The Witches are Coming
Allen & Unwin
In 1486, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger wrote Malleus Maleficarum, or, the Witches Hammer. The highly misogynistic book was widely regarded to be the standard handbook on witchcraft into the 18th century. In it, they gave a mandate for the hunting of witches by arguing virulently that witches are almost invariably women, describing, in detail, their “inherent evil nature,” their inferiority to men, and, drawing on Adam and Eve, their very existence as animalistic and unfinished.
The witch hunts that continued in Europe from the 14th-16th century overwhelmingly convicted women over men, at a rate of up to 80%. Many of these women were widows, who had nobody to defend them. Women were often burned or tied up and flung into the river – if she floated she was guilty and, if she sank, innocent.
The witch hunts of that era were characterised by scapegoating and unjust decisions, borne from irrational fear and a culture of feverish suspicion. Yet they were also an exercise of the powerful over the powerless. Who was demonised? Overwhelmingly, women – the marginalised. Poor women, old women, widowed women, disabled women.
Fast forward to 2019, and the term “witch hunt” has been appropriated from the persecution of the marginalised to the outrage of the powerful, in order to dismiss complaints of wrongdoing and condemn accountability and due legal process as somehow fundamentally unfair. It is no coincidence that Donald Trump has tweeted “witch hunt” nearly 300 times since becoming President, and an average of 1.3 times a day when the Ukraine scandal broke.
Here enters Lindy West, and her equal parts funny, empowering and moving group of essays, The Witches are Coming. In it, West reclaims the demonising labelling of women as witches, arguing – in response to Trumps desperate rally cry of “witch hunt,” that “we have to be the witches they’ve always said we are, and counter their magic with our own.” If they want to call us witches, then fine, West urges, we are witches. And we’re hunting you.
Lindy Wests last book, Shrill, a memoir on feminism, body positivity and being a “loud woman,” rocketed to the New York Times bestseller list and has since been adapted to a television series with Aidy Bryant – now airing on SBS Viceland and On Demand. Her latest book certainly lives up to its predecessor, though this time, West is focusing her attention on the #MeToo movement and its aftermath in American society.
#MeToo ricocheted across the globe in 2017, and yet West is interested in interrogating its aftermath – a new global order that many men are threatened by. With hilarious, biting observation, West urges Americans to face the truth, whether unpacking memes, Adam Sandler’s films or our weird obsession with serial killers, even if the truth is uncomfortable or awkward to handle.
Yet although #MeToo and the feminist movement is the primary focus in The Witches are Coming, West, in her later essays, also looks at protest movements more broadly in a moving testament to the future generation of adolescents and young people.
Climate change, West acknowledges, is an unprecedented test for global society, and, right now, particularly in the context of Trumps presidency, our governments are losing. In her beautiful essay “The World is Good and Worth Fighting For,” West urges the reader “Do not despair. Despair is the death of action. Go, act, fight.”
Some books draw you in with a gripping story, some move you with beautiful prose, and some make you fundamentally rethink the way you view the world, and inspire you to act, to make a difference. West’s book does the latter.
Though it is a polarising, threatening time to live in America and, indeed, much of the world, Wests book does not feel gloomy or hopeless. Rather, it is filled with optimism and a renewed sense of fight – for a better world, for justice, for true equality, for change.
West looks back, at the end of The Witches are Coming, to the 1990s, a time when activism and caring for the environment was viewed as narcissistic and ineffectual, regularly turned into a cliché in high school films like Clueless (West points the reader to a young Paul Rudd, announcing behind his designer sunglasses “I’m going to a Tree People meeting. We’re trying to get Marky Mark to plant a celebrity tree.”)
Yet activism today is a 16-year-old girl speaking at the UN, and encouraging over 100 countries to participate in a school strike for climate change. Activism today is, West argues, natural to young people, who are not afraid of sincerity, who are attending every protest, who are emboldened by politics, not apathetic.
“Young people are here and strong and smart and fierce,” West writes, “and they do not intend to die. They are artists and scientists and leaders, and we have to show up and fight for them, and with them, every day until we die. It is not their job to save us – we are the parents – but they may inspire us to help them save themselves. I feel afraid in this moment,” West reasons, “but I do not feel hopeless.”