Note: This essay comes from a larger work that narrates experiences I had while I lived alone in a midwestern farmhouse. During that time, I also worked as a caregiver for disabled adults who live at a group home I call Tappan. (Tappan is the name of the house’s street.) In the next few pages, you’ll read about Silas the Barber. He is an autistic, semi-violent resident of Tappan, who tried to shave himself, in the bathtub, after irritation and fatigue had diverted my attention elsewhere. Among other things, Silas tried to shave his head, and he ended up looking as if he had hacked at himself with a cheese grater.
Part II. Invasion
Autumn began, and the mice arrived as the nights got cold. In the kitchen, I baited live traps with peanut butter. The mice set them off in the middle of the night, and the cat hurried from the bed to loom over them. In the morning, I drove the mice two miles, to a field by a crossroads, and they dropped from the trap’s cylinder, sticky with Skippy. I loved the mice, because they were a sign that any snakes in my house were hibernating too deeply to eat them. And besides, if any snakes in the fields remained awake, they could delight in a what a friend once called Meeses Pieces.
On a Saturday, I read an old army survival manual that was so moldy that it smelled of wet dog. There was something compelling about a survival manual that looked like it had actually helped a person survive, but the odor was bad enough that I had to read the book outside. I sat on the slope of the house’s lower roof, with coffee and flannel. From there, I could see the neighbor’s cattle browsing a field that was turning to straw. The yearlings were shaggy in their winter coats. The wind gusted their hair in the same manner as it moved the field, and the world felt whole–which is the biblical meaning of perfect.
My notes blew down to the patio. I entered the house though my study window, ran down the stairs, and opened the mudroom’s outer door. There was a plop at my feet. I stepped back. A small snake, gray with black markings, lay on the mudroom’s floor. It had been on top of the door, like the bucket in the prank.
I shut the door to the kitchen. The snake lay still; it was maybe eight inches long. Maybe it wanted in from the cold; maybe it was the snake I saw months ago. There was something off about its head. I grabbed a broom, to sweep it out the door. The snake coiled itself. It shook its tail. It made no sound, but the the tail ended in a disc instead of a point.
My eyes watered. I found the door behind me. I shut myself in the kitchen, and went online. What I had in my mudroom was a timber rattlesnake–a juvenile. Its rattle forms as it grows. Its scientific name is Crotalus horridus. I stuffed magazines in the crack beneath the inner mudroom door.
I called my landlord, but nobody answered the maintenance number. My neighbors weren’t home. I started to phone my parents, in Florida, and stopped. I downed a glass of water. I called the sheriff.
The deputy arrived with what looked like a tent pole that had a noose sticking out of one end. He stood on my patio. “You sure it’s a rattler?” he said.
“Timber rattler. Crotalus horridus.”
He squinted. “In there?”
“It’s very small.” Juvenile rattlers are more dangerous than adults, because they haven’t yet learned to regulate how much venom to inject. I’d read this in my survival manual.
The deputy–his name was Carl–opened the mudroom. Magazines feathered from the bottom of the opposite door. There was a closet in the corner of the room. The walls held shelves with yard gloves and boots. The light had burned out over the stairway to the basement. Carl told me to grab the broom. He said that if you grab a snake barehanded, you have to clamp both sides and the top of its head–that if you don’t do this last part, the snake will turn in its skin and bite. They are essentially muscles with a mouth.
We opened the closet. We poked my jackets’ pockets and sleeves. I knocked the gloves off the shelf; he overturned the boots. A scatter of cat kibble fell from one of my galoshes. I looked at it, and looked at Carl. “Ground squirrel,” he said. I could say nothing. When rodents start to horde in your footwear, you’ve lost the war.
He started down the stairs. “There could be another snake down there,” I said. “Bull snake. Big.”
“I imagine you’ve got a few.” He stood at the bottom of the stairs and pivoted while he looked. He said that food calls rodents, and rodents call snakes.
“What do snakes call?” I said.
“Bigger snakes.” He smiled up at me.
I stomped down the stairs and stood next to him. “That’s fine.”
We overturned boxes, and dirt spread from where it filled them after it had fallen from the ceiling. There was a dead mouse by the water softener. Wooly bears curled by the window. A rolled-up carpet leaned in the corner, from where the previous tenant had hoped to refurbish the garage. Carl put his hand on it.
I told him the possibility was way too poetic. We lay the carpet on its side. Spider webs matted the fabric. Carl told me to step back. He set the carpet rolling. It was blue, with short stubble, like the sort you’d find in a classroom. Something clicked and smelled of musk. The carpet was a-scatter with lady beetles. They looked like letters on a scroll.
“Well,” said Carl. “You can’t keep out the bugs.”
The lady beetles flickered their wings and spread.
“Snakes like a sump pump,” said Carl. He stood in the back room’s doorway. “They’ll live in window boxes, loose siding. You know they like the crack in a door.” He kicked the dirt and thumped the counter. “Nobody here, though.”
On the room’s outer doorframe, in the corner between the basement’s last shelf and the backswing of the back room’s door, I noticed a mark about waist high. It was the same as what I’d found on the mudroom door.
I showed it to to Carl, the way I’d point at a track. I told him of the same one upstairs, and he gave me a half smile. “Odd things in old houses.” He said the marks looked like the grooves from a croquet ball, or maybe a dent from an old kind of hand tiller. He thought maybe somebody’s kid had a fit.
Carl tapped his snake pole on the ground. There was nowhere else to look. He suggested I put a heat lamp in a bucket that I’d laid on its side, and use a funnel to make the entrance of the bucket one-way only. It was a good snake trap–but in the end, I really didn’t want to see how many serpents I could fit in a pail.
After Carl left, I stood in the kitchen and pushed more magazines under the door. The survival manual says that if you receive a rattlesnake bite, you should not cut the wound to bleed it. Nor should you suck the poison out. It also says that if you are alone in the wilderness, you should not walk for help, that exertion would spread the venom–and that you’d be better off lying down and riding it out, while your body purged itself. I imagined the Gadarenes demoniac in scriptures–the one infested with Legion–wracked on the sand and clutching rubble.
On Monday, the landlord sent Lewis to poke around. He also suggested I invest in a hoe. Lewis and I found nothing. I showed Lewis the marks on the door frames, and he said they looked old. I thought they increasingly suggested the marks from the rungs on the belly of a snake.
The day afterwards, I stood in the basement. “One whack,” the landlord had said. “It’s so cold, they’ll be slow.” The survival manual says that if you kill a viper, you have to stay clear of the head–that handling a deceased snake can prompt its reflex action to make it bite. I imagine this is a good thing to know. All I had on that snake was a book.
I never saw the rattler again. They’re rare in these parts. But even now, years beyond the farmhouse, I step away, when I open a door.
As it happens, I also never solved the mystery of the marks. No snake could have made them. I know. But when I lay in bed, listening for the mousetraps to go off, I sometimes wondered if those dents were deliberate–if they functioned as a kind of ward, the way I’ve heard Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” play from a neighbor’s doorbell. This is improbable. But the middle of the night is for the improbable. And still there were other times, when I thought quite conversely, of the how low the marks were, and of the possible shortness of the Devil’s shadow.
M. Scott Peck was a psychiatrist whom critics considered groundbreaking for his work on human evil. His book, The People of the Lie, identifies evil as a psychiatric condition–an extreme form of narcissism that loves to dominate others for domination’s very sake. The evil mind preserves its own sense of perfection by lying to its conscience and scapegoating everyone else. It portrays itself as virtuous, and it resides most comfortably in hospitals, families, and churches. It rarely produces a Hitler or a Nero. It is, in fact, deeply common. And it is not always curable.
Dr. Peck embraced Sufism and Buddhism, and he carried much of that influence with him when he converted to an ecumenical sort of Methodism. He studied at Harvard and he lived in Connecticut. And he maintained throughout his career that the best science leads to the best truth.
When I first began to read a library copy of The People of the Lie, I found a sheet of notebook paper within its back pages. It went like this:
Why not multiple personality disorder:
A) Most MPDs are unaware of other personalities–at least until v. late. Possessed are aware of alien personality.
B) MPD personalities might be aggressive, but they are not evil.
(Possessed people aren’t evil. Many heroic.)
Step 1. Penetrate the presence: Find the demon.
Step 1-a. In meantime, prepare and bolster victim.
Step 1-b. Assemble good team.
Step 1-c. Speak to the healthy personality or to the demon, but not to both. Say nothing in response to babble or other attempts at confusion.
Step 1-d. Demonic personality will become more repulsive while core personality becomes healthier. This is how to shatter demonic pretense and expose demon.
Step 2. Face the presence. Snake features may present in victim.
Step 3. Expulsion. Prayers to God to expel demon. BUT–core personality must choose to evict presence.
n.b. After expulsion, demon tries to get back in.
Step 4. Begin/resume regular psychiatric therapy. Devil will tempt all to believe ex. was failure.
Voices inside victim’s mind will never completely vanish.
Before he died of Parkinson’s disease, M. Scott Peck published a final book, Glimpses of the Devil: a psychiatrist’s personal accounts of possession, exorcism and redemption. The notebook page I found was a combination of what a reader had taken both from that book and from The People of the Lie. I’ve kept that sheet of paper. I wish its author well.
Dr. Peck started investigating demonic possession in attempt to disprove the phenomenon. Instead, he ended Glimpses with a call for the psychiatric community to open a subfield in exorcism itself. It is probably no mistake that this was Dr. Peck’s final book that he wrote in his final years. His official webpage doesn’t even mention it. As both a scientist and a theologian, Dr. Peck was voicing a position that could well have ended his credibility. I’m sure he knew this, just as I’m sure he knew that in any event, he would not be persuasive. “All I hope,” he says at Glimpses’s end, “is that I may have opened your mind.” No person would believe these things if she didn’t encounter them herself. So don’t buy them, he says. Go and see.
I have given this book to a pastor I know. He has a background in psychology as well as conventional ministry. He’s taken congregants to build houses on the Lakota reservations in South Dakota, where once he grabbed a bull snake by the tail as it climbed up the inside of his drywall. When he returned Glimpses, he told me of a man who once visited his office downtown. The visitor had sat across from him and leaned forward until his chest was almost parallel with the ground. “I am the Devil,” he said. “I am hate.” My reverend–liberal, spectacled–sat motionless and asked why the man thought he was such a thing. The man simply recoiled himself and left. I suspect that if the meeting had gone any longer, my reverend would have had the temerity to ask the Devil about his mother. And this is appropriate; psychology has done a great deal to shorten the Devil’s shadow. But this is also precisely why Dr. Peck’s account is so disturbing.
Glimpses gives two case studies on Peck’s attempts at exorcism. Both center on women who, in childhood, had suffered abuse at the hands of the church. Both victims felt compelled toward destructive behavior; both heard voices and had secretly suspected they were in fact possessed. One was an uneducated mother in her twenties; the other was a wealthy stockbroker in her forties. Both signed a contract acknowledging the risk that they might die during the exorcism itself.
Each exorcism involved dialogue and prayer. Dr. Peck and his assistants never used physical measures, except to restrain the victim–which they resorted to in each case, where it took as many as six adults to do the job. Both the mother and the stockbroker adopted voices that were deep and coarse; both spoke from scientific knowledge that they didn’t normally possess; each changed physical features to the point that Dr. Peck tried for years to mimic their facial expressions in a mirror. The stockbroker’s head rounded; her lids became hooded. Dr. Peck videotaped the proceedings–but the recording shows nothing out of the ordinary. To this, Dr. Peck throws up his hands. All of his assistants claim they saw the same thing. And some members of the team were atheists.
The mother recovered. She continued to hear demonic voices, but she felt they were outside herself and therefore impotent. The stockbroker had spent much of her life trying to remove an inescapable chill, by searing herself with the sun. She eventually died of skin cancer that had spread to her bones. She was born a Jew and she was addicted to cutting herself with Nazi daggers. Dr. Peck suspects he was never able to set her free.
I don’t know what to say about Dr. Peck’s descriptions. As I summarize his claims, they seem so ridiculous that I’m embarrassed to have written them. But then I’m struck by the conviction that a liberal, scientific academic would muster in order to publish an entire book of this sort. Because the alarming thing about Dr. Peck is that he does not attempt to attract disciples. He doesn’t want converts; he wants company. In fact, he publishes an account, at great personal risk, to confess an experience–an encounter–that professes no allegiance to doctrine, or rule, or even therapy. He is convincing because he speaks with the authority of one who has met both the impossible and the ineffable. He has, in other words, the humility of a witness. And whether or not he has met the Devil himself, I believe he has certainly come across something.
In fact, my only criticism is that Dr. Peck may be too eager to give that something its name. He has encountered a phenomenon he has never seen before–something with symptoms that don’t match anything that psychiatry has previously diagnosed. He calls it possession. But by doing so, he follows a tradition that healers set in antiquity. What I mean is that from a diagnostic point of view, Dr. Peck might commit the time-worn mistake of overlooking the possibility that there is a great deal of room between an unknown condition and Satan himself. I’m not a physician; I don’t know. And even if I’m right, I have to accept the fact that Dr. Peck claims to have exorcised his patients successfully, through at least what was initially religious work. The young mother found release–and according to Peck, so did hundreds more. And as a consequence, I’m tempted to suggest that Dr. Peck successfully identified and nullified a medical condition, no matter what name he chose to give it.
But of course, these possessions are the only sicknesses I know of where across age and upbringing, and failure and healing, the other presence–the evil presence–called itself Satan.
In the New Testament exorcisms abound. Scripture says a demonic presence housed itself by the myriad, inside the man we know only by his possessors’ name of Legion. The villagers cast Legion’s demoniac into the wasteland of the Gadarenes. Perhaps, later one, they knew where the demoniac lived by the mirages that collected around him.
“Go out,” they may have told Jesus, “until the ground sheds form.” God is, in part, reality itself. Satan opposes God. So Satan must oppose that very reality. He is the author of unreality. If you write the Hebrew letters for “Jehovah” upside down, you are making a traditional sign of Satan. He is God’s order in a mutilated form. And we have seen that as a man-made myth, external presence, or actual possessing fiend, Satan spreads insanity of the very worst sort.
Jesus approached the demoniac as the embodiment of reality. Jesus destroyed unreality by filling it, the way a person would erase a hole. The demoniac, his mind restored, showed his new master’s divinity with his own fullness.
What kind of healing was this? The Bible makes distinctions between Jesus curing the sick and Jesus casting out demons. This separation demonstrates that Jesus’ removal of a demon is not a figurative representation of his purging someone of leprosy, or blindness, or anything so mundane. This distinction would suggest that demons are something wholly other–that possession (and the possessor) are in fact real.
On the other hand, the Bible makes no mention of Jesus healing mental illness either. And if you say that this was because there was little concept of mental illness in the Jesus era, you will simply help this objection’s point. I have no idea if Legion’s demoniac suffered what we would now call a common, mental disease. I have no idea if Dr. Peck’s patients suffered the same. In other words, I still can’t tell if the Devil can enter us, at will, the way he would slide into a shoe. But what I can suggest is that the very real healings of the scriptural Devil’s very real woundings are how the Devil himself testifies. That is, regardless of whatever their origin, the power of God definitely and demonstratively replaces these afflictions with a wholeness.
It is further remarkable that when Jesus reaches the demoniac, the Legion know exactly who addresses them. They cannot help but testify. Even if they exist only in fable–even if Satan is only the name for a human phenomenon–this scriptural Legion levels two very authentic accusations: The first is that whatever the nature of evil, it recognizes Christ before humanity does. The second is that more people recognize demons than they recognize Christ.
There is an aspect of demonology that includes the idea of oppression, instead of possession. Some, including many Protestant, deliverance ministers, believe that oppression could be a prelude to possession itself. These exorcists believe oppression is the moment when the Devil is at the perimeter of the soul. Dr. Peck isn’t sold on this idea; he thinks the Devil either has you or he doesn’t. But for those who find reality in such a thing, oppression frequently involves a sequence of bad fortune and temptation. It is something I find interesting, because regardless of whether a Devil exists, oppression’s trajectory is biblical.
Of the three occasions when Satan appears as a full, cosmic entity in the Old Testament, he speaks only during the first two chapters of Job. At the beginning of this book, God assembles his court around him. Satan is included, and God gives Satan permission to torment Job. Note, by the way, that in the story of the demoniac, Legion also ask permission–not to torment, this time, but to flee into the swine. Dr. Peck claims that whatever they become, demons remain strangely obedient to authority. And in fact, the Gospels assert something similar.
Job’s Satan gains permission. He becomes Job’s harrier, reducing him in body and soul, to the point of near destruction. Through all this, he tempts Job into questioning God’s own righteousness. Satan has removed everything from Job but God himself. And what happens here, says Bonhoeffer, is that even Job starts to turn from God. Evangelist, John Bevere, preaches many things I don’t endorse. (He believes, for instance, that we are reaching the End Times.) But his book, The Bait of Satan, makes the point that evil best infects by encouraging its target to feel offense. When we feel the victim, we feel we are owed. And this entitlement breeds everything from pride to aggression. Satan tempts Job not with paradise, or even godhood, but with deservedness.
And Job does question. And with these questions, he does fall. And although his seduction doesn’t stem from possession–or oppression–of the Linda Blair variety, it does carry some of the same effects. And we can be only thankful that God didn’t permit Satan to test a legion of Jobs. About The Exorcist, Dominican author, Richard Woods, says the Devil wouldn’t be so stupid as to possess a little girl when he could infest an entire government. And Devil or no, we have seen that when nations feel deep offense, they may indeed embrace the demonic.
In this sense, there is no doubt: Oppression of a sort is a route to real evil. And unless someone answers that oppression with a Christlike, loving, non-violent resistance, this oppression results in diabolical acts. Millions of dead will tell us so. The question is whether this means that possession or oppression emerges from the thing I pondered while I lived in my farm house–if it slides along our consciousness the way I once heard a snake within a wall.
If we use the scriptures to decide, there is no question. Satan exists as clearly as any other angel–and his function is to oppress. If, in spite of this, he is only figurative, his mere character encapsulates evil’s essence and domination with such chilling accuracy that it reminds me of the Lovecraft story, where the narrator learns the existence of demons through the realism with which an artist has painted them. Satan, whether literal or allegorical, declares that evil is real. This might be his true function–and his best testimony. Because with that reality, we also find our need for redemption.
Job, oppressed and doubly fallen, questions God. God replies with an unanswerable encounter–something that probably scares Job from his now-habitual doubts as clearly as if it had made him flee his own dwelling. And part of that terror may come from the fact that the meeting itself honors man beyond any conceivable measure. It shows that instead of inattention, God’s silence throughout the oppression meant that he was in fact listening. This has significant implications that lead to both comfort and danger. God watched the oppression, and so it follows that God permits oppression. There is a Jewish tradition that claims that Satan lost his office in heaven for his excessive cruelty to Job. But I don’t believe this is so. God is the one who said at the beginning, “Have you considered my servant, Job?” He opened the wager. And I imagine that when the earth first lay full in its form, God also asked the serpent to consider another man. Whatever happens at the hands of the Devil, it does not spring from the Devil’s initiative. Not fully. And this could mean that the Devil benefits God. And if there is any utility in Satan whatsoever, this means that by extension of that utility, he does in fact exist.
Job, beaten first by the Devil and then by the whirlwind, stands afterwards, in ragged silence, glancing from stone to stone, because there is no one else to help him witness. God does not help him rebuild. Nor does God even say he forgives Job’s sin. But God did approach, and he thereby granted an encounter that trivialized all the previous oppression. What I mean is that God spoke, and Job returned to his right mind.
There exist at least a dozen instances of exorcism in the New Testament. Aside from Legion’s appearance in all three synoptic gospels, memorable stories include the exorcised demon who returns with seven others (Matt. 12.45) and the demon who runs off the nonbelievers who try to exorcise in Jesus’ name (Acts 19.13). Aside from what I interpret from Job, there are no instances of exorcism in the Old Testament.
I’ve read a few theories about the reasons: The one that’s most commonsensical is the fact that Judaism de-emphasizes Satan to such an extent that exorcism has no reason to appear. In fact, there are only two moments when the Old Testament alludes to the mere possibility of possession: once to discuss the murderous rage of Ahab (v.), and once to show the murderous rage of Saul (v.). To be utterly thorough, I suppose David’s census could also be a result of possession. But regardless, this is all that the Old Testament has to say on the matter.
We have more questions, if we consider both testaments. And this is where the other theories come into play. From the supersessionist’s standpoint, there is the idea that only Jesus had authority to exorcize, and that regular folks didn’t begin such ministries until after Jesus gave them the power to do so. In a different interpretation, Dr. Peck believes that Satan grew in defiance against God as Christ began to enter the world. Ultimately, says Peck, the transformation reduced Satan from servant to beast. Throughout the bulk of his life, Dr. Peck prayed for Satan’s ultimate salvation. And for all I know, he still does.
Liberal scholars, such as Jeffrey Burton Russell, point to the presence of the Devil in the Inter-Testamental writings and say that in the dawn of Christianity, Jews began to embrace the dualism inherent in the surrounding Zoroastrianism. Why, after millennia, Judaism began to alter its canon with outside influence is beyond me. Antiquity is a-crawl with demons. Russell suggests the change came about as a result of how life in the Inter-Testamental period got difficult for the Jews. And I will pause here to ask if, starting with Adam, you can name for me one century when the Jews have ever had a good time.
Instead, Jesus emerges to walk along Legion’s very own sea. Jesus both fulfills and deepens the Law. He fells adversity and casts out death. He gains a victory that is a routing of anything that is less than love–which is to say, anything less than God. And according to the Magnificat, the triumph began on the very day that Mary received him.
The synoptic gospels each relate tales of Jesus casting out demons. John does not. But then, John does–in its first five verses, where “the light shone in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” Karl Barth believes that the theology in the Inter-Testamental period began to mention demons, because up to this point, God had stopped speaking. The Law and the Prophecies had settled. And in the silence, the Jews became keenly aware of the ungod, the destructive nothing that stalks the universe. A person who is consumed by awareness of the ungod might well be possessed. Barth says that Jesus was aware of such things as a man of his time, while he was also thoroughly versed in these same things, as God himself. In every case, the battle between God and the ungod was real.
And here I return to John–because it gives me the realization that Jesus Christ is himself an exorcism. He drives out the Devil, from the Magnificat onward. To use the very vocabulary of exorcism, he obliterates the pretense and exposes the presence. His work on Earth increases, from youth past death, until the task is done. And along the way, the Devil becomes more angry and more apparent.
Dr. Peck suggests that since those days, Satan has fallen into a route–that full-blown possessions are acts of desperation. I wonder if, in the time of Jesus, they were the same, if not worse.
Dr. Peck says there is no magic here. Simply enough, the Devil intrudes. Simply, again, love fells him. “Just love,” Peck says. “The way to beat evil is to smother it with a pure self.” He warns that such a thing is dangerous. He calls it a sacrifice. But as a means of casting out evil, either human or otherwise, such an endeavor seems to reflect the most loving, most real aspect of the gospel itself. Here again, Satan prompts a reaction that points toward God. And this means that if he is something artificial, he is great artifice indeed. Because in spite of himself, he divulges the real.