Early American Witches: Happiness
By Cathy Hartt, RN, CNM, MS
Women ruminate more than men. Women get depression more than men. In 2004,
we know these two female attributes are linked. Why women ruminate more is still in
question - perhaps because we feared abandonment (loss of food/income) more at
earlier times in our development. When crisis happens to a woman she is more
likely to mentally play out the negative scenarios over and over, perhaps in an
attempt to understand how to better protect herself in the future. Unfortunately,
ruminating is much more likely to lead to depression. Men, on the other hand, tend
to take action and are less likely to experience depression.
Women are generally no more likely to be pessimistic than men. But what would
happen in a culture that, like Puritan New England, believed women were weaker
(body and soul) than men? What if women of this era were just beginning to
become church members, and therefore just starting to understand salvation vs.
damnation? And what if the church of that day and age created a pessimistic
culture through its own doctrine? Christ, according to some prominent preachers of
New England, had died for a select few.
“Heaven is large, but the way to heaven must be narrow,” retorted one preacher.
Another said, “There is the most narrow way of God’s commandments, but there is
but one way or gate into this happiness, it is narrow and a little gate, . . . And if you
miss the gate, you loose all your labor and shall never come to salvation.”
Pessimism involves taking the view that the negative events in life are permanent,
pervasive (impact all areas a person‘s existence) and are to blame on the self. The
contemporary author of Leaned Optimism, Martin Seligman, went out and rated the
political speeches from various elections based on scores rating the presence of
optimism (and pessimism) and could “predict” the winners at very high rates.
Optimistic people, he found, get elected more often. Optimists see negative events
as temporary, local (limited to one instance) and not the fault of the self. People
want to follow optimists, it seems.
The literature supports that there was some optimism in religious teachings of the
Puritans. There were some views that, indeed, gave hope and joy. But the bulk
seemed to reflect a more pessimistic view of life and after life. In the above quote,
we hear that “If you miss the gate” (blame of the self), “you will loose all your labor”
(pervasive) “and will never come to salvation” (permanent). Or, “Though thy good
works are not perfectly good and cannot save thee, yet thy bad works are perfectly
naught and will condemn thee.” In other words, the good is local, temporary and
does nothing to indicate that you can achieve salvation. The bad is permanent,
pervasive and indicates that you have not followed that path. If you are the weaker
of the sexes, you are (genetically) more likely to miss the gate.
It would be interesting to know who among the Salem girls (the accusers) were
influenced by this pessimism. It is believed that their accusations were born of a
mixture of guilt and jealousy. These two emotions may have sprung from a fear that
the girls did not believe they were worthy enough to achieve salvation, so they
“named” those who outranked them in some way.
Pessimists are more likely to suffer anxiety and depression. In 2004, we also have
clear, compelling evidence to support that fact. So what would happen if the women
of Salem internalized the pessimism? We could speculate that they would be more
likely to be depressed. We could also speculate that they would be more likely to
ruminate about their situation, creating yet more depression and pessimism. If this
were true, then the accusations and confessions of the Salem citizens would surely
reflect this gender difference.
And they do. Research indicates that the men’s accusations of witchcraft centered
on specific instances, such as cows made sick or pigs set loose. Women were more
likely to see specters of the bewitched woman - meaning the woman’s entire soul
was evil and, thus, the accused was capable of entering a pact with the Devil.
Women making confessions were also more likely to interpret their own sins (even
ordinary ones) as being a sign of their own soul’s pact with the Devil. Men focused
confession on specific sins, such as breaking a Sabbath.
It is impossible to know if the pessimism that we can detect in some of the minister’s
words lead to the women having pessimistic responses more so than men. It does
seem that they would have to ruminate more about “a witch” to see specters floating
around - the specters are most likely the creation of an anxious mind. According to
the author of Damned Women, Elizabeth Reis, women saw their identities more
aligned with the “most pessimistic” religious views of the time. Men tended to see
the wickedness they were accused of as temporary, local (one event) and outside
himself - the more optimistic perspective.
I will conclude this, our last column in this series on the Salem witch-hunts, by saying
that it is quite possible to see Salem as a pessimistic culture. Depression and
ruminations could have lead to the creation of spectral evidence. Adding to this the
fact that people seem to vote more often for optimists (in modern day elections), this
pessimistic female view may have caused the women to be less likely to be acquitted
by the court than the more optimistic male. This, in turn, would reinforce the
stereotype about women being the weaker gender (body and soul) - a self-fulfilling
prophecy. One wonders what would have happened to history if, instead of ergot,
Prozac or Zoloft had contaminated the rye grain. (end)
Salem's Narrow Gate to
Pearl Lake State Park