Power and Control: On the Very Rare Case of a Male Witch’s Execution
Kathryn Nuernberger Considers Society's Failure to Protect Victims, Then and Now
When Catalina Ouyang wrote to ask if, as part of her work on a visual art installation, I could create a poetic translation of the Conclusions & Findings section of the Title IX report from the 2016 investigation into her sexual assault at her undergraduate university, I was nearly finished writing a book about historical figures executed for witchcraft. Except I was stuck on one last chapter about a man named Johannes Junius.
I could have just cut his name from the list, finished the book, and never thought about him again. But it seemed so important, maybe even essential to the project.
Because men were rarely, but not never, burned for witchcraft and I wanted to be accurate.
Because I wanted an easy answer at the wine box after readings when some case study out of a Solnit essay wanted to correct my “historical inaccuracies.”
Because my point was not Woman, per se, but something about social control and the mythologies of justice systems.
Because I thought maybe men would buy one of my books for a change, if it didn’t seem so entirely girly.
I asked a translator how she translates. She said the hardest part of the work is moving the meaning from one epistemological framework into another.
How do you translate the word “panel”?
How do you translate “believes,” which, to read these Conclusions & Findings, seems to be the only verb a panel can or cannot?
How do you convey what it means to call a woman who says she was raped “the complainant,” as if her only function is to complain?
And what about calling the person she accuses “respondent,” as if his sole responsibility is in responding?A translator once told me that the first act of translation is to move silence into words.
I wasn’t making any progress with Johannes Junius because my notes kept turning into an essay about the time a panel was convened to discuss the documents and security requests I myself once submitted under the auspices of Title IX. The time I don’t want to talk about here.
The time I would like to, but feel I can’t, talk about here.
The time that makes me so grateful Catalina decided to share what happened to her.
To open the file she sent—it’s like she has taken the meanest words, the ones that question a woman’s integrity and sanity, out of all of our heads and handed them to us on paper, where we can see them clearly for what they are.
When you are sitting before a panel your words aren’t words, your words are evidence, your memories are words, your feelings are evidence of the opposite of your words, except when they are consistent with something the panel considers evidence. Your feelings are not well-spoken. If they were well-spoken they would be evidence, possibly of what you call truth and possibly of a truth of your alleged overreactions, misunderstandings, or lies.
A translator once told me that the first act of translation is to move silence into words.
So I began by trying to translate the cruel silences embedded within the lines of the Findings & Conclusions report of the panel.
We are unable to understand power, not the Respondent’s, and not our own.
We are not able to admit uncertainty.
We are a panel and a panel has never been assaulted, never had an angry person throw keys across a room in the course of disagreement, a panel has never tried to leave a room a physically stronger person would not let them leave.
And yet a panel believes we know what happened.
We believe it was foreplay, because of how “Complainant’s verbal expressions could be considered moaning.”
We believe it was hot, because of how Complainant’s “legs were open . . . such that Respondent’s penis was able to reach her clitoris.”
We do not believe these same statements could reasonably appear in a document where the findings are the opposite.
We do not believe it is relevant how her legs came to be open.
We do not wonder why the Complainant began to feel ill in the middle of “normal, consensual foreplay that the parties routinely engaged in given the frequency with which they had sex.” We are distracted by frequent foreplay.
We do not believe that it is fucked up to use the word “gyrating” as a descriptor of a Complainant’s actions during an experience she describes as being raped.
We believe only a Complainant has the power to misunderstand or lie and she wields that power expertly, as evidenced by how “the Panel found the Complainant to be well-spoken and verbally skilled at expressing her opinions.”
When I reached their words “well-spoken,” I wondered whether they meant they know a silver-tongued devil when they see one, or whether they were about to believe Catalina and then decided not to. Or if they only believe women have been raped if they are hysterical and crying too hard to talk about it. Or if they meant because she is Asian American they somehow imagined she wouldn’t speak fluent English, as the clueless and ignorant so often do. Or if they meant she went on and on about consent and women’s rights, to the point that the findings include the comment that “Complainant and Respondent both explained at length that the foundation of their relationship was based on Respondent’s efforts to support, nurture, and respect her body and beliefs.” I wondered if the panel imagined if they were her boyfriend they would want to do something to shut all this talk about bodies and support and respect and beliefs down too.
“It’s the Law of the Father over there,” my friend said about the Title IX office, from which I had just received an email with conclusions and findings, an email on which many of the people I worked with were cc’d. This was the best sad joke and most painfully relevant example of Lacanian analysis I ever heard. It was also the best translation of a panel’s findings I would encounter, until Catalina said in her letter to me offering to send her full report provided I bear in mind: “The official account is often inaccurate and poorly representative of what I actually said/things that actually occurred because the entire Title IX process is an ineffectual, negligent, corrupt shitshow.”
Because I realized if I wanted the world to get as big as I need it to be, I had to learn how to identify with male characters too.
But is that true? I never finished the essay because I couldn’t figure out what was true anymore.
Johannes Junius was convicted in the Bamberg witch craze of 1626–1631 by a panel.
In his case, thumbscrews, leg vices, and the strappado were applied. Among other things, he confessed to succumbing to seduction by a succubus and flying to a Black Sabbath on the back of a dog. Like almost anybody being tortured, he did and said what he had to, to make it stop.
And then he did what not everybody is able to do—remember it is all a lie and use his literacy and money and influence to smuggle a letter with the truth out of his cell.
In the letter to his daughter Veronica, he wrote, “Here you have all of my confessions, for which I must die and they are sheer lies and made-up things, so help me God.”
Almost every paragraph in the letter contains an apology. These are devastating to read. He feels so guilty about how he couldn’t seem to translate his humanity into a language that his judges, from within the peculiarity of their official positions on a panel, would understand as human. He feels so guilty for having to tell his daughter that in the end he couldn’t figure out how to do anything besides let himself die this way.
I know something of how irrationally guilty a person can feel for having been a victim. Of how someone might walk out of a room full of officials wondering how she had so thoroughly and painfully done all of this to herself. I do not know when I will ever be able to write about that with forthright clarity. So I translate what I know into essays about people who have been dead for hundreds of years, whose lives have become torn and water-stained pieces of parchment. The binding of folios of court records came unstitched. Many were lost altogether, burned in fires, thrown out with the garbage, flooded in basements. What is left is full of silences, enough silence to make room for mine and for most anyone else’s.
. . . Maria Mueller, Margarethe Lezin, Daughter of George Haan (name lost), wife of George Haan (name lost), Anna Rinder . . .
Some accounts say 600 people were executed in Bamberg during the witch trials, some say 1,000. On the lists of names is Johannes Junius’s wife, who died in the first wave of executions in 1617. She is recorded only as Wife of Johannes Junius, according to the common practice in the courts at that time.
. . . Wife of Johannes Junius (name lost), Elisabeth Kuetsch, Daughter of Rochus Hoffman (name lost), Wife of Rochus Hoffman (name lost), Barbara Ziegler, Elisabeth Buchlin . . .
When Johannes Junius smuggled a letter to his daughter before he died, it was a translation of the confession he gave into the confession he meant. He is sorry he was not strong enough to defeat the inquisition. He is sorry he is only as vulnerable as any human is. He can barely write because of what they did to his hands in that place, and you can tell by the quavering handwriting on that old parchment in the archives that this is true.
It is a good translation. Anyone who reads it would believe him. Especially now that he is dead and we don’t have to risk anything—not our own security or jobs or social capital or the disapproval of some other member of a panel on which we sit—to nod along mournfully with his words.
I keep thinking of all the ways your case is so different from that of Johannes Junius. He, like all the witches, falsely accused his neighbors under pain of torture, for which he is sorry, but still, it is what he did. This is the opposite of what happened to you. The opposite of you, he did not willingly bring his story before a panel believing justice might be possible, nor did he willingly risk what any woman risks to say a crime was committed against her. He did not try to protect anyone else with his story.
I am so sorry I could not find a way to translate what your panel said into something poetic. Or even into a document that would make sense.
At first I thought I was translating this report for you. Because I have often asked trusted friends and family to translate such documents back to me. “Read this,” I sometimes say to these people who love me, “and tell me if I’m crazy.” They say the document is crazy, not me, and they are right and nevertheless I do not believe them.
I am sorry I could not find a way to translate what happened to you for you.
The best I can do is try to translate the panel’s document back to the panel in the hopes that one day they will come to understand themselves.
My friend the translator says you must find the referents the readers of the other language can understand. If they cannot, the good advice is to leave some of the difficult referent untranslated as a signpost to the existence of a source text that is separate and distinct from the translation. What else can one do with Hindi’s three different words for “you,” for example? Or the way Turkish has a different verb tense for eyewitness reports as opposed to the tense used for hearsay, but also no verbs for “to have” and none for “to be.”
Every language has its untranslatable words, the ones you must go outside of your homeland long enough that you ache and don’t ache and ache for it again before you can finally say you understand what such words mean.
Some of these untranslatable words, the ones a person must, it seems, cross an ocean of experience to understand, apparently include: I believe you. And also, I want the man who raped you to be made to feel more sorry than he can possibly imagine.
Excerpted from The Witch of Eye. Used with the permission of the publisher, Sarabande Books. Copyright © 2021 by Kathryn Nuernberger.