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  • Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self
  • Brian J. Gibbons
Helen A. Berger and Douglas Ezzy. Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007. Pp. xvii + 278.

This is a study of a relatively new phenomenon: the rise of the teenage witch since the 1990s. Berger and Ezzy have studied ninety adolescents and young adults from the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, all of whom have identified themselves as "witches" for at least a year. The authors give a clear picture of their route into the modern witchcraft movement, its role in helping them to construct a sense of selfhood, and its impact on their ethical and political outlook. They locate the phenomenon in the conditions of postmodernity: globalization (including the importance of the Internet), "the death of grand narratives," and the growth of relativism.

There is little in this book that will surprise anyone acquainted with young witches. We learn that both the Internet and books play a major role in introducing them to witchcraft and in developing their beliefs. The teenage witches form a community of sorts, but it is often a virtual one; they are less likely than their older coreligionists to be part of formal groups such as covens. While the possibilities offered by instrumental magic often play a part in interesting them in witchcraft in the first place, most appear to move on to a more spiritual understanding of the movement, which represents "a technology of the self " (p. 112).

The justification for this study is to be found in providing an empirical basis for a "knowledge" about teenage witches that would otherwise be largely anecdotal. In this respect, however, Berger and Ezzy's book has definite limitations (about which the authors are themselves forthright). Ninety interviewees from three continents constitute a small sample, and one that does not claim to be random: it tells us about the role of witchcraft in the lives of a self-selected group of people who happen to be mostly white, well-educated middle-class youths. This is probably representative of youth involvement in witchcraft in general, but it would be good to have solid evidence. The authors are strangely diffident in certain areas. Although they "did not directly ask" any of their subjects if they had been depressed at the [End Page 210] time they became interested in witchcraft (p. 71), Berger and Ezzy use the incidental and unsolicited information provided by their interviewees to discuss the role of such personal crises in the decision to adopt witchcraft beliefs; the result is some knowledge about a self-selecting group within a larger self-selecting group. The same criticism could be made about the authors' handling of the teenage witches' attitudes to sex and drugs.

It is perhaps inappropriate to criticise too severely a sociological study of a contemporary movement for its lack of historical perspective, but since the authors represent teenagers as responding to postmodern conditions in their spiritual quest, some sense of the occult in modernity would be useful. There is some evidence that a very similar structure of beliefs has appealed to a very similar social milieu (well-educated middle-ranking people of white European ethnicity) for centuries, and that since the nineteenth century, it has increasingly been associated with youth culture. The conditions of postmodernity undoubtedly play a vital role in shaping this contemporary movement, but surely not to the exclusion of all historical tradition.

Berger and Ezzy's "greatest concern is that the voices of young Witches are heard and respected" (p. 242). If this is the main criterion, the authors have succeeded admirably. Throughout the book, and especially in the vignettes of individual witches given between each of the more analytical chapters, the teenage witches are allowed to speak for themselves, giving the reader a clear sense of lives that are actually lived. Whatever its limits as a sociological survey, this book is thoroughly enjoyable to read, introducing the reader to a group of thoughtful, ethically concerned, and charming young people.

Brian J. Gibbons
Liverpool John Moores University


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pp. 210-211
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