Controlling the Uncontrollable: The Salem Witch Trails and Teenagers Today by Colette Rosenberg He who believes in the Devil already belongs to him. - Thomas Mann The created object — the child — can become instead an uncontrollable source of destructiveness. - Rachel Cusk In 1692 it was declared that the Devil was present in Salem, Massachusetts. It started with two teenage girls, Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Parris. They were seen in the woods experimenting with fortune telling, trying to find answers about their future-- whom they would marry, how many children they would have, the usual things (Marvel 15, 16, 22, 48). Except it wasn’t just usual. What happened was far from usual. What happened is simply described as “hysteria.” Most historians can’t seem to find another word to use. Hysteria, because no one could pinpoint a cause. Why were these girls suddenly acting so strange? Dr. Griggs, one of Salem’s most renowned doctors, couldn’t figure it out. Nothing appeared physically wrong with the two girls. They were young and healthy. It was just that they were having these fits. These uncontrollable, convulsive fits. In the courtrooms and out of the courtrooms, they would scream and talk in tongues. Hysteria, because without a cause, there was no cure. “They were under the devil’s hand,” Dr. Griggs concluded (Marvel 15). Hysteria, because no one had any control. The symptoms seemed to spread. There was no way of knowing who was a witch and who wasn’t. No explanation. But you can’t just leave it at that. No explanation, so I guess we’ll just wait and see. No. You have to be active; you have to give the people what they want to hear. They want to hear that things are being done, that initiatives are being taken. There had to be someone to blame. So those of Salem, Massachusetts, eager to defend Puritan culture and cure the Salem community, did just that. They pointed fingers at two hundred people, almost all of them women (Marvel 13, 15, 17). They hanged nineteen. June 10th: Bridget Bishop. July 19th: Sarah Good, Elizabeth How, Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse and Sarah Wildes. All gone. August 19th: George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, George Jacobs Sr., John Proctor and John Willard. Hanged. September 19th: Giles Corey. “Pressed to death.” September 22nd: Martha Corey, Mary Eastey, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, Ann Pudeator, Wilmott Reed, Margaret Scott, Samuel Wardwell (The Dead). Dead.
They turned to the unexplainable as an explanation: Witchcraft. Over 300 years later, not much has changed. Just as the Puritans of Salem, Massachusetts grappled with this lack of control, it seems as if parents of the 21st century feel the same. I often watch my mom analyze my siblings’, as well as my own, actions, unsure how to act, unsure what initiatives to take. “I think she’s being distant because she’s trying to figure out how to balance college and home. It makes sense. I read an article on it today,” I overheard my mom saying to her friend on the phone one day. For the past month I’ve watched my mom specifically struggle to navigate her relationship with my sister, her eldest daughter. I’ve watched her get too close and then back off. Get too distant and then dive in head first, never quite able to figure out the right balance. I’ve watched her do the same with my brother and my younger sister. I’ve watched her do the same with me. But after reading a New York Times Magazine article, written by Rachel Cusk, titled “Raising Teenagers: The Mother of All Problems,” she appeared confident that she had at least solved one piece of the puzzle. I spotted the article lying atop the kitchen counter, evidence that it had successfully spoken to my mom and swayed her to separate it from its neighboring pages and keep it as a reference guide. I imagine that she sees this article as another resource, another way to find some answers to how to deal with her children as they continue to morph into teenagers and their strange and unfamiliar behavior that seems to go along with it. Raising Teenagers I thought to myself. Teenagers-- adults love to use that word. They just throw it around. Especially when they are talking to one another. The term seems to spread exponentially. They use it when they are seeking reassurance from their peers. I have a teenager too. He’s exactly the same as yours. They use it when they try to convince themselves that what appears abnormal is normal. Oh, it’s just a phase-- all teenagers go through it. They use it when they try to make connections or as a shield when they slowly approach their own teenager. You can talk to me. I once was a teenager too, you know. Like being a teenager is some concrete phase that one day you’re in, and then the next day you’re out. Cured. They use it as a way to explain and categorize. Teenagers. That’s the reason why. They appear to be constantly trying to understand them-- almost as if they are a newly discovered species that scientists have yet to fully grasp. Except they’re not newly discovered, they’re ancient. They’ve been around for ages, yet questions still lurk and parents still research how it is they should deal with this living thing, this living teenager, residing in their home. How it is they should tame their teenager before their worst fears come to life and he or she begins to explode. Teenagers were at the forefront of the witch hunts. Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Paris. Two teenage girls. Both related to Reverend Samuel Parris-- Abigail was his niece and Elizabeth was his daughter. It couldn’t have been worse for Reverend Parris, for he was already under the spotlight far before the witch hunts began. At the time, Salem was divided into Salem Town and Salem Village (Social Pressure and Witchcraft). Although separate, both of these communities were tied together by a common church, that is until Salem Village rebelled and formed its own church. Parris was hired for the job and subsequently was caught in the rift of these two rival communities (Winters). Some supported the creation of the new church and some hated the idea. Two wealthy families primarily controlled Salem: the Porters and the Putnams. The Porters supported Salem Town and opposed Parris. The Putnams supported Salem Village and therefore Parris. Both were wealthy landowners and had powerful roles in Salem society, capable not only of controlling Salem’s economy but of propelling the witch hunts further as they used their power to accuse citizens of the others’ town of being possessed by the Devil (Marvel 84). The last thing Parris needed was to let Salem Village down and fulfill Salem Town’s stance by being linked to the two creators of the hunt. His reputation would be ruined forever. It was clear that Parris’s every move was being watched. There was no denying that the girls’ actions were a reflection of Parris. He decided the girls must be tamed. Parris would take it upon himself to control Elizabeth and Abigail during the trials, monitoring their involvement, trying to cure them by having them fast and strategically burning evidence. He tried to edit their dialogue and manipulate their narrative (Marvel 39, Wilson 65). In actuality, these two teenage girls controlled the Reverend. He had to adhere to them. They were no longer his puppets, but his puppeteers. Rachel Cusk exposes the concept of stories being a power struggle between those who control the narrative and those who don’t. Specifically, she describes parenthood and its challenges in this context. In the beginning of parenthood, parents exhibit full control, not only because they are the ones who are caring for their children and shaping their values, but also because they control the narrative of parenthood and therefore their children, the characters in it. They are able to dream up “a version of childhood composed of adult fantasies, fantasies so powerful that they threatened to undermine reality itself.” And thus, reality and fantasy dangerously blur. From that point on it is difficult to say what childhood is supposed to be, how a child is supposed to act, how a parent is supposed to parent—what is reality and what is simply expectation? Once that vault of storytelling is opened, truth and fiction get tangled up along the way Cusk explains that as soon as her daughters became teenagers “stories began to emerge in my circle of acquaintances of shouting and slammed doors and verbal abuse, of academic failure, of secrecy and dishonesty; and of darker things, of eating disorders, self-harm, sexual precocity and depression.” There was no longer one narrative, but multiple, all competing with one another. As these symptoms began to appear, it seemed as if power had shifted from parents exhibiting control over their story to the children themselves crafting the narrative. During this phase, tensions heighten as the characters of the story go from being passive children to active teenagers-- a force to be reckoned with. A parent’s illusion of a fantasy-like childhood can no longer exist without facing the threat of the teenager’s narrative denting it. As a teenager’s narrative grows and gains legitimacy, a parent’s narrative is endangered. As a parent’s narrative loses validity, a parent’s reputation and image becomes murky. “A large part of parental authority is invested in the maintenance and upkeep of this story, its repetition, its continued iterations and adaptations.” Parents paint a utopian picture of childhood and parenthood. They grow familiar with it and they grow to believe it. Cusk warns that “it is perhaps unwise to treasure this story too closely or believe in it too much, for at some point the growing child will pick it up and turn it over in his hands like some dispassionate reviewer composing a coldhearted analysis of an overhyped novel.” The only way for parents to save their narrative is to control what seems to be uncontrollable-- their own child. Stories began to dictate the path of the Salem Witch Trials. As more people got involved, more stories took shape and chaos accelerated. Tituba, Parris’s servant, became a person of interest. Tituba, a slave from Barbados, was known for her bizarre pattern of behavior-- her chanting, practice of witchcraft and voodoo. It was known throughout Salem that Tituba was well connected with spirits and most likely the Devil. Therefore, her narrative was valid. Elizabeth and Abigail exploited Tituba’s reputation for their own advantage. They controlled Tituba’s story, exposing certain elements of it that would aid their own case. Suddenly, the fact that Tituba had baked a witch-cake was revealed. “Tituba and her husband John helped a neighbor named Mary Sibley bake a witch cake, a cake made from rye meal and the afflicted girl’s urine, and fed it to a dog hoping it would reveal the name of whoever bewitched the girls. The girl’s symptoms took a turn for the worse...” (Tituba: The Slave of Salem). Apparently, the girls did not learn fortune telling on their own; it was Tituba who had taught them. Tituba was brought to court. No resolution was reached. Instead, more confusion formed as Tituba enforced Puritans’ worst fears and assured everyone that the Devil was present in Salem (Hansen 39). Parents grow confused as their “dreamt up” outlook on parenthood and the reality of parenthood slowly separate and become distinguishable-- one is reality and one is fantasy. A separation also seems to exist when evaluating the stories themselves and looking into how credible a narrative really is. Is it the parents’ stories or the teenagers’ that are more believable? What makes a narrative true? Cusk explains, like most parents, she hears stories from multiple perspectives—both children and adult ones. Her daughters reveal stories told by their peers, from a teenage perspective, about parents. “Because they’re told by [her] daughters, these stories have the teenagers as their protagonists.” Her friends tell stories, from an adult perspective, about their teenagers. “The stories told by my peers work the other way around.” In this situation, the adults rather than the teenagers are the protagonists. In both cases, a “them vs. us” mentality is present. In both cases, a mutual desire to understand and grapple with the “them” is present. And although both are valid dialogues told from valid perspectives, Cusk draws an interesting distinction between the believable and unbelievable: I find that I naturally side with the protagonists in my daughters’ stories and against the narrators of my friends’. My own memories of adolescence remain the most potent I have. That self is still more real to me than any other I have inhabited. As a 13-year-old, I felt both powerless within, and outraged by, the adult world. I was characterized as the family firebrand, the difficult one — but increasingly I find myself recollecting the powerlessness. It is possible, I have discovered, to attribute an inordinate power to your children. But in fact the only power they have is that which lies in the mere fact of existence. They exist: It is from what their existence means for us that the chimera of their power is generated. Cusks’s view is a refreshing one. Although the stories she is hearing are not her own, she is able to insert herself into them and sympathize in order to develop some sort of common ground, some sort of understanding. She is able to identify the facade of these stories, the fact that in reality maybe it isn’t their power that we should pay attention to, but their powerlessness—the powerlessness of teenagers that they seem to represent. Some historians hypothesize that Abigail and Elizabeth utilized stories in a similar manner. Maybe it wasn’t just that these two girls were trying to get attention by provoking witchcraft. Maybe their actions were deliberate. Puritan lifestyle was extremely strict at the time and not accepted by the younger generation in Salem. It is very possible that strict religious laws, strict sex laws and the constant pressure of maintaining the Puritan mission sent these girls over the edge (Hansen 117). In a society where adult males ruled, maybe this was the girls’ only chance to be ambassadors for all of the teenagers at the time and make a change. Throughout the witch hunts it was difficult to prove what was real and what was imagined. Something as intangible as witchery didn’t belong in a courtroom—there was no way to prove someone innocent. Empirical tests of reciting the Lord’s Prayer and touch and sight were used along with evidence of a curse or gaze and spectral evidence (Marvel 18). Another test used, was touching someone while she was in a fit; if the victim recovered after being disrupted in a fit, the person was considered a witch. In addition, one could attempt to prove someone a witch by seeing if she floated in water. It was much easier to prove someone guilty than innocent. Once you were brought to court, your only hope was to confess to witchery-- whether you were a witch or not. It is estimated that more than fifty people falsely confessed to witchcraft and were pressured into confession. Confession was a positive gesture and seen as being a step closer to God. In return for confessing, the confessed were not hanged but used for trials as examples of witches (Marvel 19, 105). Confessing was not only satisfactory, but also powerful; “every confession reinforced the convictions of the magistrates, the ministers and the community that they were on the right track” (Hansen 112). Parents manipulate their children in a similar manner. Parents question them and question them until they no longer want to share the truth. “What’s wrong with you?” Why aren’t you talking? Are you depressed?” “No, I’m just tired.” Parents try to anticipate what might be wrong. They try to “fill in the blank,” and by doing so, they think that they are connecting with their children. In reality, they are pushing them further away. “Are you just really stressed out? Do you just have so much on your plate?” Yes. I think to myself. “No,” I answer. Maybe I answer this way because I am annoyed by my mom or dad’s accuracy. Maybe I’m annoyed by their effort to be accurate, by how sure they are that they have reached some sort of a conclusion. Or maybe I answer this way because my story is being threatened, and I can feel the pencil being ripped out of my hand. Or maybe it’s a defense mechanism. Maybe I disagree to maintain the illusion of victimhood. “By disagreeing with it, you create the illusion of victimhood in those who have the capacity to be oppressors,” Cusk explains. In the witch hunts and in a household the paradox between being a victim and holding the power exists. Although they claimed to be victims of witchcraft, caught in an uncontrollable spell, Abigail and Elizabeth were able to remain powerful. By insisting that it is the parents who are creating tension and causing problems, teenagers appear victimized. Although victimized, they remain in control, as they continue to attract attention and care from those around them. It wasn’t until reading Cusk’s article that I began to detect a common ground. “Women don’t murder their children. It’s the children who murder their mothers,” she insists. Just as witchcraft created an atmosphere where those who were not victims were victimized and those who were victims were executed, maybe we too have gotten confused. It is possible that parents and teenagers are both to blame. Maybe it is that both are guilty of losing sight of each other’s emotions and each other’s perspectives, always trying to grab the title of victim before the other one can. Economic instability, religious uncertainty and social unrest created the ideal backdrop for a witch hunt. Social anxiety, academic stress, sleep deprivation create a similar environment for teenagers. In 1692 Salem, Massachusetts was a perfect example of society’s inability to exercise patience, society’s need to jump to conclusions and “fill in the blank.” Puritans struggled to look at the crop failures and epidemics they were experiencing, the Native American attacks, their strict and closed-minded religious beliefs and the restrictions they put on women in society as being a cause for social tension (Marvel, Wilson, Social Pressure and Witchcraft). Before the full picture could be analyzed, the pot continued to boil until it bubbled over and exploded. Parents and teenagers do the same. Unable to take a few steps back, parents and teenagers miss the opportunity to empathize and organically understand one another. By doing so, parents and teenagers limit themselves to only one valid narrative, when in fact there is room for multiple. Works Cited
Brooks, Rebecca B. "Tituba: The Slave of Salem." History of Massachusetts. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.
Dayna, Winters. Shadows In Salem: An Examination of the Witch Trials in Salem Village. 1692 Isis Paranormal Investigations 2010
Hansen, Chadwick. Witchcraft at Salem. New York: George Braziller, 1969. Print.
Marvel, Laura. The Salem Witch Trials. N.p.: Greenhaven, 2003. Print.
"Salem Witchcraft Trials: List of Dead and Death Warrant." Salem Witchcraft Trials: List of Dead and Death Warrant. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2015. <>.
"Social Pressure and Witchcraft." Christian History. N.p., 2007. Web. 12 Dec. 2011.