Truth or Dare Excerpt

Truth or Dare Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery by Starhawk. (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1988).

Chapter 1: Truth or Dare

Truth or DareBecause the woman runs screaming into the gym, because she dives into the center of our meeting, because we are in jail, because six guards are after her, because spontaneously we surround her and protect her, we encounter mystery. The terrain of the mysteries is the edge where power encounters power, for mystery is the arising of powers that are uncharted and untamed, that will not follow the logic of naked force, and so act in unexpected ways. Mystery is surprise.

Six hundred women are crowded into the gym at Camp Parks. All of us have been arrested for blockading the Livermore Weapons Lab, one of the two facilities in the United States where nuclear weapons are designed and developed. We are irritable and uncomfortable. The day is hot; voices ricochet off the walls and bounce on the wood floor. The scanty food runs short at every meal. No one has slept well and we have no doors to close out the crowd, the constant meetings, the decisions to be made; no way to withdraw or be alone.

We are not complaining. In the fervor of the action, we are willing to face horrors much worse than the discomfort of this makeshift lockup in an old World War II Japanese relocation camp. Nevertheless, we feel secure in our knowledge that we probably won’t have to. We expect our courage to be tested only a little. Although many women, at booking, gave their names as Karen Silkwood, we are not at risk of being run off the road for our stand.

Although we sing songs about Victor Jara and Hannah Senesh, we are not facing massacre or torture, nor do we face, as did the Japanese who preceded us here, long years of custody and loss of our homes, our businesses, our community. Stories of martyrs inspire us but also make us feel slightly guilty, for we know that we are not great heras, or saints. We are a small legion of a more common breed of ordinary, irritable people, able sometimes to be somewhat brave.

On our second day in custody, we are massed in the center of the floor, having an endless meeting that has become an extended argument. We are arguing about solidarity, about militancy, about violence and nonviolence, about sexuality and spirituality and how polite we should or should not be to the guards. We have learned from our lawyers that the gym we are held in has been the site of experiments with radioactive substances for twenty years.

We are arguing about who knew this fact ahead of time and why they didn’t tell us and what we should do about it. Outside is nothing but dust, smog, and barbed wire. Inside are six hundred women rapidly getting sick of each other and feeling that the line they have put their bodies on is getting rather frayed.

And then the woman runs in. She bursts through the open doorway that leads to the concrete exercise yard outside. Six guards are after her. “Grab her! Grab her!” they yell. The woman dives into our cluster, and we instinctively surround her, gripping her arms and legs and shielding her with our bodies. The guards grab her legs and pull; we resist, holding on. The guards and the women are shouting and in a moment, I know, the nightsticks will descend on kidneys and heads, but in that suspended interval before the violence starts we hold our ground.

And then someone begins to chant.

The chant is wordless, a low hum that swells and grows with open vowels as if we had become the collective voice of some ancient beast that growls and sings, the voice of something that knows nothing of guns, walls, nightsticks, mace, or barbed-wire fencing, yet gives protection, a voice outside surveillance or calculation but not outside knowledge, a voice that is recognized by our bodies if not our minds and is known also to the guards whose human bodies, like ours, have been animal for a million years before control was invented.

The guards back away.

“Sit down,” a woman whispers. We become a tableau, sitting and clasping the woman as if we are healing her with our voices and our magic. The confrontation has become a laying on of hands. The guards stand, tall, isolated pillars. They look bewildered. Something they are unprepared for, unprepared even to name, has arisen in our moment of common action. They do not know what to do.

And so, after a moment, they withdraw. The chant dies away. It is over. For a moment, mystery has bested authority. The moment passes. We take a deep breath, return to our arguments and irritation. The encounter does not transform us into saints, or even make us all get along much better. The implications of the incident are too much for us to take in fully: we wall it off, returning to our usual games and strategies.

Yet what has taken place is an act that could teach us something deep about power. In that moment in the Jail, the power of domination and control met something outside its comprehension, a power rooted in another source. To know that power, to create the situations that bring it forth, is magic.


Magic is a word that can be defined in many ways. A saying attributed to Dion Fortune is: “Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.” I sometimes call it the art of evoking power-from-within. Today, I will name it this: the art of liberation, the act that releases the mysteries, that ruptures the fabric of our beliefs and lets us look into the heart of deep space where dwell the immeasurable, life-generating powers.

Those powers live in us also, as we live in them. The mysteries are what is wild in us, what cannot be quantified or contained. But the mysteries are also what is most common to us all: blood, breath, heartbeat, the sprouting of seed, the waxing and waning of the moon, the turning of the earth around the sun, birth, growth, death, and renewal.

To practice magic is to tap that power, to burrow down through the systems of control like roots that crack concrete to find the living soil below.

We are never apart from the power of the mysteries. Every breath we take encompasses the circle of birth, death, and rebirth. The forces that push the blood cells through our veins are the same forces that spun the universe out of the primal ball of fire. We do not know what those forces are. We can invoke them, but we cannot control them, nor can we disconnect from them. They are our life, and when we die, decay, and decompose, we remain still within their cycle.

The foregoing is excerpted from Truth or Dare by Starhawk. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

Imprint: HarperSanFrancisco; ISBN: 0062508164