Magical Thinking in the Trump Era
by Lara Williams
On 24 February 2017, Lana Del Rey announced that she had plans to cast a hex on Donald Trump: “ingredients can b found online,” she wrote on Twitter. And they can, as posted by a member of an online witch community dedicated to casting a monthly hex on the president to correspond with the waning crescent moon. “Why not?” Del Rey replied, when asked about it some months later. “I do a lot of shit.” Witchcraft has been a strange trope of the resistance to Trump’s presidency. During the Women’s March, there was a witch presence with women cloaked in heavy black attire bearing signs stating 'Witches Against White Supremacy' and 'Hex The Patriarchy'. Broad City, which appeared to be struggling to find the vocabulary to address the nascent presidency, and what it means for young women, recently ran an episode entitled Witches that revealed Ilana (one of the show’s leads) hadn’t orgasmed since the inauguration. The b-plot posited witches representing an externalisation of women ageing, their acquiring of knowledge and power – standing up for themselves. “Witches aren’t monsters,” as Ilana, tells her best friend Abbi. “They’re just women. Everyone wants to kill them because they’re jealous.”
That Del Rey has dallied with the occult is perhaps not surprising – she looks like a woman enjoying the spoils of a satanic pact, while also seeming the eternal teenager: exhaling and playing records in her bedroom, all languor and blues. She looks capable of a tantrum. It feels like she gets a lot of crushes. I am a bit obsessed with her. She makes me think of Helen in Howards End, running from Queen’s Hall overwhelmed by Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, shouting “Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness!” – sad and spoiled, beautiful and clever, and kind of making everything about herself, y’know? Her sadness seems so particular and so performed; turning away a plate of food only to creep back to the fridge later. Yet it also feels entirely authentic: a woman who (seemingly) has it all, but is still not happy. She embodies an idiosyncratic female melancholy; one that crests at adolescence then settles into a perpetual drone.
Teenage girls and witchcraft have form. A magical and ethereal quality is often tethered to emerging female sexuality. There is actual research positing that phenomenology associated with poltergeist activity (such as spontaneous burning and the movement of objects) could be prompted by brain transformations in pubescent girls. The research is clearly absurd, but speaks to the terrible power we contrive of young girls. Robert Egger’s 2015 film, The Witch, focuses on a 17th century family’s anxieties about their daughter Thomasin’s coming of age, which manifests as a belief that she is practising dark magic; her brother is seemingly attracted to her while her mother has replacement paranoia. Carefully straddling the line between reality and projection, Thomasin is an image of wide-eyed innocence with only the briefest flashes of devilry, and still, cunning and trickery are tethered to her changing body. Are the two youngest children really cursed by her as they claim, or revelling in familial hysteria? Is Thomasin milking blood from the goat, or seeing things as, increasingly persecuted, she loses her grip on reality? The mischief is eventually revealed to be the apparent workings of the demonic goat, Black Phillips. “Do you want to live deliciously?” he asks Thomasin at the end. “Do you want to see the world?” Who could say no? He implores her to sign his book, which she does, before following him naked to the woods to join a coven of witches dancing around the fire under pale moonlight. It’s all projection, until it isn’t.
I went through a witchcraft phase as a mopey teen and improbably bonded with one of the popular girls at my school over our shared interest. I’d seen The Craft and wanted to look like Christina Ricci. I’m not certain what her motivations were, but I have a feeling they were more complicated than mine. We checked out books on wicca and paganism from the library; did stupid spells, light as a feather, stiff as a board etc. It was sort of a goth thing, but also – I think I a little bit believed magic might work? Despite not wanting for anything in any fundamental or romantic sense, wanting and an unnameable yearning are the feelings I associate with that time. I wanted in an abstract, nebulous sense – as teenage girls are wont to – but also understood wanting was viewed as sort of shameful. When researching an article on anorexia, which mostly presents in teenage girls, it didn’t surprise me to be reminded that the word comes from the Greek for longing. To engage with the idea of magic is to assert that the fabric of things is not to your liking. It is kind of insane – but sort of hopeful, too.
A few years ago, I tried managing my anxiety by taking up high board diving. I thought there might be a poignancy to it: throwing myself from a height, in the knowledge that if I held myself in the right way, the smash of the water wouldn’t hurt. I also thought: well now I will have something to do on Sundays. I was the only woman in my group and felt self-conscious in my swimsuit. Everytime I hit the water the straps would be dragged from my shoulders and I’d have to wriggle back into the thing while hidden at the bottom of the pool. The instructor said I was good and got me to demonstrate my tuck dive for the group. After a while, my arms began hurting from repeatedly hauling myself out of the water. I was covered in bruises from where my unruly limbs slapped the surface. I told myself it was helping with my anxiety, and in a way it was. There was no link between diving and anxiety, obviously, but I felt if I squinted hard enough I could join the dots: anxiety makes me capable of all kinds of magical thinking. I had to take a break when we were told not to come back for a couple of months as there was problem with the structural integrity of the board. As a metaphor, it is a little on the nose. I did not return.
I thought about this kind of magical thinking a few months ago when writing a piece on the growing popularity of healing crystals, particularly among young women. Most of the women used crystals to treat their anxiety. They all possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of crystals, their respective properties, how they should be used and cleansed and so on. They had this odd agnostic defiance: they’d tell me which crystals correspond with which chakras, all the while stating they knew there was probably not much to it, like: “I dare you to tell me I’m being ridiculous”. And I got it. It felt exciting and transgressive to hear these claims. I bought a piece of rose quartz almost immediately upon finishing the piece.
There can be a certain macho posturing in demanding logic and evidence; the crystals as anti-scientism totems perhaps – rallying against the needless application of science and evidence based facts where none are required. A long time ago, I had an argument with a male friend who’d assumed a devil’s advocate position, interrogating why it is generally held that pubescent girls aren’t ready to have sex. I struggled to put my feelings into words, offering knowledge of obstetric fistula – damage to the tissues surrounding the bladder and rectum – presenting frequently in child brides: their bodies not yet developed for sex, pregnancy or childbirth. Satisfied with my presentation of data, of fact – I’d “won”; but felt wretched and sick that I’d collaborated in this kind of intellectual gymnastics, over a subject where it is fine and valid to feel sad, to feel frightened and anxious, without having to provide empirical evidence. And while I recognise the dangers of blindly trusting your gut, of following instincts without questioning them – there is a kind of confidence and liberation on doing so.
In her book, Witches of America, journalist Alex Mar seeks to define witchcraft – is it a faith? a lifestyle? a practice? – and to be convinced of the existence of magic. “I believe in something transcendent,” she says of her interest in spirituality, “but I’ve yet to meet someone with a convincing label for it.” She travels the states, spends time with a Feri Priestess and attends a Gnostic Mass; she participates in Samhain rituals; goes to a Pagan dance party. She is both fascinated and finds abject what she witnesses, countering her interest in the subject with insistences that she finds herself “embarrassed” and “ridiculous” an awful lot. But she is repeatedly drawn back. Before writing Witches of America, she made the documentary American Mystic about fringe spiritual communities in the US. Again, immersing herself in societies far removed from her own in the hope of acquiring some meaning. It is perhaps because of this that both the book and documentary have been accused of spiritual tourism and cultural appropriation. Mar’s early statement “I envy them, the believers,” has a nasty air of condescension: those silly, simple, spiritual folk.
This distancing strategy feels more poignant when considering the broader, mass scale appropriation of what might have once been deemed new age spiritualities: engaging exclusively with the visual culture of what are essentially faiths and religions; the commercialisation of superficial aberrations of traditional practices; a curatorial approach in picking and choosing what best fits with your lifestyle brand. Cultural appropriation speaks of more privileged groups exploiting the culture of less privileged groups: borrowing symbols and traditions with little understanding of their original context. Gwyneth Paltrow selling an ‘Energy Clearing Kit’, featuring a feather fan with roots in Native American culture, a stick of Palo Santo with roots in South American tradition, and a healing stone with roots in Russian Shamanism, for $195.00 on her website Goop – is gross and a problem. Considering representations of witchcraft and its visual cultures, it seems to be mostly white: engaging with these spiritualities, symbolic of an exclusive and rarefied mode of white feminism.
At the end of Witches of America, Mar concedes she is no more or less enlightened on what and what does not possess meaning instead labelling the practices she encounters as “strategies for staying alive.” She expands: “some are just more elaborate and inexplicable than others.” And during this current moment, it is perhaps unsurprising young women are identifying strategies that are not based on logic or reason, because logic and reason can feel so flimsy – like something we have little stake in maintaining. Looking at spell books online, I found one called The Teen Spell Book, illustrated with pictures of “magical creatures and enchanted nature” and containing, among other things, spells for banishing sexual harassment. One of the most talked about books of the year, Naomi Alderman’s The Power, imagines a future in which girls and women acquire the ability to dispatch electrical jolts from their fingers – to will pain on men and to become the dominant gender. In talking about endemic and systematic sexual harassment and abuse, I don’t want to have to cite statistics. And I wonder why men are surprised to hear our stories. It can feel exhausting, this fight; might as well pour your faith into a translucent pink rock.
A few months into our dallying with teenage witchcraft, the popular girl and me were dragged into our teacher’s office. He told us (with some gravity) that we shouldn’t “mess with that stuff.” A few months ago, I went home and found a cardboard box filled with personal effects from around that time. It contained a Cartman keyring, a bunch of Now That’s What I Call Music cassettes and a single printed card: a love spell. “The witchcraft phase” my mum said gravely, watching me catalogue the items. “I was so worried about you.” It seems absurd: actual adults were made nervous by our fabric bound books, our painted black nails, our sleepovers watching The Craft – and I wonder why, still.
Lara Williams' debut short story collection, Treats (UK) / A Selfie As Big As The Ritz (USA), is available in all good book stores.
Photograph by Lana Del Rey, Lust for Life (2017)