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Peace with Demons 

Exercises in exorcisms

Doug is disappointed with his exorcist. But before I go any further, I have to say I've known Doug for more than a decade, and during that time I don't recall that he ever barfed up a big nest of snakes or did anything else you can expect from a person possessed by a perfectly good demon, but when Doug says there is a demon in him, I have to give him due credence. He's my good friend and he's never given me any reason to doubt him. So I've been watching him closely lately, hoping he might levitate or something, but so far nothing. His demon must be buried deep. So if he wants to consult a second exorcist, I'm behind him all the way.

"What do you think went wrong the first time?" I asked him.

"For some reason the exorcism didn't take," he laughed wryly.

All I could do was pat his hand in sympathy -- and hate myself for worrying a little that he'll change once his demon is gone.

But you never really know how people will turn out once they've purged their evils, like maybe they'll start wanting you to hold hands with other people and have "encounter sessions" and whatnot. For example, if it were my other friend Lary who decided one day to seek inner peace, my whole world would crumble, as the essence of all things meaningful rests on the certainty that Lary is a walking wad of wickedness. We are, after all, talking about a guy who shoots at people just for showing up unannounced at his house. Granted, you could argue, as Lary does, that I was breaking in, but what else is a person gonna do when he doesn't answer the door? Anyway, it would probably do Doug good to ask Lary to attend his next exorcism, because with Lary in the room, Doug's demon might just jump out as if pulled by a powerful magnet.

And then what would we have but one man who is good and another who is evil, hopefully, which would be the basic order of things as it was before, wouldn't it? Just because you have a demon in you doesn't make you a bad person, does it?

At least that's what I was told when I was 12, when some of the rowdy kids at my school started disappearing to a place called The Seed, a religious behavior-rehabilitation boot camp. These kids spent weeks there getting the surliness pounded out of them, only to emerge out the other side, saucer-eyed and dazed like does tied to the hood of a car.

We all kept wishing we'd see them again the way they used to be, smoking unfiltered cigarettes and smacking the crap out of the younger kids. They were evil, yes, but they were necessary, we thought. When they returned after their sojourn, with their hair cut and their collars buttoned, there was nothing for us to do but fear them even more.

This recollection came in handy years later, when I won peace from my sister Cheryl's long-distance nagging by pretending to be freshly saved by Jesus. "I've accepted Christ our Lord into my heart," I wrote her, "and you should, too. Ask me how." Ten months of perfect silence followed, until I finally, foolishly, admitted I was just joking.

"Thank God," she exhaled. "I was worried." Then the squabbling resumed.

But I never told my sister what really happened, because what really happened -- and I swear this is true -- is that our recently deceased mother came to me in a dream and told me I couldn't "let another Sunday go by without going to church," which was really confounding because our mother died an unrepentant atheist. In fact, one of my favorite childhood memories is of my mother walking along the esplanade, fending off pamphlet-pushing Jesus freaks with lit cigarettes.

But there was no mistaking what I heard her say in my dream, so the following Sunday I walked out my door and into the first church I came across. It was one of those big, blow-ass cathedrals dripping in brick and stained glass -- as well as, on this particular day, television cameras. It turned out the preacher, who had hair like Harvey Korman, was under indictment, and he proceeded to devote his entire sermon to dispelling rumors of his sexual misconduct. I left before they passed the plate, with my $10 tithe still in my pocket.

Outside I encountered the usual army of perfectly healthy-seeming panhandlers on the street as I walked home. "Go flip a burger," I said to myself, saying nothing to them as I passed them by. But in truth, I tell you, I wanted to give them the money. It was overwhelming. I could feel the money burning in my hand, I could feel my hand coming out of my pocket, I could feel myself being lifted, cleansed, purged. I could feel, at my fingertips, "the release." But then, for some reason, the exorcism didn't take, and in the end I simply continued on like everyone else, a little terrified of my own inner goodness, with all my demons still sitting comfortably inside me.

Hollis Gillespie is an award-winning humor columnist, NPR commentator, "Tonight Show" guest and author of two acclaimed memoirs, Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales from a Bad Neighborhood and Confessions of a Recovering Slut and Other Love Stories. To register for her writing workshops, The Shocking Real-Life Writing Seminar, visit www.hollisgillespie.com.

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