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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

dramatic story.

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.

Views: 38

Comment by Suzy Witten on April 4, 2012 at 12:36pm

Thanks, Kristina. Would love to, and would love to hear some of your stories of Salem!


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