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Pulitzer-winning author Stacy Schiff discusses "A Dark and Mysterious Season"

Best-selling author and historian Stacy Schiff addresses the Exeter community in Assembly Hall over Family Weekend.

Genny Beckman Moriarty
October 16, 2017
Author Stacy Schiff speaks at Exeter.

Best-selling writer and historian Stacy Schiff spoke at assembly on Friday. The author of such acclaimed works as The Witches: Salem 1692, Cleopatra and Vera (Mr. Vladimir Nabokov), which was awarded the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, she appeared on stage after a loving and humorous introduction by her daughter, Jo de La Bruyere ’18. (Schiff is a graduate of Phillips Academy at Andover. "To make up for that,” her daughter quipped, “she married an Exonian and produced two more.”)

In a talk titled “A Dark and Mysterious Season: Salem 1692,” Schiff traced the cultural and religious circumstances that culminated in the notorious Salem witch trials and the resulting death sentences for numerous young women, several prominent men, and even two dogs, in the Puritan settlement of Massachusetts — which, in those days, included the town of Exeter. 

The author, who spoke of the challenge of making “a crazy thing seem perfectly rational and afterward, to show why it had been crazy,” described an age when blasphemy, witchcraft and idolatry were considered greater crimes than murder, adding: “To a Puritan, a witch was as real as heat or light; he or she was someone who had signed a pact with the devil; he could change shape at will and turn himself into an animal, and if that sounds unlikely, bear this in mind: There’s surely something that we all believe now that by the time you are standing on this stage will appear utterly implausible, too. The problem is that we don’t know yet what that thing is.”

Drawing parallels with the contemporary world, she later cautioned: “Salem reminds us, in an age of viral media, what comes of finger-pointing and demonizing. ... Information as well as ignorance can lead us astray. ...  Preconceived notions trip us up, just as fear warps our thinking. Misinformation always manages to mow down the truth.”

On a lighter note, and sprinkled throughout the talk, Schiff doled out nuggets of writing advice, including, “Leave yourself a little time between your first draft and your second draft,” and, “Escape your desk as often as possible. ... Ideally, walk, run, cycle or unicycle, and if possible, obtain a great supply of chocolate along the way. Motion generates thoughts, and blessedly, thoughts come to us in words.”

To hear more of Schiff's thoughts on memory, writing and the reasons why history is more like Snapchat than Instagram, watch the assembly on demand at Exeter Live.