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Childish Things

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 3/21/2001

During the week that a 15-year-old California boy shot and killed two of his high school classmates and a 14-year-old Florida boy was sentenced to life in prison for beating to death a 6-year-old girl, I happened to be reading intensively about the Salem witch trials of 1692.

It's a topic I hadn't thought about since I was a teenager myself, but I remember it as one of the more vivid "units" we studied in eighth- or ninth-grade history. So when a publisher of young-adult books asked me to write a short chronicle of the episode, I jumped at the chance (despite the depressingly small fee). It should be a fascinating story for 21st-century teenagers to read, since their 17th-century counterparts played a central role in the disaster.

The Salem witch hunt began, as you may remember from history class, when some teenage girls started having "fits"--babbling incoherently and blasphemously, flailing around, screeching, claiming they felt as if they were being bitten, pinched, or stabbed with needles. After some not-so-subtle prompting by devil-fearing adults, the girls began blaming their symptoms on various "witches"--mostly adult women, but also children and men. Some of the accused were already outcasts or dissenters from the strictures of Salem's Puritan society and therefore natural targets of suspicion, but many others were widely considered good, upstanding, churchgoing citizens.

With the support of various adults--some clearly more motivated by greed, vengeance, and malice than by a genuine fear of witchcraft or concern for their daughters--the girls went on to accuse hundreds of being in league with Satan. The "trials" of these accused witches presupposed their guilt and hinged on the fantastic claims of the accusers rather than hard evidence. Nineteen convicted witches were hanged, and one man who refused to stand trial was crushed to death under a pile of heavy rocks, before the town finally lost confidence in the proceedings and shut the bloody enterprise down.

What I had forgotten--or maybe I never learned this in the first place--was that Salem was hardly the only witch hysteria starring teenagers and children. Throughout the great European witch craze of the mid-15th to mid-18th centuries (in which hundreds of thousands died), young people were both victims of and victimizers in this deadly persecution of the devil's supposed minions, which was pursued vigorously by Catholics and Protestants alike. From about 1580 until the 1700s, the vast majority of witch trials featured children implicating close relatives, especially their mothers, and dozens or even hundreds of other innocent people. (We saw all this again in the 1980s and early '90s in cases of alleged satanic ritual abuse, which were based on coerced confessions and no hard evidence whatsoever.) But children usually turned informer because they themselves had first been accused of acting devilishly. Under the strictly dualistic Christian theology of the times, children were conceived of as either wholly good or wholly bad--the embodiment of pure innocence or the corrupt spawn of Satan. They were routinely accused of deviltry for engaging in behavior that we "moderns" would consider the normal activity of rambunctious, hyperactive youth.

Then, as now, adults hid their intense ambivalence about childhood behind a scrim of romantic ideals. As one historian of the witch craze has noted, "In a world that agonizes over perennial betrayal, cruelty, war, mass slaughter, and other failures of humanity, we passionately long for exemplars of unadulterated goodness. The child, like some sacred icon, has been traditionally placed upon an imaginary altar so that we might revere virtues lacking in ourselves." Woe betide the child who disappoints such high and sacred expectations.

Then, as now, children were every bit a part of the adult society in which they lived--reflecting, amplifying, and reacting to the timbre of the times. No sanctified rope cordoned them off from the particular mass insanities of their era. In their hysteria, the girls of Salem perfectly mimicked the fractious, self-righteous, embittered, accusatory nature of their Puritan parents, who were embroiled in all sorts of property disputes, venal political conflicts, and naked grabs for power. We'll never know whether their symptoms were caused by mere human suggestibility (stories of similarly afflicted victims of witchcraft permeated popular religious literature of the time) or by outright theatrics and fraud. But from the distance of centuries, one almost feels sorry for them. On the other hand, after the trials were shut down, these accusers were pretty much off the hook, a deeply unsatisfying conclusion since their actions resulted in people's deaths. Later on, as an adult, at least one of them took some responsibility for the terrible things she'd done. But no one was ever punished.

Except, of course, everyone was punished--at least, that's what the Puritans believed. Decades of disease, crop failure, and deadly wars with the French and the Indians were testament to God's wrath against his subjects for having put innocents to death. I'm not sure what any of this has to do with 21st-century school shootings or harsh mandatory sentencing of juvenile criminals. It's just interesting to me that we still don't know very much about children--still don't know the proper proportions by which we should fear and punish their potential for evildoing or pity and forgive their unattained and unattainable innocence, a reflection of our own.

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