An insurance agent calls to tell me one of her elderly clients wants to get in touch with me: “She said it was ‘life and death.’ Or maybe she said ‘it wasn’t life and death.’ Anyway, she says she doesn’t know how to reach you, because she’s ‘not on the Twitter.’”
I take the woman’s number. Her first language is not English, and after rather a long and confusing conversation, it emerges that because I once wrote about neopaganism, she needs me to find her a witch. To lift a curse.
I start with a woman I remember respecting, a civil rights lawyer who became a Wiccan high priestess. She has since died. A friend who is Roma does not feel quite up to the challenge. A local witch who is quite public about her work does not return my call; an email to a white witch who runs a school bounces back. A friend sends me to a woman who writes about magic, and she sends him to a guy in New Orleans. “He doesn’t think it’s a curse,” my friend reports.
“Well, no shit,” I snap. “I don’t think so either. The point is that she thinks it’s a curse.” I am losing patience, especially because people keep scolding me for trying, saying I need to involve a social services agency or a mental health practitioner instead. “She is not going to listen to a caseworker or a shrink,” I reply with elaborate patience, because the grown-up thing to do is often not as sensible as it seems, and sometimes it is our blind faith in established protocols that is childish.
I press on. Finally, I find someone sufficiently adept and willing to visit this woman, who is lonely, insomniac, and scared. Helpless against what feels like a curse, she is reaching for any solution.
A lot of us are. “Americans’ interest in spell-casting tends to wax as instability rises and trust in establishment ideas plummets,” notes an article in the March 2020 Atlantic. “Witchcraft is on the rise,” it announces, listing off city witches, cottage witches, kitchen witches, and influencer witches. They even have merch: aura cleanses on Etsy.com and $11.99 hangover cures that “adjust the vibration of alcohol so that it doesn’t add extra density and energetic ‘weight’ to your aura.” Astrology is also having a resurgence, as are Tarot cards. (As are guns, from which gentler temperaments recoil.) “Trump’s Presidency Has Spawned a New Generation of Witches,” a Wired article announced last October, using as its hook the annual effort of the Magic Resistance to cast a binding spell that would stop the current president from doing harm. (So much for binding spells.)
Protest magic is not new, but more than half a century has elapsed since its last U.S. manifestations. In 1967, poet Allen Ginsberg and others organized an exorcism of the Pentagon, asked permission to levitate it 300 feet, then announced that the official permit would allow only three feet. Reporters obediently jotted this down. The following Halloween, W.I.T.C.H. (a playful acronym for the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) oozed glued into the locks of the New York Stock Exchange doors, and the market took a temporary but satisfying dip.
Now, the nation roils again. Reason and logic seem useless, debate is surreal, dangers loom large, and people cannot trust that their voices will be heard, their votes counted, their sense of reality shared. And so, when Trump declares himself the victim of a witch hunt, he is accurate.
While his evangelical Christian supporters would label such efforts satanic, they are not so different from petitionary prayer, or the Horatio Alger climb, or the manipulations long practiced by women, minorities, anyone without official power. We all use a little cunning to get what we want, whether it takes the form of a magic potion, a boardroom power play, or skillful flattery. Merriam-Webster’s definition of “charm” begins with “a. the chanting or reciting of a magical spell” and “b. a practice or expression believed to have magical power,” then moves to “something worn about the person to ward off evil or ensure good fortune” before reaching, third, “a trait that fascinates, allures, or delights.” These definitions are not so different, either. We recite, or wear, whatever might increase our powers. In his recent book Toil & Trouble, Augusten Burroughs comes out as a witch. It all started when he was eight, headed home on the school bus, and suddenly consumed by the certainty that something awful has happened to his grandmother. He jumps off the bus and runs inside, and his mom says his grandmother had a car accident and is in hospital. “Mom? How did I know?” wee Augusten asks, whereupon his mother informs him that many of his ancestors were witches and begins tutoring him in magick.
“We can’t do anything that’s impossible,” he learns. “But we can do many things that people believe are impossible. When something is hanging in the balance, as they say, we can add more … sort of molecular weight on the side of the outcome we desire.”
St. Martin’s Press describes the book as Burroughs’s effort “to reconcile the powers he can wield with things with which he is helpless.” Toil & Trouble reads like a potion, full of glee and bitterness, earthy wisdom, galling unfairness, mischief, and seduction. But below that spooky surface, it is all about love, and the home he makes with his partner, and the trust between them.
Magic can be awfully mundane.
The curse-banishing ritual used everyday stuff—salt, water, oil, herbs, candles—and though it was warm and kind and filled with good intention, it offered only temporary relief. Loneliness does not lift so easily. The Pentagon did not budge, either. Trump is still—for now—the president. But once you have done everything else you can think to do to shift the “molecular weight,” you have only three choices: resign yourself to the unbearable, lose your mind, or cast a spell.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.