Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism
Jennifer Percy on lyricism in nonfiction, the demons of American veterans, and circumventing expected narratives of PTSD
In her new book, Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism (Simon & Schuster), which was excerpted in the November 2013 Readings section of Harper’s Magazine, Jennifer Percy invites readers into the life of Caleb Daniels, a veteran who, after returning from Afghanistan, finds himself haunted by a demon he names The Destroyer. Percy’s investigation into the effects of PTSD, not just in soldiers but in the communities where they reintegrate, combine with her strikingly lyrical and surreal style to create a portrait of the damaged American psyche. Percy spent weeks living with Caleb’s father-in-law and his relatives, the Mathers, during which time she attended church services and participated in “deliverance” rituals, meant to exorcize demons. Her immersion into the inner lives of her subjects makes Demon Camp an intimate and urgent call to understand and accept the consequences of wartime trauma. I asked Percy six questions about the book.
1. Did you set out initially to write about PTSD and then met Caleb, or was it the other way around? How did deliverance become the focus of the book?
I wanted to more fully imagine the homecoming experience of soldiers and their time at war. The language we use to talk about PTSD has historically been determined by political and economic factors. It’s attached to a vocabulary that intentionally limits our ability to imagine atrocity because it’s protective and reductive. It benefits the perpetrators but dehumanizes the other. It’s a process of rationalization. But what happens when that vocabulary is discarded, and we partake in an effort to fully imagine the experience of soldiers and veterans? This is the space I hoped to inhabit. We might refuse to imagine wartime experience because it’s outside the realm of the ordinary; or maybe it feels unnecessary, or is too demanding on our psyches. But when we do imagine it, what we find is often the familiar. It’s ourselves. And that might also be a reason we turn away.
If we think about traumatic experiences as the past moving into the present, and settling there, disallowing the possibility of escape, then Caleb had engineered a belief system around this state of being. The war followed him home, but he lived with it. He managed to exist in a somewhat symbiotic fashion with his demons. It was a constant dialogue. A process of negotiation. And the conversation felt like a contained dialectic — between Caleb’s present life and his past actions, but also between homecoming and war; between America and the Middle East. The scholar Judith Herman calls this the dialectic of psychological trauma, which is the conflict between our desire to deny atrocities and our desire to acknowledge them. George Orwell called it “doublethink.” Psychiatrists call it “disassociation.”
The story of deliverance also embodies this dialectic. These people are converting traumatic experiences into signs and symbols, a new language, a substitute narrative. It’s really a translation of the psychological and political narratives we are already using. A simplified version albeit. In the book, it’s all a metaphor. But sometimes we believe in metaphors so strongly that they become real. Those involved with deliverance have come to know the demons as literal.
From Demon Camp:
A woman is cutting onions with a small blade. She is one of the team members who will be giving deliverance.
“I am the son of Jesus,” she says.
The son of Jesus has a sparkly pink shirt on. She wears lipstick. Wide blond hair frames her face like wings.
“I’m the son of Jesus,” she says again. Her hands raise simultaneously, palms up. Her eyes roll back. Only white shows.
The deliverees surround her, holding plates stacked high with meat.
“I don’t get it,” Mary says. She’s wearing all red, shaking her hips, eating standing up. “Why are you the son of Jesus? You’re not a man.”
“Because,” the son of Jesus says, and she pauses and her hands drop to the table in a loud slap, slides forward until her arms straighten and her breasts rest on the polished wood. “Because he told me. Because I know.”
2. The book is disturbing at times. You write at one point that you began to have dreams of a huge bat smothering you, and you end up undergoing deliverance yourself. How did you go about immersing yourself in the Mathers’ world, and why was doing so important for this book?
It was important because it helped me fully imagine Caleb’s homecoming experience and engage more empathetically with a certain subset of American culture. If art is a way to represent consciousness, then I think the consciousness of trauma is what my book hopes to represent. If we are more receptive to individual nuances of trauma then we are more likely to invite the ostracized into conversation. Caleb’s experience may not be like those of most veterans, but by living inside his nightmares and fears, I hoped it might open up some new territory. Exposing myself to these experiences gave me access to certain parts of my psyche that I otherwise might have been averse to knowing — areas that overlapped with Caleb’s psyche, or that I at least hoped brought me closer to his interior life.
I would also call Demon Camp a book-length essay. And I mean essay in the traditional sense of the word: an attempt or an inquiry. I didn’t have each part planned out, and I didn’t necessarily sit in my office and orchestrate opportunities for empathy. A lot of reporting didn’t go into the book, too. Often this was the reporting that I thought would be most helpful but that did very little work on the page. It existed pre-packaged in my mind, and therefore excluded the possibility of discovery.
3. The narration of the first half of the book seems to deliberately blur the lines between you and Caleb. How did you reconstruct events, especially interactions between Caleb and his best friend, Kip — who died in a helicopter accident in Afghanistan, three years before you met him — that were difficult or impossible to verify?
Hours of interviews, often returning to the same subject, the same event, several times over months or years. Several lines in the first section are straight out of Caleb’s mouth. I loved the way he spoke, and I tried to capture the particular cadence of his speech and the idiosyncrasies of his dialect. As for the interactions between Caleb and Kip, there were photographs, interviews with family, military personnel, and ex-girlfriends. But Kip, of course, is dead, so Caleb’s story of Kip is what remains, and I think those are worthwhile memories to keep alive. Some of those memories may exist only in Caleb’s mind, and for this book, that’s really what matters. He’s the protagonist, and it’s his psychology and struggle that I follow.
It fascinated me, too, to hear the way Caleb’s account was saturated with the logic of his newly discovered religion. It’s been documented that recent converts will go back and re-narrativize their lives according to a new religion. I imagine we all do this, all the time. Not with religion necessarily, but with each transformative experience, no matter how small: each new book, each heartbreak. Not only does it transform the present self, it inevitably causes a change in how we remember and understand our past selves.
4. I was struck by how close your relationship with Caleb becomes over the course of the book. How did that relationship develop?
Caleb had been looking for someone to tell his story. When he met me, he said that other writers had contacted him but he didn’t think they were the right ones. I don’t know why, but he decided I was the right one. He trusted me right away, because the world according to Caleb is full of serendipitous collisions. I was twenty-four when I met him, and I was also from a poor and rural region of America, a place where the military came to and took my friends away, so we had some common ground. I wasn’t sitting there in a blazer with an expense report. I had a tape recorder in front of me, so there wasn’t any illusion about what I was doing, but I think he could tell that I had gone out of my way and made this trip on my own, with few resources, all to hear his story. He respected that. Sometimes I’d ask him a question, and then he’d make me answer the question first, in the context of civilian life. It was, I imagine, a way to protect himself, or to make me feel complicit. And of course, later, he told me I was being followed by a demon. Which invites a rather intimate conversation.
5. Your writing style is beautifully lyrical, and seemed to me to complement the dream world that Caleb and the Mathers inhabit when they pray or perform deliverance. How did you decide when to give free rein to your prose in the body of the book, and then, in the postscript, to pull back and present the facts about PTSD plainly? And how much editing do you put into the more lyrical passages after you’ve processed the events that inspired them?
It’s impossible to speak broadly about every decision, but I think it’s fair to say that lyricism gives readers access to a particular psychology or mode of being. I’m trying to get them closer to either my experience or Caleb’s experience. These are sections where description, word choice, simile, and detail are wedded to significance. The moments I resist lyricism are the moments when content does the heavy lifting, and a more objective, distanced approach accomplishes the task at hand.
The postscript wasn’t entirely my decision, but was suggested by the publisher. In the drafting process I wrote a whole chapter on the history of PTSD, but it interrupted the flow of the book, which is character-driven. I still thought the information was important and necessary and so I spent a great deal of time massaging it into sections of the book where it might clarify events or actions. But I had hoped to write around the political and psychological language of trauma. So I wasn’t interested in rehashing information you could look up in another book as much as in following characters who could tell the story of trauma and homecoming without relying on pre-packaged narratives. The postscript came from the abandoned chapter.
6. How did reporting this book affect your views on how the country treats veterans?
PTSD seems to upset the public to the point that they’ll unleash the most abusive therapies on people: electrocution, lobotomies, prolonged exposure therapy, exorcism. While slaughter and combat have become part of modern imagination, the aftermath has not. Unless it has to do with the aftermath of victory in war.