Saturday, October 31, 2015

Girls Will Be Girls

The local paper interviews Katherine Howe, the "best-selling author and also an expert on the Salem witch trials, which took place in Massachusetts in the late 17th century" who "draws a closer-to-home parallel to the witch trials through the mass psychogenic illness among young women a few years ago that took place in Le Roy, New York" — Cornell lecturer offers insight on Salem witch trials.
    The people would ask me about the afflicted girls all the time. A few years ago there was a strange illness that happened in Le Roy, New York, which is about an hour away from us. A group of teenage girls got really strangely sick and they were having vocal tics and weird tremors and they went through all these different interpretations of what was wrong with them. Erin Brockovich came out to see if it was caused by pollution and everyone was hand-wringing that it was caused by Gardasil. … Then they kind of came out with what the answer was, and that was that it was conversion disorder, which is when your body is under so much stress, your body converts it into physical symptoms, and when it happens in a large group as it did in Le Roy, it is called mass psychogenic illness. So essentially there was a hysteria outbreak in upstate New York while I was freshly moved there.

    It got me thinking about, what is unique to this experience of being a teenage girl, what makes that such a specifically difficult condition of life? It got me thinking about parallels between that experience in the present and that experience in the past. So that gave rise to my novel, “Conversion.”


    I look back to the girls in Le Roy, too. People were hoping it was a reaction to a vaccine because if it is, all you have to do is stop using the vaccine – and fixed! Presto! And it’s much scarier to think that for the girls in Le Roy what was wrong with them was their lives. Their lives were what was wrong with them. And that is a totally intractable and physical problem. And what was wrong with the people in Salem was their lives as well. I think that’s a bigger and more scary conclusion. It also means we can’t relegate it safely to the past because the other thing the ergotism hypothesis does, is it lets us in the present feel really smug and secure, to be like, "that will never happen to us. We have modern technology, we know how to clean things. We’re smarter than them." Oftentimes when we talk about Salem, there’s this present-ist bias in which we look to people in the past and think that they were so stupid for holding these beliefs, how could they have possibly thought that way. I have a real problem with that kind of interpretation because the people in the past were educated and thoughtful, decent human beings. They just had a limited set of tools that were historically circumscribed and you know what, so are we.

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