How the Puritans—Yes, the Puritans—Saw Me Through the Pandemic
Writing a novel about a case of domestic abuse in 17th century America seemed like the wrong way to survive lockdown—until it seemed exactly right.
Three days after my family moved from a suburb of New York City to Miami, Florida (at the time, arguably, another suburb of New York City), on the day that I started eighth grade in my new junior high school, my father was rushed into a hospital ICU, where he would reside for the next two weeks. He was supposed to die, but then he didn’t. Then he was supposed to have a colostomy, but didn’t—thanks to an Armenian gynecologist who noticed an Armenian name among the hospital patients. Even though my father didn’t exactly represent the man’s specialty, the physician jumped in and looked out for my father as if he were a brother. They would be friends for years.
The afternoon my mother told me that my father very likely was dying, she was eerily calm. When, days later, she told me she thought he was going to have a colostomy, a procedure she had to explain to me, she was stoic. When, for reasons I will never know, she kicked her parents out of our house—they’d come to care for me while she stood vigil at the hospital—she was hysterical. The three of them would be estranged for years and I will never know why. I never asked.
A month and a half after being rushed from an emergency room to an ICU, my father came home from the hospital and surprised me one Sunday morning by suggesting we go to church.
My mother had no interest in joining us and my older brother had started college that autumn in Massachusetts, and so it was a father and younger son bonding excursion, and on the way there we bonded by stealing an orange and black “men at work” construction sign that barely fit into the back seat of the car. (That might suggest the sign was bigger than it was. The vehicle was a two-door Opel Kadett clown car.) I was going to use the sign to decorate my new bedroom. My father was so moved by the sermon that on the way home, he suggested we return it, which we did. Neither of us was so moved by the whole experience, however, that we ever went back to that church. That’s too bad, if only because I hadn’t made any friends at school and had been relegated a “white shirt” at gym in the athletic caste system, which made me an untouchable. (We all took a physical fitness test our first day, and based on your results, you wore a shirt for the year that was gold, blue, red, or white: the great athletes wore gold. I and a boy who, I discovered, had had open heart surgery wore white.) In any case, I might have made friends at church. One never knows.
I don’t recall the denomination, other than that it was Protestant. I was a confirmed Episcopalian, though the only times I had been inside the nearby Episcopal church while I was in elementary school had been the occasional Easter Sunday and the afterschool confirmation classes I took in the weeks preceding my confirmation in sixth grade. I liked those classes, but largely because I liked “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and we discussed the rock opera a lot. My fondest memory of the confirmation itself is this: a hippie friend of my mother’s who came to the ceremony at my mother’s request and knew even less scripture than my mother and me, observed in all seriousness about holy communion—the wafer and the wine—“Wait. Blood? Body? This all sounds kind of Dracula-like.”
I share these childhood memories of my personal road to Damascus because I thought of them often since the pandemic began and shut down much of the world, and those who attend a church or synagogue or mosque began attending via Zoom. I was also writing a novel during the pandemic, which I thought at the time was the worst book in which to be immersed but have now concluded was the best. The novel, Hour of the Witch, was inspired in part by a three-line reference from the 17th century records of Boston’s Court of Assistants: A Puritan woman successfully sued her husband for divorce for cruelty, what today we would call domestic abuse. In other words, I was living with one foot in 2020 and one in 1662, both worlds in which we were searching for rational explanations for the irrational and striving—and failing—to build a city upon a hill. In both eras, religious hypocrisy often trumped the decency inherent in most religions.
Arguably, however, the novel had been gestating my whole life. A lot of books, at least the ones we write that we’re most proud of, simmer in the subconscious for decades.
The Puritan mind had first begun to fascinate me in college. I went to a school that actually had been founded to train young men of piety for the ministry in 1821, though by the time I was there, it was an esteemed liberal arts college and the chapel on the hill was known mostly as the home of the English department. Nevertheless, in my first year I discovered the spectacular demons that dogged the conscience of even the most devout Calvinist, the principal one being the Catch-22 of salvation. There was no more sure indication you were going straight to hell than to live a life that followed the scriptural precepts, and thus become confident that heaven was in your future. Yes, a life of good works might suggest you were among the saved, but the damned were awash in sanctimony, pride, and… faith.
At mid-life, among the very few books from college I still owned were those from my courses on religion in 17th century America, and when I perused them, they were Proustian madeleines to the seminars where we would debate, as if we were actual Puritan worthies, what it meant to be among the elect or how one could determine if we were among the damned.
Given the amount of beer I drank my first year there, I supposed I was likely among the latter. But the fact I knew my behavior was sinful gave me hope that my predestined fate was not the fires of hell. But then, the idea that I could be so presumptuous as to consider, for even a moment, the idea I might be saved was the surest sign yet that I was damned. (There’s that Catch-22.) You can see why the Puritans kept diaries and examined them the way today we check our skin for disturbing moles.
Nevertheless, I was more atheist than Puritan in college. One afternoon when a friend of mine, a woman in the college’s Christian fellowship, asked me to come to a meeting, I said I’d be happy to if she could explain to me a God who would allow Auschwitz. (Who was it who first asked about the Holocaust, “Where was God?” Who was it who first responded, “Where was man?”)
And yet, less than a decade after college I’d be a member of a little church in Vermont, part Baptist and part Methodist. Over the coming years, I’d serve as a deacon and the superintendent of the Sunday School. At the end of each Sunday school year, I used to buy the kids—more than seventy, which was massive for a church in a village of barely a thousand people—chocolate crosses I had made at a local candy store in Burlington.
Part of my spiritual awakening was due simply to proximity. My wife and I bought a house in the village that shared the driveway with the church. Our second Sunday there, when once more we hadn’t walked the thirty yards to join our church-going neighbors in the sanctuary, an elderly farmer named Fletcher Brown strolled over to the two of us where we were reading the newspaper on our front porch. In a wonderfully laconic voice, he motioned at the church and our house and the thin stretch of asphalt that separated the properties and observed, “Ain’t no excuse not to go to church now, is there?”
And so, driven by guilt and the desire to fit in to our new community, we went. And we stayed and were glad that we did. Suddenly, I believed faithfully in the virgin birth and the resurrection. (Some days, I still do.) Like many liberal Christians, I selectively picked and chose from the Bible what I wanted to swallow and what I viewed as certifiably crazy. That meant I ignored large swaths of Genesis and Leviticus that include creation, celebrations of incest, and appalling admonishments against homosexuality. The fact that I believed in heaven and disbelieved in hell was only the most obvious of the myriad ways that I structured my belief system to fit my values.
Certainly, I had doubts. I once asked the pastor—who I view as a great friend and to whom I dedicated one of my books—to explain how Mary could have mistaken Jesus for the gardener after the crucifixion. Likewise, how could two disciples both have failed to realize it was Jesus on the road to Emmaus? It has not been lost on me that the earliest of the resurrection gospels, Mark, says only that the tomb was empty, but never mentions a resurrection.
My family had a friend who viewed Harry Potter as satanic, but she also baked the local kids really delicious desserts, sometimes attaching to them Bible verses. We had to reassure our girl that her love of the Harry Potter series was not a sign she was damned—there it was, Puritanism and self-examination in action—and continued to read aloud to her every night from J.K. Rowling’s books. But we also believed then (and continue to believe today) that this gentle neighbor was among the reasons why our daughter is empathetic, big-hearted, and kind: She follows the golden rule and always treats others as she would like to be treated.
It was right about then, in the spring of 2001, that I started a book that decades later would become Hour of the Witch. Was the inspiration’s my young daughter’s Calvinist-like fears she was destined for hell? An unregenerate second grade sinner’s self-awareness that her love for Harry and Hermione and Ron was a sign she was damned? Possibly. I began to reread my books about the Puritan mind by such scholars as Perry Miller and Edmund Morgan, as well as the primary sources: Thomas Shepard, John Winthrop, Edward Taylor, the Mathers. I was astonished at how much I had underlined when I was 19 and 20. There were whole pages I had underlined and starred and highlighted in two and three colors. At one point, I had been obsessed.
And, once again, I fell in love with the poetry of Anne Bradstreet.
Hour of the Witch is a third person subjective novel. Other than the prologue, there is no omniscient narrator: every scene is from the perspective of my heroine, Mary Deerfield, a woman who endures a divorce trial and then a trial for witchcraft in Boston in 1662 and 1663. But every day before writing, I would reread one of Bradstreet’s deeply beautiful poems. Her work celebrates her love for her husband and the natural world, but also rues the loss of her personal library in a fire and chronicles her despair at the death of a grandchild. And in her remarkable “Meditations,” which she penned for her children, she admitted, “Many times hath Satan troubled me concerning the verity of the Scriptures.” She rued how she “never saw any miracles to confirm me,” and wondered if the ones in the Bible “were feigned.” Mary Deerfield’s voice—as well as her heart, her courage, and her internal monologues—was inspired by Bradstreet. (I think the only poet I love as much as Bradstreet is Emily Dickinson, whose work would infuse my novel Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. It’s somewhere between a coincidence and a sign that Dickinson’s father was among the men who founded my alma mater, and when I was naming my heroine in that novel, I chose the name Emily Shepard: Emily for the poet and Shepard for the Puritan worthy.)
So, why is a novel I began researching in 2001 only being published now, in 2021? I did not spend two decades writing it; I haven’t the sort of attention span that could spend twenty years on one book. On September 11, 2001—9/11—I was on day two of a book tour. I was, in fact, on a runway at Denver International Airport when the two towers of the World Trade Center collapsed. (My wife, when we lived in Brooklyn, had worked on the 104th floor of Two World Trade.) Our plane never took off, and I would spend the next week stranded at a hotel at an industrial park outside of Denver. It had a gym and a restaurant, but I was nowhere near the downtown, and so mostly I worked on a novel set in the 17th century. The last thing I wanted to do was watch the news for hours at a time, which was crushing and left us all quite literally devastated.
When I got home to Vermont a week later, I went to my library and planned to resume work on my novel set in 1662. And I couldn’t do it. Every moment I stared at the screen brought me back to Denver and the deep slough of my despair. I needed to write something completely different, and so I embarked on a novel that began with some of my favorite memories of my wife’s ancestral homestead in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire. I wanted moments that made me happy. I’d moved on from the real Anne Bradstreet and the fictional Mary Deerfield, and I presumed I would never look back.
But then, in 2017, our daughter now grown, my wife and I moved from one small Vermont village to another, and so we no longer shared a driveway with a church. With that church. We were 16 miles away. In addition, my great friend, the pastor, retired. One of the interim pastors gave sermons that were power points with images that belonged in 1955 and handed out Mad Lib-like sheets of paper with missing words that we were supposed to fill in to help us follow the sermons.
I found myself questioning more than ever my beliefs. What did it say about the strength of my faith that it couldn’t survive a 16-mile separation from the church where I had gone faithfully for nearly three decades?
A lot of my personal library wouldn’t come with me when my wife and I moved: I gave away easily forty cases of books to public libraries and a used bookstore. (Yes, I gave them to the bookstore.) But most of my books about the Puritans came with me. And I was glad, and I found myself thumbing through them as I unpacked and placed them on their new shelves. There were my old friends, Edward Taylor and Anne Bradstreet, emblematic of the reality that most of the Puritans were nowhere near the stern figures we imagine in our minds when we think of our New England ancestors. Good Lord, the amount of beer they consumed? The way they ate without forks?
I finished writing a novel about a flight attendant and then penned a new one about an E.R. doctor. And then I tried out other story ideas, but none were making me happy and none were working. Sometimes an early draft of a project needs only to satisfy one of these two criteria. But when it meets neither? That’s a deal breaker.
I kept returning those months to writers from 17th century Boston, reading them in books with spines ragged with age, every page awash in my notes and blue and yellow ink. Finally, one morning, I decided to see how it would feel to resume that story set in 1662. I worried that I would experience the same anguish I had felt in 2001 upon returning to Vermont from Colorado. I didn’t. Instead, I felt an enthusiasm and exuberance that was not commensurate with but certainly similar to the euphoria one of those 17th century Bostonians felt when their hearts—in their minds—were filled with the holy spirit. I was… giddy. I wrote with a joyful frenzy, happy because now, after nearly two decades, Mary Deerfield once more was alive on the page.
And then came COVID-19 and people started to die. Hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands. I couldn’t go to friends’ funerals because no one could, and my oldest friend in the world buried his father while watching from a car. With no memorial. People lost their jobs and their businesses and their careers. I lost my voice. (Yes. I did. It still hasn’t come back.)
Somehow, however, the sense of loss was even more helpful for a novel set in 1662 than the enthusiasm I had initially experienced. How do we make sense of a pandemic from the perspective of faith? Early on in the novel, I wrote:
How do you explain hurricanes that suck whole wharfs into the sea, fires that spread from the hearth to the house and leave behind nothing but two blackened chimneys, how do you explain droughts and famines and floods? How do you explain babies who die and children who die and, yes, even old people who die?
Never did they ask the question, Why me? In truth, they never even asked the more reasonable question, Why anyone?
When I was done writing the novel, a close friend asked whether writing it had rekindled my faith. I told him it was a reasonable question to ask, but it was—as we are wont to say about a lot of things on the social networks when we don’t really want to explain—complicated. But in this case, my choice of words was precise, and I elaborated. Faith, I said, is a shapeshifter. It comes and goes and when (if) it returns, it is never just as it was. There once was a poster produced, I believe, by the advertising agency for the Episcopal Church of Minnesota. In it, Jesus is alone on his hands and knees in Gethsemane, praying for courage in the hours before his arrest and crucifixion, and the caption goes something like this: “Hey, everyone has doubts once in a while.” The point? It’s OK to come to church, even if you’re a wee bit skeptical.
And so my eyes still well up when I am at church on Christmas Eve and we raise and lower our candles as a congregation while singing “Silent Night.” They got filmy when my wife and my daughter and I raised our candles in our living room during our church’s “Facebook live” service on December 24, 2020.
And I still pray, but not necessarily because I have absolute faith in the power of prayer. Rather, I pray at least in part, because—to paraphrase a pastor I once heard—“We shouldn’t pray because we expect we can change God’s mind. We should pray because it makes us better people.”
Oh, I do hope God will hear and answer my prayers, in much the same way that (to paraphrase scripture) parents will because they love their children. But I pray also because it reminds me that I am not the center of the universe and I need to think of others. (Yes, I pray for myself, too. Remember, there are no atheists in foxholes. I pray all the time on airplanes.) And sometimes I simply offer my thanks for the myriad blessings in my life to a God that may or may not be listening, that may or may not even be real.
And when I was writing Hour of the Witch, before and then during the pandemic and in those moments where I feared the United States was on the brink of civil war, I thanked God for stories, and those moments in my life when I read books with such passion that I would underline and circle and star more words than I left untouched. That was and always will be the greatest gift the universe can bestow on any writer—or, yes, on any reader. Stories may not be how we make sense of the world. But, I believe, they are how we survive it.
Chris Bohjalian’s new novel, Hour of the Witch, was just published.