SEPTEMBER 19, 2021
IN HER LATEST NOVEL, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, Rivka Galchen reimagines a real-life witch hunt that took place in Leonberg, in the German lands of the Holy Roman Empire, in the 17th century. The accused: Katharina Kepler, mother to famed astronomer Johannes. In her fictionalized account of a true story, Galchen neatly splits the difference between respecting the record of Kepler’s life and taking careful liberties to build out the world around her. The novel begins with Katharina’s first-person narration of the accusation that started it all, with one Ursula Reinbold, the wife of a glazier, claiming that Katharina’s use of witchcraft is the cause of her chronic pain. When the governor insists that Katharina reverse the spell, she declares that she “had done nothing to injure Ursula, and could do nothing to cure her,” and things quickly escalate.
It’s then that Galchen launches into a choral narrative, blending different voices, perspectives, and forms. This approach highlights the contradictory testimonies and frothy rumor-mongering that characterized Katharina’s trial from the outset: Katharina is and isn’t responsible for Ursula’s chronic pain; she did and didn’t encourage young women to make pacts with the devil; she was and wasn’t heard sharing a healing spell with the mother of a sick child. Galchen leaves it up to the reader to distinguish what she’s culled from actual records from what’s merely fiction. The fact that it’s impossible to do so speaks not only to Galchen’s deft ear for historical voice, but also shows how the difference between truth and falsehood (or, in current terms, between “real” and “fake news”) has always been a point of contention.
Witness accounts grow more outlandish as the trial progresses, and by its end, Katharina has also been accused of passing through locked doors, putting a pig in the path of an apple cart, and riding “a goat backward to death.” Galchen is thorough in producing all of the evidence against Katharina, most of it flimsy hearsay. The sum of the evidence is shown to illustrate a larger culture of fear and misinformation in the absence of scientific and medical knowledge — a situation that feels all too familiar today.
Galchen also considers the role that economic inequity and personal prejudice played in stoking witch hunts. The choral quality of the novel doesn’t so much create a large world for Katharina to move in as it establishes the limitations a woman like her faced: widowed, wealthy, self-directed, clever, and independent. As Katharina goes about her life, townsfolk gossip incessantly and cast harsh judgments. Katharina’s approach to life is not only out of step with the tradition of the time, but also a reminder of what could be, if only economic barriers and social expectations were not so oppressive.
By moving between chapters of interior observation to excerpts of townsfolk’s testimony, Galchen creates a rhythm that keeps an otherwise straightforward story engaging. As a witch hunt narrative, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch doesn’t cover entirely new terrain — many readers might draw immediate comparisons to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). But on the levels of form and technique, Galchen’s choral approach elevates the novel and frames Katharina’s ordeal as a timeless example of how smart, independent women are routinely silenced and suppressed.
Galchen deliberately illustrates Katharina’s complexities and contradictions. Our protagonist is a bright, humorous, and snobby busybody who engages in the same sort of gossip that ultimately gets her imprisoned. She’s cavalier about sharing her opinions, which often take the form of cutting quips. But Galchen juxtaposes the less admirable aspects of her personality with a sense of world-weariness and a tendency toward maternal care, two traits that were shaped by the premature death of three of her seven children (“I had watched my own infants die”) and the disappearance of another child, Heinrich, who “ran away to become a soldier” at age 16. Heinrich “lived into adulthood, [but is] in heaven” by the time of the trial; “Hans, Christoph, and Greta are all still here.”
Throughout the trial, she appears outwardly calm and confident, but her narration reveals her to still be riddled with grief, recalling the time when Heinrich, who “had been away from Leonberg some twenty-five years,” returned, not long before his death “following fevers and confusion”:
[W]hen Heinrich arrived at my door on a Friday afternoon, I wasn’t surprised. I knew he was alive. I don’t have the words to explain it. The adder, born alone from its egg, knows how to catch its prey. It was like that. Heinrich’s coat was torn and unclean, he looked shorter, his face appeared uneven. He was hungry. My heart was a spring sparrow’s.
Some of the novel’s most riveting scenes are those in which Johannes (Hans) testifies in court. The reception of his testimony is shaped by the culture around him, in which religious authorities reigned and science was seen as heretical. Before each session, he is asked, “Do you understand that any false testimony you knowingly give will provoke God’s great anger in your earthly life and will deliver your soul unto Satan upon your death?” It’s an almost ironic running joke, so antithetical to the work Johannes is developing outside the walls of the religious cabinet. But he is unfazed by the questioning: Johannes clearly wants to go above and beyond for his mother, applying every resource he has — even the methodology he might take when developing his proofs and theories — to help her. He does his own investigative research with the townsfolk, and calls in every favor he has with people of influence. Meanwhile, Johannes is developing groundbreaking theories about celestial physics and planetary rotation — theories that stand in direct contradiction to church beliefs. At one point, Katharina visits the ducal governor, who begins “to sermonize about those who took their worldly power too seriously [and] said the true realm of power was elsewhere.” As she listens to him opine, Katharina is struck by the governor’s ignorance: “But he did know that some considered my son such a heretic as to bar him from taking Communion in the church[.] […] Johannes did have worldly power, but his power was like smoke — any strong wind would disperse it.”
Galchen posits that at the heart of Katharina’s predicament is the jealousy of others, chiefly caused by her flouting their expectations. Toward the end of the novel, once Katharina has been imprisoned and chained up in a cell, socioeconomic envy is revealed to be perhaps the chief motivation behind the accusations. Ursula Reinbold sends a letter to the governor, concerned that the steep cost of Katharina’s imprisonment will impinge on the monetary reparations for her victims:
The costs of Katharina Kepler’s imprisonment are being paid out of the proceeds from the sale of her assets. […] We write only because we wish to bring to your attention what you already know, which is that compensation for the victims of this dangerous woman is payable from these same finite proceeds from the sale of her assets. Currently there are two guards keeping watch over Katharina at all times, and she is furthermore chained by her ankle to the wall, and although we agree and assert that she is a danger, we argue that to pay two guards night and day is not only superfluous but also will empty the coffers, making appropriate compensation of the victims impossible.
Ultimately, Katharina is released from prison, but must relocate to her daughter’s home in nearby Heumaden, as Ursula and her cohort threaten to kill her if she stays in Leonberg. Here, Rivka Galchen takes her most obvious creative liberties. In reality, Katharina was acquitted after 14 months of chained custody; she died six months after her release. In Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, on the other hand, Katharina lives longer but expresses discontent with the new ending to her story. She tells a friend, “I wouldn’t call it a happy end[.] […] To have nothing to give my children, to be unwanted in my own town.” It’s on this somber note that Galchen concludes. On its surface, it might seem like a soft landing for an author known for the wild, creative twists of Atmospheric Disturbances (2008) and American Innovations (2014). But the lack of a resounding finale also lends this historical tale a refreshing realism, bridging the expanse that separates the early 1600s from today.
Eric Farwell is an adjunct professor of English at Monmouth University and Ocean County College in New Jersey. His writing has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Esquire, Salon, GQ, Slice (forthcoming), Ploughshares, the Paris Review Daily, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the Village Voice, Vanity Fair, The Believer, and Guernica.