Saturday, April 26, 2014

Diana Wynne Jones’s witch Aunt Maria: part I

Aunt Maria appears in Diana Wynne Jones’s Black Maria aka Aunt Maria. She operates and does a lot of damage on more than one level: she is both a dreadful, detestable, manipulative old woman and an evil witch.

Aunt Maria gets under my skin in a way that none of the other witches I have discussed so far does. I can read about her turning people into animals without any problems, but I can hardly bear to read the descriptions of her ‘this world’ behaviour towards the family that she asks to come and stay with her: it comes too close to home; it triggers very painful memories and feelings.

Her intrusive behaviour over the phone in the first few pages of the book is more than enough to make me want to stop reading, but I persevere because there are lessons to be learned and points and connections to be made.

Aunt Maria’s personality and behaviour
Aunt Maria is hateful; she is insufferable; she is intrusive, annoying, selfish, demanding and controlling. She is a complete expert in using suggestion, disapproval, martyrdom, disappointment, guilt trips, intimidation, emotional blackmail and mind control to manipulate people into doing what she wants. She is cruel and unscrupulous. She is a tyrant in disguise: she subtly forces everyone to dance to her tune.

Aunt Maria makes very intrusive phone calls with the pretext of being concerned for people’s welfare. This is ridiculous: people who genuinely care about someone think about the effect that their actions may have on that person. She is really trying to turn people into remotely-controlled puppets.

Aunt Maria is deceitful; she is not on the level; she is an expert games player. She gets a family – a girl called Mig, a boy called Chris and their mother (the father is missing presumed dead) - to come and stay with her under false pretences: she offers them a break, but when they get there they find that they are expected to do all her shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing and gardening and run her errands. They do not learn this immediately, but she has turned her home help into a cat and played the bait and switch game because she needs a replacement.

She is the sort of person who frazzles people’s nerves and drives them frantic with never-ending demands and reproaches. Sometimes she shouts and bangs on the floor to get someone to attend her: she expects them to drop everything and rush to the scene. She snaps commands. She adds insult to injury by first making inordinate and inappropriate demands then expressing disappointment when the results are below her standards or outside her expectations. She burdens others with the responsibility for her well being; she makes them do things that she could and should be doing for herself.

She is conveniently deaf: she can hear very well when she wants to, but often forces people to shout and repeat what they have said. She hears them when they don’t want her to, and vice versa.

Aunt Maria pretends to be more disabled than she really is: the payoff is that people are obliged to perform a lot of tasks for her, which gives them no peace and little time to think and discuss events with each other. When Aunt Maria wants to phone people, she gets someone to do it through the operator on her behalf instead of dialling directly herself. She says that she can’t leave her wheelchair to fetch her spectacles so someone else is forced to go and get them for her, but she jumps up with no trouble and runs to the window slashing the air with her walking sticks  when she sees a cat (her former assistant) outside.

This reminds me of a chilling anecdote I read about the novelist Jean Rhys, who was supposed to be crippled and immovable and made people push her around in a wheelchair. Her nurse/helper had been advised to walk out when Jean became angry and impossibly abusive, but when she tried this Jean was out of her wheelchair in a flash. She ran to the door and locked it to block her assistant’s exit. The actress Anna Massey confirmed this: she saw that Jean Rhys could scoot along like nobody’s business when she wanted to.

Aunt Maria puts people into a double bind: the children are forced to lie and weave a tangled web of deception and hide their actions just to protect themselves and get her off their backs. Mig’s creeping up and down stairs, standing and waiting, listening out for snoring and hoping that her Aunt wouldn’t hear her is exactly what one of the novelist Antonia White’s daughters used to do to avoid trouble from her mother.

Aunt Maria’s bad behaviour has many payoffs: it makes people suffer; it sabotages lives; it has the effect of warping and distorting her victims’ personalities; it diminishes and devolves people; it ties up and wastes resources; it raises a high yield of negative energy in the form of suppressed anger.

Aunt Maria’s environment and circle
Aunt Maria’s house – number 13 in the street - is unaccountably dark and has an unpleasant smell; she has no TV and no washing machine; the circle of friends that she reigns over consists of twelve women who are bizarre or disagreeable or both. No surprises here: witches’ homes often have a bad atmosphere and thirteen is the ideal number for a coven. Witchlike people do not usually have any decent human beings as close friends.

She goes on and on about these friends and their trivial sayings and doings. Not only does this incessant mind-numbing drivel ensure that the children never get the peace and quiet necessary for clear thinking, it also makes them feel that they are trapped inside a bubble filled with a “getting-a-cold smell”. This is very interesting: flu symptoms often appear after someone has been attacked by an energy vampire.

The children feel that inside the bubble are Aunt Maria and her town and that this is the entire world. It is like being in prison with nothing happening. I had this feeling during my formative years. Sylvia Plath’s bell jar comes to mind here too. I remember reading that one of Antonia White’s daughters went for walks after reading her mother’s diaries just to remind herself that something existed outside her mother’s sick mind.

The married men of the town, which Aunt Maria reigns over like a queen bee, are zombie drones, mindless de-souled automata whose only use is to earn money. The children of the town are brainwashed clones who are sent to live in an orphanage. The book gives magic as the means by which this has been done, but in real life witch-like women have a very bad effect on their families, whom they do not nurture nor care about at all. Their children are often neglected, miserable, brainwashed hostages and prisoners. Such women often turn people close to them into repetitive tape recorders who never have anything original or useful to say.

Black Maria has a suggested reading age of 8 to 13. It is actually a gold mine for people of any age who want to learn about the behaviour of certain types of witches and emotional blackmailers.  There are some scenes that are of particular interest to me as I have had similar experiences. They are described in the next part of this article.