The exorcists

Following the fire, following the homelessness, following David, I took a secretarial job.  Words of pain from the past became voices in my head and terrifying visions were rolling behind my eyes.  I vomited every morning before work.  I shook.  I hyperventilated.  I saw stars.  I cried.

So I joined a church that exorcised people.  It was in an old, used up, rented out Baptist church in an iffy part of East Detroit.  Jim, the minister, was an ex-pimp with a bum leg from polio who looked like a mob thug.  The congregants were pretty much the same sort.  But the church!  There was loud music with electric guitars and drums.  We sang.  We danced in circles in the aisles.  We raised our hands above our heads like the children of Israel on the other side of the Red Sea.  We spoke in tongues and prophecied and prayed and were slain in the spirit.  The services went on for hours, hours wrapped in feelings of love and calm, with no voices, no memories, no pain.

Once a month, I exorcised drug addicts and factory workers and the physically or mentally ill.  Everyone being exorcised had hope of being freed of something awful; you don’t go to an exorcist until everything else has failed.  There were hours of singing and dancing, instruction on how demons operate and how to keep them out once they’re expelled.  Jim told us to go home and throw out all frog images and reminders of bad people.  More singing and dancing.  Finally, we went down the the low-ceilinged basement with crumbling, white-washed cement walls.  Fluorescent lights gave the room a bluish unworldly glow.  The church members-turned-exorcists looks into the eyes of those being exorcised and get a feeling about what their evil spirits were.  I denounce you spirit of witchcraft in the name of Jesus!  Come out you spirit of hatred!  People screamed, fell over, spit, for hours. More singing and dancing in victory.  A big late-night meal with the stunned exorcisees.

After my own exorcism, I carried my impure items to the curb.  For a couple of days it was silent in my head: no voices, no visions.  All my mental problems had been demonic.  I was the demon-possessed man whose demons had gone into the pigs and jumped off a cliff. I had been delivered: Mental illness was actually demon possession.  And now I was free from it.

But it came back. I was scared and shaking and throwing up again.  I went back to church and sang and prayed harder, louder, got exorcised again, blamed myself.  I wasn’t deserving.  I wasn’t trying hard enough.  I was secretly gay, but god knew: All the old tapes from my LCMS days were turned on again.  And the parallels to the ashram weren’t lost on me, either: An emotionally charged, hypnotic “spiritual” experience temporarily shuts off the voices and visions.  Did that mean spirituality was just an emotionally charged, hypnotic experience?  It didn’t matter which religion, as long as you touched the right neurons and excited your emotions?

I read Jung and the collective unconscious, which was supposedly the unifying force behind it all.  There were archetypes like the Eternal Mother and the Cycle of Life and Death that were common to all religions.  Jung said rituals moved us above the mundane into oneness with this force.  But then wasn’t it the rituals changing the brain, not necessarily that the force existed?  And then, what is the difference between religious visions, which are OK, and my psychotic visions, which are not?  Years before I read Foucault, even I was able to see that visions were treated randomly, pejoratively.

It was finally the logic of it, and not the feelings of being undeserving and worthless, that got me to leave the exorcists.  The church had an internally inconsistent theology, and if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s logical inconsistency.  Maybe that’s what the religions call the mystery of belief.  My head just isn’t made for religion.

So I was left with my own moral code, my own philosophy, and my own emotional experiences sometimes enhanced by my faulty neurons.  I still cried out to god when my visions were too horrible and the internal pain too unbearable, but I didn’t expect him to do anything anymore.  It was more a reflex than a missive.

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