Self-execution for witches

by Mary Krane Derr

Mary Krane Derr's writing has appeared in small press and alternative magazines and bioethics anthologies. Born with hip dysplasia and diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, fibromyalgia and manic-depressive disorder, she aspires to be one hell of an old woman.

I am distressed when feminists uncritically accept--even insist upon--the dangerously superficial, forgetful position that assisted suicide is primarily a matter of personal liberty.

One such feminist was the late Janet Good--who, sadly, is better remembered for her role as Jack Kevorkian's tirelessly devoted circus assistant than for her pioneering efforts to outlaw sexual harassment. Good proclaimed assisted suicide a "new suffrage" letting women "take charge of their bodies."

On Women's Equality Day, 1997, the very day she had been scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement award from the National Organization for Women, the ailing 73-year-old killed herself in Kevorkian's presence. According to a praise-filled obituary from the Feminist Majority Foundation, Good's timing of her death was meant to tell the world of the joy she derived from feminism. Kevorkian remarked afterwards: "Janet exemplified the best in women." Meaning that the best in sick, aging women is their wish to kill themselves and others like them?

The stated reason for Good's suicide was "pancreatic cancer." Yet even after an autopsy showed no remaining signs of terminal disease, did anyone wonder out loud if Good had been depressed? Women are vulnerable to this mood disorder because they are already thoroughly socialized to hate themselves--especially if they are not young and healthy. Depression frequently goes undiagnosed and untreated among the marginalized. An individual may not even recognize it in herself--especially if she has adopted an active, caretaking demeanor to stave off the excruciatingly intense feelings of helplessness and failure which are so much a part of the illness. When these feelings cannot be held at bay, she may turn an overwhelming, even lethal rage against herself and sometimes against others she perceives as similarly "weak" or "out-of-control."

Good had experienced several family stresses of a sort to trigger or worsen depression. Just months before her suicide, her husband had open-heart surgery--around the same time her daughter died suddenly of a heart attack. This daughter had said that she could not stand the idea of "my invincible mother" getting sick and dying. Perhaps these concurrent griefs tore open an earlier wound of Good's--a wound which may have never closed up in the first place.

Good had become an assisted-suicide activist after her own mother's illness and death in the 1970s. Good found it intolerable to watch "what [sic] had been a healthy, feisty woman languish . . . and I knew she would've hated living that way." Several times, she acknowledged, she had planned to administer lethal drugs to her mother, but was unable to carry out the plan.

When Good herself was diagnosed with a terminal illness, she told friends and reporters she might turn to Kevorkian rather than die as her mother had.

What might lie behind the brave, even celebratory, feminist face put on suicides like Good's? Could it be the ancient and not entirely discredited belief that impaired, aging or otherwise "deviant" women are evil criminals to be purged from our midst through the death penalty--a belief so pervasive and enduring in our culture that even professed feminists wield it against themselves?

Consider the never-subtle Kevorkian's term for assisted suicide: "self-execution." Consider how the vast majority of his "self-executors" have been impaired women past their so-called primes--including Loretta Peabody, whom Good helped to kill. Peabody, a homemaker in her fifties, had lived with multiple sclerosis for 27 years. A scant three months after her death, her husband married a woman with whom he had allegedly been having an affair for some time.

Ostensibly, all of Kevorkian's "patients" consented to their own killings. But what does "consent" mean for someone grappling with pressures--internal or external-- to regard herself as undesirable, worthless, expendable? Consider in this context the ancient rationalization for male sexual coercion: "She asked for it. She wanted it." Consider, too, how our culture --despite all the hard-won gains of feminism--still punishes any woman who does not "measure up" to rigidly prescribed roles. Then it lays all the blame squarely on her.

We even have a legacy of killing "deviant" and "troublesome" women. To those who say, "it can never happen here," I respond: "it already has."


It happened in my own family tree. The incident is recounted in Carol F. Karlsen's "The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England" (Vintage, 1987). In 1688, the Godwin family, well-off Puritan relatives of mine, accused their washerwoman's mother of witchcraft, after a dispute over missing linens.

Karlsen says "there was no more suitable witch" than Mary Glover. Not only was she an Irish Catholic who knew little English, she was an aged and poor widow--someone literally thought to have outlived her usefulness. No one protested her hanging.

As Karlsen documents, witch persecutions were directed principally at women--especially those who were aging, branded as troublemakers, and/or connected to disability in some way. Any "excrescence of flesh" or unusual mark on a woman's body might be identified as a teat she used to suckle the Devil or her animal familiars. If a woman gave birth to a disabled baby--commonly known as a "monster"--she was often thought to have conceived the child through sex with Satan himself.

In "Woman, Church and State" (Charles Kerr, 1893), the pioneering feminist scholar/activist Matilda Joslyn Gage noted that witch killings--contrary to their intended purpose--deprived the community of inestimably valuable persons. Wicca, the original term for witch, meant wise woman or healer. Gage herself was definitely a witch in that sense. Barred from medical school because of her sex, Gage turned her powerful intelligence to fearless advocacy of women, laborers, Native Americans and other oppressed groups. Perhaps Gage's compassion stemmed from her chronic health problems, including impaired vision. Is it any wonder she was deliberately written out of history?

In escaping literal execution, Gage was definitely beating the odds. As she herself estimated, over nine million persons in Europe and the Americas were executed for witchcraft--most of them women, and certain kinds of women at that. Gage found that advancing age, healing skills, "strong intellect" or "unusual sickness" were especially suspect qualities in women. "Men believing in women's inherent wickedness, and understanding neither the mental not the physical peculiarities of her being, ascribed all her idiosyncrasies to witchcraft."

Gage linked Martin Luther's statement "I would have no compassion for a witch; I would burn them all" to his view that disabled persons are "possessed of demons." She recounted "his attempt to drown an afflicted child in whom he declared no soul existed, its body being animated by the devil alone." She praised "a magistrate more enlightened or more humane than the great reformer" who "interfered to save the child's life." Luther, she felt, would consider community supports for disabled persons insane.

Gage also located the "intense hatred" of old women in the teaching that she was created solely for man's sensual use. Thus when she no longer attracted the sensual admiration of man, he regarded her as having forfeited all right to life." Rather than receiving "the tenderness and care due" them, elderly women "were so frequently accused of witchcraft that for years it was an unusual thing for an old woman in the north of Europe to die in her bed. Besides the thousands of accused who committed suicide in order to escape the horrors incident upon trial, many others tired of life amid so much humiliation and suffering, falsely accused themselves, preferring a death by the torture of fire to a life of endless isolation and persecution."


Have we truly healed from this legacy of violence? I recently visited Salem, Massachusetts, site of the most notorious colonial witchcraft trials. The executions were either portrayed as titillating, overblown carnival horrors, or rendered into something "cute"--like the row of smiling chocolate witch lollipops I found in a candy store. Were they smiling because they asked for it?

Gage once thundered against the "diabolical custom" of making witch executions "a holiday spectacle. People thus grew to look unmoved upon the most atrocious of tortures." Our culture may not sacrifice its witches to exactly the same gods as the Puritans did--but we are still sacrificing them, and looking unmoved upon the spectacle. I am speaking here both of "self- executions" and their root cause: our culture's shameful, punitive treatment of the disabled, the aged, and the dissident--especially women.


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