I’m sure by now nearly every one of you has heard about Arkansas state representative Justin Harris’s decision to “rehome” his two adopted daughters with a man who then sexually abused them. Most of you have probably heard, too, about the impetus for Justin’s decision—that he believed the girls were possessed by demons. Justin called in specialists to conduct an exorcism and kept the girls separated because he believed they could communicate telepathically.
I might very well think this story to bizarre to be true if I didn’t know first hand how strongly entrenched demons and spiritual warfare are within evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity.
I grew up hearing stories about demons. A friend of my parents’ told a story at Bible study about confronting a demon in the hall in her home at night. She explained that her teenage daughter had been listening to secular music, and that that must have let the demon in. I checked out books by Frank Peretti at the church library, and read hair-raising stories about demonic activity. I went to a dramatic reading of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters with my parents.
My parents were very clear about demons. They told us that the world around us was locked in conflict between demons and angels. This conflict was going on everywhere around us, unseen.
I struggled with fear of demons my entire childhood. I would lay awake in bed with my eyes clenched shut, afraid that if I opened them I would see a demon at the foot of my bed—demons, after all, could make themselves visible to the human eye if they so chose. I was afraid I would invite a demon to attack me by thinking the wrong thoughts, and fearfully tried to keep my mind away from anything that might seem like an invitation.
My parents always told me that the name of Jesus would protect me from demons. All I had to do was evoke that name, and the demons would flee. But I read in the Bible about a case where a demon beat up some men even though they evoked the name of Jesus, because the men weren’t “true” believers. This frightened me, as I also suffered from salvation anxiety—I was so concerned that I might not actually be saved that I prayed the sinner’s prayer continually throughout much of my childhood.
On a recent visit home, my mother told a story about praying demons out of my youngest sister when she had a migraine. She said my sister vomited violently as the demons left, and then the migraine was gone.
But let’s bring this back around to Justin Harris. My parents believed demonic possession was real, and not just a thing of the past. I was taught that much of what we call mental illness today is in fact demonic possession. It seems Justin Harris believed this too, and interpreted his adopted daughters’ very normal adjustment troubles as demonic possession.
My daughter Sally has a friend who was adopted out of foster care when she was three and her sister was four. Both girls have had adjustment issues, but their adoptive parents expected that and have showered them with the love, attention, and careful guidance they need. It breaks my heart to think that natural adjustment issues—often the result of past trauma—could be interpreted as demonic possession.
I am reminded of this exchange from the Doctor Who episode Curse of the Black Spot:
Captain Avery: The ship is cursed!
The Doctor: Yeah, right. Cursed. It’s big with humans. It means bad things are happening but you can’t be bothered to find an explanation.
I’m honestly not sure what the solution is. Belief in demons as real and active entities is integral to fundamentalism and evangelicalism. But then, my mother once told me that she did believe some forms of depression could be caused by actual chemical imbalances, so perhaps there is some wiggle room—perhaps it is possible to educate individuals like Justin Harris on the psychological explanations behind behavior like that of his adopted daughters. Perhaps, returning to Doctor Who, having an explanation will dispel the need to invoke demons.
Although actually, I’m not sure much could have been done for Justin Harris himself. Anyone willing to threaten a department’s funding to push an adoption through and then give his adoptive children away under the table without so much as a background check is probably too far gone.