Magical Thinking for Girls

Science doesn’t give you power unless you already have it

Amber Sparks
Oct 25, 2019 · 9 min read
Illustration by Louisa Bertman

Once upon a time, there was a boy.

We start with the boy because these stories always start with a boy. They start with a boy, and they end with a girl. She is always a victim in these kinds of stories, whether of happiness or unhappiness, violence or kindness, it doesn’t much matter. Sometimes, the girl is rescued, and sometimes, she is not.

So once upon a time, there was a boy. He liked, or didn’t like a girl, and so he would pinch her, and punch her, and throw things at her on the school bus. And every day, he came up with a new, ugly name for the girl. Every day he set the name in motion like spell; he let it bounce off the lockers in the halls until every unkind student picked it up and put it in their mouth. The boy was, in short, a bully, and the girl was unhappy. She told her parents, her teachers, her principal, but everywhere the response was the same: boys will be boys. So the girl decided that she didn’t like this story. She wanted to be in her own story, and so she decided to write it, with help from magic, with help from the stars.

Another way of telling it: When I was twelve years old, I was the girl, and I decided to make my own fate.

There is a theory of magical thinking that men in particular really dig: the notion that as we humans grew more advanced, learned more about the world around us, got more science-y — we slowly gave up things like astrology, alchemy, divination. That we abandoned the notion of magic as the world began to make sense to us without it, as we learned to control the world around us.

A theory I like better: the people who abandoned magical thinking were the ones who controlled the world, who took and kept the power in the world. They were the colonizers, the invaders, and they were mostly white men. The Enlightenment has always belonged to white men. Just because women, just because people of color, just because genderqueer people learned science, it didn’t stop them from needing magic. Because science doesn’t give you power unless you already have it. Knowing about how a hand moves doesn’t stop it from covering your mouth.

I was probably destined to be a writer; I have always had an abundance of skepticism, coupled with an overactive imagination quieted only by magical thinking. I have always felt guilt over the things I do and don’t believe. Since I was quite small, I told myself stories to survive the long nights, certain my furniture would eat me if I didn’t feed it tales. I was certain demons would emerge from the closet if I didn’t entertain them. I played Scheherazade to my nightmare dolls, reading aloud stories from my fairy tale and mythology books when I ran out of my own invention. During the daytime, I laughed at myself.

What I mean to say is that I have never believed in ghosts, but I have always been afraid of ghosts.

What I mean to say is that I always felt powerless, until I discovered that pretending to have power made me feel safer in a way that wasn’t pretend at all.

When I was in middle school, I knew a girl who claimed to be a witch. She had a deck of tarot cards, and a book of spells her grandmother gave her. She wore black and colored her lips and nails black, too.

Another girl I knew and admired had a little white cloth doll without a face, and she would stick pins into it, and later I would realize her older sister bought it for her at Spencer Gifts, but at the time I was in awe of her power and her mystery. She said her power was tied to the moon; she said that the sun was for boys, obvious, blinding — and the moon was for women, mysterious and dark and changeable.

This girl was a “bad girl,” a troublemaker. That’s what teachers called her, what parents called her. I know that she took pills, had trouble paying attention, had trouble with boys because she looked much older than she was.

The other girl was troubled, too, the witch. She dyed her hair green and listened to heavy metal and everyone said she was troubled. But I know that she had trouble with her boyfriend, who would take out his pocketknife when he talked, turning it over and over in his palm. She didn’t seem to make trouble as much as trouble made her.

She told me that she became a witch because she wanted to be in control. And so did I. How is it, honestly, that every tween and teenage girl in America doesn’t buy a pack of tarot cards and a book of spells at the first sign of puberty? How is that we don’t make shields of our star signs, immediately after we learn about STDs? After we learned that boys are so much stronger, that they can cause all kinds of hurts?

I didn’t believe in magic and I don’t now. But I believed in the power of believing in magic. I believed that a girl could switch paths, could make trouble instead of find it, if she only had the right set of spells to cast.

Witches are, with a few exceptions, the bad girls. They are closely associated with evil, with Satanism, though if you talk to any practicing Wiccan — concerned with positive magic, herbs, healing — they will of course tell you this is slander and dangerous nonsense. And witches, when accused throughout Western history or depicted on television or in films, are often either very young or very old. It’s not often we find young mothers or wives as witches in popular culture (there’s that Samantha exception); Sabrina, The Witch, The Craft, Teen Witch, Beautiful Creatures, Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, American Horror Story Coven — cultural depictions of witches are most likely to be the age they are most threatening to men. They are either bursting with hormones and new sexuality, a great temptation to men — or they are dried up, no longer fertile, and useless and terrifying to men.

But real witches, of course, are the kind of women who can make their own fate; they do not need men and they are wild with new feelings and ideas and spells. They may or may not have real magic, but they are the kind of women who can howl at the moon.

It is no accident that more women than men are into horoscopes, Tarot, witchcraft — and particularly young women. Particularly teen girls, and tween girls. If you are given a framework, suddenly, to make a new story for yourself — why wouldn’t you take it?

At twelve, visiting the mall one day, I used my allowance and bought a pack of Tarot cards and a book on how to read them. They were beautiful, the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, and I spent the entire summer learning how to read them. I read good things about change, saw the Tower and was not afraid. I bought a book of simple spells, and I learned how to use herbs and incantations to help make things happen.

I learned about being a water sign, and how I should stay away from Geminis.

I learned a special spell to protect myself on a journey, and I whispered it to myself on the school bus every morning, over and over, an incantation.

I picked a new Tarot card every day after school, bruised head and heart, and I every day I asked, how can I be safe, please tell me, please tell me.

I didn’t want to hurt anyone or cast any revenge spells. I didn’t want to curse anyone. I just wanted to stop other people from hurting me. I just wanted to be happy.

One of my friends, the one with the fake voodoo doll, she wanted to hurt people. She wanted revenge. We argued about it. She thought it was the only way to be in a girl in the world, and who can say whether she wasn’t right? In the end, none of my protection spells worked. None of my forecasts or Tarot cards helped. In the end, the only thing that worked was me, hitting the boy over the head with a hard instrument case, knocking him out cold. I ended up in the principal’s office, was suspended for a day — and the boy never, ever hit me or touched me or talked to me or even looked at me again. The only thing that ended my trouble was making trouble.

While I was in the principal’s office waiting to hear my fate, the biggest meanest bully in the school was there too, and he looked at me with deep respect when I told him what I was in for. He even looked a little afraid. I am not ashamed to admit that it felt good, to make a man afraid of me.

Maybe, I thought, the best spell of protection was me.

I (and everyone else) have noticed an uptick in interest in astrology and crystals and Tarot, primarily in Millennial and Gen Z women. And of course, an uptick in the number of people making fun of them. I have made fun of them, too. I think a part of me is hideously embarrassed about my former fascination with superstition. But why? I have a good job, some success as a writer, a child and husband. I have two cats and I am even starting to take care of some plants. So perhaps I feel like I am finally in control; perhaps I don’t want to be reminded of a time in my life when I felt powerless.

But am I really in control? We have a president who is destroying the country, structural racism that white people seem unwilling to address, climate change that most people don’t seem to willing to address, children in concentration camps. As a women, I’m afraid of the Internet some days. Most days. I do wonder, lying awake at night, if I should peer at my star chart, if maybe the younger generation is right about Mercury in retrograde. I have known the biology of the human body for many years now, but I still don’t know how to protect myself from a male hand, metaphorical or real, except by hitting back.

I do not personally believe in magic, or astrology, or divination. I do not believe in life after death (though I want to.) But I believe that whatever gives us power gives us strength. I believe we make our own fate. So if my daughter comes to me some day and asks me to tell her about her star sign, I won’t laugh. I’ll tell her: you are stubborn and strong, artistic and ambitious. And you don’t need the stars to tell you that, but you can always ask them your fate if you want to.

I will tell my daughter this story:

Once upon a time, there was a girl. The girl was the star of her own story, and she had everything she needed to make her own way in the world. Whether spells or science or dreams, she could tell the stories that would fix anything, that would make the world better for the girl and all of the good people in the world. This girl’s world had a lot of trouble; and this girl, she troubled it right back.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Amber Sparks

Written by

Writer; author of The Unfinished World and the upcoming I Do Not Forgive You: Revenges and Other Stories; @ambernoelle

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Amber Sparks

Written by

Writer; author of The Unfinished World and the upcoming I Do Not Forgive You: Revenges and Other Stories; @ambernoelle

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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