Book Review: Conversion, by Katherine Howe

What is happening to the girls of St. Joan’s? One by one, the students of this elite girls’ school are falling ill with mysterious symptoms: They’re having seizures, losing their mobility, and watching their hair fall out. One is even coughing up pins. Is it a fraud? Is it environmental illness? Everyone in the community of Danvers, Massachusetts, has answers, and Colleen Rowley is one of them as she watches her classmates succumb one by one. But the real answer will shock everyone, and it will shed a sharp light on the stressful conditions real-world teenage girls live in today.

Conversion starts out with a fascinating premise: A strange illness that’s sweeping through an entire school, with no obvious signs, and inconsistent symptoms. It’s complicated by the setting, as Danvers, Massachusetts, is, of course, the former Salem Village — the site of the infamous witch trials of the 17th century. In Conversion, the story flicks back and forth between the young women of Salem who were so instrumental to the trials and the modern-day experiences of the girls of St. Joan’s, and while there might at first seem to be a parallel, in the end, there’s a significant divergence.

Katherine Howe is actually a descendent of women accused in the Salem trials, including one woman who was executed for witchcraft. She’s clearly haunted by her family legacy and she’s explored it before both academically and literarily. I’m also fascinated by the witch trials, though not due to a family connection: They were my introduction to working with original source documents when studying history, in a course that really developed my love of history and my passion to going straight to the source for the story. I spent the fall of 2000 poring through trial records, land records, and other documents from the era, in addition to visiting Danvers to see some of the sites described firsthand (including Rebecca Nurse’s house, which I highly recommend visiting if you have an opportunity to do so).

There are, of course, many theories about what happened in Salem and why, but Howe brings up an interesting possibility: That the girls started out faking, and became swept up in something much larger. In an era when women and girls were rarely listened to, the ability to become the center of the room with a simple witchcraft accusation would have been incredibly intoxicating, and it would have snowballed. Howe notes that many of the original victims of accusations were living on the margins of Salem society, and it wasn’t until the girls had cemented their role that they began going after respected members of the village like Rebecca Nurse.

She draws upon the confession of Ann Putnam, Jr. in describing a world where the girls, tired of being treated as second-class citizens, found a way to enhance their social status at the cost of innocent women (and one man — Giles Corey is often left out of discussions about Salem). In the Salem narrative of Conversion, the girls find themselves being used as political tools by the men and other adults around them, sweeping the village up into an unstoppable and deadly frenzy. It’s an explanation with a lot of solid evidence and much to recommend it, and I love the way Howe explored it.

But is that what’s happening to the girls of St. Joan’s in modern-day Danvers? That’s what Colleen initially thinks, until she starts to develop symptoms of her own. As the cases get more widespread and capture media attention, everyone descends upon the city for their piece of the pie, including a prominent environmental activist modeled after Erin Brokovitch. Colleen begins to wonder if perhaps it really is witchcraft, the result of uncontrolled magic and power emanating from one of her friends as she’s in a state of emotional turmoil.

But the Department of Public Health has a much more mundane explanation: Conversion disorder. Individuals under extreme stress can start to develop neurological and other physiological symptoms like seizures and hair loss, with no obvious physical cause. In the world of St. Joan’s, the girls are fiercely competitive with each other, all of them pushing for the valedictorian slot while they fight for the limited spaces available in top schools like Harvard. This competition combines with the crushing environment of a school where they’re expected to engage in extracurriculars and engage in work and class to a very high standard: St. Joan’s is a pressure cooker, and some of the girls start to snap without any emotional and academic support to guide them through the incredibly stressful environment.

While Conversion is ostensibly fiction, it’s inspired by a real-life instance of conversion disorder that swept through a girls’ school. And it challenges the reader: As an adult reading, I’m reminded of the intense pressures put upon teens today. For teen readers, I imagine that the book feels even more pressing and real. Howe is confronting the assumption that high pressure, tense academic environments bring out the best in our young adults and teens, and argues that more supportive, less demanding environments might help teens and children manage their mental health more effectively and reach their full potential.

There’s no reason that young women in high school should be experiencing conversion disorder, a condition that only appears under extreme stress. And yet, they are, which is a telling condemnation of what we heap upon them in daily society. Do we really want to live in a world where we are making girls sick by sending them to school, and where the pressure to perform is so high that it can cause a serious psychiatric disorder that requires months of therapy and medication?