These girls. These so-called “teenage exorcists.”
You’ve probably heard of them by now. Enabled by their parents (and I use ‘enabled’ deliberately here) they’ve travelled the world battling the forces of evil. They’ve taken culture war to a supernatural extreme. Adult me pities them. Adolescent me would have rolled her eyes–and probably envied them just a bit.
It sounds ludicrous. And it is ludicrous. The Harry Potter phobia and the conviction that the United Kingdom is a seething hotbed of demonic activity aren’t rational reactions. Nevertheless, I’m going to argue for a certain degree of leniency for these girls.
If you can, step inside my former world for a moment.
In that world, demons are real. And they are terrifying. I spent nights awake, soaked in sweat, because I had been told that demons can possess people, even people who think they’re Christians. I’d been told that if you aren’t right with God, you’ve left a window open for the devil. So I prayed. I prayed until I fell asleep, and when I fell asleep, I had nightmares about witches and devils who would seek me out and take me over.
The dreams would routinely frighten me awake. One night, I ran for my parents, because I was a child and that’s what children do. My father then told me that I was actually correct to be frightened, because Satan is a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.
I didn’t go back to sleep that night.
And then there were the Rapture movies, with their gory martyrs. I secretly loved them, because for a long time Revelation was as close as I could get to science fiction. But at the same time they too filled me with fear, fear that I wasn’t really saved, that I was out of favor with God and would therefore fail to be Raptured upon Jesus’ imminent return. I spent so much of my early life effectively paralyzed by fear.
When you’re a child, and you’ve been told from your earliest days that evil isn’t just real, but that it’s an active force currently engaged in a war against you, it makes sense to go on the offensive. If you’re a girl, of course, your options are limited. You’re not allowed to hold a position of spiritual authority. You can be a ‘prayer warrior.’ You can share the gospel. But you certainly can’t lead an offensive against the devil. That’s men’s work.
Unless you’re Brynne Larsen or her friends, Tess and Savannah Scherkenback. These girls are the fundamentalist Scooby Doo gang. They’re almost certainly being controlled by Larsen’s father, a failed televangelist, but they’re doing something. They’ve seen the world. When I was a teenager, demonic possession seemed far more plausible than freedom.
People change as they grow. I lay the blame at Bob Larsen’s feet, and at the Scherkenbacks’ feet, for choosing to raise their children in a manner that has emotionally crippled them. Brynne, Tess and Savannah most likely believe they’re helping people.
I was 20 when someone tried to exorcise me. Specifically, she intended to set me free from depression, and somehow she thought laying her hands on my head in public, without prior warning, and praying the “depressed spirit” out of me would improve my outlook on life.
My exorcism wasn’t particularly violent. I’m grateful for this, because self-proclaimed exorcists have been known to carry things to a dangerous extreme. But it was invasive and humiliating. A year later, I left the church altogether–for a variety of reasons, of which the exorcism was only one.
It turns out that leaving the church did far more for my depression than exorcism ever did.
Brynne, Tess and Savannah have never been on the receiving end of exorcism. I suspect that if they underwent what they’re dishing out to others, their perspectives on the matter would change rather drastically. But that’s my point, really: they’ve never been faced with any real to challenge to their indoctrination. They’ll be adults soon (and since Savannah’s 21, she’s really already there) and personal responsibility does play a role. But believe me, fundamentalists know how to brainwash. They’re terrifically successful at it. They saturate your every encounter with the world with such a blinding fear that it feels impossible to move or think, and waging culture war is the only proactive measure you can take.
It’s so pervasive that even now, as a secular adult, the occasional sleepless night is still ever so slightly tinged with fear.
If I’m going to be honest with myself, I don’t know that I’d have left the church if it weren’t for experiences like that exorcism. Perhaps I might have eventually, because the doubts were certainly present. But my departure might not have been so early, or so drastic. When I had cause to fear Christians and not the devil, it became much more difficult for me to convince myself that Christianity was worth the effort.
If we’re fortunate, Brynne, Tess and Savannah will learn from their travels. Maybe they’ll even join me and my friends among the ranks of the prodigals. I hope for their sake their journey is less frightening than mine.
Update: So it seems that Savannah Scherkenback has received an exorcism. Also for depression. I suppose becoming an exorcist yourself is certainly one way to prove to your fundamentalist community that you’re really “healed.” Maybe I’ve underestimated the level of fear (or arrogance) at work here. Thanks to Kathryn Brightbill for pointing this out.