So this one time in middle school I was waterboarded. I was being forced to participate in one of those terribly ineffective car-washing fundraisers at my prep school summer day camp (where workaholic rich people leave their kids during school breaks) and a pack of high school boys decided it would be loads of fun to pin me to the ground by my arms and legs and dump buckets of water and containers of soap over my face while I sputtered and choked. We didn’t yet have Facebook to occupy us, you see.
It probably says something about my subsequent life experiences and character development (whatever that is) that I can look back on my childhood (particularly in light of all of the hoo-ha about online bullying) and sort of chuckle about this (admittedly, drink in hand). Ah, youth. I bring it up here because there’s often a lot of discussion about whether or not witchcraft is a platform for the marginalized to construct an identity that garners some kind of social capital. Many of us are very invested in demonstrating that WITCHES ARE JUST LIKE REGULAR PEOPLE, JEEZ GUYS. We get pissed when Fox News calls us out on our Dungeons & Dragons campaigning, or when school counselors worry that we’re just socially retarded, or when the military doesn’t respect us, or when people assume that we’ve just watched too much Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We practice witchcraft because we need to feel like we have some control, like we’re special. That’s what people say. And then the Community freaks out and we have to parade out our most normal-looking members as evidence that WE’RE JUST LIKE YOU LOOK AT OUR SENSIBLE SLACKS AND COLLEGE DEGREES.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the past occupying that camp myself. But lately I’ve been evaluating my own life and thinking, “No, actually I think maybe we are witches because we’re freaks.” I think it’s too easy to make arguments about marginalization (there seems to be more agency implied than I’m comfortable with), and I’m not prepared to make sweeping statements about entire groups of people, but I am prepared to say that witchcraft has given me a place and a voice that I wouldn’t have otherwise. (Thanks for the insight, I.M. Lewis et al.) I don’t think I would be a witch were it not for the alienating experiences I had growing up and subsequent marginalization endured as an adult. I also think that it’s those experiences of marginality that lend power to my witchcraft. I could not do what I do if I were overly concerned with fitting in with more conventional social groups. Being an outsider (in particular contexts, obviously) gives me the space to experiment. If people don’t like you anyway, why not engage in magical practices that involve draping yourself in dead animal parts and smelly ointments?
Lots of people calling themselves “traditional witches” (and we could say loads here about social capital and constructions of authenticity) complain about the “whitewashing” of witchcraft, blaming it on Wicca (which is not “real witchcraft”), Neo-Paganism, the New Age, etc. And while I think there are some pretty hilarious flaws in most of these folks’ individual arguments, I agree with the overall sentiment. The figure of the witch is different depending on time and place (I’m being very broad here), but one thing that’s fairly consistent is this: the witch is not someone you should want to hang out with. And I think there’s still something to that.
And now I must pet Oliver.