Jennifer Percy’s debut, Demon Camp, is a work of immersive nonfiction that seeks to shed light on a dark world: that of post-traumatic suffering. In Portal, Georgia — a small town “where the layer between heaven and earth is very thin” and where much of the book takes place — a group of trauma sufferers believe it is not a psychological disturbance but instead demonic possession that plagues them. They have explained the clinical symptoms of PTSD via the metaphorical symptoms of spiritual warfare.
Percy’s main subject is Caleb Daniels, a veteran of Afghanistan and a former member of a Special Ops team that lost eight soldiers in the Hindu Kush. One of those soldiers was his best friend, and after Daniels returns home he finds himself haunted by his ghost — alongside a demon he dubs the Black Thing. The demon torments him, and, he believes, is behind his several suicide attempts. His faith in this demon’s existence leads him, ultimately, to the religious community and exorcists in Portal.
Percy puts an almost claustrophobic lens to her subjects’ disturbing and often hypnotic worldview. She often reflects the rhythms and syntax of their religiosity in her inventive prose while she describes the extent to which she enveloped herself in this particular world: Percy lived in the homes of the people she interviewed for days, weeks. Eventually, after much pressure from her subjects, she even submitted to an exorcism:
“And then it happens. That thing I can’t see. Their hands seek places of rot. They start changing. Their mouths twist to say God. Light collects in their eyes. One of them draws a picture of my heart in the air. They say my heart is half withered, like rotten fruit. They ask for Jesus blood, and the Jesus blood turns hot in my cheeks like a fever.
Everything is soft-looking and cries with the Holy Spirit.”
In this scene, like many others, Percy is extraordinarily present while also remaining elusive. While her sensibility, her direct experiences, and her lyrical, mesmerizing style filters every moment, she also refuses the reader any biographical details about herself and often refrains from direct, explicit interpretation of her experiences. In such a way Demon Camp often mirrors the fractured perspective of her subjects: the overall effect is unsettling, hypnotic, frightening and compelling. And the world it describes is, ultimately, breathtakingly sad.
In his book In an Unspoken Voice, Peter Levine writes, “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside us in the absence of an empathetic witness.” Percy’s immersive, often unmediated portrayal of such a tangled world could be read as an act of such witnessing, as well as an attempt to transform the reader into such a witness.
I sent questions to Percy via email about her literary inspirations, skepticism toward the supernatural, and the way in which American culture understands war and its veterans.
Nika Knight: At the beginning of the book, Caleb Daniels presents deliverance — a kind of exorcism from demon possession, which he believes is the true root of the symptoms of PTSD — as a cure. But we later learn that “the demons follow you after deliverance.” Why do you think the demons return? Do you believe there’s the possibility of a cure, or any kind of “deliverance,” for the effects of trauma?
Jennifer Percy: As a writer I’m not that interested in solutions. Outside of writing, yes, of course. But when you set out to write a book, you aren’t necessarily there to solve a problem as much as to hold a mirror up to an issue and reveal some buried or overlooked truths. And yes, trauma follows you. If someone dies, you can’t just get an exorcism. Exorcism is just a lie we tell ourselves in order to survive.
In some ways, you include a lot of details about yourself in Demon Camp — you’re almost always a part of the narrative. You are always in conversation with your subjects; your reactions to them and your partaking in their rituals are part of the story. And yet many personal details about yourself are omitted: where you’re from, your own religious background, etc. How did you decide to include what you did? Why not include more, or less?
I didn’t think those details were important. It’s not a memoir — I’m a person in the world curious to understand how a catastrophic event affected the lives of certain individuals. I wasn’t compelled to write this book to answer a question about myself, but rather about the human condition and about America. To talk about myself would be to take the spotlight away from my subject. But I had to get in there sometimes because it helped me understand the world of my subject. Sometimes entangling myself was necessary to empathize. Otherwise it’s just sympathy, and that’s pretty useless. Sympathy is for Hallmark Cards.
How did your own experience of deliverance — your own exorcism — affect your understanding of the supernatural and, by extension, your subjects?
I’m actually not interested at all in the supernatural — only in the fact that human beings believe in the supernatural and what that says about us. I wouldn’t have been able to witness the ritual without doing it — so there was just the practical aspect of it. But it also made me empathize more readily with this group and how easily we can slip into the consciousness of a group — another’s hallucination — and the lure of easy narratives. It’s lulling. It’s that warm sinking moment before sleep. It’s very hard to pull away.
Many of this book’s readers are likely to be far removed from the beliefs of veterans like Caleb Daniels or preachers like Tim Mathers. While writing, how did you negotiate your readers’ potential skepticism toward the supernatural?
I’m not sure there is anything to negotiate. If we only write about things that the reader is comfortable reading and is already familiar with then I’m not sure we’re really making much effort to acknowledge that these worlds exist and we certainly would not be making an effort to imagine a world different from our own. This also happens to be part of the American narrative of how we deal with the war. I also hope the reader is skeptical of the supernatural. I certainly am, and I mean, here, it’s just a metaphor — a terminology that’s easier to swallow than the reality of lived experience. The stories about the demons aren’t there to convince, but to reveal a narrative running through the heart of America.
Demon Camp could be read as a devastating condemnation of America’s cultural and political failure to help and support veterans of war. Did you expect to find the scope and depth of suffering that you did? How do you think we, as a country, should change to better help those suffering from the trauma of war?
That’s certainly one of the readings I hoped readers would walk away with. Although I don’t necessarily see it specifically as a problem of America failing veterans, but the problem of America failing to fully acknowledge the consequences of warfare and its effects on the human soul. We seem to always enter a stage of post-conflict amnesia. If a conflict no longer loops the news or threatens the safety of our citizens, it no longer seems to exist. If it doesn’t fit the narrative that we told ourselves it would fit, then the narrative vanishes entirely, or else it stops when our imagination prefers. No one wants to continue on and really track the progress of our individual hurts. But then the trauma is here, and it’s real, and it’s lingering, and I think about the way it affects our culture — how it makes us sick.
How did you come across these characters, this story? When and how did you know this subject would become a book?
I found Caleb and the other veterans through word of mouth — talking to friends, or reading newspapers.
I first spoke with a woman named April Somdahl whose brother Brian Rand committed suicide when he returned from Iraq. I originally considered writing several vignettes that explored the homecoming experience of many individuals. When I met Caleb, I was interested in the way he had survived several suicide attempts, and had replaced one narrative with another. I thought Caleb was interesting enough to fill the pages of a book, and that his story might be a lens to something bigger. Every time I spoke to him, he said something new and surprising.
Toward the end of the book, there’s a moment in which Caleb challenges your research. He tells you, “I’m frustrated with your rational background. You ask too many questions. You see everything too logically. This is freaking spiritual warfare.” While you were reporting on your subjects for the book, how did your subjects interpret your role in their lives? Did they ever consider you or your project to play a role in their concept of spiritual warfare?
Yes, Caleb, from what I understood, believed that I was there to write a book, but that the book was also part of his fate-driven project to help veterans. At first I ignored those comments because they weren’t interesting to me, but it never let up. He fed me information slowly, over time, and his narrative changed — and became more and more elaborate. We were both trying to make sense of what we were doing but we were on a two-lane highway that eventually forked. So that was interesting. I included many of our conversations about the book for that reason.
I was struck that this is a nonfiction book about such a wild, non-rational world. How does one fact check a book about demon possession, hauntings, spiritual warfare?
Demon possession and hauntings are not real, so you don’t fact check them. These are stories people tell themselves about themselves. You fact check only that the person who believed in the hauntings actually told the stories about the hauntings. And you do that by asking them, or by recording everything they said — as I did.
The timeline in the book is not always linear. Why did you choose to structure the book in the way that you did?
Part of structure is information management. You need to disseminate information in a way that keeps the reader interested and the narrative moving, but that doesn’t overwhelm or confuse them. I wrote the prologue because this book is about the experience of my protagonist, and not necessarily about plot or resolution. So I told the whole story of the book in two pages and just gave that to the reader. Then I told Caleb’s story up to the point where we met. I wanted his narrative to exist on its own before I came in, because there was too much information to juggle if we both showed up at the same time.
In the beginning of the book, you recreate a number of scenes in which there are very few witnesses — an encounter between Navy SEALS and goat herders in the Hindu Kush; Caleb’s arguments with his wife; military officers collecting a slain soldier’s belongings — how did you go about researching such scenes?
It took a very long time. To start Marcus Luttrell’s book Lone Survivor is the only account of what happened on the ground on June 28 in the Hindu Kush. There is no other story. So of course, that’s the story we tell and there is nothing we can do about it. To top that, it’s a firefight, and he emerged from one of the most traumatizing events you can imagine going through — so reconstructing it is still a matter of his memory and concerns. But there’s great value to those stories. And that’s a different kind of value than factual truth. It’s ideal to have both kinds, but there are some things in life we’ll never have the privilege of knowing except through the filter of the teller. But this is an event in history that’s been thoroughly covered. So I also read every book I could find about Operation Redwings, and spoke to journalists on the ground at the time of the operation, and spoke to Caleb’s Captain, who also jumped off the flight at the last minute. In terms of Kip Jacoby, well, Kip is dead so we only have Caleb’s stories to go off sometimes — the same as we only have Luttrell’s. Caleb was the other lone survivor, and so we have to give his narrative its respect too. Caleb’s story is not the typical hero narrative, but it’s a narrative I find much more compelling. The way he talked about himself; the way he talked about his past; the way he pushed threads between things. I wanted to stay close to his psyche.
Throughout the book, I was captivated by your use of language and choice of metaphor. For example, you describe a helicopter flying low to the ground to avoid radar as “like the flight of bees pollinating pomegranate blossoms.” Or to choose an example at random, “The bed suffers beneath lace pillows.”
How did you land upon the language, the distinct mood of Demon Camp? What books or authors particularly influenced you, as you were writing this book?
It would be difficult to speak broadly about language. Every sentence does different work and so does each metaphor and each adjective, and I had to make fresh choices along the way. The first section, which is 3rd person, I wanted the language to echo Caleb’s and to use the kind of vocabulary and mannerisms that he might use. I read many different books while writing Demon Camp so it’s hard to say what influenced me or not, but I would include Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, Close Range by Annie Proulx, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.
What was your biggest challenge, in working on this project?
It was very hard to be receptive and open to such devastating stories for such an extended period of time. It wore me down, and I began to carry the weight of their trauma with me.
Nika Knight is an Interviews Editor at Full Stop.