I have written one book: THE AFFLICTED GIRLS A Novel of
Salem, published at the end of 2009, but a process begun in 1993 when I
first picked the 1692 Salem witch hunt as the subject for a screenplay.
My research in those hard-to-imagine pre-internet days consisted of
reading every book on Salem available in the Los Angeles Public Library;
although some were too old and decrepit to be forwarded to my branch. I
also searched through two university reference libraries. Of course, there
were a handful of books I was able to take home for study.
Sometime while taking notes, I got bitten by the ghostly bug still
haunting Salem that hunts for blood and an audience. And sometimes I had
to implore the books I was skimming to help me weed out dramatic
irrelevancies. In the end I had collected more than a thousand disparate but
novel facts, most of which were later incorporated into my novel. 126 singlespaced
typewritten pages, indexed by character, subject, and strangeness,
each item prompting its own unique scrutinization and speculation, because
of my having learned at film school that motivation is key to a well constructed
I asked: Why would an indentured nineteen-year-old girl in Salem
Village accuse a minister of witchcraft, a man she hasn’t seen for years but
once dwelt with in childhood after being orphaned on the Maine frontier?
And what was the relationship between that minister and her Salem master?
And why would the wife of her master simultaneously accuse an elderly
neighbor of murdering her newborns? And not just one infant, but several?
Only when I applied modern lenses did it all begin to make
sense. And yet one puzzle remained elusive... until I coincidentally read an
article in my local newspaper which hinted at the logical answer. A bit more
research, and the mystery of “the afflictions” that sparked a 300-year-old
witch hunt was solved.
As my understanding of Salem evolved, and that mysterious gestalt
came into focus, I began building gossamer bridges. Using my modest
intellect and a well-developed intuition (from meditation), I let my left-brain
analytical mind align with my rightside inner-listening, sensing, and seeing; a
mindful collaboration, that must be known to most historical novelists, as
well as to detectives and scientists, who also pursue Aha! moments.
Angling (and 'realing') each of my characters through every applicable
lens: psychology and depression—post-partum, post-traumatic—infanticide,
rape, middle-aged impotence, child-spousal-elder abuse, alcoholism, class
warfare, teenage angst, drug-taking, eco-warfare, sexual experimentation,
superstition, seven deadly sins, and spiritual belief—I sought possibilities
and probabilites beyond historical records. Wherever a characteristic shoe
fit, I let a character wear it.
Historical scholarship has begun to address these omissions. But back
when I was writing my screenplay, it was absent. Only after publishing my
novel did I learn how there were thousands of 17th century New Englanders
charged with lewd speech, fornication, adultery, bigamy, rape, child
molestation, incest, sodomy, bestiality, and infanticide.
A 1693 sermon by Cotton Mather: “A Holy Rebuke to the Unclean Spirit,” marks the
execution of two women “for murdering of their bastard children.”
Because contrary to popular belief, Puritans appear not to have
repressed their sexual instincts at all. There were wild, mixed-sex parties at
Harvard Divinity School in the late 17th century, as well as roving bands of
local youth sneaking out after midnight seeking drunken revels. A result,
perhaps, of their fathers and ministers couching sermons and stern warnings
in erotic terms?
“If they offer to ravish our hears, we must cry out as the seized virgin,
and call in help from heaven, to rescue us from the rape they offer us,” one
preached. While Cotton Mather pledged: “to lead a life of heavenly
ejacuations,” and his minister father Increase Mather taught: “Those not yet
changed by regenerating grace of the spirit of God usually live in some
unclean lust or another. Either fornication, or self-pollution (masturbation),
or other wanton pranks of darkness.”
In Sunday sermons, Puritan ministers repeatedly warned their male
parishioners against using their “members as weapons of unrighteousness.”
For, as Rev. John Rogers pointed out: “Every child of Adam is a lump of
And these same men, hyperventilating about sex, were the ones who
manipulated and dominated the judicial system; punishing perpetrators and
victims equally, believing that a female who was forced to have sex, “who had
no delight in the act,” could not possibly conceive... because she had to have
an orgasm for conception to occur. Should she get pregnant, there soon came a
trial, conviction, a painful corporeal punishment, and branding as a harlot.
It’s why most teenage girls, when indentured to other households by
their parents, felt powerless to resist abuse, and remained utterly vulnerable
to the advances of older masters, masters’ sons, and neighbors.
The historical records of Essex County, where my story is set, state
that between the years 1645 and 1685 over 100 women and girls were
convicted of bearing illegimate children. How about the rest? I would guess
far too many miscarriages, abortions, and births resulting from rape have
passed through time unreported. Of these, I suspect, some were suffered in
the shadows of the witch hunt.
Historical characters all once lived flesh and blood lives in societies as
messy and complex as ours. Mercy Lewis, Abigail Williams, Bridget Bishop,
the Putnams and Porters, Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Reverend Parris,
Tituba and John Indian, Cotton Mather were each very much alive in 1692.
Yet, for the last 300 years—as factoids—they’ve been mere wisps standing
in guard of the vaguest personal histories.
Perhaps, by becoming characters in a historical novel, they’ll be able
to bear witness to an intuitive rearrangement of fact, and their collective
ghosts—with nothing shameful enough to hide from a modern world, or an
interested fiction reader—can reach out from that infamous story’s otherside
to offer us plausible new conclusions.