When Catalina Ouyang wrote to ask if, as part of her work on a visual art installation, I could, along with several dozen other writers, 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’m can be as practical about money and influence as any of the witches I’d been studying and I thought maybe men would buy my book too, if it didn’t seem too entirely girly.
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 was 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.
“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, as she offered 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, or at least understand, the 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 1626-1627 by a panel.
In his case, thumbscrews, leg vices, and the strapado 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.
You can read my complete essay about Johannes Junius and also read the extraordinary collection of responses Catalina Ouyang solicited and curated at this website, where the archives from her show now live. Her interview with Yanyi about the project, up at VIDA, is also great.