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Segal, N. (2001). Witches: A Psychoanalytical Exploration of the Killing of Women by Evelyn Heinemann, translated by Donald Kiraly (London and New York: Free Association Books, 2000, pp. viii + 163): Ashes of Immortality: Widow-Burning in India by Catherine WeinbergerThomas, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman and David Gordon White (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999, pp. xii + 322). Psychoanal. Hist., 3(1):109-117.
    

(2001). Psychoanalysis and History, 3(1):109-117

Witches: A Psychoanalytical Exploration of the Killing of Women by Evelyn Heinemann, translated by Donald Kiraly (London and New York: Free Association Books, 2000, pp. viii + 163): Ashes of Immortality: Widow-Burning in India by Catherine WeinbergerThomas, translated by Jeffrey Mehlman and David Gordon White (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999, pp. xii + 322)

Review by:
Naomi Segal

Taking review books on holiday is a good way of working through the summer, and I found myself beneath a blazing Midi sun swimming round and round a small pool carrying with me the horror of these two texts. The slightest sunburn is, we all know, so uncomfortable that we learn the lesson of the burnt child young; in the decadent West of the year 2000, we also know it is bad for our skin and therefore our lives. Most haunting, as I swam through the cool water, was the metaphor reported by Weinberger-Thomas, of the ‘lustratory fire-bath’, which is meant to reassure such witnesses as the widow's mother, who dreamt later that her daughter had felt no pain (107), that “‘the flames refresh the sat like sandalwood paste, a morning bath, or the still waters of a lotus pond”’ (43).

I also tried to deflect the unpleasantness of the subject-matter by a grammatical wordplay that proved—of course—more revealing than distracting. Burning women is wrong: yes, say both these books, at least at the start. Burning women are wrong: here their subjects diverge. Heinemann's material focuses on the punitive violence visited on women identified as witches, that is, as demonically aggressive, in mainly 16th- and 17th-century Europe. She asks how the people gathered at the foot of the pyre, and the accusers and judges before them, can have shown such indifference to the suffering of the accused. Her answer is a mixture of psychoanalytic and historical explanations.

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