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The Exorcist As Family Allegory

William Peter Blatty's blockbuster early '70s novel is really about the chaos and torment of family breakdown

Here’s a really interesting piece from Quillette about William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist as a cautionary tale about the damage done from the family’s dissolution. The author, Kevin Mims, ties it to Mary Eberstadt’s important and provocative new book Primal Screams: How The Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. 

Mims notes that Eberstadt doesn’t mention Blatty’s early Seventies blockbuster, but that it’s highly relevant to her thesis. Mims:

Those who have never read the novel, or are familiar only with its 1973 cinematic incarnation, probably believe the book to be a potboiler about demonic possession. But it is also an allegorical warning about the importance of the traditional family unit and the devastation wrought when it breaks down. Curiously, this aspect of the novel went largely unnoticed by the book’s earliest reviewers.

Back in 1971, the advent of no-fault divorce laws in the United States was seen in liberal circles as an unalloyed benefit for society. Thus, the book critics for most of the mainstream publications that bothered to review The ExorcistTime, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, etc.—treated the book as either a modern day pastiche of Poe and Mary Shelley, or else as a traditional story of the battle between Good and Evil. What’s odd about this is that Blatty made no effort to hide his social conservatism. You don’t have to be a postmodern literary detective to find it in the subtext. Blatty was not a subtle writer, and he set his message out on the page for all to see, although very few have ever remarked upon it.

I’ve never read the novel, but saw the film about 20 years ago. The scariest movie I’ve ever watched. I would not watch it again. Interestingly, I had always assumed that because the Catholic Church condemned it when it was released that The Exorcist was an anti-Catholic movie. Nothing could be further from the truth! Blatty was a bad Catholic as a younger man (Mims recounts this), but became more faithful as he aged. The movie is a deeply Catholic film — though it is as terrifying as you imagine. If you haven’t seen it or read the novel, it’s about the possession of an adolescent girl, Regan, who begins to suffer after her father Howard abandons the family. Her mother Chris, a successful actress, seeks psychiatric help for Regan, but in the end turns to an exorcist in desperation.

Mims writes:

Although Howard never makes an appearance in the novel (we hear a few words from him but never see him), The Exorcist, a book about fatherlessness, is filled with fathers. The most prominent of these is Father Damien Karras, a psychiatrist and Jesuit priest who teaches at Georgetown. Chris turns to him in desperation when she begins to suspect that Regan might be possessed by a demon. The priest, who has no experience with exorcism, tries for a long time to convince himself that psychiatry holds the answer to Regan’s problems, instead. Karras has been scarred by his own fatherlessness. He grew up with only one parent, his impoverished mother. They were almost incestuously close, and when, much later, his mother lost her mind and Father Karras had her committed to Bellevue sanitarium, she saw it as a betrayal. The look on her face as she was locked into her padded cell haunts Karras throughout the book. His life, Blatty implies, as well as that of his mother, would almost certainly have been better had he not been fatherless.

Mims talks about how unhappy Blatty’s own fatherless childhood was, and how Blatty was himself a poor example of a husband and father. But there was something deep inside Blatty that intuited the spirit of the times, and prompted his literary response:

Clearly, he wasn’t anybody’s idea of a family-values conservative. But if his id was in charge of his Hollywood playboy lifestyle, his superego seems to have been firmly in control of his literary imagination as he cranked out The Exorcist over nine months.

Notwithstanding the Church’s reflexive condemnation, The Exorcist is a deeply religious novel in which Catholic priests play the most heroic roles, martyring themselves to save the life of a little girl who isn’t even Catholic.

Read Mims’s entire article. I hope it sparks you to buy Eberstadt’s book, which is not not not a typical social-conservative condemnation of the Sexual Revolution, but in fact a profoundly insightful work of sociologically-informed cultural criticism about sex, family, and identity.

A Millennial friend of mine told me recently that she’s become somewhat alienated from her friends, who are full of advice about how difficult situations with her husband and children are a sign that she should get rid of them — that is, leave her husband, put her kids in day care, stuff like that. The willingness of people in her generation, she told me, to find any kind of personal suffering or sacrifice to be intolerable grieves her. My friend said she and her husband are having normal struggles with marriage and kids, but her (female) friends believe that her personal sense of well-being should be the most important thing of all. My friend is a believing Christian, and knows they’re wrong, but it frightens her for the world her own young children will inherit. She says there is little to nothing in the culture around her to support family formation and stability. It’s all about liberating the individual from any obligations or ties that inhibit personal liberty and happiness.

This is our culture today. As I wrote in an afterword for Eberstadt’s book, the only real way I see to fight it is to immerse oneself in countercultural communities and practices that provide resistance to this destructive narrative and the forces it unleashes. That is going to be the Church, for all its faults and failings. I hadn’t thought of it this way until reading Mims’s essay, but the Church is exactly where one would go to take refuge from these demonic forces.

I’ve done research in the past on the phenomenon of demon possession, and it does seem to be tied closely to intense childhood trauma, especially in the family — sexual trauma in particular. There is something about trauma that cracks the psyche; sometimes, that crack is big enough for evil spirits to come in. It is certainly not the case that everyone who experiences childhood trauma become possessed! (Actual possession is rare.) But as Mims points out, The Exorcist can be read as an allegory for the fury, chaos, and destruction that emerges when the family structure that forms us, and give us a sense of order, wholeness, and meaning, fall apart — or to be precise, are torn down by human selfishness and spite. You don’t have to believe in God, or in demonic possession, to grasp Blatty’s core point — which, as Mims indicates, is also Mary Eberstadt’s point.

When Sohrab Ahmari refers to Drag Queen Story Hour, whose organizers explicitly intend to break down sexual identity in children, as “demonic,” I believe this is what he’s getting at. And he’s right.



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