American author Joan Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” While seemingly simple in sentiment, this quote has so much more impact upon further inspection. We, as humans, are storytellers–we pass down our human history through story, we share our daily lives through story, we connect through story. It can be beautiful, or sad, or scary, but those stories shape us.
For author Juliette van der Molen, stories and reading shaped her adolescence and therefore, her present path and future. “My grandmother made a point to always purchase a book as a gift for any special occasions,” she said.
Of course, some of those stories stuck with her, one of which was Anne of Green Gables due to the fact that Anne was a writer. She saw a reflection of herself in Anne as van der Molen herself began writing stories at a young age; seeing another young (fictional) writer helped her develop her sense of self as a creator rather than simply a reader.
So, in developing her style over the years, van der Molen has evolved from writing micro-flash fiction into poetry. “I love how poetry gives us a glimpse into something large without always giving the full picture.”
One day, while listening to the podcast “Unobscured,” hosted by Aaron Mahnke (van der Molen is somewhat of a crime fan–but who isn’t interested in detective stories?), she stumbled across the story of Dorothy Good. Who is she, you may ask? Well, Miss Good is essentially a historical footnote of the Salem Witch Trials as the youngest person to be arrested and imprisoned. If you were to look her up, you probably wouldn’t find a whole lot, which both intrigued and upset van der Molen, ultimately inspiring her to create space in history for Dorothy by writing a book.
“I read trial transcripts and many historical accounts/opinions of what happened in Salem Village,” explained van der Molen. “I scoured everything for mentions of Dorothy and when I would find them they would be limited to a paragraph or a line of text. I knew that I had to understand the larger context of the witchcraft trials…The writing process got pretty dark. I would spend days in a non-lending library reading and making notes and writing poetry.”
In part due to empathy created from her research–van der Molen expressed a shared connection from Dorothy’s obvious trauma to her own personal experiences–and due to the fact that at best, there was only a partial narrative of Dorothy’s life. Poetry seemed the obvious choice for the book’s structure. Van der Molen explained that poetry, like the visual art she also creates, allows her to show audiences part of the picture while allowing readers to create the rest. In a sense, it almost gave Dorothy and her story to exist on their own terms.
It’s clear that writing this story was a very emotional one for van der Molen. In discussing the poem “Devil’s Issue,” she explained how she wanted to explore the phenomenon of ‘othering’ someone else and how powerful it can be. “It also feels poignant to know that she really was just behaving in a lot of ways like what we would consider a ‘normal’ child, but that these actions were turned on her as proof of something else.”
Similarly, she explained that while writing “A Hex on All Your Houses,” she went through a bit of a cycle of emotions. “There are these different emotional phases that survivors of trauma cycle through and one of them is anger… It’s a dark poem and I don’t consider myself a vengeful person, but I definitely felt tapped into an anger that felt justifiable.”
The third poem van der Molen identified as being particularly emotionally powerful was “When the Moon is Dark.” This one, she described, was difficult to write because now she was taking on the task of tapping into older, survivor-Dorothy. The Dorothy who was still, most likely, haunted by the trauma of the trials and still trying to figure out who she is. Van der Molen speculated that even though Dorothy escaped death during the trials, she wasn’t sure that this ‘escape’ was any sort of real relief since she still would have had to come to terms with what happened.
“Confess was a difficult book to write because of the subject matter,” she explained. “But, what I like most about the book is that I get to tell a story from the viewpoint of someone who isn’t remembered much in history. I think if I had learned more about someone like Dorothy when I was young, that would have given me a shift in perspective that could have been valuable in later life.”
Of course, it’s difficult to say exactly what lesson or perspective might have been learned or developed. However, hopefully a fuller sense of empathy and understanding might be gained from reading this book. It’s easy to push aside uncomfortable history and focus on the good parts–they do say that the winners are the ones who write the history books, after all–but it’s important to remember and more than that, to actually discuss the uncomfortable parts of history.
Van der Molen commented, “There’s this belief that something like that [the witch trials] would never happen again… But that kind of hubris is a mistake… It’s not something we’ve somehow put behind us, these things continue to happen in new ways.” She argues that books like this allow people to confront uncomfortable pasts and that these stories are important because they put real faces and names to them.
This belief, if not explicitly shared, was definitely supported by Twist in Time Magazine, who contracted van der Molen to share Dorothy’s story. She has worked with the magazine in the past; in fact, the publication nominated her for the 2019 Best of the Net anthology for her poem “Land Army Camouflage.”
She hopes to publish more books in the future and is currently working on a poetic manuscript focusing on Mary Queen of Scots. In the meantime, you can check out her work at www.juliettewrites.com; @j_vandermolen on Twitter; and @juliette.writes on Instagram.
“In a world where nuance sems lost and compassion is in short supply, I think we could all do with a bit of slowing down to contemplate,” expressed van der Molen. “Researching and writing about Dorothy certainly did that for me and I’m grateful to have had that experience.”