Reviewing The Screwtape Letters as a Witch: How Not to be Nice to Your Mother

Continuing the theme of getting the patient to hell via low-grade shittiness, Screwtape coaches Wormwood on working with the demon of the patient’s mother. The goal, of course, is to make sure they both bring out the worst in each other whenever possible.

Step one: “Keep his mind on the inner life.” In other words, don’t let him think he needs to work on his actual habits. If he thinks his everyday choices affect other people, he might start acting more thoughtfully. If, on the other hand, he thinks the main goal is to feel vaguely more spiritual inside, he can walk around in perfect self-righteousness without once reflecting on the fact that, as far as everybody else is concerned, he’s still the same prick from before.

Step two: “Make sure… that he is always concerned with the state of her soul and never with her rheumatism.” Ideally, of course, the patient would not be concerned with either, but now that he’s a Christian he’s certainly going to start *shudder* praying for her. Wormwood needs to go on the defensive here. The patient can be encouraged to believe that praying for her to become a better, less sinful person is a loftly, spiritual thing to do. In practice, this means spending a lot of time thinking about her worst traits… so that he can more accurately pray for them, of course. Prayer can be a way of creating an increasingly distorted image of another person. Screwtape brags that he has used this technique to make superficially devout people into child abusers and wife beaters. He doesn’t say this to suggest that Wormwood can achieve those heights of villainy with this particular patient. Mostly, I think, he just likes to brag.

Step three: “When two humans have lived together for many years it usually happens that each has tones of voice and expressions of face which are almost unendurably irritating to the other. Work on that.” Once he’s got an image of his inner life as being perfect and hers as being in desperate need of prayer, Wormwood can always make the patient assume the best about himself and the worst about her. She knows how much that face bothers him. He never makes faces that bother her. There’s no possibility that she has her own perspective on the situation.

Step four: “In civilized life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face.” The dynamic from step three reaches a boiling point. Fights become incredibly easy to provoke. Because both the patient and his mother are thinking in a double standard, both can share a little blame and neither willing to admit it. Resentment builds up and the more this happens, the harder it is for either of them to break the cycle.

We can all recognize the flickers of these dynamics in ourselves. Hopefully, our awareness of them keeps us in check. We remind ourselves, in the middle of the fight, that the other person has their own perspective, and basing a whole argument on perceptions of intent isn’t necessarily healthy. Neither is basing a whole sense of innocence on the belief that you are incapable of causing offense.

When I first reread this book, in addition to just having left Christianity, I had also left a home environment with really unhealthy dynamics. I was a little afraid of accepting this chapter because I was used to taking all the blame and responsibility for making things better on myself. I can now see clearly how my father tended to reverse adult/child responsibilities. In this book, I love the acknowledgement that Christianity is not an antidote to toxic or abusive relationships, but can at times be appropriated as a shield for it. It was pretty rare to find this kind of honesty when I was a kid, and I’m glad I got it somewhere.

The one thing I miss is a more explicit focus on how the mentality the patient has will produce a toxic relationship, even if his mother doesn’t respond in kind. On the other hand, I can see a benefit for making this toxic back-and-forth a focus. When only one person is acting like this, it’s easy for everyone else to recognize it, and refuse to engage. When two people feed on each other in this way, suddenly people start to take sides. This leads to them adopting similar mentalities. (So-and-so was JUST talking about the weather, and suddenly Whatsisface flew off the handle as if So-and-so said something wrong! And did you hear what Whatsisface said about So-and-so’s hair? Well, what they said was this, but what they meant…)

This is one of the only chapters where we see demons portrayed as working in real collaboration. It’s not their style. They have a zero-sum mentality towards life and see mutually beneficial collaboration as the exception to the normal rules of life, not the ideal. It’s the mirror opposite of how we want life to be: collaborating on everything, except how to get on each other’s nerves.

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