We Were Witches

This book made me dizzy, sizzled my hands. Preference for fiction is such a personal thing, I usually refrain from loading it into my highly recommended category. But I’ve got to put this book on there, if only because I had to stop reading it several times to 1) savor the goodness,  making it last longer 2) text friends to put it on their reading lists immediately.

It’s a novel, a fictionalized memoir with the real characters of Ariel, as narrator, along with her daughter Mia. Her son shows up years later, but he’s hinted at in the beginning when she’s having a midwife inject her with borrowed sperm who notices her scar from a painful operation she had in rural Italy in 1990 when giving birth to her daughter.

The story follows Ariel, a teenaged single mother who did not finish high school, as she raises Mia with no help from her parents or Mia’s father, while going to college, first at an unnamed school near Petaluma then at Mills College. Magical realism lifts your heart as you pull for this family to make it, for Ariel to become the artist mother that she wants to be, to blossom into a raging feminist, to evolve into a witch. Spoiler alert: there’s a happy ending.

Along the way, she melds the fiercest quotes from Adrienne Rich, Tillie Olson, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde. There’s a sprinkling of spells, too. Gore’s own words are powerful, spare, lovingly picked, packed with punch. Major kudos for her including a reading list at the end, curating all the breadcrumbs of books she dropped references to throughout in one easily accessible spot. It’s a modern tale that leaves out all the name-dropping/brand-calling/technology-inserting that mars other similar works, marking them as ineligible for Classic status.

One of my favorite chapters, The Feminist Agenda, quotes Pat Robertson in 1992 saying that the feminist agenda is about “a socialist, antifamily political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” Gore notes that aside from wanting to kill her child the rest of the list rang very true, and factored into her goals and reminders for 1992:

Don’t get married, ever.
Practice witchcraft.
Destroy capitalism.

Another great chapter is called White-Lady Feminism 101, which is three words in its entirety, and made me laugh: “Bring a mirror.”

For her senior thesis combining feminist economics and English lit, she links Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to Michel Foucault to Marilyn Waring’s economic treatise If Women Counted, wrapping up with: “Like Hester Pryne’s moment in The Scarlet Letter, my public shaming is not merely designed for my own benefit, but rather serves as a sermon and a warning to other girls and other women who may hope to escape the confines of a system designed to support and enable the white-supremacist capitalist war machine. I reject this system. I intend to resist this system.”

As she stands in her professor’s office, nursing her daughter, the professor announces that Ariel will have to be a feminist, because “Feminists do what they want.” That seared my scalp, yes yes yes!

In her rules for being 20 years old: “If there are only two options, always choose material poverty over psychic poverty.”

Quoting Adrienne Rich: “To seek visions, to dream dreams, is essential, and it is also essential to try new ways of living, to make room for serious experimentation, to respect the effort even where it fails.”

Greatest risk factors to being accused, tried, convicted and executed for witchcraft in 15th-17th centuries? Being a woman and being poor. “Add to those risk factors having a job or being sexual or single or outspoken or an unwed mother or unconcerned with cultural beauty norms or mentally ill or a healer—especially a midwife or a counselor—and you were pretty much dead. Dare to help another woman find contraceptives, and you were dead. Have the audacity to be old and grumpy, and you were most certainly dead.” Quoting the 1487 witch-hunting manual, The Malleus Maleficarum: “When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil.”

“If we don’t follow society’s rules, we risk losing our freedom [e.g. being locked up]. But if we must follow those rules without question, we’ve already given up our freedom.”