Female Revenge Still Terrifies Men

A modern fracas between Catholic priests and a Brooklyn witches tells us the ancient reason why

Photo by Emily Molli/NurPhoto/Getty

Whatever patriarchy is in 2018, it sure ain’t subtle. For instance: The Catholic Church is now employing an exorcist to protect Brett Kavanaugh from witches. The scenario comes straight from the Middle Ages; then, as now, the figure of the witch triggers men’s deep-seated fear of women’s capacity for resistance and revenge.

Earlier this month, Brooklyn occult store Catland announced that it would hold a public ritual on October 20 to hex Kavanaugh, along with “all rapists and the patriarchy which emboldens, rewards and protects them.” According to the event page, this ritual is meant to honor “witchcraft’s true roots as the magik of the poor, the downtrodden and disenfranchised and [its] history as often the only weapon, the only means of exacting justice available to those of us who have been wronged by men just like him.”

Photo by Emily Molli/NurPhoto/Getty

According to Catholic exorcist Father Gary Thomas — a man who seems perhaps unduly seduced by the worldly pleasures of media coverage; his memoirs previously formed the basis for the truly terrible 2011 horror movie The Rite — the event is “a conjuring of evil,” performed by a “Satanic cult.”

“Evil” is strong language, but people who are willing to trade a little rape now for a chance at banning abortion later don’t meet any widely shared definitions of “good.”

“The decision to do this against a Supreme Court justice is a heinous act and says a lot about the character of these people that should not be underestimated or dismissed,” Thomas told the National Catholic Register. “These are real evil people.”

If you’re wondering why a public gathering of rape survivors looking for catharsis should be more “evil” than the attempted rape of which Kavanaugh stands accused, the National Catholic Register spells things out pretty neatly: These witches, the Register claims, are aligned with the feminists who “loudly denounced the Catholic, pro-life, Kavanaugh as ‘serious threat’ to a ‘women’s right to abortion[.]” Kavanaugh, it says, “will protect the life of unborn babies. It’s clear how the sides of good and evil line up.”

“Evil” is strong language, but people who are willing to trade a little rape now for a chance at banning abortion later don’t meet any widely shared definitions of “good.”

Still, the gender dynamics here are ancient and far bigger than Brett Kavanaugh. Men have always feared witches, and for just this reason: Even if men maintain a stranglehold on the church, the government, and every form of established and legitimate power, the witch showed that women may have their own reserves of disreputable, illegitimate power with which to protect themselves.

A witch is a woman pushed to the edges of society.

The Catland owners are correct: Witchcraft — stereotypically, and in cases of actual witch panics — has always been associated with femininity, but it is associated more specifically with marginalized women who have very little worldly power. Old women; poor women; women who were mentally ill, or overly argumentative, or just disliked. The Salem witch panics rippled out from the supposedly “occult” activities of an enslaved South American Indigenous woman and a handful of white teenage girls, most of whom worked as domestic servants. A witch is a woman pushed to the edges of society.

Yet that same marginal status gives the witch a terrible, shadowy power. She is the threat you don’t see coming, the person you write off until it’s too late: the crazy old woman on the edge of town, the one you laugh at and insult and ignore, until one day you wake up and your livestock have all died, your crops have been blighted, your milk has soured, and your stores of grain have turned to rot.

A witch’s curse was not a trivial or silly thing in the small, rural communities that gave rise to these panics; it was the difference between survival and starvation. The terror implicit in witchcraft is that the people who supposedly have the least power in our communities may, in fact, have the power of life and death hidden in a back pocket; that, when you address a woman, you can never be sure whether she is powerless or massively, malevolently powerful, and that any slight or insult you inflict on her may come back to haunt you, or even ruin your life.

Which is to say: Of course Brett Kavanaugh and his defenders are afraid of witches. Witches exist, pretty much entirely, to keep the Brett Kavanaughs of this world in line. As Lindy West famously wrote, it’s not for nothing that men who oppose the #MeToo movement so often invoke the idea of “witch hunts” — the idea is not that the rapists are accused witches, but that witches are the ones doing the hunting.

Witches talk to the press about you. Witches put your name on a spreadsheet and highlight it in red. Witches testify in front of Congress, voices shaking but eyes clear and true. Witches get you fired and don’t feel bad. Witches don’t accept your apology; witches don’t back down to assuage male pain. Some men go their whole lives punching down at women, and for the most part, they get away with it. The witch is the woman who finally punches back. You won’t know what she is until you’re on the floor spitting out teeth.

This behavior will always be “evil” within a system that is designed to allow men to get away with hurting women. It is power that, by its nature, is illegitimate and unofficial; it does not derive from courts or laws, because our court system routinely fails victims, and our laws are being made and decided by predators. (How many men have complained about “due process” — and are they really longing for jurisprudence or just eager to have the debate on territory they control?) It is not condoned by the church or by Christian morality, because the church and Christian morality were made for men. Even if every mechanism of legal or moral authority is set against them, women can and will create their own code of ethics and their own means of ensuring justice. The idea is terrifying.

And it becomes more terrifying as more women resign themselves to working outside the system. It’s significant that men would start freaking out about witches just as Roe v. Wade stands to be overturned; one of witches’ most horrific powers was their control over their own reproductive destiny.

Witches talk to the press about you. Witches put your name on a spreadsheet and highlight it in red. Witches testify in front of Congress, voices shaking but eyes clear and true. Witches get you fired and don’t feel bad. Witches don’t accept your apology; witches don’t back down to assuage male pain.

The Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century witch-hunting manual, lists the “seven methods” witches use to interfere with men’s sexual dominion — this includes stealing penises and turning men into animals, sure, but also “destroying the generative force in women” and “procuring abortion.” It is “witchcraft, not only when anyone is unable to perform the carnal act… but also when a woman is prevented from conceiving, or is made to miscarry after she has conceived,” the manual instructs.

This kind of witchery is also real and also already on the rise. We are reentering the age of underground reproductive health networks, with the Dutch group Women on Web targeting the United States for secret abortion pill deliveries. If birth control is also banned, which seems likely in many states, the “magic” of secretly blocking one’s own generative forces may become a necessary craft for women and trans people. Even as the men in power are increasingly panicked about witchcraft, the backlash is making witches of us all.

It may seem absurd that, after centuries of progress, the feminist struggle would come down to priests versus witches — all the work we’ve done has evidently landed us right back in 1450. But in a way, this is where we’ve always been; we’re just now seeing it clearly. Men want control over women’s bodies, absolute and unchallenged; men intend to place women back under their dominion, and they are terrified that it might not work. Good. Let’s keep them afraid. Either the rules will be fair or we will break the rules. Either you give us justice or we can take it. Watch who you insult, be careful around those seemingly worthless women, or you may wake up one fine day to find your whole world turned to rot.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Columns published far and wide across the Internet.

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