Author’s Note: In 1942, C.S. Lewis published The Screwtape Letters, a satirical collection of memos from Screwtape, a middle-management demon in hell, to his protégé named Wormwood, offering friendly advice for the downfall of humankind. The following is a modern-day tribute to Lewis’ style.
“If one more dingbat newbie gets assigned to my team, I swear to No One, I will quit without notice and trigger a glitter bomb on my way out…” Screwtape mutters, logging into his 104th Zoom call of the day. “And if one more of these meetings could have been an email, so help me No One, I will — ”
A fusion of cricket chirps and ambient music interrupts Screwtape’s thoughts. It’s the stock ringtone of his 2008 Blackberry Storm, standard-issue to Hell’s middle-management demons.
“Motherhood Department. Screwtape speaking. … Yes, sir. … Yes, sir. … An interspecies coronavirus mutation? Are you f*$#ing kidding me? … I’m sorry, sir. … Yes, of course, sir. … I’ll speak to him directly, sir. … Have a nice day, sir.”
Hustling to the privacy of his open-concept cubicle, Screwtape taps “End Call” on his unresponsive touch screen until it fades to black. Then, he presses “Home” until it lights up again — the only way to avoid patching the last caller into his next call:
“Wormwood? Wormwood, call me back as soon as you get this message. Your pandemic project is utterly tormenting Earth’s mothers. They’re falling apart. The boss wants to hear more, so I need you to loop me in on this ASAP. Look, Wormwood, you’re in over your head here. Mothers’ souls are wiry and unpredictable. CALL ME.”
Screwtape scrolls down his touchscreen, fat-fingering through apps until he finds BBM Messenger. “What in Paradise is Wormwood thinking? Is he trying to start a nationwide revival?” Screwtape’s scrawny thumbs tap frantically across the keyboard.
ST: WORMWOOD CALL ME.
ST: Did you get my voicemail? What is COVID-19?
WW: NBD. DWBH.
ST: DWBH? What is that? Another plague?
WW: dont worry b happy. dude chill.
ST: WORMWOOD, CALL ME. YOU CAN'T MESS WITH EARTH MOMS. WHAT IS COVID-19?
WW: ZZZ talk 2moro
“Why do I always get stuck with the rookies?” Screwtape gripes, bouncing impatiently on a large turquoise balance ball (Earth’s short-lived trends often turn permanent in Hell) while waiting for his Acer Aspire laptop to load Internet Explorer. “Surely Wormwood will check emails before tomorrow.”
DATE: May 1, 2020, 9:37 PM
SUBJECT: READ THIS NOW!
I don’t believe I’ve had the opportunity to properly welcome you to our America Team in the Motherhood Department of the Logistics Division of Hell. Welcome!
Perhaps you missed the memo, but prior to any fieldwork, novice demons are required to attend our “Intro to American Mothers” seminar to learn best practices for modern-day torment such as “Your Job Is to Make Everyone Happy,” “Childbirth: You’re Doing It Wrong,” “Working Mom Guilt,” “SAHM Guilt,” and the catch-all classic, “You Just Aren’t Good Enough.”
Given the unanticipated success of your “Caretakers: Overwhelm-Vex-Isolate-Destroy” (C:OVID) program, and the interest it has attracted from management, I’ve transferred all of your C:OVID work to the Screwtape Drive and added my name with editing permissions to each file. (It’s probably best if management believes a project of this scale came from the top of our Motherhood Department. Moving forward, you’ll continue doing the legwork, of course.)
Finally, to maximize C:OVID objectives in the coming weeks, I need you to review the bullet points below and turn them into a PowerPoint presentation for our team’s 7:00 a.m. strategy meeting tomorrow:
As long as a mother believes she’s abandoned in her need, she’ll undoubtedly despair. Intensify her isolation with inflexible employers and clueless spouses. Even better, let them gaslight her into thinking she’s the real problem. Why did she have kids at all if she wasn’t sure she could single-handedly meet their every need for the next 18 years? And isn’t this the life she said she wanted? Mothers, such strange creatures — so intuitive with others, so blind with themselves — always ready to self-incriminate at the slightest suggestion of (even fabricated) failure.
Mothers, such strange creatures — so intuitive with others, so blind with themselves — always ready to self-incriminate at the slightest suggestion of (even fabricated) failure.
Cooking, cleaning, planning, sorting, teaching, washing, shopping, earning, hugging, bathing, feeding, driving, calling, texting, scheduling, comforting, catechizing, exercising … convince her she is solely responsible for all of it. Then, stand back and watch her collapse under the weight of the world.
Be aware, however, that if a mother has a spouse who prioritizes solidarity over gender norms or an employer who asks how he or she can help, our mission might fail.
Discredit the village narrative.
Convince the mothers, despite all evidence, that parenting in isolation is biologically, theologically, historically, philosophically, 100% completely normal (and, therefore, possible to do well). Even if their rational minds know otherwise, our sham of unachievable normalcy will deceive even the strongest parents into failure and despair.
Convince the mothers, despite all evidence, that parenting in isolation is biologically, theologically, historically, philosophically, 100% completely normal (and, therefore, possible to do well).
And yet, Wormwood, be aware: Should a woman recall the countless positive role models influential in her upbringing — coaches, teachers, priests, grandparents, youth group volunteers, doctors, ballet instructors, babysitters, catechists, friends' parents, neighbors — we risk losing everything. She’ll instantly reevaluate the extremity of Earth’s current circumstances and cut herself some slack.
Insist pride is a virtue and prudence a vice.
We must convince the mothers that every potential good is, instead, an absolute good. The educational games, Bible crafts, STEM activities, kid-friendly cooking lessons, virtual museum tours, family gardens, KonMari'd closets, online book clubs, live-streamed prayers at dawn, noon, and dusk — she must say “yes” to it all!
Remember, Wormwood: If a mother, realizing her limits, offers a prudent “no”" rather than a tired “yes,” she’ll put our whole department out of business. What good is existential torment to a woman who, having discerned the good, shrugs off the rest?
What good is existential torment to a woman who, having discerned the good, shrugs off the rest?
And then, we simply let society — their families, their communities, even their churches — convince these mothers to wholeheartedly pursue unholy martyrdom: to chase exhaustion and death as God-given goalposts of motherhood well-lived. Once they overcommit to every potential good except their own health and well-being, our Department will ensure they’re too fearful of judgment to expect or ask for help.
Let faith bring no comfort.
If we can convince a mother that the heaviness in her life is a yoke the Creator intended, her experience of faith will only bring rejection and judgment.
For the sake of our mission, Wormwood, a mother cannot consider anger with God acceptable. She must never hear the words of St. John Paul II affirming the dignity and diversity of women. She must never interpret Scripture as liberating for women.
For the sake of our mission, Wormwood, a mother cannot consider anger with God acceptable. She must never hear the words of St. John Paul II affirming the dignity and diversity of women.
Stifled, unquestioning, rigid, heartless, inaccessible, irrelevant, punitive … we must define her experience of faith by these words.
To my previous point, a mother must never experience true solitude. If we fail in this, Wormwood, if she ever finds herself alone in calm silence, she will hear the voice of her Creator. And then, we’ve lost everything.
A mother must never experience true solitude. If we fail in this, Wormwood, if she ever finds herself alone in calm silence, she will hear the voice of her Creator
Make the noise and distractions endless: important call, hungry kid, dirty floor, delayed email, messy room, confusing schoolwork, muddy kid, empty pantry, broken toy, crappy internet, crying child, missed assignment, doctor visit, breakfast dishes, spilled drink, bored teen, smelly trash, Zoom meeting…
Tease a mother with only scattered moments alone — picking up groceries, the quick morning shower, a distracted hour while toddlers nap — just enough to convince her it’s sufficient and that asking for more would be selfish, unnecessary, and indulgent.
Who the Paradise would have thought you’d be so successful at despairing families and collapsing an empire, Wormwood? Don’t mess this up. Too often, these pandemics lead to accidental personal awakenings on a global scale. But it seems you’ve stirred things just right. The confusion! The guilt! The isolation! Your C:OVID project makes easy work of our torment.
Moving forward, please outline all future plans in GIF-stocked PowerPoint presentations for our team’s 7:00 a.m. daily strategy meetings (starting tomorrow). Submit paper approval forms in triplicate to me, the Pandemics Department, and the Global Committee (as well as PDF copies via email with subject line: COVID Approval/Wormwood/America Team/Motherhood Dept/Logistics Division/Hell/ATT). Finally, plan to attend the “Intro to American Mothers” seminar at its next available offering.
Welcome to the Team.