When I walk into Catland Books, Brooklyn's "premiere occult bookshop and community space," B Hollywood, a friendly Aries with impeccable nails, is sitting at the front desk. I'm at the store five days before it will host a ritual to hex Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in part to pick up some witch essentials (palo santo for healing; sage for cleansing) and in part to chat with Dakota Bracciale, Catland co-owner and creator of the hex—but they're running late, so B and I kill time by looking through crystals and comparing our birth charts.
When Dakota arrives, they bustle into the store with an iced coffee and whisk me into the event space attached to the shop, where we sit across from each other at a table meant for private astrological or tarot readings. Dakota is fast-talking, brilliant, and to-the-point—someone who immediately feels like your "tough love" fire sign friend.
Catland was founded around five years ago, and in that time it's been able to thrive without much trouble from non-believers. But that changed recently when an accused rapist was appointed to the highest court in the country and Dakota decided to hex him and "all rapists and the patriarchy at large which emboldens, rewards, and protects them." The event became a viral news story, the store got attention from right-wingers—and the threats that came with it. Dakota says Catland received numerous threats via phone or over social media, and that they've been accused of "waging war" with their hex on Kavanaugh.
Dakota pauses to consider these words: "It is war—and we're not the ones who declared war."
"This justice system has it out for—and is punitive toward—people who have the nerve to come forward [with stories of sexual abuse.]" Dakota says. "We all knew [Kavanaugh] was getting confirmed. And we have [Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford], someone who we both know is seen as the 'perfect' victim: A PhD-holding, middle-aged white women whose therapist has notes on this from 20 years ago...There has never been a more open-shut case, but now she’s the fucking devil to half of America."
Seeing Kavanaugh’s confirmation and the continued harassment and vilification of Ford filled Dakota with rage, and they decided to take what action they could.
"People have to have an outlet to do something. Because here's the reality—statistically speaking, if you are a survivor of sexual violence, there is such an immense likelihood that in a situation like this, that rage is going to come out," Dakota says, noting that the Kavanaugh hearings were triggering to many sexual assault survivors. "It doesn't matter whether or not you want to acknowledge it—it's going to come out. It’s going to come out in a constructive way, or a destructive way. And people who survive sexual violence are also statistically prone to self-harm—and the last thing that I need is a bunch of people who already went through some real nasty, horrible shit to start hurting themselves. We have got to have an outlet for this because we don't have any form of justice available. There has to at least be some sort of support."
To those on the outside, a hex may seem like no more than a malicious curse, but to Dakota and other organizers, the ritual is actually about healing and the need to face, express, and address trauma. Dakota set out to facilitate an act of solidarity, to find the liminal space victims are forced to occupy and rip it wide open—to free us all or invite everyone in, to harness our rage and allow it to destroy something other than ourselves.
On the night of the ritual, I arrive to find about 20 people lined up on the left side of the store entrance—witches and their allies either waiting to enter the venue or there to support Catland. To the right of the store entrance, about a dozen protesters wield signs that say things like, "Jesus is God alone." After checking in with security, I'm welcomed into the store with a warm smile from B. I ask if threats on the event have ramped up, and they nod almost nonchalantly, adding that someone called the day before to say they'd "show up with their boys and baseball bats to collect our heads."
In the center of the event space—a long, black room with chalkboard walls—there is an elaborate altar replete with candles (seven-day burners, as well as white, penis-shaped candles with coffin nails through them), animal parts (skulls, antlers, claws), and three poppets (dolls meant to represent someone) with the faces of President Donald Trump, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and Senator Mitch McConnell. Above the altar, the chalkboard wall has a sigil, and above that, the Latin "Lavetur in nobis sanguis tyrranus" and its English translation, "We bathe in the blood of tyrants." The altar is surrounded by rows of chairs, separated into three sections; I choose a seat against the furthest wall.
More protesters arrive around 15 minutes before the event is scheduled to begin, blasting Christian music and proselytizing via loudspeaker. Through the thin wall of the space, I hear Catland supporters outside chanting "Fuck Brett Kavanaugh." One Christian protester responds "I'm not here for Kavanaugh—I'm here for your soul." Inside, an attendee seated in my section wonders aloud whether the preaching Christians know that protesting our spiritual gathering to condemn an accused rapist is, essentially, defending rapists.
The ritual is running nearly an hour late because of the noise: the Christian music is loud, the screaming Christians are louder. Inside Catland, however, Dakota keeps the energy safe and convivial, looking through their notes and occasionally leading us through "ohms" and chants to drown out our surroundings. Sometimes, they respond to specific claims from protesters with historical factoids or jokes. "If someone starts blowing a shofar," they quip, "I'm going to lose my mind."
Dakota instructs those of us who want to participate in the ritual to pull up the King James version of Psalm 109 on our phones. They emphasize that no attendee has to "believe" in what we're doing, and that no one is obligated to participate in any part of the event. "It's kind of funny," Dakota says. "The entire event is predicated on consent."
The crowd lets out a laugh. There are 50 or so attendees present (along with about a dozen members of the press) and most of them are women and gender nonconforming people. As we prepare to recite Psalm 109, Dakota explains why they chose it: Because the bible was the only book that everyone owned for so long, it serves as a foundational source for many rituals, and Psalm 109 "was preached [by conservative Christians] for eight years of Obama's presidency to throw the 'foreign-born Muslim from office.'" We all relish in the irony and I find myself surprised by the psalm's modernity and appropriateness: "When he is judged, let him be found guilty, and let his prayer become sin. Let his days be few, and let another take his office."
Some of us read the psalm aloud with Dakota, who lights candles and burns yerba santa during the recitation, while others do their version of an "ohm" and some observe silently. Dakota invites participants up to the altar to write the names of people we want to hex onto pieces of paper, then place them into one of six jars along the table. They explain that the paper-stuffed jars will be filled the next day with graveyard dirt, coffin nails, broken glass, pins and needles, sulfur, water from a thunderstorm, and urine. Then, a black candle will be burnt over them every month until those hexed "pay for what they've done." Dakota says we should be thoughtful of whom we hex, but adds that any reasons for hexing are private, and entirely up to us.
Once we add the names, Dakota explains, we chant: "lavetur in nobis sanguis tyrannus," which means "we bathe in the blood of tyrants" but can also translate to "we bathe in the blood of the tyrant within us."
I carry these interpretations as I walk to the altar, considering what it might mean to write the name of my rapist. What would it mean to name him now, after naming him as a child did nothing? My trauma is an indelible part of who I am today, whether I like it or not. I will never understand this ouroboros: How much of me is shaped by this trauma, and how much has my life shaped its manifestation? Here, it is understood that the blood of my tyrant is also my own; that killing my tyrant means killing part of myself.
I write his name on a piece of paper and stuff it deep into a jar. I watch Dakota seal the jar along with his fate.
The second ritual is intended to release and harness our rage. Dakota calls to our ancestors, then recites a "hymn to the war-torn body." Co-written by Dakota, the hymn stirs us to action, stokes our bubbling rage, and commends us for surviving. When Dakota asks us if we're still here—if we're still alive—we all scream "yes." They tell us that our existence, our joys, and each breath we take, is resistance—is its own victory in a world that is not merely indifferent but actively hostile to us, survivors and the disenfranchised.
Dakota opens up the space for anyone who wants to come forward with their stories, testimonies, questions, or feelings. The crowd is hesitant at first, and we begin lighthearted, with one woman saying, "I've been angry for weeks." Then, participants dive deeper, sharing, with spellbinding vulnerability, their stories of assault, abuse, molestation, rape—and their subsequent experiences of being ignored or shunned as a survivor. After each person's turn, the crowd reacts in affirmation; we clap or speak, telling them we're sorry and that we believe them.
Dakota helps balance moments of gravity with levity. After one person shares their account of being abused by a Christian, Dakota leads us in a chant of "fuck your God" addressed to the Christians outside, who are still protesting hours into the ritual. A survivor themselves, Dakota describes trauma with a poetic allegory; they say that living with trauma is like being in an enclosed space with a rattlesnake, separated only by a gate. It is terrifying, and any moment you feel the urge to look at that snake, the gate might be gone. Recovery is not linear, they explain, and it's okay if you're never ready to let that gate down.
Tears flowed freely down my face as I listened to testimony after testimony. I felt surrounded by others on the edge of a deep, dark pain—those of us isolated by that indescribable ouroboros, cornered by the conjoined beast of circumstance and choice. Someone in the audience comes forward to say they are grateful to have a place for their rage, to express it honestly in a room full of people, if only for a few hours. During this part of the ritual, I wonder whether I should share my story, consider the costs and benefits of tearing myself open once again.
One person says they were assaulted but never came forward because they thought no one would believe them. Dakota asks everyone in the room to close their eyes and raise their hands if they believe the person. I don't open my eyes, but I can feel that every hand went up. I know that I don't need to disclose; that I have already been heard by my peers.
The ritual closes with an anointment, a welcoming into what Dakota describes as the "Catland tribe." We pass around an oil that is intended to "return the queen to her throne," to empower the disempowered, and dab it on our pulse points. "If you don't believe in this, that’s fine!" Dakota reassures, "This is an act of solidarity." They encourage us to take our raw, bloody, renewed, and earned sense of community with us as we go forward.
Mascara running and heart torn open, I'm acutely aware that though I came to the ritual alone, I was welcomed into a cohort—a kind of family that wordlessly understood the liminal space occupied by survivors; the singular experience of carrying the weight of trauma, heavy but veiled by secrets. Dakota jokes that it's hard to “recruit trauma friends” but that it is of the utmost importance to maintain this connection. I exchange contact information with people I sat with, who ventured to the edge of this dark frontier alongside me. When I didn't know whether I was ready to lift the gate between me and that rattlesnake, I found a coven that would support me either way.