"[P]oetry makes nothing happen: it survives, / [...] a way of happening, a mouth." -W. H. Auden

Saturday, February 19, 2011

From My Memoir: Exorcism

"Night Comes On"; photo collage by Erich Ferdinand; used under Creative Commons license.

These are the opening paragraphs from the memoir I've begun writing.

*Let me also note here, in response to some comments I've received, that the exorcism itself was frightening and embarrassing and confusing for me, yes, but it was really the beliefs of that religious culture in a broader sense that have troubled me. I would not call the exorcism itself traumatic, and it pales in comparison to the fears I dealt with on a daily basis throughout my childhood. All of these people loved me, and I knew that then as I do now. I only tell the story to give a portrait of that religious culture and how foundational it was for me. I don't blame anyone for the belief system or for my fears and anxiety -- it's just that when you're born into a religious sub-culture, it is very primal for you and those beliefs don't change easily. Later in the memoir I'll talk about my eventual loss of faith, and much of the reason why that was so traumatic is the fact that I had been born into a belief system that formed the fabric of reality for me for 25 years. I think that in the larger context of the memoir, these things will be apparent. But since this excerpt stands on its own here, I think it's important to note these things.

Having made that clarification, here are the opening paragraphs:

When I was young, about 8 or 9, my pastor performed an exorcism on me. It was late one night after my parents called him in what I suppose must have been either desperation or frustration during another of my innumerable episodes of terror. I woke them almost nightly for years, ashamedly but desperately creeping into their room to shake an arm or touch a leg, hoping my dad would come and sit with me as I cried, as he often did, while I struggled for breath, panicked and sickened yet again at the thought of death and—more than that—of hell. I was tormented, and I don’t say that lightly.

After calling the pastor to ask him to meet and pray with me, my parents drove me to the church, where we met him and his wife in the empty sanctuary (as some Christians call the room where services are held). It seemed huge to me at that age, especially when it was empty, and especially that night, enveloped in darkness as it was, possessed suddenly of a hushed and nocturnal aspect previously unknown to me.

The four adults “laid hands on me” and prayed for me. Then Pastor Bob—we did call him “Pastor Bob,” and I don’t remember anyone ever referring to him by his last name—decided to have me stand up and asked the others to step aside. He stood in front of me with a little jar of oil. He asked me to stand with my mouth open. I remember being confused and scared, not to mention embarrassed, and I felt I might cry at any moment. This made keeping my mouth open difficult, and I felt vulnerable and foolish standing there, mouth hanging open. But I did trust this man, a major symbol of authority—of God’s authority—for me, and I trusted my parents. So I tried to follow his instructions carefully.

Pastor Bob began to wet his fingers with the oil and to sprinkle oil over my body from a distance of five feet or so, and he began to call out in a loud and commanding voice, speaking to the supposed demon in order to ascertain whether there was actually one there. I remember his words, at least roughly: “I command you, evil spirit, in the name and in the authority of Jesus Christ to speak your name. What is your name?” He had instructed me to just keep my mouth open, but not to speak purposely, so I stood there, waiting fearfully for a phantom voice to rise from my own throat.

He was insistent and persisted at this for several minutes. Finally, he told me to speak the first word that came to my mind. There was nothing there. I felt like something was going wrong. I didn’t know what to do, but I felt that I had to say something. I made up a word, a sound that was not a word. The adults left the room briefly to discuss this utterance and determine whether it was meaningful or revelatory. They returned, having concluded that it was not the name of a demon, and that I could rest in the certainty that I was a child of God and that I no longer needed live in fear. Pastor Bob’s wife gave me a toy police badge that I was to keep in order to remind myself that I was a child of the King, a deputy in God’s kingdom, and that I could take out that badge whenever a spirit of fear came over me. I remember crying a lot, and I don’t know what particular emotion caused it, I was experiencing so many—relief, fear, exhaustion, disorientation, doubt, embarrassment, hope, all simultaneous in me.


  1. Wow, Luke. This is amazing. You writing is alive, the pace reels me in and keeps going. Very nice.

  2. Wow as someone who identifies as a cautious Charismatic and as a future social worker I appreciate this post. I hope you continue to tell your story and don't feel like you are alone in your experiences. Take care.