Frankly, there were times, when my daughters were in their teen years, that I, too, thought one or another of them had been possessed by a demon. What else could explain the dark looks, the shadows under the eyes, the smell of nicotine, the empty beer bottle found under the bed, the curfews broken, the whispered telephone conversations, the mysterious boxer shorts under the cushion of the living room couch? Was that endless scribbling in the sacred never-let-out-of-sight diary paranormal dictation? There were times when I wouldn’t have needed much of an excuse to place a plastic bag over the head of one of them.
So while I would like to be shocked by Vivian Miranda, a 39-year-old mother who did resort to home-remedy exorcism (one in which unfortunately the possessor and the possessee both expired), I know how easy it is for the Devil to drive you crazy. This mother of three daughters put a plastic covering on the head of her 17-year-old while her 20-year-old held her struggling, dying sister down. They were just trying to get rid of her demons. Instead, they succeeded in getting rid of her and found themselves in the county jail facing murder charges. The demon, if there was one, got the last laugh.
It may turn out that Vivian Miranda was schizophrenic. This hearing of voices and literal belief in demons is close enough to madness, and this woman may qualify as a candidate for Haldol, not jail, but nevertheless she is also a product of a religious culture in which anger and love, good and bad, are split into separate symbols, and “If the arm offends, you cut it off” is not such an alien idea.
I understand that unless you are on medically prescribed drugs and have only a week to live, you must not say that someone else’s faith in crystals is tommyrot, and I know that if the man next to you at dinner is wearing a copper bracelet, you keep your thoughts about tennis elbow to yourself. I know that if I went to a distant isle in the Pacific Ocean and the beautiful fisherman standing near his boat refused to let me take his picture in fear the camera would steal his soul, it would be uncouth to tell him he’s a dope. I know that it’s not nice to make fun of other people’s dealings with death and fate and the ever-expanding or ever-contracting infinity of the universe, etc. But despite the currently avowed importance of tolerating and respecting every Tom, Joe and Harry’s relationship with the Great Hereafter, some religious beliefs are just primitive hooey. What happened in Sayville, L.I., tells us that maybe we should stop being so polite. There are outside limits to religious insanity. There is a point where this devil talk is a little like shouting fire in a crowded theater.
There are probably still tribes, hidden in distant, dusty places around the globe, whose members, wearing feathers and fur, eat parts of animals in the expectation that the qualities of the totem-fleet of foot, sharp of tooth, fatally poison of tongue-will be transferred to the dinner guests by virtue of incorporation: You are what you eat … Nice idea, but it doesn’t work. There are people who believe you can offend someone else’s ancestors and end up with boils. There are people who believe that a little chicken blood sprinkled in the right place will bring your enemy to his knees. If that were true, you wouldn’t be able to find a juicy chicken in Citarella, and our jails would be overflowing with the beeper-wearing traders of chicken blood who had tried to sell their vials within 100 feet of a public school.
My mother believed that if you opened your umbrella indoors, misfortune would fall on you. My mother believed the evil eye hovered over her canasta table. So it didn’t surprise me when a beloved friend in Los Angeles began talking about her brilliant, much-in-demand psychic and the thousand-year-old spirit she summoned from the past who entered the consultation room, bringing a chill, and left by way of the radiator, after freeing her at long last of her burdensome ties to a cranky mother. I managed to keep my mouth shut-mostly. Experts in the practice of the magic arts can make a decent living based on the things the rest of us can’t see. What a wonder it is, this lifting of tables, this tapping on walls, this delivery of messages we so desperately wish to receive.
Superstition is a belief in magic, a belief in forces outside of reason that can be controlled or propitiated by the right numbers, the right sacrifice, the mumble of ritual dice rolled on the eternal table. Of course, it’s different from religion, but it sure is a kissing cousin. Most religions are dressed in superstitious garb, and most superstitions are based on some kind of religious view of the world. When wafers are transformed into the blood of the Saviour; when goats are scaped; when Elijah, like Santa Claus, makes his wondrous rounds each Passover; then magic, primitive thinking, rises. Religion that brings us peace of mind and moral aspirations, that guides us through our worldly maze and offers us hope for eternal life, is not the same, cannot be reduced to wearing a lucky dress to a party or trying to search the future with the help of tarot cards. But if the Devil, that fallen angel, is taken as a literal fact, then black magic is free to do its dirty tricks.
Fate works with an uneven and random hand. The black holes out there are impenetrable. We are lonely and weak in a world where our cells are splashing downward like raindrops and entropy is the name of the game. We can’t be blamed for looking for ways to control, to explain, to play up our worth, to turn on the light in our darkness. We are aggressive, destructive beasts. We cast out our nasty thoughts and attribute them to devils or demons or their legions. We spin stories when we should be searching for root causes, for reasonable explanations. The devil ate our homework. “What the devil has gotten into you?”
Hollywood sends movies out to the malls like Denzel Washington’s Fallen , like Carrie . Pleasurable chills shoot down the spine while we indulge our desire to claim human innocence in the face of the Devil’s power. Poor Vivian Miranda was given what she believed to be a holy language to express her rage at her daughter. It was a false language that resulted in the death of her child, the destruction of her family and the betrayal of her own humanity. The televangelists, the spiritualists, the faith healers, cloud the skies with invisible forces of good and evil and prey on our inborn sense of transgression, our need for forgiveness, for safety. Perhaps we cannot live without the Devil to take the blame for our worst impulses, but it seems to me that we don’t have to be cowed by the cultural relativists. Some ideas like exorcism are really stupid and can lead to disaster. Call a social worker, call a psychotherapist, dial the police; don’t go after the demon in your child with a plastic bag or a hot poker. How about that for a message inside a fortune cookie?
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