Jennifer Percy, magazine writer and NYU professor, says it took her about a year to get people to really talk her about PTSD - or rather, to tell their stories about grief and trauma and suicide and otherworldly visions that can't be neatly classified by any one diagnosis. But once she was in, she was in, talking with a vet, Caleb, who said that a demon followed him back from Afghanistan. Caleb nearly lost his life battling said demon, a six-foot-plus tall beast called the Destroyer, until a kind soul invited him to his church in rural Georgia, where exorcisms are performed during a camp devoted to spiritual warfare.
Percy's book focuses on her relationship with Caleb; she becomes a character after a first chapter devoted to Caleb's story, and eventually undergoes an exorcism herself. But she incorporates other stories - notably that of an Iraq war vet, Brian, haunted by the ghost of an Iraqi man he killed - as well as background on the history of trauma, PTSD, Pentecostalism and other subjects relevant to her exploration of the way recent wars are shaping our national psyche.
Demon Camp: A Soldier's Exorcism started gathering steam shortly after its January publication, with coverage in the New York and Los Angeles Times, Esquire and Harper's. The film rights were recently picked up by Paramount. Percy, who talked with us last week, said although she's uninvolved with the screenplay, she's happy with the direction it's taking, which includes transforming her true-to-life character in the book (i.e., Jennifer Percy, the writer) into a woman whose brother, a soldier, has committed suicide. The change "brings it right down to the central emotional need for having these kinds of stories in the world," Percy said. Here's more from our conversation.
NUVO: Why did you decide to actually go through the Demon Camp and be exorcised instead of staying on the sidelines and observing?
Jennifer Percy: The only way to get access to an exorcism was to actually go through it, and it didn't seem like something that, if I went through it, would necessarily implicate me in the process. I could go through and understand why this was actually helping people; that was the question I wanted to be answered. Of course, once you're engaged in a heightened situation - and whether or not you want to label this a cult is up for debate - you can get sort of sucked into that world. They have a certain manner of speech, rituals, repetitive phrases, so you can get lost, but that also allows you to get closer to their experience. So it started as something that was mostly journalistic curiosity and impulse, but on the other hand, Caleb actually felt very strongly about my need to go through this, so it kind of felt like another question to be answered: Why was this such a concern to him? Was it really going to make a difference in how he spoke to me about his stories?
NUVO: You talk about different ways in which people try to interpret their trauma, but you don't really pass judgment on those methods.
Percy: I don't think I was that interested in finding the best method or any sort of resolution necessarily. I was more interested in undoing the narratives that are currently being discussed or used in our public conversations about PTSD. I felt that the vocabulary that we're using is denying the fact that it's very normal to come back from war and feel traumatized. That's something our culture does not want to accept, and it's been a habit that we can trace all the way back to World War I; it's not something that people want to talk about. Things have changed significantly, but that's still a stigma in our culture. I wanted people to see that we were relying on these narratives and we should be comfortable talking about the realities of warfare, and perhaps there doesn't need to be a treatment, because this is a consequence of us going into a foreign county, of sending 19-year-old kids to fight and kill people.
NUVO: You end your introduction wondering if the "thing that followed" Caleb home from war was following you. Assuming you didn't actually feel that a demonic beast was following you around at any point, how did you end up becoming emotionally involved with vets like Caleb?
Percy: A lot of the book is about transference and the way that trauma can move between people. I pointed out a few studies in the book about different generations acting out trauma that had been experienced two generations back in history. We can think of individuals, but also groups and countries, as having that same problem, the weight of a past sin on their backs. And I was looking at the trauma that America has inherited and the way that we pantomine trauma. Caleb was manifesting this trauma in the form of these hauntings the same way that Brian Rand had done when he saw the Iraqi man visit him at night. Looking at the Salem witch trials, there are theories now that the girls were actually suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders and had been victims of severe trauma during the first and second Indian wars. I did feel that their trauma began to follow me, but I also became aware of a larger presence of trauma in our daily lives that felt sort of invisible until I really looked for it.