Trauma Has Forced Me to Become a Powerful Witch

Elissa Washuta's "White Magic" confronts personal pain and the legacy of colonialism through tarot, pop culture, and magic

Tarot cards
Photo by Viva Luna Studios on Unsplash

In the introductory essay of White Magic, Elissa Washuta—a Native American author and member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe—examines the colonization of spirituality, as well as her own reticence to describe herself as a witch:

“I just want a version of the occult that isn’t built on plunder, but I suspect that if we could excise the stolen pieces, there would be nothing left… I am not a medicine woman or a healer. I am a person with an internet connection and a credit card I can use to buy candles and charmed oils to cast the kind of spell that might rip a little hole in the world.”

The essay collection traverses heartbreak, trauma, videogames, Twin Peaks, and the spirits of Seattle (Washuta also discussed trauma and magic at a recent Electric Lit virtual salon). They are bracketed by epigraphs and tarot cards, by footnotes addressing the reader directly. “There is something I’m missing,” she writes. “Without it, I can’t exit the time loops teaching me through pain…When I pull the ten swords from my back, when I die to myself, when I am transformed—I think I will feel the snap of this riddle’s answer, and I’m close.”

The penultimate essay, “The Spirit Cabinet,” feels like an answer. Spanning over 100 pages and roughly two years, it catalogs time loops in Washuta’s life—parallel experiences occurring on the same dates, but years apart—as well as their intellectual parallels in Twin Peaks, The Prestige, and works of literature.

Reading White Magic felt like a time loop for me as well. In 2015, when we briefly met at small press book expo in Seattle, Washuta had inscribed “Wishing you beauty and magic, resilience and truth!” in my copy of her memoir My Body is a Book of Rules. We have not met in human form since. But six years later, I was fortunate enough to talk with her again. Over the phone, we discussed the Devil, Stevie Nicks, and what happens when an epigraph becomes a spell.

Deirdre Coyle: Let’s start at the end. So while reading White Magic, I was also playing Red Dead Redemption II, the subject of your final essay. While I would really like to ask you about your favorite horses and outfits in the game, I’m trying to restrain myself—

Elissa Washuta: Well that’s easy, the white horse and The Gambler.

DC: I love The Gambler. I could never capture the white horse, though. It ran away from me so hard that it fell off a cliff and died.

EW: Oh my god.

DC: It felt like a horrible metaphor, so I gave up. My actual question is, why did you decide to end the collection with this essay?

EW: I had all these unexplored research areas, things that people had recommended to me, or things I had come across, and one of those was Red Dead Redemption II

I also knew that I needed to do something with my free time, or I had to make myself some free time and stop working around the clock, which is what I used to do. I got a Playstation so I could relax in the evenings and play games. I didn’t have any serious, substantial intentions for the way I wanted [Red Dead Redemption II] to figure into the book; I didn’t think it was necessarily going to be the subject of its own essay. I thought it might fit into the research somewhere else. But as I was playing it, I saw all of the motifs that had been important to me in the process of writing the book—the motifs, the symbols that had been showing up for me again and again in various places, at various points in the process and at various points in my life, and everything felt like it was converging in Red Dead Redemption II. And at the same time, I was starting to feel different around then. I was starting to feel like I was getting over something, and getting out of some old patterns that had not been serving me. So I took notes on the lines of dialogue and the moments and symbols and images that struck me, and then arranged them all into an essay.

DC: There were a few moments, particularly where you talk about explaining the game to your therapist and your competing desires “to be loved by a dangerous man and to live” where I was just like, “Oh no, I relate to this too much…” 

EW: [Laughs.]

DC: Jumping back earlier in the book, there are two epigraphs—an Alice Notley poem and a Louise Erdrich poem—that show up a number of times. In a footnote, you say, “If you don’t like my epigraphs, let me play devil’s advocate: What if you don’t actually know what an epigraph is for? Or, at least, not here, where I am the center.” Am I cheating, as a reader, if I ask you what an epigraph is for?

There’s a process of failing to get closer to the answers to my narrative questions, and the epigraphs signal that we have not reached the answer yet: here we are again, we’re back.

EW: No, you’re not cheating. I think in this book, I don’t have a full answer for that. But I think, ultimately, epigraphs are for me. Epigraphs are enjoyable for me to choose and to apply and to see as accompanying the work I’ve done—and after I’ve done all that work, don’t I get to have a little epigraph as a treat? First and foremost, I think that’s what they’re for. But I wanted something else from them as well. Part of the reason I have them opening most of the essays in the book is to be a little bit annoying. I kind of added them as a reaction to seeing yet another conversation about epigraphs on Twitter where the general consensus was that they’re bad, and that good work shouldn’t need epigraphs, and everybody skips over them anyway. So I thought, well, if you’re just going to skip over them, I’ll put the same ones over and over, because it doesn’t matter to you, and I like those two. I like them a lot. So why don’t I just see who’s paying attention? That was how it started, as a joke. But I began to realize that they had a structural function as well, in that I had started to understand what the structural movement of the book was going to be. The structural movement of the book is looping. There’s a process of failing to get closer to the answers to my narrative questions, and I think the epigraphs signal that we have not reached the answer yet: here we are again, we’re back. There’s a pattern happening, and still we are not breaking free from it—until we do. After the entire thing was done, I did realize that by including these repeated epigraphs, in a way, I was using them like a spell.

DC: The epigraphs are often immediately preceded by descriptions of tarot cards opening some of the sections. How did you decide which cards you were going to use—did you pull them?

EW: I chose them intentionally. I looked at the essays in each section that I was creating and tried to match cards to them based on where I was on the Fool’s Journey in asking and working through these questions of the book. Of course, it doesn’t really line up like that because it doesn’t begin with the beginning of the Major Arcana [The Fool] and end with the end [The World]. But if I were thinking about my own journey in this book, there is a way to chart it in a linear way, similar to how the Major Arcana moves forward through a journey. It’s just that the pieces are scrambled; they’re not in the same order.

DC: I liked the part where you pull The Devil card for a man, and you say, “This is about fucking.” I actually laughed out loud. I was like, true enough.

EW: He was so offended.

DC: People get freaked out by that card.

EW: When he got back from his trip, he made sure to tell me that he still didn’t know what The Devil card was all about. Like, okay, it’s just tarot, dude.

DC: In “White Witchery,” you describe your reticence to call yourself a “witch,” particularly as you examine colonization of spiritual practices past and present. How do you approach a personal definition of “witchcraft” now?

Even though I don’t have the same methods as witches, the aims are ultimately the same as they ever were, and that’s the kind of witch I am. 

EW: When I finished the book, it was obvious to me that even though I’d lost interest in spells along with tarot and astrology, that was irrelevant, because through the process of becoming open to the synchronicities that propelled my writing process, I had tapped into the power I was looking for, and so I still considered myself a witch. That’s still where I’m at. My magician friends consider me a magician because our aims have so much in common; in the same way, even though I don’t have the same methods as witches, the aims are ultimately the same as they ever were, and that’s the kind of witch I am. 

DC: You write that while unable to schedule an appointment with a therapist during a crisis, “I google spells to take the PTSD out of me. But is that what I want? To stop my brain from thrashing against the wickedness America stuffed inside?” Why do you think so many of us turn to prayer or spellwork as paths to coping with trauma?

EW: For me, in that moment, it was somewhat of a last-ditch effort to find some relief when forms of treatment were unavailable to me because it’s basically impossible to find a therapist in this city who can work effectively with PTSD sufferers and takes my insurance. There was nothing I could think to do but appeal to whatever force might be out there beyond my understanding.

DC: There are some meta moments where you describe what you could do with an essay, and then explain that you aren’t going to because it’s boring. My favorite was in “Little Lies,” where you say that the essay “could end with a look back at my entire drinking history and my triumphant recovery, but that’s boring. Anyway, I only want to talk about Stevie.” So let’s talk about Stevie. Which of her songs would you put on the soundtrack to White Magic and why?

EW: Let me look at my playlist, because I actually made a little soundtrack and then abandoned it in ADHD fashion. First and foremost, “Silver Springs.” That song was so important to me at the time when this book really started to get on its true course, and I knew what it was going to be, and I began writing really quickly after years of struggling. That song is such a subject of that essay, “Little Lies,” and is so much about a failed romance and not letting go of the idea of it and the idea of the person who’s gone away. 

That’s what my essays are about, my thoughts. And all of my thoughts are about the internet now. That’s where I live, as many of us do.

“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” is another one that is in the book, because I sang that at karaoke and it was very on the nose as far as what was happening at that time with the now-ex-boyfriend—or, then-ex-boyfriend, too—the ex-boyfriend who is the subject of so much of the book—was draggin’ my heart around. 

“The Chain” was a really big one, as a—I think that was, part of it was written by Stevie, and part of it was written by Lindsey. 

I really like “Wild Heart” as well. The line in the chorus, “Don’t blame it on me, blame it on my wild heart,” really speaks to the problem that was driving the writing of so many of these essays. I was writing them at a time when my irrational heart would not let me get over this person, and logically, I certainly should have moved on from him as soon as he broke up with me, or even before then. But, you know, my heart isn’t a thinker. It’s wild and it’s irrational. And this book was really an attempt to explain that, to show why that happened and why I was acting in confounding ways.

DC: And how it led you into becoming a powerful witch, right?

EW: It did, surprising myself and everyone else. Something good came out of all of this heartbreak.

DC: The internet is an important character, especially regarding its many opinions about witchcraft and things like ancestral healing and hedge witches. How did falling into internet holes shape your work on this collection—if it did?

EW: It absolutely did. It’s a central element of my process at this point. You know, at some point, I began letting my curiosity really drive my process. I think it was in writing “Little Lies,” as I started finding more and more things. That really picked up in writing “The Spirit Corridor” which I wrote right after “Little Lies.” I had no idea where that essay was going to go. I really had no sense of anything that was going to come out of it, I just had the starting point and kept putting things together and following Wikipedia links to Wikipedia links to Wikipedia links.

This is still part of my process as I’m moving into writing other things, following my curiosity through the World Wide Web is just what’s most interesting to me. I’ve gone over the same old events of my life so many times now, and it’s not bad subject matter—it’s not that it’s stale or that I can never write about it again. I write about things multiple times all the time. But when it comes to some of the things in my past, some of my trauma, I’m not having any new insight about it. It’s not completely resolved; I haven’t totally moved on from it, but I don’t have any new thoughts about it. And that’s what my essays are about, they’re about my thoughts. And all of my thoughts are about the internet now. That’s where I live, as many of us do. All of my thoughts are in some way related to the internet.

DC: Very relatable. When you were working on “The Spirit Cabinet,” where so many different time loops are spiraling together, were you folding things in as they came to you, or did you begin with a baseline of things you wanted to include in the essay?

EW: I started that essay sometime around July 17th, 2018, when I got back from Seattle. I had just spent a pretty good amount of time with Carl [the aforementioned “ex-boyfriend who is the subject of so much of the book”]. He was both interested in me and not at all interested in me. During my time there, on that visit—maybe during the previous visit, too—we both noticed that things were happening that had happened on or near the same date a year before, or two years before. So I thought that seemed like something I should investigate in writing—how does it really line up? I wanted to write out these events and see if there was anything there. 

I started putting really short phrases on index cards and putting dates on them, and started researching: gathering events and dates from my calendar, from old emails and various places where I could find my trail of breadcrumbs back to my old self from the past few years. I just wrote down everything that was significant in my memory from our relationship and when everything happened. At the same time, I kept thinking about quotes from Twin Peaks and The Prestige and Carl Jung, and I wrote those on notecards, too. Partway through and then at the end, I looked through all of the index cards to see what the shape of the whole thing looked like if I were to make it a narrative starting on January 1 and ending on December 31 with the years overlapping. It was much more interesting than I even expected. So everything that happened in the last half of 2018 I was noting as it happened. That makes for a little bit of entanglement between book and life, but really, that was the case for all of this.

DC: In your essay about being writer-in-residence at Seattle’s Fremont Bridge, you talk about wanting to tell a story linking the present and the past—and you’re talking about, of course, what you’re working on while you’re at the residency—and you ask, “Does the collecting of details get me any closer to meaning? What is my research question? How will I know when I’m done?” So in this collection, how did you know when you were “done?

EW: It was when I got to that line that you mentioned earlier, “I go back to my house-cave and talk to no real men until I can resolve these competing desires in me: to be loved by a dangerous man and to live.” When I got to that line, I remember feeling that epiphany feeling, that I guess had been obvious from the outside. I mean, I knew that I was choosing the wrong men, and I knew that I was choosing men who were not good for me, and I knew that the men that I was with didn’t, ultimately, care that much about my well-being, or care at all. But that realization was what put the brakes on that happening. That came to me while I was writing. I knew I just had to finish that essay, and then I was done. I was going to exit.

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