Jennifer Percy's debut book, "Demon Camp" (Scribner: 223 pp., $26), is a true story about one American soldier's struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. By telling the story of Caleb Daniels and his demons, the writer shines a bright light on America's wounded psyche.
An award-winning reporter, Percy met Daniels when she was interviewing veterans and their families about their experiences with PTSD, looking to understand their stories in the wake of an alarming rise in suicides among veterans. Daniels, a veteran of Afghanistan, was a particularly tortured subject. Haunted by what he considered actual demons, Daniels turned to an evangelical religious community in Portal, Ga. — a "demon camp" — to go through exorcism and find some deliverance.
Percy's beautiful, lucid writing takes the reader into the lives of soldiers wrestling with faith in this often harrowing book on the personal, cultural, and political costs of war. The author, who has a double MFA from the University of Iowa, in nonfiction and fiction, eventually becomes part of the narrative as she submits herself to exorcism.
Percy spoke to The Times by phone from her home in Brooklyn, having just returned from a reporting trip to Afghanistan, where she was researching "love crimes."
How did you start "Demon Camp"?
It was 2008 when I started researching the book. ... It was the year between the surge in Iraq and the 2009 surge in Afghanistan. The reporting I was reading about suicide was clouded in psychological trends. I wanted to get close to these nightmares and how we survive in the wake of catastrophe. As a writer I'm interested in aftermath, the moments after disaster. When I met Caleb, he called PTSD a haunting. Freud had called [it] a demonic force at work. I wanted to stick with Caleb as a subject since his experience told a story about larger issues in society.
How did you feel when you met Caleb and traveled to this camp, where it seems like everyone's talking in a sort of hyper-narrative, with ghosts, demons, and magical thinking?
I think the first thing that happens after a traumatic event is a failure of language. When I focused on the demon camp, they used faith as a way to understand PTSD, and every time I'm talking about faith in the book I think that they're gesturing toward something else about America and about the war. The demon camp offered an alternative way to access their trauma, and what happened was the language of religion in this case — similar to George W. Bush's campaign with the wars in Afghanistan, where he used religious vocabulary for it.
Can you talk a little bit about your writing process?
Coming up with the structure of this book was the most difficult part. ... It's this mix of third-person perspective, personal essay and reporting. I had in mind James Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." I was very present with keeping this book respectful and empathetic.
How did you end up making yourself a character in the book?
I feel like Caleb demanded that I take that role. He was very interested in my past experiences, in my opinions. In a way he was grabbing me by the neck and saying, I'm not going to let you walk away from this project until you understand what I've been though. He wanted me to hang around long enough, to go through deliverance. It was the natural path.
In the book, when you return to demon camp after talking to the sister of a dead veteran, the community is spooked by your presence. Why?
Caleb's whole theory was that if I went and talked to veterans and anyone that was traumatized for this book, then their demons would transfer to me and I would be traumatized myself. He was concerned about this, and the others were too, when word got 'round that I was talking to this woman. When I came back, they could see that I had been attacked, that I had a demon.
Was there any point that you wanted to quit or give up the project?
I wanted to go home all the time, and it was exhausting. And even when I went home, they were still around, they were calling me, I was having nightmares about them. It was difficult to escape from that world. That was good for writing about this topic. I felt like I was immersing myself.
What was it like talking to the women in this book — the widows, girlfriends, mothers and sisters who are also dealing with their loved one's PTSD?
The wives, widows and the families were difficult to talk to. I think that's the part of the war that's even more overlooked than veterans — the wives and the girlfriends — and there's the part of the book that talks about [Kip] Jacoby's girlfriend [Jacoby was Caleb's best friend, a Special Ops soldier who died in Afghanistan]. The conversation revolved around regret. What if I said one more thing, what would I tell them?
Donnelly is a writer in New York.