Congratulations to Alaina DiSalvo: winner of the Halloween Scary Story Contest, co-hosted by the Macaulay Messenger and Macaulay Scribe! DiSalvo wrote a review on Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power by Pam Grossman, in which she discusses the ties between witches and women. We at the Messenger are proud to publish her work, which may also be viewed along with the other top three submissions at the Macaulay Scribe publication.
Waking the Witch: A Review by Alaina DiSalvo
Author Pam Grossman begins her book, Waking the Witch: Reflections on Women, Magic, and Power, by confronting the reader head-on. The first page is a dabbling in historical context, a couple of sparse anecdotes, a splash of revealing personal history. But very soon, she gets to the point: What do you think of when you imagine a witch? She presents a startlingly comprehensive list that makes the reader confront their own internalized misogyny. It’s summed up quite succinctly in the quotation in the preface of the book, said by Helen Adam in At Mortlake Manor: “I fear, and I love, I love, and I fear, The Far Away Ladies now hovering near.” Our society loves witches. This is easily shown in figures such as Joan of Arc, Glinda, Hermione Granger, and Samantha from Bewitched. But at the same time, witches are scorned, hated, and turned away. Just think of the Wicked Witch of the West, the three sisters in Hocus Pocus, Snow White’s Evil Queen, or the thousands of women lurking in the shadows in fairy tales and ancient stories, intent on luring your children away and harnessing the powers of the devil to perform unspeakable acts. Grossman presents all of these examples without fear and without hesitation. But the point she makes is essential to our understanding of society today. Witches are evil and good, beautiful and hideous, seductive and repulsive, benevolent and wicked, all at the same time. And so are women.
If you think back to all the ways society has treated witches, you’ll have a pretty comprehensive list of how it has treated women. They are placed on a pedestal, yet turned away from conversations for their lack of intellect. They are idolized, worshipped, but it is the height of impropriety to worship a female god. Men eagerly wait for women to show a bit of skin, but once a woman reveals herself, she is called horrible names and shunned. Grossman tells many stories of witches throughout the ages in her book, but one that stuck with me the most is that of Margaret Hamilton, better known as the actress who played the Wicked Witch of the West. Grossman doesn’t talk about the Wizard of Oz, though. Instead, she provides a transcript of an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. In this exchange, Hamilton points out that “[the Wicked Witch] is very unhappy because she never gets what she wants, Mister Rogers…mainly she just wanted those ruby slippers. Because they had lots of power, and she wanted more power. And I just think that sometimes we think she’s just a mean and very bad person, but actually you have to think about it from her point of view. That it wasn’t as happy a time as she wanted it to be, because she just never got what she wanted.” (p. 29) Grossman sums up this exchange in a very simple sentence: “We call ‘witch’ any woman who wants.” (p. 29) The most striking part of Hamilton’s appearance on the Mr. Rogers show doesn’t happen until the very end. Hamilton gets dressed up in her old costume, complete with the pointy black hat and cape. As she gets ready to leave Mr. Rogers’ house, Mr. Rogers asks if she would like to change back into her regular clothes. She laughs, a real laugh, a far cry from her cackle in Oz. And she remarks that she’d like to walk the streets just as she is. “Oh, that’d be fine for the neighborhood,” says Mr. Rogers (p. 33).
I’ve read a lot of articles about how women are trying to reclaim the word “bitch.” It’s something that has been hurled at them, spat at their feet, used to degrade and humiliate them for years. Others believe that words like “bitch” should be abandoned altogether. Have you ever noticed that nearly all curse words insult a woman? There is no male equivalent to “bitch.” You can call a man a “bastard,” meaning the son of a woman who wasn’t married, or a “son of a bitch,” meaning the son of a woman who was “bitchy.” But how can we leave all of these words behind? They’re such an ingrained part of who we are as women. This concept of shaming women for being assertive transcends cultures, class, creed, and even time itself. Grossman acknowledges this, digests this, and then says that the only way out is through. Grossman’s entire book is a written exploration of this fact. It is a good thing to be a bitch. It is a good thing to be true to ourselves, and to bow to no one. Only then will women be able to reclaim what was rightfully theirs from the start: respect, opportunity, and happiness.
Grossman cites many books written throughout history that talk about the evil nature of witches. What’s striking, if not surprising, is that these books were almost entirely written by men, and all quickly devolve into condemnations of the innate evil nature of women. But the dichotomy of simultaneously reaching out to witches and forcing them away (in a reflection of how we treat all women) is prevalent everywhere, even in these books, and even in the Bible. One story Grossman tells is that of King Saul of the Israelites. In the book of Samuel, Saul outlaws witchcraft throughout his entire kingdom. But unfortunately for him, he is feeling ignored by God, and needs to ask the advice of a medium about how to handle the invading Philistine army. So, Saul dresses up in a disguise and seeks out a woman who’s secretly still practicing her craft. She is reluctant, to say the least: “‘Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land; wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?” (1 Samuel 28:9 KJV) Despite her misgivings, she helps Saul. She summons the ghost of the prophet Samuel, who portents that Saul’s armies will be crushed by the Philistines. This is, of course, exactly what happens. Grossman wastes no time in forcing the reader to confront the hypocrisy of this story. What is the difference, Grossman asks, between Saul and “congressmen who purport to be against Roe v. Wade yet who have paid for their mistresses’ abortions?” (p. 140) Why does this hypocrisy continue to happen throughout history? You know the answer. So do I. We just don’t want to admit it. The answer is simple: men love to punish and restrict the rights of women in the name of righteousness, but only until they need something from them.
There’s a reason why Grossman’s book is called “Waking the Witch.” It’s all about reclaiming that word, “witch,” in all ways. A big part of it is allowing ourselves to want. In a review of Grossman’s book, Neko Case said that “Grossman reminds us that witches are not monsters so much as possibilities.” For some, this is as far as the concept goes. And that’s fine. But for others like Grossman, the idea of becoming a witch goes even further. Grossman spends her book alternating between historical biographies and personal anecdotes, starting in her early childhood. She talks about getting into the idea of witchcraft as a desperate hope to aid her bipolar sister, and later cooking up love spells for her friends and even hexing a bully at school. This idea might make us, at first, roll our eyes, or feel desperately unnerved and uneasy.
A high school teacher of mine once said that “the word ‘cult’ is simply a word that modern English speakers use to refer to ‘a religion that I disapprove of.’” At its most basic level, what is the difference between magic and prayer? Grossman points this out in a way that doesn’t condemn any other religion or spirituality. Prayer usually involves acknowledging your own futility, your own uselessness, and begging a higher power for something that you have no intention of seeking out yourself. Magic, on the other hand, is both empowering and effective. At its core, magic is just a wish. Magic is allowing yourself to remain open to any communications that nature or the universe is trying to send you. “When you send out a great call, how do you know if it is Spirit or nature that answers? Maybe there’s no difference at all. Maybe grace is green.” (p. 194) Magic is acknowledging that you don’t know everything, but that at the same time, you are in no way useless. You are powerful, worthy, and strong. And through magic, through directing your thoughts into an intention and taking decisive action, you can make your wishes a reality. Magic is prayer without the patriarchy.
One other anecdote that Grossman shares is the first time she sought other people who shared her spirituality. She explains that she used to tell herself that she was better off alone, and that others would surely not share her beliefs. But she is forced to admit, eventually, that she is terrified of exposing her “soft spiritual underbelly” (p. 151). One of the key traits of being in an abusive relationship is being terrified that once you expose something you like, the other person will take it away from you. Therefore, those being abused often keep their likes and dislikes secret, sheltered, and in a place where no one can get at them. Women living in a patriarchal society are in an abusive relationship. I related deeply to Grossman when she told this story. But I am happy to say that hers ends well. She found other women like her to befriend, to support, and to exchange love with as they express their spirituality together.
If you look for witches in the cracks and crevices of the internet, nearly all of them recommend Grossman’s book for “baby witches,” or new seekers. There is a very good reason for this. Grossman’s book is all-encompassing and liberating to the seeker. To others, it is enlightening and shaming; people realize their own hypocrisy and oppression when they read Grossman’s matter-of-fact, carefully laid out words that still brim with emotion and heartfelt passion. The last line of this book reads as follows: “She took the hallowed dark and formed a hearth” (p. 278). I know I speak for many when I say this line put a lump in my throat. So many of us feel inadequate for being dissatisfied with our patriarchal, capitalist, Christian-dominated society. But Grossman, and through her, witchcraft, shows us that it’s okay. We’re going to be alright. If we embrace the witch within us, we will all find what we have been looking for.