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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Toil & Trouble

A Memoir

Augusten Burroughs

St. Martin's Press


Adder’s Tongue

There are three things you should know about witches.

Number one: as long as there have been human beings there have been witch beings.

Number two: witches have always been misunderstood. For most of recorded history they have been persecuted and killed, and this continues today in many parts of the world. Since the majority of those accused and convicted have been female, the hunt for witches is yet another vehicle for the persecution of women of every color by (of course) white men.

When the hateful Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock, the men wasted no time launching their bigotry grenades against any women who didn’t fit their image of what a woman should be and how she should behave. This began with—surprise!—a woman of color, a slave named Tituba, but any woman who wasn’t subservient or who exhibited a modicum of individuality and independence was likely to be accused. Several men were also put to death in colonial Salem, so one can only speculate that they, too, failed to behave in a manner expected of the White Puritan Male, America’s first frat guy.

It is no longer a crime in this country to be a witch, but that’s mainly because Americans consider the notion patently absurd. Scientifically minded people look back on the witch trials and cringe at the primitive stupidity, not so much because alleged witches were killed but because the accusers actually believed that witches existed.

Which brings me to number three: witches are real. And witchcraft—the work they do, their craft—is also real.

So what is a witch?

I define a witch as someone—female, male, neither, other, both—who has the innate ability to focus on a desired outcome with such perfect clarity, intensity, and singularity that the desired outcome can materialize, provided it does not violate the natural laws of the universe. This is why a witch cannot turn a man into a goat, but a witch may very well know if a man five thousand miles away is about to be trampled by a goat. Witches may experience what we call “time” and “distance” in such ways that “time” and “distance” collapse or are circumvented. Frequently, they possess information that it does not seem possible one could have, such as knowledge of events that will occur further down the time line.

Witchcraft is not a religion. Wicca is a religion, started by Englishman and occultist Gerald Gardner in the early 1950s. Many Wiccans are witches, too, practicing some form of craft as part of their faith. Druidism is another pagan religion that incorporates witchcraft.

There are many different “styles” or “schools,” from the extremely formalized and ritualized to the improvised and spontaneous. There are those who engage in highly structured rituals, and while these are interesting and kind of cool, they aren’t necessary.

Different witches have different abilities. Some are excellent at creating shields: protecting loved ones from harm, hiding in plain sight, traveling through life without a scratch. Others are adept at causing things to happen or not happen. Which is to say, they are sculptors of matter, exerting influence—and change—over the energy we observe as matter. Still others have amazing powers of perception and reception. They might feel a devastating storm coming long before it arrives, or perhaps they know of events occurring many miles away. Witches can possess any of or all these traits in greater or lesser degrees.

Here’s a partial list of things I don’t believe in:


the Devil




ancient aliens

past lives

life after death







Note that “witches” and “witchcraft” are absent from this list. The thing is, I wouldn’t believe in them, and I would privately ridicule any idiot who did, except for one thing: I am a witch.

This is a fact I’ve kept to myself. Even my husband didn’t know for years. Yet witchcraft has been an almost daily part of my life since I was a little boy. It was the strongest bond my mother and I had when I was young: our common power, our shared secret. She was a witch from a long line of witches and I was her second-born son—an accident—and, as she would discover eight years after my birth, also a witch. She schooled me, day after day, story after story, passing her knowledge and wisdom along to me, until her mind was quite abruptly shattered by mental illness just as I entered adolescence.

From that point, I was on my own.

* * *

I had no idea I was a witch until the day I knew something that was simply impossible for me to know—or at least impossible according to mankind’s empirical understanding of the fundamental laws of the universe. I was staring out the school bus window on my way home, the trees a blur. My seat was over the left rear wheel, the one with the hump on the floor. I concentrated on the flow of liquid leaves without a single thought in my mind. At eight, I was already accomplished at gazing into the distance while thinking nothing at all.

The bus bounced as it went over the first wooden bridge, then again as it crossed the second one, and at that moment I saw my grandmother’s forehead and her thinning hairline, and my being was suddenly occupied by the spirit of certainty. Certainty was all that I contained. This was followed by feelings of fear and anxiety.

The bus came to a stop at my house, the second house after the second bridge. I ran up our steep gravel driveway as fast as I could and rang the doorbell once, then again, then again and again until my mother opened the door, the phone pressed tight against her ear, the cord stretched taut from the kitchen wall.

“What happened to Amah?” I asked desperately. “Something very bad happened to Amah!”

My mother’s eyes widened and she lowered the phone from her ear, pressed it against her heart. She bent down. “Why do you say that? How do you know?”

“I was on the bus,” I told her, still out of breath from running. “And after we bumped over the bridges, I just knew. What happened to her?” I was frantic and on the verge of tears.

“I’m on the phone with your uncle Mercer right now. He just this minute, not thirty seconds ago, called to tell me that your grandmother has had a car accident. She’s in the hospital.”

She brought the phone back up to her ear. “Mercer, I had to open the door, I missed whatever you were saying.”

She held her index finger up to me and listened. She nodded and chewed at her thumbnail. “Okay,” she said. “Okay, then. I will. Call me as soon as you know more.”

I followed her into the kitchen, where she hung up the phone and turned around.

“She was in a car accident and her forehead was cut and she broke a rib and has a punctured lung, but they say she’s going to be okay.”

Now I was even more frightened than before. Hesitantly I asked, “Mom? How did I know?”

My mother lowered herself to one knee, wrapped her arms around me, and held me tight. Then she released me and looked into my eyes, tears glittering in the corners of hers. “You are my son. That’s how you knew.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I didn’t, either,” she said, her voice trembling with emotion. “Until today. I had no idea. I just—” Her voice cracked and she dabbed the underside of her wrist beneath each eye to blot the tears. “I watched and waited, but when I never saw anything out of the ordinary, I suppose I assumed you were like your brother. Well, not like your brother, because he’s very odd and distant. What I mean is, normal. Mortal.”

“I still don’t understand,” I said.

She stood and led me into the living room, and then she leaned against the arm of the sofa and patted the spot beside her for me to sit. A True Blue cigarette slid from the pack in her hand and she lit it, waving the flame out before dropping the match into the green glass ashtray on the teak side table. She inhaled and held the smoke in her lungs for a long time before letting it stream out her nose.

“Remember the witch in The Wizard of Oz?”

“The good one or the bad one?”

“Either one of them,” she replied with a dismissive wave of her hand, which caused ash to tumble from her cigarette onto the carpet.

“I like the bad one better,” I said. “She had flying monkeys, and the good one was tacky and seemed kind of dumb.”

My mother said, “Well, that’s entirely beside the point, but yes, the bad witch was actually the interesting witch and the good witch was vain and tedious, but in any case, neither one of those characters represents what witches actually look like or how they behave. A witch doesn’t wear a pointy black hat and have green skin and a long nose with a wart on it. A witch doesn’t fly through the air on a broom. She also doesn’t wear a sparkly polyester gown and float away inside a soap bubble. But that’s what people think witches are, and”—her voice lowered to almost a whisper—“they don’t think witches are real.”

“Are they real?” I asked, my voice quiet, too, like we were suddenly in a library.

My mother nodded. “Yes, they most certainly are.”

“So what do they look like?”

She took a long, deep drag from her cigarette and then blew the smoke through her pursed lips. “They look like your grandmother Amah. They look like me. They look like your uncle Mercer, though he would beg to differ. And they look like you.” She raised her eyebrows like, Get it?

I said, “I’m a witch?”

“You are.”

“Okay.” This was simultaneously the most confusing and most comforting thing anyone had ever said to me.

“And that’s how you knew something that was impossible for you to know.”

“If I’m a witch and you’re a witch and so are Amah and Mercer, where did it come from?”

My mother mashed her cigarette out into the ashtray and immediately lit another. “So, your grandmother Amah’s father—that would be your great-grandfather—was named Mercer Lafayette Ledford. Many of the Ledfords were witches, going all the way back to Lancaster, England. Lancaster was very famous for their witch trials in the early sixteen-hundreds, even earlier than ours in Salem. Of course, none of our relatives were suspected of being witches, naturally, because they were witches and could elude detection. I believe the Ledfords didn’t come to America for almost a century after the witch trials.”

Maybe if my mother were my teacher, chain-smoking her way through lectures, I wouldn’t hate history so much, I thought.

“This Gift has been passed on and on and on throughout the years,” she continued. “Of course, not everybody on that side of the family had the Gift. There’s really no telling why one sister might inherit it but her brother might not, or the only son in a family with four daughters. I imagine some did have it but didn’t even know it. Your grandmother Amah has the Gift, though she has always been somewhat troubled by it. Amah could sometimes see things that were hidden to other people or hadn’t even occurred yet. When I was a little girl, she would become so upset because of something she knew was about to happen. I think it was not what it was that upset her so much as her knowing in advance. Amah’s father had the Gift. And so did his father. Uncle Mercer is like us but it frightens him, so he pushes it away. He tries very hard not to believe something he knows perfectly well is true.”

Copyright © 2019 by Augusten Burroughs