Andrei Tarkovsky’s distinctly paced 1979 film classic, Stalker, follows three men—Writer, Professor, and their guide, Stalker—on a journey to the heart of the Zone, a magic and menacing room where it is said a visitor’s deepest desire will be granted. Writer, played by Anatoliy Solonitsyn, despairs as their destination nears: “There’s no such thing as facts, especially here. All this is someone’s idiotic invention. Don’t you feel it?”
That line of thought draws monologues from the two other men in addition to the film’s culminating conflict. It also serves some idea of what Tarkovsky’s Zone might represent: a negative image of the U.S.A.’s storied Oz, a kind of hollowed out, industrially haunted version of Roald Dahl’s Chocolate Factory, a portrait of Russia near the end of the Soviet reign. There is a certain kinship between this cinematic experience and its more hyperkinetic Western counterparts. Even between nations as deeply alien to one another as Russia and the U.S.A. in the late 1970s, transference occurred between artists on either side, an osmotic flow of ideas.
Russia made for a larger than life enemy, a kind of distorted mirror version of our own missile-hoarding, conquest-obsessed ambitions, both nations considered backwaters in the cultural capitals of Europe as recently as one hundred and twenty years ago.
By transference of a different kind, American troops succeeded the Russians after a decade’s layoff in prosecuting a counterinsurgency against tribal guerrillas in Afghanistan. This is where Jennifer Percy’s ambitious debut nonfiction Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism begins: One mission gone disastrously wrong and a survivor’s struggle with the memories that plague him. On returning home, Special Forces veteran Sgt. Caleb Daniels identifies with the teachings of a Pentecostal strain of Christianity, one that labels the harrying aftereffects of war as demons, demons of distinct grades and behaviors. “The demons can be fear-based, anger-based, pleaser-based, martyr-based, sex-based,” reports Percy. As Daniels explains, the type that followed him was called a Destroyer (“the Black Thing”), among the most common veterans attract. Until undergoing exorcism at a retreat in Portal, Georgia, Daniels says, he was plagued by dark thoughts, suicidal inclinations, and relationship strife.
PTSD is, by definition, a malady of the imagination, an inability to stop picturing what is not, strictly speaking, present. Percy’s reporting lends credence to the realities such fantastic constructs enclose. Currently, 22 U.S. veterans per day commit suicide on average; the VA’s national mental health services are overburdened, often with wait lists and difficulty in providing consistent quality of care; a demon camp, then, represents a sort of DIY effort by unlicensed students of the imagination to identify and corral the troubles their participants bring. “We are marinating in demons,” says one member of the ministry.
By choosing to speak with Percy, Daniels takes a risk: per the stoicism engrained by the military, the decision to disclose stories of trauma, especially before the public, can be considered a kind of weakness. If, as veteran and fiction writer Phil Klay suggests in a recent New York Times op-ed, the tendency to fetishize war trauma as incommunicable walls veterans off in echo chambers of their own darkest hours, the effort to redress this deficit by communicating across divides is not simply a good thing but imperative.
By going above and beyond the part of disinterested observer, Percy takes risks of her own. She seems to want to hold the role of storyteller up to a transparency-inducing light. While the humor of Demon Camp sometimes veers toward unkindness—“Missouri,” laughs Percy when asked by a Midwesterner what brought her there, “Missouri,”—there are other instances where stereotypes are deflated. At the spiritual retreat that Percy attends in the depths of rural Georgia, two women discuss their penchant for eating healthy, unprocessed foods: “I wish they had a Trader Joe’s here. I love Trader Joe’s.”
Regarding Daniels and his spiritual brethren, the argument Demon Camp makes is not crystal clear. In contrast to other books on the same subject, such as groundbreaker Lethal Warriors by Dave Philipps*, there is no prescriptive answer given, e.g. a call for more attention to the cerebral effects of repeat deployments or improved follow-up with veterans on their return to civilian life. Percy’s book reads as more vested in personal experience and less in sociological breadth. She enters pockets of deep and haunting sadness by seeking out bereaved subjects. She herself undergoes an exorcism: “You know what God just told me?” says her guide. “God told me you need a transfusion. I asked what kind. He said an identity transfusion.” Both choices, while undoubtedly bold, foreground the subject of her own objectivity and reliability as narrator.
To be both within and without events as they unfold is the fantasy that books open a window on, the notion that in the flow of a lifetime we can recognize our individual states of being and change the way we live. In the final section of Demon Camp, Percy brings forward the topic of gender and what role an idealized maternal presence might play in soothing psychic wounds; one prominent mid-century theorist, she notes, actually claimed mothers were the root cause of PTSD. Percy does not give firm answers; she details events in a stylized fashion (compact and edgy with startling gaps, reminiscent of Mary Gaitskill at her spookiest); she makes suggestions, erring on the side of subtlety. The healing process, it is clear by the end of the story, has only just begun for Sgt. Caleb Daniels: “You can’t be the savior of everybody, and, Caleb, you think you are the savior of everybody,” the ministry member tells him. What Daniels, and Percy as his medium, have provided is a meditation on trauma, a haunted interior made external: an exorcism provided by the text. It is a rough-and-tumble first book for Percy and a remarkable one.
* Philipps was an acquaintance of mine in college