Everywhere he went, he saw them, their burned bodies, watching him. These were the days after the war.
Demon Camp is not really about soldiers.
Well, okay, it is. Jennifer Percy’s debut book revolves around the lives of soldiers who’ve returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD, focusing chiefly on the story of Sgt. Caleb Daniels. But Daniels doesn’t believe his nightmares, visions, and visits from dead friends are PTSD. He instead believes he’s battling demons and fighting spiritual warfare–a belief that leads him to the evangelical exorcisms that become the book’s focal point.
But the real story is underneath and inside that. Reading Demon Camp, the subjects of soldiers, war and evangelicalism feel more like a lens through which Percy tells a deeper, more universal story: what happens in the aftermath of trauma, and the way trauma seeps from one person to the next, from one generation to the next. Which is to say, as I read Demon Camp, I kept thinking about my experience in Cambodia.
The central question of the book is whether trauma can transfer. Here, Percy blends the third-person and first-person, intermingling reporting and personal essay, and using herself as her own subject to demonstrate the way trauma can transfer. But she employs the technique in a radical way–she doesn’t make the story about her and her journey. By maintaining an unsentimental, almost clinical tone towards her own experience, she instead leverages her reactions as evidence, which in turn reveals something far more unsettling. This is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement: it takes us into the dark side while still maintaining its nonfiction status.
I honestly didn’t think this was possible. During my whole move-to-Cambodia-and-write-a-book debacle, I studied the intergenerational transmission of trauma among war survivors, and had my own reality-crinkling experience during the writing process. My book never got off the ground, for a variety of reasons, but I came away convinced that the genre of nonfiction inherently could not capture the space I had entered, one in which reality bended and twisted and got, well, weird. I decided nonfiction was too wedded to fact, too cut-and-dry to fully express that grey space. Demon Camp helped to renew my faith in the nonfiction genre.
In this book we see people who have had an intimate experience with the human capacity for violence and evil. They have traveled to – for lack of a better term – the dark end of reality, and a part of them is trapped there, unable to come back. Many of the soldiers in the book return home believing that they have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, and that only their bodies have come home. Before his suicide, one soldier tells his sister that he believes he’s become a vampire. This kind of experience is not specific to soldiers. I believe the parents of my childhood best friend, both of whom were Khmer Rouge survivors, had this experience as well. For them, the haunting of trauma manifested as ghosts, bad spirits that followed their family from Cambodia to California.
While reading the book, I thought a lot about Mac McClelland’s 2011 piece, “I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me on This,” in which she uses an extreme method of role-play to relieve her own second-hand trauma. The piece received a lot of flack, mostly for its implication that another person’s trauma could have affected the author so deeply. But I remember thinking as I was read the piece, “Yes, yes, yes.” McClelland focuses her piece on her own experience more than Percy does, and perhaps that’s what people took issue with. But both pieces reveal the ways in which trauma can untidily transfer from person to person.
These experiences with the dark side of reality, with the human capacity for violence, tentacle out in ways the field of psychology can’t fully explain or adequately account for. The real experience of trauma is something messier, murkier, less easy to quantify: “…[A]s soon as we say words like PTSD or trauma we have permission to ignore the problem because we think we understand it.” This tentacling can manifest in all sorts of ways—in the way, for instance, my childhood best friend’s mother changed the family surname to trick the bad spirits (it didn’t work: she was murdered and her son later paralyzed). Or in the way the people in Demon Camp use the metaphor-in-extreme of demons and salvation to try and escape their trauma.
Demon Camp maintains an intent focus on the people affected by the soldiers’ PTSD—the wives and girlfriends of the soldiers, yes, but also the children. Throughout the book, from the home of a dead soldier’s sister to the ranch where the exorcisms occur, Percy keeps a keen eye on the young people being raised amidst trauma, who are learning to normalize the chaos and literally speak the language of demons. One of the book’s most intense images is of a young girl clutching the neck of a blind chicken, and squeezing until its beady eyes pop out. These are children becoming well-versed in the interaction of reality and trauma—the insomnia, the irrational behavior, the delusions, the violence. They are children not so different than those I grew up with.
But Demon Camp goes further. This trauma is not portrayed as an individual problem but a societal sickness. These soldiers, Percy says, are merely expressing the most extreme symptoms of a culture-wide denial: “If Caleb sustains one kind of hallucination, then America maintains another—the hallucination of a sterile war.” The veterans are like the canaries in the coalmine, or perhaps more accurately, like the child in a dysfunctional family who sacrifices herself as the “messed-up one” to draw attention to the family’s unspoken issues. Having glimpsed another reality, it is difficult for Percy’s subjects to come back and fully interact with this one.
Demon Camp is an extraordinary feat in depicting the way one person’s trauma is not just one person’s trauma, but part of a larger story, and something that gets silently, stealthily passed between people:
Some psychologists believe that the damages of violent histories can hibernate in the unconscious and will be transmitted to the next generation like an undetected disease. Violent histories can generate psychic deformations that can be passed down from generation to generation. It’s the way that one’s own trauma is tied up with the trauma of another. How the trauma of war can quietly trickle through lives, possessing us, in a way, with the lives of others. Not just what we inherit from our parents and our family, but what we inherit from culture and from history.
As always, I think of Cambodia: the insomnia I had there, the weight loss, the stopping of my menstrual cycle, the way I became semi-convinced that little henchmen of evil were parked outside of my apartment, watching me. I still don’t fully understand what happened to me in that country, nor do I think I really want to. But reading Percy’s depiction of the ways in which her body betrayed her during her immersion into the soldier’s trauma, I understand something about my own experience: that perhaps my body was picking up on something my conscious mind couldn’t explain.
All of which is to say, trauma is an incredibly difficult phenomenon to understand, let alone write about. Percy does it justice in Demon Camp.