DISCUSSED: Nancy Reagan, The Exorcist, Tori Amos on God, Cosmic Estrangement, S&M Sex as a Metaphor for Christian Worship, Romantic Poetry, Natural Supernaturalism, Spiritual Autonomy, Prometheus Unbound, Gothic Literature, Sigmund Freud, Bob Flanagan, Julia Kristeva, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, John Gardner’s Pit of Baby Skulls

A lot of what we know about brain development in childhood comes from what’s known as “the forbidden experiment”: a handful of cases in which children were rescued from lives of almost total sensory deprivation. One of these “feral children” was a girl named Genie who was discovered in 1970 at thirteen, never having left one room in her parents’ apartment. Rescued from this hell, Genie thrived. Her capacity to love was intact, as was her capacity to learn—to a point. She learned and retained information rapidly, and she communicated effectively. But she never learned to speak in sentences, and she seemed unable to unlearn certain survival behaviors she’d developed in captivity, like hoarding liquids. The story of Genie led to a theory of child development known as the “critical window” hypothesis: Some parts of the human brain are permeable only to a certain age. At puberty, a window closes, locking in and out certain information and abilities.

“Critical window” must forever remain at the level of theory; no civilized society would seek to replicate Genie’s hideous data. But we all have experience that backs it up—factual and emotional material that feels permanently burned into our brains. The Midwestern state capitals, for example, I can never dislodge. I drilled them so hard, so young, I am stuck with them. And that’s OK. I have other burned data that’s more problematic, if a rich source of art: my early religious education.

There will be no parent-blaming in this essay. My brother and I watched all the same terrifying filmstrips in public school at the height of Nancy Reagan’s “Say No to Drugs” campaign. They scared me straight for life; my brother, David, has said many enthusiastic yeses. And David regarded the gory tales and graphic threats of our Sunday catechism class with all the reverence he afforded warnings about LSD-laced Mickey Mouse stamps; if he cringed in the moment, he forgot within the hour. The Catholics’ Gothic fixation with punishment and pain haunted me—St. Lucy’s gouged-out eyes, the nails through Jesus’ wrists and feet, the torture rack in hell. I don’t think I should have been exposed to this stuff, frankly, but it’s hard to blame my parents for “crimes” that had no consequences in their other child, especially when that other child’s reaction more closely reflected the norm. After a nun passed around a baby doll and taught us how to baptize a dying baby to save it from eternal loneliness in limbo, I went to pieces over the whole lonely dead baby thing while the other kids played catch with the baby. My family illustrates, I think, why Jung kicks Freud’s ass: I’m hardwired for obsession and fear and my brother just isn’t.

It was, then, an unfortunate sin of parental omission that I was allowed to watch The Exorcist on television when I was ten. We lived in Washington, D.C, so an older cousin drove me to see the staircase on M Street where Father Karras falls to his death at the end of the film, yelling, “Take me!” to save the little possessed girl from Satan, who has savaged her body, at one point ordering her to put a crucifix in her vagina. My cousin told me that the film was based on an actual case in nearby Mount Ranier, Maryland. Satan was not only real; he had a familiarity with the D.C. metro area and an affinity for children.

So I proceeded to educate myself about how to keep my soul safe from Satan. Unfortunately, my research was confined to books I bought in bins at yard sales. Terror tracts, basically. I learned that salvation was a constant battle and a moment’s lapsed vigilance could let “him” in. This made sleeping difficult. On the upside, it was a terrific antidote to loneliness. I was in constant, silent conversation with God, Mary, and various saints, establishing a kind of wall-of-noise interior piety that “he” could not penetrate.

The problem, of course, is that there comes a day when you realize that most “possession” cases are undiagnosed epilepsy and schizophrenia and that keeping dead babies out of heaven is a pretty shitty thing to do. By eighteen, I’d dumped my Catholicism, but I pounded the stuff too hard in my sponge-brained “critical window” years to ever achieve a clean break. I find much of the Catholic Church’s dogma morally repugnant, but I miss the ritual and I miss the prayer. I miss gathering en masse when life overwhelms, and I miss the interior life I cultivated when I thought Satan was in Maryland. I know there are other religions and other gods and I’ve tried a few on, but none of the free-to-be-you-and-me yoga spirituality that passes my content muster quite scratches my Catholic itch. The Catholic terror-and-danger model will always feel instinctively truer than these religions. Like Genie, perhaps, early terror trumps latter-day reason. I’m not alone here. Near the end of his life, Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, described the same enduring fear:

Am I happy? Probably not. Having passed the prescribed biblical age limit, I have to think of death, and I do not like the thought. There is a vestigial fear of hell, and even of purgatory, and no amount of re-reading rationalist authors can expunge it.

You can kick the religion of your childhood into your psychic basement along with the Minnesota state flower, but it’s always a synapse away and time doesn’t really dull its power.

It’s always reassuring to me when some high-achieving person—i.e., not a random wing nut with a blog—admits that learning about hell and Satan as a child can be something of a permanent mind-fuck. Still, it’s jarring to read the particular details of your childhood terror come out of somebody else’s mouth. In 1995, Trent Reznor, the rock music auteur otherwise known as Nine Inch Nails, told Details magazine’s Chris Heath, “The Exorcist ruined my childhood.” Heath reported that after viewing the film Reznor “was terrified of the devil. He would make imaginary deals to sell his soul. In bed at night he would lie a certain way because if he lay on the other side he knew he would be in for bad things.” It’s not all that wild a coincidence, I guess; schizophrenics hallucinate about government conspiracies, and the anxiety-prone cultivate rituals to manage fear. But the interview stayed with me, maybe for no other reason than that it undermined my writerly hope that my story is utterly unique.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Gina Gionfriddo is a playwright (After Ashley, U.S. Drag) and television writer (Law and Order: Criminal Intent).She last wrote for the Believer about Elliott Smith (June 2004 music issue). She lives in New York.

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