How We Are Haunted, How We Are Cured: Demon Camp by Jennifer Percy
by Antonia Crane
The complex mental, emotional and psychiatric effect of war on veterans has always been fundamentally mysterious to society. According to Dave Phillips, a reporter for the New York Times, “Of about 1,200 Marines who deployed (with the 2/7 in 2008), at least 13 have killed themselves, two while on active duty, the rest after they left the military. The resulting suicide rate for the group is nearly four times the rate for young male veterans as a whole and 14 times that for all Americans.” Another article reported a huge increase of military personnel and combat veteran suicides since 2009 “even as the United States military has withdrawn from Iraq and stepped up efforts to provide mental health, drug and alcohol, and financial counseling services.”
As a daughter of a Vietnam Veteran, I have often wondered if post-war trauma begins with the odd solitude of that specific, unholy experience of war: violence, near death and personal loss that sets one apart from his fellows, making re-entry unfathomable along with a burning desire for redemption, forgiveness, deliverance.
I wonder if Dave Morris is right when he writes in his astute memoir, “A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” that “PTSD is the failure of our culture to encourage people to seek wisdom on their loss and adversity and to consider trauma in anyway other than a narrow medical context.”
Many writers have written important, profound narratives that echo the specific haunting and deep need for post-war healing in a non medical context and yet, the cause of PTSD and its remedies remains unclear. A few of my favorite stories about PTSD include: Kurt Vonnegut’s’ Slaughterhouse Five, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Mac McClellan’s Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story.
“Demon Camp,” a nonfiction narrative by Jen Percy not only grapples with the complexity of the PTSD condition with searing clarity but approaches the topic of non Western therapeutic healing with candid, observant humor and gobs of heart.
With admirable journalistic precision and restraint, Percy profiles an alternative trauma therapy group that performs exorcisms on veterans for 199 dollars in a Pentecostal church located in Portal Georgia, where it is believed that “the thread between life and death is thin.” The religious organization promised to rid Caleb, an army veteran who lost several friends in a 2005 helicopter crash in Afghanistan — of what he believed was a “the destroyer demon” — a ghost of his buddy with Alice and Wonderland tattoos following him around.
But “Demon Camp” is not a book about going to church and finding God and having a Messiah wipe away the blood, the screaming or the dead buddies of possessed soldiers.
It’s a book in which Caleb, her primary subject, seeks a holy cure after he suffers bouts of nightmares and nearly shoots himself in his own truck while quarreling with his girlfriend, Katie. It’s also a book about the seeking itself and the ways in which vets in particular feel haunted. “Demon Camp” promises the impossibility of “deliverance” after all.
Percy shows us there’s no easy fix. Yet American culture has financial investment in the so-called “easy fix”: fast solutions to complex problems — problems we may never completely solve. While PTSD is not an infection to treat or and illness exactly, it may have physical symptoms like audio hallucinations and depression. Hysterical blindness. Malaise.
We have no language for audiovisual hallucinations as a result of flash backs that won’t cause loved ones to dial 9–11.
In “Demon Camp” we follow Caleb as he sees the dead in the form of a dark thing and out of ideas as to how to get rid of it. The math of deliverance for him is quite sound: Having a tussle with a horned demon=another way of ridding himself of a psychic burden too terrible to bear.
Caleb was not an easy sell. He was skeptical of religion and of the bible. He knew logically that he had PSTD, like someone knows what weight they listed on their driver’s license. He also believed that he could see the future and he believed in a hierarchy of angels:
“They (angels) have ranks just like the military has ranks. It’s hard to tell the difference at first, but over time you learn.”
In a military structure, this ideology makes perfect sense. A person takes orders and carries them out at any cost along with his buddies; so joining a group with a built-in family dynamic with a leader promising a solution that would give power to his extreme helplessness was comforting. It was not only an opportunity for extreme forgiveness, but also a chance to help others like him.
Caleb believed that “deliverance” could change how people thought about PSTD and he wanted to rebuild his life, but more than anything, perhaps, he sought to process the experiences of war: the savage killing in which he played a part.
After hearing Caleb being followed by the destroyer demon, Percy writes, “Because Caleb said these things could transfer, and because these things are not limited to war, I started to wonder if it was following me.”
We follow Percy following Caleb who is being followed.
In essence, we are haunted by association.
While writing “Demon Camp,” Percy became deeply entrenched in the group’s culture, living with the group and observing them in Portal, Georgia for over six years. During that time, she agreed to also go through the exorcism herself after being told she had a demon and the leader told her and the rest of the group that the pink love mist that came in the room was Jesus:
“He wants to pour his love on you. Let him woo you. Jesus is going to be your greatest romance.”
Throughout “Demon Camp,” Percy catches the haunting like a sore throat, hunting demons alongside Caleb and the others. By the end of the book, Caleb was no longer associated with the deliverance church at all.
Percy’s empathy for Caleb’s suffering and seeking, redemption and peace were the haunting that we are left with and although we may never entirely relieve ourselves of our harrowing ghosts or traumatic experiences with pink mist or screaming rituals, Percy’s tale of earnest redemption and one man’s deep desire to do so made me think differently about PTSD and the seeking itself.