The strangeness of the judicial system whereby confession lead to freedom and truth lead to death was accurate in spirit in the Miller play, as were some aspects of the accusations, such as favoring older women to accuse and pressing one man to death for a refusal to enter a plea beneath heavy stones.
According to the PBS documentary "Secrets of the Dead," the real origin of the hysteria in Salem was likely biological, and not purely due to the psychology of religious fanaticism or even a craven desire to use the judicial process to wage personal vendettas. According to researchers: "LSD is a derivative of ergot, a fungus that affects rye grain. Ergotism -- ergot poisoning... eating ergot-contaminated food can lead to a convulsive disorder characterized by violent muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations, crawling sensations on the skin, and a host of other symptoms...Ergot thrives in warm, damp, rainy springs and summers" ("Secrets of the dead: The witches curse," PBS, 2002). According to the diaries of Salem residents those conditions were present in 1691, at the time of the accusations.
"Secrets of the dead: The witches curse." PBS. 2002. [September 29, 2011]
Susan was the type of girl nobody disliked, but nobody particularly noticed. She was small, with light brown hair. She wore minimal makeup and plain clothing, but not so plain as to seem as if she were expressing contempt for fashion. She got good grades, of course, but was not particularly athletic or domineering at student council meetings, so she managed to dodge the gossip of girls who liked to sneer at girls who seem overly ambitious.
When the officers for the National Honor Society were elected, two of the most popular girls ran for the position of Vice President. They split the vote of their friends, and so Susan was elected by default.
"It's no big deal," said Susan. "It's not like the Vice President does all that much. It's mostly a ceremonial position. And when did the school have an honor crisis last, anyway, I'd like to know?" She was perfectly modest and self-effacing in a Susan-like way. But of course she was gloating inside. I am the Vice-President of the National Honor Society, she said to herself as she walked home, as she did, every day after band practice (Susan played the flute). Then she'd go home, pour herself a glass of chocolate milk and eat a chocolate doughnut and finish up her homework.
Some of the pages of her notebook had doodles on them: Josh, one page read, and was emblazoned with hearts. The next page just said 'Josh' over and over again, in different styles of cursive and print. Josh was the first trombone in the band. Alone of all of the band members, he actually played his instrument outside of school and was pretty good at it. He was the youngest member of a jazz cover band in the area. A local newspaper had even written a short feature on him. Josh was smart, but the type of smart guy who got good grades because he could figure out math problems intuitively, just by looking at them, and because he could argue his way up to an A- with an English teacher who originally gave him a B-
Susan sat next to Josh in history class. The history teacher tested his students after every unit by giving them a multiple choice exam, followed by a short essay. The first test everyone in class failed except Susan, who barely squeaked by with a C+. Although the tests were multiple choice, the questions were the kind of picky, thought-provoking puzzlers that demanded more than simply recalling facts. Slowly, everyone's grades began to climb as they got used to the texts, but only Susan was pulling even a low A- in class by mid-semester.
"Psst," said Josh one morning, as the entire class was huddled over the scantron sheets. Susan was bent over and she could see Josh craning his neck to look at her paper.
The year before, there had been an entire row of students who would lean back and let their classmates look at their quizzes in World Civ. Susan had seen Josh do it many times. Sometimes she had allowed others to look at her paper, although she never looked at anyone else's (what would have been the point? She was usually right).
Josh was wearing his Varsity swimming jacket (he swam during the winter season, he wasn't in the band). His hair was tousled. His skin was golden and smooth. I am the Vice-President of the National Honor Society, Susan reminded herself. It is times like these that I am tested, when I prove my fitness.
But what if Josh doesn't like me if I don't let him copy? Susan leaned back, half-convincing herself she needed to scratch her back.
She imagined herself strolling through the cafeteria hand-in-hand with Josh. She imagined him patting her on the backside, like he did to tease other girls, but he never did with her -- no boy ever did. She imagined him sending her roses on Valentine's Day or their anniversary in class, like some boys did. She imagined feeling normal.
Heart fluttering beneath her conservative navy blue V-neck sweater, Susan returned to the test. She could hardly concentrate, yet she could see the answers sticking up like sore thumbs from the page. Yes, she had studied that hard -- she could still get the right answers even when in a tizzy of emotions -- anger, frustration, and longing. Susan kept leaning back and closed her eyes every time, so she didn't look like she was looking at someone else's paper.
"Are you alright?" The history teacher asked, after she turned in her test. Susan's face was bright pink and she felt nauseous. He knows, she thought. No, he doesn't know, he just thinks I look flushed. No, he knows.
At the end of class, Josh gave Susan a pinch on the arm. "Thanks Suzy Q." Susan's heart skipped a beat. No one had ever called her by a cute nickname before! She watched Josh's jacket melt into a sea of other Varsity jackets. He grabbed a girl and gave her a hug and then slapped a male friend of his on the shoulder.
That day, Susan walked home alone after band practice, and began her usual ritual of pouring her milk and eating her doughnut. But she wasn't hungry.
The next few days, Josh was out, and every day her fantasies grew more intense. She was sitting next to him in band class, before it began, sharing a bottle of Snapple. The two of them were driving in a car, listening to music together, and going down to the beach. She imagined talking with him, sharing her deepest darkest secrets.
"Hey Suzy Q," said Josh when he returned.
Susan looked up from cleaning her flute. Josh put down his trombone case. "Are you as smart in English as you are in history?"
Susan thought his pause took an eternity.
"See, my girlfriend needs some help -- she has this research paper that is due...She goes to East Middletown High and..."
Susan didn't hear the rest of what Josh said. She heard herself say "no." Just no. It amazed her how quickly dreams can dissolve, with the cold intrusion of reality.