“The Burning of Bridget Cleary” and “Madumo: A Man Bewitched”

Two cases of witchcraft, one historical and one contemporary, show the lethal results of superstition run amok.

Topics: Books,

“Madumo: A Man Bewitched” by Adam Ashforth
University of Chicago Press, 248 pages

“The Burning of Bridget Cleary” by Angela Bourke
Viking, 239 pages Nonfiction

In both “Madumo: A Man Bewitched” and “The Burning of Bridget Cleary,” dues-paying intellectuals ponder the destructive effects of superstition. The authors of both books describe what happens when a form of folk “wisdom” — witchcraft — trumps science, and then they pass their observations through the filter of cultural relativism, that stale wind from academia that wraps quotation marks around words like “primitive” and “superstition.” Both authors are the type of scholar prone to apologize for the cultural imperialism of the Enlightenment. Both, given a glimpse of the deadly power of ignorance, must confront the fact that sometimes quaint old customs actually kill people.

The difference in the quality of the results can be traced, in part, to the distance in time and space between the authors and their respective topics. “The Burning of Bridget Cleary” disinters a fascinating murder case from the 19th century, only to bury it again beneath tangents, conjecture and abstract academic-speak. “Madumo: A Man Bewitched,” on the other hand, is a contemporary story of witchcraft told in the first person, and it’s far more compelling.

One hundred five years ago, in the Irish village of Ballyvadlea, a cooper named Michael Cleary threw lamp oil on his wife and set her ablaze. Addled by lack of sleep and the death of his father, egged on by relatives, Cleary slew his wife because he’d convinced himself she wasn’t his wife at all. He thought she was a changeling left by fairies, and the fire was meant to banish the impostor.

“The Burning of Bridget Cleary” is a gripping true-crime tale — whenever the author gets out of the way. Angela Bourke, a senior lecturer in Irish at University College in Dublin, can’t seem to help lapsing into a Latinate fog. It’s not a good sign that she can’t even tell us how to tell a story without reaching for the jargon: “Stories gain verisimilitude and storytellers keep the listener’s attention by the density of circumstance they depict, including social relations and the technical details of work,” and so on.

More bothersome are Bourke’s attempts to summon a context. As she demonstrates, British foes of home rule used the Cleary murder as proof the Irish were too savage for self-government. But Bourke also tries, vainly, to conjure up some tie with the plight of Oscar Wilde, whose sodomy trial happened to coincide with Michael Cleary’s prosecution. (The supposed link has something to do with Wilde’s being Irish and flouting a taboo and the Brits not liking him.)

Ultimately, Bourke wants to lessen the opprobrium attached to the burning. It is her duty to diss the S-word. “Superstition is a problematic word,” she writes. “Beliefs and practices can appear bizarrely irrational when the system of which they were once part has begun to disintegrate.” She must also twit any onlookers who seem too Newtonian. “Far from advocating an ecological principle of ‘live and let live,’ or welcoming and sheltering diversity, the progressive mind of the late nineteenth century advocated a ruthless hygiene that would exterminate — or at least remove from use by potential subversives — everything not dreamt of in its own philosophy.”

A point well taken, and regettable, perhaps, were the otherness under siege something innocuous, like kissing the Blarney stone. But those Victorian oppressors Bourke maligns had ample cause to love some kinds of progress. They hated superstition because it caused suffering. The medicine of the time was finally good enough to save lives, yet all around them people like Michael Cleary followed the ignorant, deadly rules of the past. As Bourke notes, the “changeling” fable was still being used in the 1890s as an excuse to kill deformed babies — how subversive! Had Bourke lived then, she might have been less concerned with slapping quotation marks on Michael Cleary’s ignorance, and more concerned with fighting it.

By contrast, Adam Ashforth has spent much of the past decade immersed in a culture in which witchcraft remains as common as air. The New York professor is a part-time resident of Soweto, South Africa. A few years ago, when his friend Madumo blamed some personal problems on witchcraft and sought a traditional cure, Ashforth opted to pay for his treatment and take notes. But Ashforth never pretended to mistake magic for medicine, as he told Madumo bluntly: “‘What do you mean [you're] cursed?’ I spat, losing patience. ‘What kind of bullshit is that?’” Instead of paternalism, Ashforth offered his friend unapologetic materialism: “the necessity of distrusting all preachers, prophets and priests — and witchdoctors.”

Ashforth’s notes on what happened to Madumo have become a warm, colorful book, a mix of memoir, journalism and sociology. He has dual roles, as reporter and friend, and manages to describe Madumo’s search for relief with both compassion and professional skepticism. There is much drinking of bitter herbs, much vomiting and lots of money paid to the inyanga, a Zulu healer named Mr. Zondi. Through Ashforth we also learn about the dailiness of Soweto and the fractures in post-apartheid society.

Because of his long tenure in South Africa, Ashforth is credible when he floats a reason for the country’s recent surge in reports of witchcraft. “With apartheid gone,” he writes, “the sorrows of an unfair fate could only be measured, case by case, against the conspicuous … good fortune of particular relatives, colleagues and neighbors.” People blame witches because they can’t blame the white man anymore. Ashforth understands, but he can still get mad when Mr. Zondi’s regimen gives his friend a bleeding ulcer. Madumo vomits dried blood because the inyanga has forced him to drink and then puke back up gallons of hot coffee every morning.

Ashforth gets angry but doesn’t really interfere. As a friend, he knows the “treatment,” however arduous, makes Madumo happy. As a writer, he needs the process to continue. And as an intellectual, he won’t step in because in the end he’s prone to the same knee-jerk caveats as Bourke is, albeit in milder form.

When the cure is done, Madumo has achieved some peace of mind but no improvement in his material state. Ashforth flies back to New York, and gives thanks for his own unbelief in witchcraft. He also, however, feels obliged to profess doubt in the supremacy of logic. He has to treat it as one more system of belief amid a welter of equally valid systems. “I cannot fully subscribe to the folk wisdom of Western modernity that exults in the triumph of enlightenment.” With those words, Ashforth is the one who has performed a superstitious ritual, reciting a doxology peculiar to the culture of the modern intellectual.

It’s the lone false note in an excellent book, which is made all the more poignant by the fact that South Africa has become an AIDS epicenter, and that the local epidemic has been exacerbated by two serious deviations from the mainstream of Western medicine. First, South Africa’s president has voiced doubt that HIV causes AIDS. At least partly as a result, drugs that have proved effective are less widely distributed than they should be in the continent’s most industrialized nation. Second, many sick South Africans don’t go to the hospital until after an inyanga has failed to heal them. By then it’s too late. Talk about a “ruthless hygiene” — fewer would die if the nation could find a way to exult in the triumph of the Enlightenment, so HIV-positive people could take their protease inhibitors.

Mark Schone is Salon's executive news editor.

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