The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

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MAY 2014 Issue

Demons of the State

Jennifer Percy
Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism
(Scribner, 2014)

Demons can transfer from person to person. Or so Jennifer Percy learns as she sets out to talk to war veterans for her debut nonfiction work, Demon Camp. She suggests, perhaps provocatively, that terms such as PTSD and trauma can enable us “to ignore the problem because we think we understand it,”—for her, storytelling is crucial to countering our collective dissociation from both war and the struggle of returning veterans. Percy’s central subject, Sergeant Caleb Daniels, tells her that he’s been followed by a demon called the Destroyer ever since a disaster in Afghanistan that killed nearly his entire unit. “I know this is gonna sound crazy to you … but this isn’t PTSD … this big, black thing—it can come after anyone,” he says to Percy. “It can come after you and kill you and it will try to destroy you. It’s no joke.” Percy’s compelling but ethically-fraught exploration of trauma narratives raises poignant questions about the national conversation surrounding veterans’ PTSD, yet ultimately sensationalizes its subject matter as the writer’s own spiritual crisis takes front and center.

When Percy begins her endeavor in 2008, around 18 veterans are committing suicide daily—a statistic that the Department of Veterans Affairs is caught withholding that same year. As the number of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with mental health problems grows steadily, the V.A. department proves ill-equipped to provide adequate psychiatric care. It does little for Daniels, who stops pursuing treatment after waiting on line for several days, leaving with only a handful of painkillers. Furthermore, as he tells it, it’s spiritual warfare he’s dealing with rather than PTSD-induced hallucinations. Which brings him to Portal, Georgia, a remote town “where the layer between heaven and earth is very thin,” and where he undergoes exorcisms, or “deliverance,” at a tiny Pentecostal church based out of a trailer.

Somewhere along the way from Percy’s initial meetings with Daniels to her later stay at the church, things gets blurry. In the book’s second section, she enters the story as a character, a skeptic who is nonetheless somewhat seduced by tales of the supernatural. At Daniels’s urging, she attends an exorcism retreat in Portal because, she says, he “thinks the trauma of other veterans is going to transfer to me.” And indeed she does undergo a sort of deliverance. While she remains something of an agnostic, she feels Jesus’s blood burn in her cheeks. She sees a cross rise and dissolve in the dark. Caught in the very discourse that she’s set out to describe, Percy enters a state of growing, mystically-tinged paranoia. Daniels’s stories of war and what came after, she tells us, “linger like a contagion.”

By discussing her subjects’ trauma narratives in their own language, Percy, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, does a fine job of accommodating multiple realities, allowing the “big, black thing” to be both a metaphor for PTSD and perfectly real. Yet it is unclear whether the story’s ultimate concern lies with veterans and the staggering problem of treating war-induced PTSD, or with Percy’s own conflicted view of the supernatural and peculiar relationship with Daniels. His story takes up much of the narrative, but Percy offers little in the way of political-social context, and very occasionally offers brief, light summaries of research on trauma. Her equally short-winded interjections of cultural exegesis feel tacked-on and bald, when, for example, sandwiched in between narrative sections, she tells us: “American society believes the same myth each election, that it is an exorcism of evil. We like simple solutions.” While denser analysis might be out of keeping with the book’s lyric sensibility, these short bits are unsatisfying and discordant and give the impression that Percy could not quite decide where to drop her anchor.

Part of the issue is that Percy’s project is without definition or a frame. Especially in light of her decision to include herself as a character, her lack of self-reflexiveness about her own methods makes what is already a delicate dance especially perilous. The book’s first section, which details Daniels’s enlistment and the disaster that killed many of his crew, offers so airtight an account that one wonders what incongruities, ambiguities, and conflicting narratives were glossed over in service of an engaging story. At times, her portrayals of Daniels’s interior life are uncomfortably totalizing and poeticized, as when she says of his traumatic experiences: “The stories lived in his bloodstream, in the deepest cellular levels of his body, and he lived by them, as if by verse.”

These problems intensify in the book’s last section, wherein Percy’s crisis of belief takes center stage. As she begins to contemplate the possibility that the spirits tormenting others have begun to follow her, Demon Camp takes on the coloring of a paranormal thriller. A human-size bat rapes Percy in a dream; a few months later, a real bat flies into her room at night, and then another one. When she listens to an audio recording of her deliverance, the power goes out. She begins waking up every morning at 1:46—the number of Daniels’s downed helicopter, which he sees everywhere. Soon thereafter, Percy drives to Missouri to meet with Daniels, who’s become increasingly isolated and unhinged. He says that he knows a large bat has been following her, and that he’s seen it wrap its wings around her at night.

“You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into,” he tells Percy. “This has nothing to do with the goddamned book.” And perhaps it doesn’t—or shouldn’t. Demon Camp’s final scene, in which the tensions between the writer and her subject reach an apex, is rife with erotic undertones and is among the book’s most exhilarating. But it seems to forget that the story it tells, though admittedly absorbing, comes at the expense of a person with serious mental health issues, and treats his travails as little more than sensational fodder. Further, the narrative emphasis on Percy’s own spiritual vertigo ultimately distracts from the book’s more urgent subject matter—the effects of war and our failure to provide adequate mental health care for veterans. This is a shame given the national importance of confronting the issue in all its magnitude—which, Percy seems to suggest, rests in part on our ability to challenge “the hallucination of a sterile war.” 


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2014

All Issues