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A Monster in the Shape of a Woman | Public Books

This is the 21th installment of our series An Engineer Reads a Novel.


The astronomer Johannes Kepler developed the laws of planetary motion, disproving the conventional belief that the sun orbited the earth, and laid the foundation for Newton’s law of universal gravitation. He worked as Tycho Brahe’s assistant and invented an improved telescope, then inherited Brahe’s role as Imperial Mathematician. At a time when the distinction between astronomy and astrology was fuzzy, Kepler blurred things further by describing the mysteries of the cosmos in terms that were sometimes spiritual. Kepler also prepared point-by-point rebuttals of the charges against his mother, Frau Katharina Kepler, who was accused of practicing witchcraft.

The historical outlines of Rivka Galchen’s novel are the outlandish facts. Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch may be set in 1618. But the novel’s preoccupations—conspiracy theories and a mistrust of science and one’s neighbors during a plague—feel all too timely. And though she’s not the first author to use a historical witch hunt to illuminate more modern prejudices, she makes the persecution of Frau Kepler particularly destabilizing and slyly humorous.

“They can only torture you for confession if there are two reliable accusers,” explains a procedural pamphlet in the novel. “Now, if you have a relative who is a witch, well, then that is a problem.” Galchen portrays the banal bureaucracy of witch hunting in the Holy Roman Empire with a wit reminiscent of Joseph Heller. Indeed, Galchen’s transcripts of Kepler’s accusers’ testimonies are absurdist set pieces. One neighbor alleges that a remedy for their child failed, because “He was witnessed … He was supposed to be out of view.” The witness, the accuser continues, was “Frau Kepler, in the form of a blackbird. At first, I thought it was only a blackbird.” The dialogue could be a script for a Pythonesque comedy sketch:

What kind of a blackbird was it?

A black one, sir.

An ordinary blackbird?

I trust you know a blackbird.

Is the female blackbird not more brown than she is black?

I’m not an expert on birds, sir.

But you know the bird was Frau Kepler?

It was very obvious.

Was it a red-winged blackbird?

I am here to help the court, sir. Not to give a school lesson.

Your husband is currently charged with theft … is that the case?

Many false charges are made.

Early in Galchen’s novel, Katharina encounters a large elk as she is mushroom hunting: “The elk’s gait was unsteady. It smelled of yeast. Its grunts were unearthly. As that elk moved, the forest around it seemed transformed, the leaves had become eyes. I was being tested or invited or was about to die.”

It’s interesting, since hysteria has been a term lobbed at women’s health concerns and used to diminish their pain or to paint them as possessed or subject to enchantment, that Katharina Kepler is portrayed as a profoundly unhysterical woman. She reacts to the steady accumulation of accusations with an even temper and an expectation that all will be righted once her own legal complaint (suing her primary accusers for slander) is taken up and justice done. “People hear what it pleases them to hear,” she observes, with a shrug the reader can perceive. Of course, her very refusal to become hysterical is a strike against her during her trial.

Many of Katharina’s accusers are aware of her son’s reputation. “He invites envy,” her daughter, Greta, warns. “People have strange ideas about him.” This surfaces in the testimony of a gravedigger who recalls Frau Kepler asking about the possibility of disinterring a skull. “She said she’d heard it was a fine thing to have a skull covered in silver, that you could drink from that. She asked me: Could I dig up her dad’s skull? She wanted to send it to her son the astrologer in Prague.” The easy association of the Imperial Mathematician with the practice of skull-drinking is an indication that, in some views, science itself might as well be witchcraft, in its mysterious methods and unsettling findings that destabilize the known universe. This might have been especially true of astronomy, with its focus on distant worlds—and Kepler’s own bold suggestion that humanity might not be the literal center of the universe.

In Galchen’s portrayal, Johannes Kepler has learned to keep a lower profile and warns his mother not to “persist with [her] little remedies.” “I’ve done nothing wrong either, but you don’t see me trying to convince churchmen of the vision of Copernicus.”

Galchen opened her novel Atmospheric Disturbances with the disorienting deadpan observation: “Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife … she was carrying a russet puppy. I did not know the puppy.” She is adept at making the familiar strange and unsettling, and this defamiliarizing is deployed effectively in her new novel, capturing the way it might feel to have your ordinary life transformed into something menacing and otherworldly through the accusatory witness of your neighbors—themselves transformed into surveillance officers.

Complementing Katharina’s voice, some novel sections are narrated by her advocate, Simon, who assists the illiterate Katharina by reading her letters and documents and by accompanying her to official venues. Simon takes idioms literally and asks naive questions that reveal others’ hypocrisy.

Notwithstanding the reader’s sense that Katharina’s plight is becoming increasingly dire, Simon maintains good faith and trust in both their neighbors and the system; in his words, he tries “to avoid turning people into monsters by suspecting them of being monsters.” Still, he admits, “I’m easily confused by people.”

Too often, scientists have allowed our work to remain inscrutable, have fallen in love with our own metaphors, even when they do not clarify matters for nonexpert ears.

For Katharina, the distance between her son’s achievements and her own is an indication that she should not fear the relative “fools” who accuse her of sorcery. “I was no estimable mathematician to be burned for saying that cabbages might grow on other planets, too.”

Yet, though she recognizes the audacity of Kepler’s reorienting of the universe, she has witnessed the fear and small-mindedness of the critiques of her son: “Even a treatise on wine barrel sizes that [he] had written had faced trouble—who had strong opinions about the shapes of wine barrels?”

She is proud of her son’s findings (“I did take Hans as a boy to see a comet: Hadn’t I helped him?”), without fully understanding them (“I know he thought [his work] wasn’t for feminine minds”). Her experiences as the target of her neighbors’ suspicions also make her appreciate his methods: “He said he relies on the observations of others and does the math, and the dreaming, and has no need to be watching all the while. I admire Hans’s strategy now. I also now have no interest in close observation of the world as it is around me.”

But even Katharina is somewhat alienated from his science: “The movement of the planets across the sky—which to us here on earth appears chaotic—Hans believes they move according to a profound order. That sounds like a peasant girl’s dream of marrying a prince. Though bees know how to make honey, which is unfathomable enough.”

In making these comparisons, Katharina Kepler reveals a common perspective on science as a kind of dark magic, a fairy tale—a peasant girl marrying a prince, “unfathomable.” Her neighbors are superstitious. A priest warns Katharina that “omens of ill are increasing, coming in many forms … If we do not clean out our own communities from evil, we will attract more evil.” An apparently increasing number of comets—observed by all but of special interest to astrologers and astronomers like Kepler —are understood to be harbingers of doom and “invasion and the loss of harvests.” “The comets did not bode well.” And her son’s own expertise is unhelpful: “Hans … told me comets breathed out their own tails. … I didn’t understand what he could mean.”

Too often, scientists have allowed our work to remain inscrutable, have fallen in love with our own metaphors, even when they do not clarify matters for nonexpert ears. Within STEM circles, “popularizer” can be a dirty word. But we should invite people in to science, help others understand “how bees know how to make honey.”

Deeply understanding scientific “mysteries” can enhance the beauty of the world. As Richard Feynman wrote in a particularly lovely footnote: “Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars—mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?”

Despite its lyricism, Feynman’s question also hints at the kind of disciplinary chauvinism with which STEM folks can sometimes overvalue our own expertise. (Why must it be that a scientist sees more, and not simply differently?)

For example, Galchen’s local schoolmaster is mystified by Kepler’s work and his associates. “He served in Catholic territories, and with weird people. This was not long after he was working with the aristocrat from Copenhagen, the one with the moose and the false nose.” This invocation of Tycho Brahe and his eccentricities is a reminder of the remove at which Kepler’s science was performed.

Such detachment also keeps the average citizen of the empire from fully understanding that work. Kepler’s writings included a work of science fiction, Somnium (the Latin title translates as “the dream”), in which, as Maria Popova explains, he “intended to gently awaken people to the truth of Copernicus’s disconcerting heliocentric model of the universe.” Wisely, appreciating the disruption that his findings represented, Kepler chose to present them not only in scientific language but in the artistic form of a compelling story.

Yet, many contemporaries of Kepler were put off by the metafictional Somnium, taking Kepler’s stories literally and using them to bolster the charges against Katharina. Popova persuasively argues that Somnium was a useful tool for those seeking to take both Keplers down a peg—“as those who stand to gain from the manipulation of truth often prey on those bereft of critical thinking.” Such manipulation is yet another aspect of Galchen’s historical setting that feels all too contemporary.

Galchen offers a reminder not to let mistrust and fear get the best of us—to respect and value our differences, to communicate in good faith rather than bad, and to share our scientific stories widely.

And, still, science mystifies many. Still, its findings are mistrusted and its practitioners feared as antisocial weirdos with dubious motives. To this day, the sense that science is a rarefied pastime for the already privileged, aloof from society at large and its exigencies, lingers.

Many qualified would-be scientists may well choose more stable paths than the series of wrong turns and null results that comprise scientific research, and prefer paths less characterized by “toxic masculinity.” Caroline Herschel became the first female professional astronomer more than two hundred years after the events of Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch. Yet, the obstacles before Herschel included the resistance of her own mother to permit her to do anything but household chores.

And as Katharina’s advocate continues to insist that people are not monsters, even as his neighbors increasingly believe Katharina to be one, a reader may well think of Adrienne Rich’s ode to Herschel, “Planetarium,” which begins:

A woman in the shape of a monster
a monster in the shape of a woman
the skies are full of them

Both who does science and who science is for are political questions, which often have problematic answers: Kepler’s work relied on the beneficence of an emperor, whose ability to support Kepler required the maintenance of empire. (As the case against Katharina assembles itself from strands of rumor and superstition, Kepler’s own position slips when the emperor dies, and a smallpox pandemic claims the lives of his children and first wife.)

To make good choices about how we use technology and science, we must be well-informed about how that knowledge was developed and by whom. Fear and suspicion are natural human responses to a lack of openness about what’s inside the black box of a technological artifact—or how (or on whom) a medicine was tested.

Science is a human endeavor, performed by humans in human contexts. It is not the triumph of pure reason over superstition; it is not an objective march toward truth. In the words of science journalist Ed Yong, science is a “stumble toward slightly less uncertainty.” And we scientists should do the work to earn societal trust.

The more diverse the community of people involved in doing science, the more reliable, relevant, and valuable the knowledge we develop. And the more open and clear our communication of scientific processes and products, the more likely that work will be trusted.

Good science and good scientists withstand, and welcome, good-faith questioning. In her book Why Trust Science?, Naomi Oreskes appreciates the way feminist critiques and social-science research have worked to deconstruct the performative “objectivity” and disciplinary chauvinism of science. The critiques have actually made science stronger and more trustworthy, because feminists and others who’d been historically excluded from the doing of science pointed out its blind spots. This is just one of the reasons it’s important to have a representationally diverse population doing science and understanding science—Oreskes’s argument that “the case for diversity is epistemic as well as moral.”

Katharina Kepler is suspected and cast out, because of her knowledge as an herbalist, because of her unhysterical response to the hysteria of her neighbors, and, in part, because of her son’s prestige and scientific storytelling. Her plight is reminiscent of another Adrienne Rich poem, this one about another female scientist, Marie Curie. Rich wrote that Curie died “denying / her wounds came from the same source as her power.”

Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch is a very modern novel, in its structure, its playfulness with historical documents, and its polyphony—and in its painfully contemporary resonance. As we reckon with pandemics, climate catastrophe, and other challenges, Galchen offers a reminder not to let mistrust and fear get the best of us—to respect and value our differences, to communicate in good faith rather than bad, and to share our scientific stories widely. As Katharina’s friend remarks, “It turned out I wasn’t facing the rising waters alone.” icon

Featured image: Kepler’s analogy of the five solids and the five worlds, from Mysterium Cosmographicum (1621). Sue Clark / Wikimedia Commons

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