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The witch

Or: On finding new lenses through which to see the world

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Emily VanDerWerff

Jul 28 2020

20 min read

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For a time in my 20s, I thought there was a way to explain everything through cold, hard, rational data. The scientific method, I surmised, could eventually find a way to solve for the universe if it just tried hard enough. No feelings, just facts. Just carefully collated and collected data.

I fell away from that idea in my 30s. A big reason for this was because most of the people I ran into who insisted that better experiments could eventually solve everything were giant dicks. But an even bigger reason stemmed from the fact that I was a trans woman, and trans women understand, intimately, the ways in which “science” is politicized in ways that are meant to control our bodies.

I don’t mean this strictly in the Ben Shapiro “facts don’t care about your feelings” crowd either, though they have taken a couple of things they learned in high school biology to radical degrees. No, what I mean is that every so often, some scientist or another gets it in their head to figure out what makes me tick. This is usually presented in the form of a thought experiment. If we could just figure out a way to make a pill that would make me cis, would make me comfortable as a man, wouldn’t that be preferable to transition, which is all agony and pain? But there are active attempts to research the ways trans people’s brains work, to find out where gender dysphoria lives so that we might “cure” it.

I don’t discourage this. It’s useful to better understand the ways in which trans existences are hard-coded into our DNA (as I believe they must be). I would certainly love some data I could wave in front of the face of everyone who insists “biology” is immutable, even though humans futz with their biology all the time.

But also: What if I go to get a scan, and the scan tells me that I’m “not” trans? What then? And it’s not so very hard to imagine ways in which this data could be manipulated to create something very akin to eugenics — a forced detransition for everybody who didn’t meet the standards.

I don’t think this is likely, but this kind of gatekeeping haunts trans people constantly. Up until very recently, the process by which we could obtain the hormones and surgeries some of us require to live our fullest lives involved lots and lots of jumping through hoops to appease cis people, mostly in the medical community but also in the halls of power. Trans people were often asked to live two years as themselves before they could get access to hormones. So where you might see “a brain scan that proves you’re trans” as a good thing, on the whole, I see every potential for some sort of Orwellian nightmare.

Or imagine if that pill from the thought experiment existed. “Fixing” my gender dysphoria would never be so easy as flipping a switch in my brain. I grew up among men, but I struggled to understand them because I wasn’t one. You can’t just make me a man by giving me a pill. You’ll, instead, make me an automaton. Why this parlor game? Why this thought experiment? What do we gain from asking what is to be done about trans people without actually consulting trans people?

My transition has not been agony or pain. It has been quite wonderful. There are times when terrible things happen, yes, but there are also times filled with such joy that I can barely stand it. I know both what it is to love and to be loved now, and to believe, however haltingly, that both things are possible. I did not know that until I was in my late 30s, but what a gift to have it now. How could anyone dare to take that away, either via scientific advancement or the uncaring bureaucracy of science applied not with precision but unilaterally, to fulfill a political project?

Science and data are useful tools through which we can begin to decode the inner workings of the universe. But they are only that — tools. At the end of the day, how we use them is just as important as the fact that we can.

In early July, I found myself the subject of a Twitter mob. Death threats, misgenderings — you name it, I got it. At the core of the mob’s gripes with me were an insistence that they understood my motivations better than I did. When I said I was receiving death threats, they asked not what they could do but for evidence. They expressed not sympathy but skepticism.

Now, as anybody who has any experience with online harassment will tell you, the ways in which it expresses itself are notoriously tricky to pin down and define. Those death threats often existed just long enough for me to see them before they are deleted. They arrive via Twitter DM and Facebook messenger. For some reason, the straw that broke the camel’s back and caused me to express how horribly I felt to the world was a particularly detailed Instagram DM on how I might die by suicide. I later learned just how hard it is to shut off Instagram DMs so only your friends can contact you. It’s a massive harassment loophole, living on a platform we tend to think of as fairly anodyne.

And anyway, when you’re in the thick of something like this, you are not thinking rationally. Your brain is just trying to protect you from the anger and hate. You delete and delete and delete, and you don’t once think about how you might need to take screenshots to document what’s happening, in case you need to go to the police or something. That, I’m told, happens the third or fourth time you’re harassed.

What truly made me feel like I was losing it was the ways in which I was doubted at every step of the process. I was being seen not as myself but as my inverse. The things I said were not the things I said. They were, instead, their opposite because [fill in the blank]. No matter what I said, no matter what I did, I could not prove to these people that I absolutely and completely meant what I said, not what they thought I meant. It was only rational not to take me at my word, but to parse those words for hidden meanings.

The mob caused me to doubt my own self. Maybe I really had meant something different from what I had said. Maybe I had made everything up. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought, despite the ways in which I couldn’t (still can’t) sleep. My friends reassured me, over and over again, that it happened, but our brains can only take so much. We are simply not built to grasp the magnitude of the hurricane until we are in it. I knew my friends wouldn’t lie to me; I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t lie to myself. After all, these people (mostly men, but sometimes women and people on the non-binary spectrum) spoke so calmly, with great detachment, while I was going through paroxysms of anxiety, of anger, of fear. I was a bundle of raw nerves; they were rational thinkers.

Except no. What happened to me happened. What I said was what I meant. I am not an equation to be solved. I know who I am and what I mean.

Rationalism is not any different from any other belief system, see. It is a lens through which some people choose to interpret the world, and it has the same comfort of fundamentalist Christianity. If we can simply find a way to solve every possible conundrum you could have, we can better discover how to put those issues in tiny little boxes and file them away in places where they are no longer inconvenient. If I deserved what happened to me on some level, if I brought it down upon myself, even if it was regrettable, even if it was criminal, then it could be safely filed away under “well, both sides do it.”

I decided to leave Twitter in the wake of the harassment. I lurked for a while, occasionally promoting articles I had written or new episodes of my podcast. But every time I looked at it, I felt a shiver of dread. So when I went on a vacation that turned out to be accidentally well-timed, my editor (one of my best friends in the universe) changed my password so I couldn’t log in or tweet. She agreed to send a few promotional tweets. And I left.

For the first 24 hours, I felt like I was missing a limb. In quarantine, my addiction to Twitter had grown truly horrible, and going cold turkey was as hard as quitting any addictive substance. Then I discovered witchcraft.

In the days following the mob, I had gotten vaguely into tarot card readings. I didn’t put stake in their predictive power, because I don’t believe the future is knowable. But I found them a fascinating way to unpack some of the corners of my brain I didn’t always want to look at. My writer brain became fascinated by how every card — nearly 80 of them! — had a meaning, a figure, an archetype associated with it.

Friends offered me readings that seemed to suggest inner turmoil, or maybe I thought they suggested inner turmoil because I was going through a lot of inner turmoil. The cards were not acting independently to tell me mysteries. They were telling me things I already knew, in ways I found more approachable. They weren’t a key meant to unlock some hidden truth; they were a palimpsest I could lay over myself to better understand who I was.

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I also discovered all of the careful rituals surrounding tarot. My friend said I could not, under any circumstances, buy myself my first deck. It had to be a gift. So she sent me one. Now, when I am feeling stressed or anxious, I get it out and shuffle the cards endlessly, feeling the quiet riffle of cards slipping between other cards. I have never been able to shuffle cards, but almost immediately, I could shuffle these. It was as if they were an extension of myself, a better phantom limb than Twitter had ever been. Or maybe I just feel stressed or anxious a lot these days. Maybe I just got good at shuffling cards because I needed to get good at shuffling cards.

Anyway, yet another dear friend recommended a podcast to me called Between the Worlds. Hosted by an LA-based witch named Amanda Yates Garcia, the show works through the tarot deck one card at a time, with occasional pauses for other witch topics of note. My friend had recommended this podcast to me before, but I had dismissed it as silly and not worthy of my time. And when I first listened to the first handful of episodes, I found the part of my brain built to detect bullshit pinging relentlessly. This was all goofy and fake, right?

I had been told, my whole childhood, that anything that removed God from the center of existence, even slightly, was evil. Ironically, this led to me demonizing both science and occult beliefs. I couldn’t quite shake that bone-deep sense that I was doing something wrong, in the same way I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that transition was for many people but not for me before I came out. I did not allow certain doors inside of myself to open.

But I liked a podcast that was, explicitly, women talking to each other. I felt more at home hearing their voices than I did with lots of podcasts — even ones I adore — where men dominated the conversation. So I kept listening.

Then, somewhere in the middle of an episode about the Wheel of the Year, I realized that, hey, I believed in the Wheel of the Year. I believed deeply in it. It was not a magical principle or anything like that. It was an attempt to better align oneself with the passage of time and the slow turn of the seasons, something that has always been important to me, as a Los Angeles transplant who grew up in farm country, where the dramatic shift of the seasons was at the center of the small rituals we built to mark the places in which we found ourselves oriented in time.

I didn’t believe in magic — still don’t — but I believe in the idea that it is worthwhile to emotionally center ourselves within the passage of time. I can understand what time is rationally, and I can understand how it holds me prisoner. But I can never quite understand how that makes me feel, what it means to age, what it will be like to approach death someday and look it straight in the eye. Time can be understood, but it also has to be felt.

Garcia and her assortment of co-hosts say, at the beginning of each episode, that when it comes to their version of witchcraft, you can take what you want and leave the rest. To be a witch wasn’t to believe in any central tenets but to align yourself with a series of basic ideals for what the world might be. It was just another lens to layer over every other one. I could remain a Christian (which is deeply important to me) and also be a witch. They didn’t have to contradict each other. (My friend who gave me my tarot deck also said that almost all trans women dabble with being witches for at least a little while. There is a kind of magic to speaking yourself into being, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.)

Even better: Garcia’s version of witchcraft was opt-in. It didn’t require me to pass any tests or do anything but say I wanted to belong. So I decided I did. I started calling myself a witch, jokingly at first (and, honestly, in many ways I still feel like I’m joking), but then with increasing seriousness. There was a door inside of myself I had never dared open, and once I did, so many things I had always believed came spilling out, like I was locking new pieces of myself in place.

Then I went back to Twitter, and I made some tweets about what I found. “Now I am a witch!” I said with the slightly dry and ironic tone that I assume all of my tweets are read in but which they increasingly are not since they started being signed under the name “Emily.” It’s something I’m still getting used to.

Once again, people assumed they knew what I meant and made sport of my proclamations about witchery. But in this case, I wasn’t sure how serious I truly was, so I found their exasperation with me kind of funny. Haven’t we all tried on identities as an attempt to find a method of better believing in our ability to move through the world? Why would you be so mad about somebody doing such a thing, especially if it’s just a lark?

The tweet that made me roll my eyes most arrived with all the bluster of someone who felt as though they had found the central flaw in my argument, as though I hadn’t already considered such a flaw. They wrote, in response to a tweet in which I rolled my eyes at the paint spatter application all fundamentalism (including, yes, scientific fundamentalism) applies to the world:

Saying "science is real" betrays a misunderstanding of what science is, too. Science is the method which allows us to bypass the limitations of our brains when understanding the world. Saying "science is real" tells me you think of science as a set of belief, a religion basically


(Update: Rereading this in the cold light of day, I see that I may be misreading it as hostile toward me, a conclusion jumped to in the light of so many uncharitable tweets that, ironically, caused me to read this tweet with less charity than I might have typically. The tweet may be, instead, talking about people who treat science as a be-all, end-all way to win a debate — or, rather, this person more or less agrees with me. If that was the intent of the author, I apologize deeply for misrepresenting them here.)

The thing about this tweet is that I’m not interested in how it’s wrong about me — I perfectly understand the purpose and methods behind science because I have, like, read a book. I’m interested in how it’s wrong about religion.

Yes, there are a lot of religions that apply a rudimentary system of “beliefs” to the world without really thinking through what those beliefs might mean when put into practice. These religions have sown a lot of pain over the years, and I am not particularly eager to consider myself, as a believer, in league with them.

But “religion” isn’t “a system of beliefs.” It is, just like science, a “method which allows us to bypass the limitations of our brains when understanding the world.” It is another palimpsest that we can lay atop our own curiosity in an attempt to better see what might be lurking there. All belief systems are interpretive lenses designed to assuage that curiosity. If I have a question about the world around me, I can certainly utilize science to answer that question. But explaining the neurochemical reactions that might make me fall in love doesn’t explain to me how profound and beautiful falling in love can feel. It’s good to know those neurochemical reactions exist; it’s just as good to find words to use to express the kind of fragile hope a new relationship — even just a new friendship — can foster in the heart, a single flower growing in a desert.

The friendships I have formed since I came out as trans feel to me sacred on some level I cannot define. To laugh with my friend when I bump into her at the farmers’ market, to help my friend through a profound disappointment over a Zoom call, to risk pandemic exposure to give my friend a hug — the holiness I feel in those moments cannot be explained away, no matter how much you can do the math that would explain them.

I went back to church, because it felt like the one place that might help me better understand the rush of emotions I feel in those moments. I went back to church not because I expected it to tell me all about God, but because I expected it to tell me more about myself. In similar fashion, I started learning about witchcraft, because I think there is a value to looking at the systems that connect us, to understanding them beyond the raw terms of sociology or psychology or anthropology or even biochemistry. We’re all collections of cells, sure. But what cells!

Do I believe in God? I think so. But it would be more accurate to say I believe in something God-adjacent, in the love that moves the sun and the other stars, to quote Dante. There is something that exists between us, you and I, because you are reading this and inviting yourself into my brain, just a little bit. (Art is an interpretive lens, too, if you want to call this art.)

These lenses are not all built for the same tasks, but they are all built to help us understand something better. Some lenses work better for certain things than others, but we all need more than just one of them to understand the world and our place in it. To insist that there is one explanation for everything is fundamentalist thought. It is a prison, and I do not wish to go back there.

So, some nights, I get out my tarot deck, and I knock on it, and I spread some cards out in front of me. They are not evil. They are just cards. They almost never tell me anything new. Instead, they tell me what I already know I need to do but am avoiding. Prayer functions similarly. If you don’t believe in God, then prayer is just talking to yourself.

That doesn’t mean there’s no value in talking to yourself. Words spread over the empty air are still words. Cards spread out on a table before you are still cards. You are conducting your own kind of experiment, journeying deeper into yourself and figuring out what you might be hiding away until such time as you need it. Belief is not a new way of thinking; it is a new way of seeing.

A few nights after the mob descended on me, I was taking a shower, crying at the exhaustion and anxiety and fear of the days that had led up to that moment. Our shower drain is clogged, and I have yet to work up the wherewithal to unclog it. There’s been a lot going on.

A bright spot in those days had been flowers my friends had gotten me, which sat joyously throughout my apartment, reminders of the people who cared about me more than they quite knew how to express.

As I stood in the ankle-deep water at the bottom of the tub, I saw a yellow flower petal floating there, and I felt a brief, happy thrill at the thought of the love my friends bore for me joining me, however subtly, there in the shower, where I felt so lost and utterly alone. They were not there with me; they were there with me. It was the reminder I needed that there were things beyond myself and the immediate circumstances I found myself in. Intellectually, I knew I had tracked the flower petal in on my heel, but it felt magical, an answer to a prayer I hadn’t thought to utter.

As I ended my shower, I stooped to pick up the petal, to find some way to preserve it as a reminder of some truth I believed I had just learned. But it wasn’t a flower petal at all. It was, instead a yellow Starburst wrapper I had not seen properly in the dim lighting of the bathroom, without my glasses on. My wife had been on a Starburst kick, and I had somehow dragged one into the shower with me. I felt deflated at my obvious idiocy, the ways in which I could not see the obvious truth in front of me.

And yet—

My friends do love me. They do care about me. They did buy me flowers. Even if what I saw floating atop the water wasn’t a flower petal, the ways in which I saw what I needed to see, precisely when I needed to see it, were still real.

It was a candy wrapper and not a flower petal. But it also was a flower petal. Through some magic, it had transmogrified itself in the moment I needed it most. Neither I nor you can prove it did not, even as we know it did not.

Thus endeth the lesson.

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