Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Stacy Schiff
Any new work from the Pulitzer-winning author of Cleopatra: A Life,, Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov,) and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America would be met with excitement from readers, but Stacy Schiff's The Witches performs a remarkable magic of an entirely different kind than the historian and biographer's prior work.
In The Witches, Schiff reconstructs the events of the crisis with the vivid attention of the greatest works of "true crime" writing, brilliantly drawing readers into the world of seventeenth-century New England, a period of surprising political upheaval and cultural ferment. The resulting work is perhaps among the most atmospheric and suspenseful works of history possible, as the author maps the outlines and gauges the impact of "a little story that becomes a big one," an interlude of gothic madness that winds up as a "crowd-sourced cautionary tale" about the terrible dangers of certainty.
Stacy Schiff spoke with me by phone at length about how she chose this topic, the challenges of writing history while being mindful of "spoilers," and the vital importance of an episode in early American history in which women's voices take center stage. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: Can you talk about what brought you to write about Salem and the Trials?
Stacy Schiff: It's an odd moment: We're entirely enchanted by it, and we understand it very little. So in many ways, it offered something I was familiar with from writing Cleopatra, which is sort of a mythical presence, but a also murkiness.
On the other hand, it's a really pivotal, important moment, and it also happens to be bizarrer. So there's a great combination of wacky, unprecedented, odd series of circumstances, and yet historically very, very resonant.
BNR: Were the Salem trials something that had been in the back of your mind for a long time, i.e., "I'd love to tackle that some day," or was there specifically something that you saw and read that at some point that sparked the idea?
SS: I wish I could say I've been obsessed with this since I was a child. I am from Massachusetts, so as for many of us, this is always somewhere very near on the horizon. But in generating the idea for this book I was specifically thinking about pivotal moments in time, and specifically in American history, where women play a key role and really, that comes down to Salem and Suffrage.
BNR: That's a point that you make toward the end of the book: women, in a sense, don't have as potent a moment in the dialogue about their community politically in America until Suffrage and the Temperance Movement reignite women's voices in the political sphere.
SS: Exactly. I was a little bit struck by my own ignorance. We all think the witches were burned in Salem. No one burns. We all think it's women who are being targeted by men. But women are the ones doing the targeting, and some of the victims are men. We just have it all very backwards. I thought, here you have an episode that is fascinating and historically relevant. There are relatively few of those. And also, it has that great sort of locked-room mystery to it. You just keep going back to it because you can't seem to unlock it.
BNR: That leads to my next question You've taken on as a biographer and historian this task of reconstructing narratives from imperfect or partial records, Cleopatra being a great example, where you have a tremendous amount of myth accreting around a relatively limited amount of detailed factual, kind of verifiable records.
BNR: But this seems different to me. This is more like Janet Malcolm, or Errol Morris in A Wilderness of Error.
SS: That book was on my desk for the entire two years Wilderness of Error, That's so funny. I would just sort of dip in and out of it occasionally, just feeling as if there was a sense of comradeship. Do you know what I mean?
BNR: I can imagine. Did you find yourself writing differently than you would have otherwise, and saying, "This is a crime story" or "This is a mystery, a locked-room mystery that I have to lay out"?
SS: Very much so. First of all, a biography, no matter how much you want to play with the form (and I've played with the form a certain amount with biography), always has to speak to certain questions and to a certain form.
I felt as if one of the problems with the existing literature is that it's stasis-driven: you posit the reason you think Salem happened, and then you set out to prove it. It was very important to me that this read like a mystery that the reader is going to solve, and that you find out what happened, and clues are sown along the way, and you get well-briefed on various pieces of the puzzle, and only at the end are the answers revealed, or are the answers revealed in a way that involved the reader. So there was definitely something sort of holding- off, which I've never done before. I kept having to stop myself and think, "No, I can't put this piece on Puritanism in this early because that tips my hat as to what's going on here."
BNR: I had that sense of reading along and being unsettled for a little while, thinking . . . about 100 or so pages in, realizing that I had not yet gotten from you anything of a sign of what you thought was really causing these things to begin to happen.
SS: Which, just between you and me, some people aren't going to like that I'm not telling them what to think. [Laughs]
BNR: You don't withhold your opinions later onyou get a big payoff of consideration in the last couple of chapters.
SS: But I thought that was really important, that you have an astonishing narrative on which to report, and you need to really fill in the reader on that before you want to start pushing it along, manipulating the reader towards this or that theory. So in terms of the writing, I thought there was a certain act of withholding that I had to engage in, which is difficult on the page, because you're realizing that you have to craft the thing in such a way that certain things can only come up in their rightful time.
There's the problem that you're writing about something that didn't really happen. When one of the sources says, you know, "The killer cat came in and tried to wring my neck," there is no killer cat: you're writing about an illusion anyway. And you have to make it feel as real to them as it was, while indicating to the reader somehow this is all a bit somewhat fantastical.
Then, of course, you have the real problem and I've never had this problem narratively before that people are said to be in two places at once. They're at one place in their physical self and they're another place spectrally. So then you have to say, "So-and-so . . . Susanna Martin jumped into his room at night, but Susanna Martin is asleep in bed at home." So you have the problem having to somehow choreograph her two existences.
BNR: One of which is absolutely counterfactual.
BNR: One thing you deliver a powerful sense of is the environment: a tiny village at a remove from a larger town in late-seventeenth-century Massachusetts, surrounded in many ways by a hostile environment. You really get the sense of the wilderness that surrounds this community. And within that setting you simply allow these figures, to speak their fears, their fantasies, their stories of witchcraft and possession and torment. The result is a surprisingly atmospheric, even gothic work.
SS: I have to say, the story does lend itself to thatit was really important to me that they not become the cardboard figures that we have seen, and I felt it was really important somehow to animate them, and to give a sense of what they might actually be thinking or feeling or seeing or smelling. I mean, the smell drove me crazy. Because you know New England smells, and there's very little sense of the odor of New England, and I had to really push to find that details like, say the smell in the air on Wednesdays, or what the interior of a church would have smelled like, and that kind of detail.
BNR: Because that's not in the documentation that's available?
SS: The best granular documentation are the records of the courts, or the court papers of all of the petty grievances. These people were in court constantly: So-and-so trespassed, and Peg ate my turnips, and this person was in my bed all of that wonderful color that you have of New England. It's often about sound, which is so much more important, of course, when you're in the wilderness, and a lot of it is visual ("So-and-so stole my favorite piece of lace"), but there's very little smell. It was weirdly missing, interestingly.
To back to your question: Yes, it has that gothic feel, and that speaks again to part of our obsession with it. It is a sort of adolescent chapter in the sense that it's very gothic and phantasmagoric. And it is like a fairy tale. I mean, "once upon a time, a witch cast a spell on some girls," and it kind of takes off from there.
BNR: Can you say a little bit about who the accused were? In terms of what draws them together as a group of people.
SS: In a funny way, if you look at the first two women accused if you were going to vote two people off the island in Salem Village, you would have picked Sarah Osborne and Sara Good. One of them is unpopular, one of them is kind of a local menace obvious candidates. Why do the girls name the slave Tituba? We know nothing of why she would have been named. We have nothing to go on for what her crime actually was supposed to be. Of course, she confesses, so she doesn't hang, so there's nothing further about what her crime actually had been or why anyone actually names her.
Was Rebecca Nurse accused because she was too successful, because her children lived and didn't die, because the family had more land and got along better than most? What actually is the crime. The gossip is all whirling beneath the surface but it doesn't leave a trace. With international relations, you have papers and you have statements and you have proclamations. But when two people don't like each other and they're neighbors, there's not really anything on the written records.
BNR: Among the accusers, there is often a sense of adolescent throes, of trying to shake off something that's been tormenting them.
SS: Absolutely. What are the girls trying to shake off, or what are the girls actually trying to say? That we're never going to know, unless a diary suddenly turns up and I don't think any of these girls had the luxury to keep a diary.
It's so fascinating, because you can read their court testimony. Especially this is true of the 1693 cases, which Cotton Mather documents. You can hear them talking to the Devil. They're saying such-and-such to this creature only they can see. So you can see what they're complaining of and you can see what bothers them, but you don't really know what's causing them to visualize the Devil or the person who's bewitching them. But you can hear things like, "Of course I have a father; how dare you say I don't have a father." So you obviously understand that they are, you know, traumatized by the fact that they've been orphaned and what that's going to mean for their futures. As you know, reading back from what they want, from what they say the Devil promises, you get a sense of what they're thirsting for, which gives you some idea of what their lives were like.
BNR: This was a culture so steeped in scriptural literacy, with access to a wonderful, rich language. But at times language itself becomes something that people sort of almost fall into, and the language sort of takes over.
SS: It's interesting to see how, not surprisingly, where two people have heard the same sermon they begin to see the same imagery, and when two people have been in prison together they begin to tell the same story. Also, there are only so many ways to tell a story, and we tend to fall into a prior narrative. You make order of the world using the last puzzle you've solved. That's precisely what they're trying to do. Even the diagnosis of witchcraft, this was the tried-and- true method of dealing with this particular disorder. It conformed to all of the symptoms; ergo, it was witchcraft. Then everything falls out from there. And what's fascinating about Salem, of course, is, afterward, the fact that it doesn't happen again. You've gone down this road. It's not the first time it's happened. And thereafter, it never happens again. Cold stop.
BNR: About that, you say that what set apart Salem were not the accusations but the executions. Is what you mean that this was a kind of radical shock that essentially the fantasy sort of leapt into deadly reality, and there was a kind of recoiling culturally from that?
SS: I think that's true, in the sense that you often have to go to an extreme before something corrects. This is one of those moments that establishes the boundaries: never again do you want to take false evidence in court, never again do you want to found a court case on something that's going to founder underneath you. That's why we always go back to, "this is a witch-hunt; this is Salem all over again." It's become such a byword for a miscarriage of justice, because that's precisely how we leapt off the cliff.
But why they prosecute so intently, of course, is the big mystery here. That's what leads you to [Chief Judge and prosecutor] Stoughton, and that's what leads you to the politicsabout which I had no idea of when I began the book, by the way. There were so many surprises to me, which is the thrilling part about working on something like this. One of the surprises is that the heroes don't turn out to be who you would think. There are relatively few heroes, but they are not wh you'd think. I mean, it's Thomas Brattle, or even Phipps in his bumbling way, who is a real hero for shutting down the trials.
BNR: Phipps, the governor at the time.
SS: The governor who is totally out of his depth, and doesn't really know what's he's doing, but he does the right thing. For his own peculiar reasons, but he does the right thing. But why is Stoughton so intent on prosecution, when he could have shut the whole thing down? He's the one person who could have said, "Something is amiss; this evidence is very compelling, but we're not going to prosecute." Why does he (because it does seem to me as if it's he) move the prosecution along quite so effectively?
BNR: And Stoughton is the chief justice of more than one court. Of the court of Oyer and Terminer, but also the Superior Court.
SS: He seems to be everywherebut insofar as 1692 matters, it's the court of Oyer and Terminer. He's the one who is the political survivor, who has served in every regime. He's a very agile, very smart, very supple man.
BNR: You write that what's strange is he was a political contortionist, someone who was adept at going where the wind was blowing, and staying in office, and building his political reputation. But in this case, he goes in a direction that you wouldn't expect based on his career. He embraces this idea of spectral evidence, that there can be an evidence by things that nobody can see. That's contrary, as you point out, to legal precedent even then. So what was your conclusion? Why did he blaze this trail off into madness, basically?
SS: I don't want to give too much of this away. I'd never written a book of nonfiction where you had to be a little bit . . . not exactly coy, but withholding with the reader, where you had to basically say, "Just stick with me here; I'll tip my hand later; but for the moment, let me feed you these clues and see where you wind up, because you may feel differently from me."
BNR: Let me recast this question, then: As you point out, when you look at the Witch Trials you begin to see how much they're involved with the political context in New England at the time in which simultaneously you have a cacophonous set of local rivalries; small and large fears and angers about the English, the French and the Indians; a brutal war that's been going on on the frontier; and an extremely authoritarian culture.
SS: Right. Also, I think, we assume that the government was politically stable and always in order, a colony being well-administered by the Crown. But if you've had adolescents in your household or if you can remember being an adolescent you find a very familiar strain of "we're not being allowed to drive the car ourselves." Here we are, on the other side of the ocean, you have no understanding of our lives, and you're demanding things of us that are unrealistic, that have absolutely no sense of what we're actually doing here.
Sort of secretly, the Puritans have established their own theocracy, and the Crown really doesn't get that part. They think this is a colony loyal to the King, and the colonists really feel like they're loyal to God. There's a totally different agenda at work. Those things come to a head in 1689 with the ousting of [Governor] Andros. Afterward, there is this need on the part of the Puritans to get back to business. The elite have been speculating in land, the elite have had tremendous success with sawmills and with metals and things, and they desperately need for there to be a return to order. That's why you have this sort of propping-up of the new regime in the sense of, you know, "We're going to prove both to the populace here that we're in control, and to the Crown that we can regulate ourselves, and we don't need any further intervention."
BNR: So you would have imagined, then, that would have taken the form of cracking down on these crazy young women. You would imagine, from a certain perspective now, that the form this would take would be that the men in authoritarian power would be silencing obstreperous adolescent girls.
SS: Except that, remember, everyone believes they're truly bewitched. That's the part that's hard to get our minds around. It's not just sort of a superstitious idea, this idea of witchcraft. It has a religious foundation, that the Devil is at large and that these girls are somehow suffering at his hands. So the kind and compassionate thing to do is to locate the source of evil, not to silence the poor suffering martyred girls, and sparing those martyred girls from their tribulations is what everyone is hoping to do, especially since after a certain point other people are affected. I mean, there are boys who are convulsing, there are grown women who are convulsing something is clearly at work. No one seems (in those early days anyway) to doubt that there is a true spell, that witchcraft is truly at work.
BNR: As you point out, one of the questions that's often asked of the accused is, "Do you think that the accuser is bewitched?" and the accused sometimes says, "Yes, just not by me."
SS: Exactly. It's interesting, when you look at the court records. There is occasional hesitation to say "this is witchcraft" on some of the suspects' parts. But for the most part, everyone seems utterly convinced they know what witchcraft looks like. The political piece is one piece of it. To a Puritan, the idea of Puritanism is founded on the idea of someone else being impure, and so that need to invent a persecuting Other, whether that's an Indian or whether that's a Catholic or whether that's a Frenchman, or whatever you want to call that creature, that's fairly essential spiritually. I hope that comes across the book, that there's a whole concatenation of things here at play, and that the deep faith also requires some kind of rigorous enemy as well some kind of passionate enemy.
BNR: Without meaning to ask you to spoil your conclusion, can you say a little bit about the big question that comes to anyone reading this: How did this happen, that this group of largely young people, younger people certainly, started having convulsions in court, and either inventing or feeling, depending on how you want to see it, these pains and assaults and fits? How did that aspect of it happen? Do you think there is a single explanation that is enough?
SS: In short, no. I think that's part of the problem, is that we've always tried to be a bit simplistic in explaining what happened, and that there are so many factors at work. That's one problem. The other problem, obviously, is we have nothing in the girls' voices, no explanation of the girls' voices other than their complaints and their conversations with the Devil. So we don't have anything from any of them, except perhaps for Ann Putnam's later apology that explains what's going on in their heads. Short of that, we're really not ever going to have an answer of what causes this.
BNR: You write: "Salem endures not only as a metaphor, but as a vaccine and a taunt."
SS: It stands as this blinking red light, just as you're about to careen off the road. You don't want to go down this particular path. It's a thing that reminds you, "Wait, if we go down this road, here's what happens. We end up in this strangely benighted place." I felt that way so often as I kept coming across the word "witch-hunts" in various news stories as I was working. It's a word that flashes you back towards sanity, to some extent. It comes up constantly for that reason, even when you don't even know the details of what happened. You just know this is a thing that you don't want to let happen. Due process has a place in our lives for a reason, and here's what happens when it doesn't.
BNR: After reading this book, I have to tell you, I thought Arthur Miller was right to use this to illuminate what he saw going on around him.
SS: Oh, absolutely. And the parallel between the culture in which people are gossiping constantly and all-news-is-oral, and the new culture in which everyone is gossiping constantly online, is really astonishing. So many of the news stories I followed as I was working, reminded me that when you have a physical reality and a virtual reality, it's not all that different from when you have a physical reality and a spectral reality.
You can now be two different people again. You can be two places at once. You can have two different sets of opinions, one of them quite vile or intrusive. So much of what has been happening in terms of teenage bullying and public shaming and viral rumors and everything, so echoed Salem to me. Obviously, that's partly because I was obsessed with the material, but I think there's a real resonance to it.
BNR: You write of the process of your research, "To stare at it for too long is to clamber down the rabbit hole, to ask more of miasmic events than they will yield. If you spend enough time in seventeenth century Salem, you begin to see patterns that are not necessarily there, like a hyper-perspicacious assassination buff, or an eminent minister in a renovated Boston kitchen, or, for that matter, like a witchcraft judge." I think that's an extraordinary admission for a historian.
SS: That's the really long-windup to "we don't know." Part of the problem with the way we've approached Salem before is that we're determined to have an answer, and the determining to have an answer means that you go in with preconceived notions. I really feel strongly that the way you figure these things out is not to go in with a theory of your own, but to read the evidence first and come up with a theory later. So a certain amount of that was my being aware, as I was working, that I really wanted to keep an open mind until the material could convince me of what it was trying to say.
Part of that sentence is just the utter frustration of not being able to answer a question. I don't know if you've ever been up in the middle of the night. A lack of resolution can be terrifying in many ways. The itch for resolution is so great. You can see why it was easier for them to have an answer just as it is for us to be able to have an answer and package it in some kind of sensible way than it was to sort of live with the irresolution, to live with the uncertainty.
October 28, 2015