obscurantism seem to have culminated in this wave of violence, born of fear in the face of the increasing space taken up by women in the social realm.  


Again, this seems to be repeating itself in the American Right at this time. They are not happy with the way women have taken up increasing space in our society. 


Another interesting parallel: for much of human history, contraception was the realm of female healers and midwives, part of the feminine folklore that was passed down through generations. While the modern push to criminalize abortion and contraception in the United States arose in the 1800s, in concert with the change of gynecology from a female realm to a male-dominated medical practice, the first criminalization of contraception and abortion started hundreds of years before that, and was strongly connected to the witch-hunts. And yes, this includes forcing women to declare their pregnancies and punishment for miscarriages. (Sound like our current laws in certain states?) 


Chollet also notes that the witch-hunts were also connected with a shift in how labor was viewed. 


For Federici, the witch-hunts paved the way for the gendered labor division required by capitalism, reserving remunerated work for men, and assigning to women the birthing and education of the future labor-force.


This is true. The exploitation inherent in factory capitalism requires that gendered division of labor. For my own family, we had to intentionally work different shifts and do part-time work so that both of us could have careers. We were fortunate, in a country that largely refuses to assist new parents with things like paid leave, to be able to make it work. But the system would completely fall apart without gendered labor, and the expectation of uncompensated labor by women. 


After the introduction, there are four long chapters, each addressing one of the issues I listed above. The issue of independence is a huge one, and I truly did not understand the depth of the problem until I observed the expectations put on my wife and other women in my life. I also hadn’t listened all that well to the constant background noise in our culture that tells women they have no value or purpose unless they successfully capture a man and have children. And the related noise telling men to avoid the clutches of those designing women. It has been shocking to me to see how mistreated childless and unmarried women are in our society, but particularly in the right-wing church. 


I couldn’t resist writing down this Gloria Steinem quote. 


What’s more, the full and dynamic life Steinem has led and leads today, a whirlwind of travels and new vistas, of activism and writing, of love and friendship, seriously complicates the picture for those who believe a woman’s life means nothing without partnership and motherhood. To a journalist who asked why she wasn’t married, Steinem gave the justly celebrated reply: “I can’t mate in captivity.”


Can you even imagine a man being asked why he wasn’t married; with the implication his life was meaningless without it? Particularly a man who was as accomplished as Steinem? Later, Steinem is cited for this perceptive quote: “The more patriarchal and gender-polarized a culture is, the more addicted to romance.” 


One of the things I knew I had to do if I were to have a happy and fulfilling marriage to my wife is to understand that she needs this independence, this meaning outside of me and our kids and our home. There is nothing wrong with that, any more than there is anything wrong with a man wanting the same. 


The second chapter is on children, and it is entitled “wanting sterility.” Chollet is intentionally childless, and is proud of that fact. She doesn’t hate children, as she patiently explains, just does not wish to have her own. And again, there is nothing wrong with that in either a man or a woman. I would say from my experience as a child, as a parent, and as a divorce attorney, the bigger problem in our world isn’t that too many people don’t have children who should. It is that too many who should never have children have them. The trauma is all too apparent for everyone to see. 


But the great fear of anti-feminists is exactly this one. “If we let the wimmins choose, they won’t have children, and the race dies off.” Which is bullshit on a stick, of course. First and most obviously, there is no human duty to perpetuate the species. There is no moral imperative to make more humans. This burden should not be placed on anyone. But nearly as obviously, plenty of people are having children - we are at the point where the earth cannot support all of us, but whatever. (In reality, this fear is more about the fear that there will not be enough pure blood white people.) The thing is, this exposes the deep cognitive dissonance inherent in most retrograde ideas. 


Wombs on strike: this great fear was at the heart of the debates (among men) that preceded the legalization of contraception, which amounts to a peculiar admission - for really, if motherhood is such a universally wonderful experience in our society, why would women choose anything else?


Same thing with “every woman really wants to be a stay-at-home mom.” If that were true, then you wouldn’t have to force them, right? But these retrograde ideas are more about what men think women should want than what they actually do want. (And, the flip side of this is to deny the nurturing side of men, many of us whom very much wanted to be parents - and just as much to parent our kids rather than farm that all out to our wives.) 


It is fascinating to see the history that Chollet cites regarding contraception. Prior to the Black Death, the church largely kept out of the question of birth rates. Indeed, given the number of days sex was forbidden, it would seem the church really preferred celibacy. However, this changed, and it is interesting why. 


[P]ro-birth advocates agitated in the name of social peace, national interest and the protection of the race. 


Yep, then as now, it was crucial to have too many mouths to feed, too many workers for scarce jobs, and so on, to prevent labor unrest. And also, best to out-grow those other countries, and particularly those awful brown-skinned humans. Don’t believe me? I listened to this shit for decades as part of white Fundamentalist “Christianity.” The specifics changed - was it Muslims, or Hispanics, or blacks who were out-reproducing us today? - but the fear remained the same. 


But it wasn’t just about popping out babies, of course. Otherwise, what would be the problem with women going back to work afterward? And why this talk of a “biological clock”?


In other words, this expression was an early harbinger of the imminent anti-feminist backlash, and its dazzlingly successful integration into the female anatomy makes it a unique phenomenon in the history of evolution - it would have given Darwin pause for thought. Since women’s bodies give them the option of carrying a child, of course Nature would prefer that women also change the resulting infant’s nappies, once born, that they attend all meetings with pediatricians and, while we’re on the subject, that they mop the kitchen floor, do the washing-up and remember to buy loo roll for the next twenty-five years. This is known as “maternal instinct.” Yes, Nature orders precisely this, and not, for example, that, in order to thank women for taking on the major task required for perpetuation of the species, society do its best to compensate them for the inconveniences they thereby suffer; nothing of the sort. And if you thought that might make sense, you haven’t really understood nature. 


It isn’t just about babies, it is about an entire hierarchy. I came to understand this when, apparently, giving birth to five children, and taking a majority role on childcare when they were small wasn’t enough for my family. We split things too equally, and, perhaps most of all, my wife expected to have an equal say in how we split things. 


Related to the issue of a biological clock, male fertility declines as well, and our sperm degrades as we get older. But few see an issue with an octogenarian fathering a child he will likely never raise. That’s women’s work, right? 


Particularly wince worthy in this chapter was the bit on psychiatrist Genevieve Serre, who interviewed childless women, with the idea that they were broken and needed to be fixed. Read this bit of what she said:


Having identified among her interviewees qualities she describes as “masculine,” including “independence, efficiency, discipline, interests such as politics,” Serre writes, “This self-sufficient, independent masculine side may stand in the way of a femininity that’s more passive, more receptive in the sense of accepting life’s gifts, which is likely to be necessary in accessing motherhood.” Mothers, you lazy and dependent creatures who are content to float in the great mystery of life and leave politics to men: you have selected the nineteenth century, please hold the line.


My wife has those “masculine” virtues in abundance. But what the hell makes them “masculine” other than cultural bullshit? Those are human virtues that good parents try to cultivate in their children. Self-sufficiency rather than dependence, efficiency rather than laziness or lack of focus, self-discipline, and an interest in justice for others? Heck yes, and good women are like that too! 


I won’t quote all of the section, but the author quotes several instances where female authors are questioned (or questioned posthumously) as to whether their lack of children caused them pain. Again, something a male author would never be asked. Chollet quotes Pam Grossman with a telling observation.


“Women who create things other than children are still considered dangerous by many.”


Oh, and how about this passage?


Ultimately, given the current cultural norms, only one kind of woman can pursue her life with absolute peace of mind, enjoying both her own satisfaction and society’s approval: the woman who has one or more children she wants to have, who feels enriched by this experience and has not paid too high a price for it, whether thanks to her comfortable financial circumstances, to a working life that is fulfilling but still leaves time for family, to a partner who does their share of the educational and domestic tasks, to a wider circle - of relatives and friends - that helps out, or thanks to all these things at once. (If it is thanks to her easy financial situation, there remains a strong possibility that our exemplar’s happiness also relies on her domestic employee or nanny’s demanding and often badly paid job.) Other women are all condemned to some kind of great or lesser torment, and to envying each other, and so dividing the divisions between them.


And yes, I understand that our financial privilege is one reason we are able to do things the way we do. (Although not as much as the financial privilege that allows for one parent to not work at all.) 


The third chapter is mostly about aging, and it is truly excellent. Our obsession with younger female bodies is the great objectification of our age, and it is inseparable from our view of women as existing for reproduction. 


We often say that aging and death are taboo in our society - except it is only women’s aging that is infra dig. 


Chollet goes a bit deeper too. The problem isn’t just a loss of youth, but something else that men find threatening. 


More broadly, what seems to be most problematic about women’s aging is their experience

Experience leads to both competence and confidence, two things that are unattractive to controlling men. There are several pages just on the tendency of [some] men to want far younger women - as conservative asshole Phil Robertson pithily put it, you want to marry girls at age 15, before they get too opinionated, when they are still willing to pluck your ducks for you. And sure, it is a lot harder to impress a 40-year-old woman than a 20-year-old one. So what? Up your game as you get older - maybe learn some household skills too: I have it on excellent authority that good women are turned on by a guy who cooks and cleans. 


There is another factor at work here that I hadn’t really thought of, but I think Chollet is correct about it. 


Western culture decided early on that the body was repulsive - and also that it was female, and vice versa. Theologians and philosophers projected their horror of the body onto women, and were thereby able to disavow the claims of their own bodies. Saint Augustine explains that, in men, the body reflects the soul, but that this isn't the case for women.


At the heart of our hang-ups about sex is that simple fact: we are modern Gnostics, seeing body and soul as separate things, the one evil and the other good. With an evil, disgusting body, it is easy to assign both disgust and evil to women, as their bodies are more obviously necessary for reproduction. A true embrace of our bodies and our embodiment as equally full of goodness as our souls (and, best yet, an acknowledgement of the inseparability of our selves) would go a long way toward fixing what ails our culture, and enable us to see other bodies as goodness and thus stop mistreating them. 


The end of this chapter has an amazing Susan Sontag quote. 


Women have another option. They can aspire to be wise, not merely nice; to be competent, not merely helpful; to be strong, not merely graceful; to be ambitious for themselves, not merely for themselves in relation to men and children. They can let themselves age naturally and without embarrassment, actively protesting and disobeying the conventions that stem from this society’s double standard about aging. Instead of being girls, girls as long as possible, who then age humiliatingly into middle-aged women and then obscenely into old women, they can become women much earlier - and remain active adults, enjoying the long erotic career of which women are capable, far longer. Women should allow their faces to show the lives they have lived. Women should tell the truth. 


That is just amazing. And true. I wanted a grown woman, and, even though my wife was young when we married, she was confident and grown-up in the best of senses. As we both have aged, we have changed in body and mind and many other ways. But that is nothing to be afraid of, and certainly nothing to fault a woman for. 


The final chapter has many sub-topics, one of which is the disgraceful way that medicine treats women. Don’t get my wife started on this, or you will get an earful. Or, my mom back in the day. (We were all born at home, with a midwife, not in a hospital. I’m not judging any choice here, but obstetrics in the 1970s were simply horrible, from what so many women tell me, and even now, even with a wonderful doctor, there is so much room for improvement.) 


Another note here: Chollet correctly points out that it is mainstream medicine’s mistreatment of women that has contributed greatly to the explosion in popularity of snake oil remedies and general woo. Ironically, it is the same male chauvinists and giant mega-corporations selling most of this, but it is marketed as somehow “gentler” than science-based medicine. Don’t get me started on this topic. But it does make a lot of sense that the impersonality of male-dominated medicine does contribute to the success of scammers and grifters.


Chollet nails it again with her insistence that the problem stems from a separation of the so-called “masculine” and “feminine” virtues. With male doctors, they could get the money and be the boss, with the actual caring left to the female nurses. Doctors are to avoid emotion, of course. Fortunately, this too is changing for the better. I love Chollet’s line here. 


On the other hand, what message do we send when we appear impassive in the face of suffering? Is the psychopath implicitly our model for the good doctor? And does repressing your emotions really allow you to protect yourself? 


This is a recurring theme in this chapter. You cannot separate rationalism and emotion, or you become a monster. Both are parts of our psyche, and are necessary for us to respond appropriately. I love the note that in Chinese calligraphy, “think” contains both brain and heart as elements. Pure rationalism is not even possible, of course, but attempts to eliminate the heart - that is, empathy - result in monstrous conclusions. 


Which is one way you end up with witch hunts. This quote from Matilda Joslyn Gage stood out:


During the witchcraft period the minds of people were trained in a single direction. The chief lesson of the church that betrayal of friends was necessary to one’s own salvation created an intense selfishness. All humanitarian feeling was lost in the effort to secure heaven at the expense of others, even those most closely bound by ties of nature and affection. Mercy, tenderness, compassion were all obliterated. Truthfulness escaped from the Christian world; fear, sorrow, and cruelty reigned pre-eminent. Contempt and hatred of women was inculcated with greater intensity; love of power and treachery were parts of the selfish lessons of the church. All reverence for length of years was lost. The sorrows and sufferings of a long life appealed to no sympathetic cord in the heart.


This is how you know we are, in a significant sense, in a new period of witch hunts. At least on the part of the Right Wing. The crackdown on abortion and contraception. The pearl clutching about [white] birth rates. The lament that women aren’t “feminine” anymore, and don’t want to be domestic drudges like they used to. The vitriol lobbed at female politicians who express feminist viewpoints. (Taking a hammer to an 80 something woman, anyone?


The book ends with a tying of exploitative capitalism to misogyny, and I found it very interesting. Just like misogyny views women as a resource to be exploited, our current form of economy depends on the rape of mother earth in a completely unsustainable manner. It is intriguing to me the parallels - there does seem to be a different relationship than the one where we are part of nature, and nature has given birth to us. The final line in the book is worth quoting. 


Turning the world upside down is no small undertaking. But there can be great joy - the joy of audacity, of insolence, of a vital affirmation, of defying faceless authority - in allowing our ideas and imaginations to follow the paths down which these witches’ whisperings entice us. Joy in bringing into focus an image of this world that would ensure humanity’s well-being through an even-handed pact with nature, not by a Pyrrhic victory over it - this world, where the untrammeled enjoyment of our bodies and our minds would never again be associated with a hellish sabbath. 


Overall, a fascinating book. It expresses some of the feelings I have had over the last 25 years, particularly those resulting from watching what my wife and daughters have experienced at the hands of anti-feminists. Unfortunately, those include many of my former religious tribe, as well as extended family. It is disturbing how many resist any move toward gender equality, despite its obvious benefits not just to women, but to men as well, and to the greater good of society.