Walking into the Museo dei Segreti e Misteri in Florence, Italy is exactly what one would expect and want from a witches’ museum: it is a bit New Age-y, a bit Hollywood, a bit gothic. The first floor is mostly darkened and laid out in a labyrinth of display cases lit from within. Here, are the freeze-dried remains of a fairy, her wings gray, fragile and dry. In this area, a wizard’s dream of potions, ointments and herbs to cast spells both positive and negative. And in this display case, carved and highly polished, are…um…medieval dildos, including one called The Little Bishop. As you near the end of the labyrinth, there are stairs shrouded in darkness: what creepy delights wait on the second floor?
With giggles and fear that is not really fear, you step into the next level and it is brilliance. Brilliance because here it is no longer dark. And brilliance because the person who designed this museum did so consciously. The entrance holds the quirky, romantic notions of what it means to be a witch. But this floor is truly horrific: in the blinding light of day are the instruments of torture actually used on women called witch. Witchcraft is no longer fun. It is bloody, traumatic, and heartbreaking.
Occupying a large portion of the room is a rack. To think I often joked about wanting to be stretched on one…seeing the real thing cures my humor. And near this wall, is a pyramid and diagram. Women were lowered onto the point of the pyramid through the anus. The placard says this method of torture is still in use today in some Latin American countries, although it doesn’t specify which ones. And look, right here, saving the worst for last, is a breast ripper. Not used just for witches, but for the unlucky girl who found herself unwed and pregnant: after giving birth, her breasts would be torn from her body and her illegitimate child would be thrown to the floor to die.
Such horrors and violence that men have visited upon women through the ages.
And yet, as I stood absorbing torture and death from centuries past, I didn’t just think about the men. I thought about the women who stood by and observed the blood and pain, shrieks and death. Perhaps many of them stood back because as women, during those times, they had little power. I’m sure many of them thought, But for the grace of God, go I. That I can actually understand. But I also wondered about the women who were complicit in the torture of their sisters, who accused and ultimately condemned them. Because I know one thing: women, then as now, can be just as violent as men.
A lot of women, especially enlightened, intelligent women, don’t like to believe this. I don’t like to believe it. And yet, look at what women do to each other, to the next generation. It is not the men who hold down their daughters and granddaughters and cut off their clitorises and labia with glass. It is not the men who engage in gavage, the forced feeding, of their small daughters or crush the girls’ feet between boards when their little bodies vomit food they can no longer hold. It is the mothers and grandmothers who torture their girls. Like seeing the rack in person, all sense of political correctness and cultural relativism disappears when I witness a little girl held down by her loved ones and tortured. This is what women do to each other.
Sure, you may say, but that happens in third world countries. They don’t know better. We don’t do anything like that in the west. Women don’t commit violence against each other. Certainly not against their daughters and granddaughters.
Yet, look at what women do to themselves. There is nothing wrong with dressing well, exercising, or even highlighting our best physical features. But too often, we go to extremes. We stuff ourselves into underwire push-up bras, thongs and heels that hurt our backs and feet. We pluck and rip the hair out of our bodies. We crisp our skin in tanning booths or stain it orange because God forbid, we should be too pale. And while we don’t have our breasts ripped off, we do have them stuffed with saline or silicone; we have our noses scraped, our fat sucked out, our lips plumped with collagen and faces injected with botulism. We have built a billion dollar cosmetic industry because none of us, as is, is deemed good enough. We belittle women who don’t buy into this violence we commit against ourselves. And then, we pass this behavior and these beliefs onto the next generation.
When I was a preteen and before I was diagnosed with Scoliosis—or even worse, afterwards—my grandmother would punch me in the back and bark, “Straighten up!” Her punches too often landed directly on my spine and would take the breath from me. And then, when the button nose I was born with grew into something more pronounced, something more like my grandmother wore, Grandma brought me a pencil. She rubbed the eraser on the bridge of my nose and told me to do that every day to whittle down the bump that was there. Until my grandmother had pointed out my flaws and tried to correct them in what were very cruel ways, I didn’t realize I was so ugly. I held onto that ugliness for years, until I was older and had to have jaw surgery. The operation was corrective but my motivations for going through with it were due purely to low self-esteem: I hoped the operation would make me prettier, more acceptable. Two major and four minor operations and six bone screws later, I am prettier…but it has little to do with the surgeries and everything to do with finally accepting myself.
This may seem like I’m blaming Grandma, and at one time, I admit, it would’ve been. Her words and actions not only hurt my feelings, they changed my opinions of myself; but as an adult, I believe my grandmother reflected what she herself had been taught. I know my great-grandmother hadn’t been particularly nice to her daughter; my grandmother simply passed on what she knew. Like many women, her failure was simply not thinking about what she was passing on, about whether it was worthy or cruel.
Unfortunately, that is what keeps women in a circle of violence. It’s bad enough women find themselves the victims of brutality committed by men. Yet, too many of us value ourselves so little we don’t stop and think about what we have endured. We learn not to honor ourselves. Then, we pass all of our pain, insecurity and lack of acceptance onto the next generation of women. And it doesn’t matter where in the world it comes from, whether it is female genital mutilation or unnecessary plastic surgery or seeing the parts of ourselves we hate in the features of our daughters, it all is violence against women by women. Like the witches of old who died at the stake, we pass a torch of self-hatred.
Changing this legacy begins with ourselves. It starts with redirecting our energies and focusing on what is inherently beautiful, unique and powerful about us rather than on what does not measure up to outside standards. We must finally recognize our own worth. As is. Doing so is the key to uplifting how the next generation values itself.
And wouldn’t that make a great museum? Imagine, here is my photo and yours and on this wall, hers. Next to every one of our faces is a simple placard that reads: Here is a woman. She is worthy. She is safe. She is beautiful. As is. Pass it on.
Special Note: The “Museo dei Segreti e Misteri, or Museum of Secrets and Mysteries, was actually an exhibit that only ran from March to June, 2002, in Florence. For as disturbing as many of its items were, the museum told a powerful story about the history of women and I wish it was still in existence.