A “chilling” (O, The Oprah Magazine), “darkly brilliant” (Bookforum) account of “the effects of war on the psyches of the soldiers who fight” (Esquire).
In 2005 a Chinook helicopter carrying sixteen Special Ops soldiers crashed during a rescue mission in Afghanistan, killing everyone on board. In that instant, machine gunner Caleb Daniels lost his best friend, Kip, and seven members of his unit. Back in the US, Caleb begins to see them everywhere—dead Kip, with his Alice in Wonderland tattoos, and the rest of them, their burned bodies always watching him. But there is something else haunting Caleb, too—a presence he calls the Black Thing, or the Destroyer, a paralyzing horror that Caleb comes to believe is a demon. Alone with these apparitions, Caleb considers killing himself.
There is an epidemic of suicide among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, men and women with post-traumatic stress disorder who cannot cope with ordinary life in the aftermath of explosions and carnage. Author Jen Percy finds herself drawn to their stories. Her main subject, Caleb, has been bringing damaged veterans to a Christian exorcism camp in Georgia that promises them deliverance from the war. As Percy spends time with these soldiers and exorcists—finding their beliefs both repellant and magnetic—she enters a world of fanaticism that is alternately terrifying and welcoming.
With “beautiful, lucid” (Los Angeles Times) lyricism, Demon Camp is the riveting true story of a veteran with PTSD and an exploration of the battles soldiers face after the war is over. As The New York Times Book Review said, “Percy’s narrative may confirm clichés about war’s costs, but it artfully upsets a common misconception that all veterans’ experiences are alike.”
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About the Author
Jen Percy is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received a Truman Capote Fellowship in fiction. She also received an Iowa Arts Fellowship from Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Winner of a Pushcart Prize and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, her work has appeared in a number of magazines, including Harper’s, The New Republic, and The Oxford American. She teaches writing at New York University.
Table of Contents
A Brief History of the Disorderly Conduct of the Heart 1
Part I War Dream 5
Part II We Kill Ourselves Because We Are Haunted 49
Part III How to Kill an Invisible Enemy 89
Part IV The War on Terror in Biblical Terms 127
Part V I Am the Voice in the Night 163
A Postscript for the Irritable Heart 217
A Conversation with Jennifer Percy, Author of Demon Camp
Your book examines the epidemic of suicide among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by delving into personal storiesnotably that of one former sergeant, a troubled veteran whom you call Caleb Daniels. What got you started on this project?
It began with an article I read in the McClatchy Report about a young soldier who committed suicide after he believed he was being followed night after night by the dead Iraqi man he killed. I called up the soldier's sister and she started telling me about the haunting. The conversation completely defamiliarized my understanding of PTSD. She told her story without relying on a prescribed vocabularya vocabulary divorced from politics and psychiatry. I was used to a different conversation about PTSD because, like most people, I only knew what the media was telling me.
Caleb brings you into an evangelical community in Portal, Georgia, that promises people deliverance from their "demons." The question of what demons really are hovers over the narrativewhether, in the eyes of this community, demons are actual beings or merely a way of describing trauma.
Absolutely. To the people I met in Portal, the demons are literal. To anyone who doesn't believe in demons, they talk in perfect metaphors of war and illness. For Caleb, and for the veterans who did manage to find comfort in the world of deliverance, it gave them a way to talk about the war in the context of religion.
In the book, as you get deeper into reporting the story, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern what is real from what your characters imagine to be real. Does this mirror your own personal experience?
I hope that it mirrors Caleb's experience, or at least gives us a taste of what it might be like to feel haunted, by war and by our past. In terms of mirroring my own experiences, I did begin to fear my imagination and its power. But that's not to say I couldn't distinguish it from reality. The worlds our imagination creates are seductive ones. I also think that to assume that we know what's real and what's not is already a stance of ignorance. To question everythingto interrogate our own realityis important. Of course, it's also a dangerous task. Questioning breaks things apart and creates new ways of seeingand sometimes we don't like what we find.
What was your writing experience like?
Once I found a structure for the book, it wasn't hard. I tend to write in the manner of a collagista more raw and impressionistic styleand then go back and add the connective tissue. It was certainly difficult to process the narrative without some space between myself and the experience, but I suppose that's true for most writing. It took a long time, for example, to process the way I sometimes reacted to deliverance because I didn't believe in itnot in any intellectual way. Yet I was having an emotional, almost primitive reaction. And, from beginning to end, Caleb reminded me that a demon didn't want me to write the book. Sometimes when I was transcribing notes or reworking scenes, I'd turn on a few extra lights in the house.
Who have you discovered lately?
I'm in love with the work of James Salter. I always have one of his books by my side. Sometimes I'll just read a few paragraphs of his work and I'll feel nourished. I'm reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, which is a great testament to the way nonfiction, despite subject matter, can and should be held to the same literary standards as fiction.
[Behind the Beautiful Forevers was a 2012 pick and shortlisted for the Discover Award that year. -Ed.]
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I can't recommend this book too highly. This is not a journalistic report. This brings you into the lives of young veterans with PTSD, in a life and death struggle to find relief from the suffering that pierces them. The writing is breathtakingly good, spare, and beautiful. The best book I've read so far in 2013-14.