Of Demons and Incubi

My favorite missionary while I was growing up in the 1970s was a friendly, stocky blond white man who would visit our church while on furlough from Trinidad.  Like all our far-flung guest speakers, he would regale us with luridly exciting tales of Third World superstitions and dramatic miracles that resulted in conversions.  We kids loved the slide shows, giving us a window onto exotic locales decades before the internet.  The missionaries’ message always offered the same ironic contradiction: thank God we live in a somewhat Christian country that does not harbor such backward customs.  But why don’t we get miracles, signs, and wonders in America?  Because our hearts are hardened like Pharaoh: we are too tied to the empirical and explicable, and thus not open enough to see the workings of the Spirit, so we can learn a lot from the Third World.

None of the missionaries actually said, “noble savage,” but when I grew older and learned that concept, I immediately recognized it.  That simultaneous disdain and wistful longing for the supernatural drama of more “primitive” earthy cultures exerts a powerful hold on the overly rational Christian.  That explains how within the unlikely First World environment of graduate-educated, progressive, cosmopolitan, psychologically sophisticated circles, I encountered two targets of exorcism and an accusation of witchcraft.  For one demon-ridden friend, it was traumatizing; for the other, transformative.

Kasey1, my college roommate, was my closest friend for over a decade.  We had explored, with both trepidation and eagerness, the world of charismatic Christianity.  Friends whom we admired attended the latest “Signs and Wonders” conferences, returning supercharged with the voltage of renewal, believing they were ushering in a new era of Kingdom values.

Neither Kasey nor I fully bought into all the hype.  We yearned to believe in a Holy Spirit that would magically sweep in—like the Hebrew ruach or rushing wind described in Genesis—and bestow on us the language of angels, baptize our overintellectualizing, overachieving, overanalyzing bodies, speak words of prophecy and wisdom to one that would leap into another’s mind for interpretation, and heal our wounds.  Ashamed of our fundamentalist pasts, we perversely hoped the charismatics—the ones we’d always been told to beware of, for they were devil-inspired—were in fact right.  We would have reveled in a godly fuck-you to our rigid home churches and abusive pastors.

Or I would have, anyway.  Clearly, I overestimated the degree to which Kasey saw things my way.  One day, she told me she had requested a laying-on of hands and a prayer circle at her church.  They anointed her with oil, prayed in tongues, and cast numerous demons out of her.  These demons showed themselves by making Kasey voice their names.  “Murder” bubbled up out of her throat, as did Hatred, Rage, Incest, and most significantly of all: Lesbianism. 

That was the transformative part—the reason she was confiding all this to me, there in my quiet candlelit room, sipping tea.  It was the early 1990s.  She wanted someone to rejoice with her that she had been set free from all this evil.  I had known about her lesbian-ish encounters (not with me—that’s why she still trusted me), and known that she found them utterly horrific.  I hadn’t really thought about it.

You have to realize, we were not ignorant impressionable yokels from the backwoods.  We were graduates of a prestigious, highly selective college, and now young working professionals.  I was an administrator in a tutoring center in a wealthy area.  Kasey was living in the inner city, doing community outreach while preparing to apply to grad school for a master’s in economics, in order to further her goal of working in Third World development.  She would be admitted to an Ivy League, and complete this master’s.  I would be admitted into a doctoral program that same year. 

Highly educated progressive intellectuals don’t often go in for demons.  Yet it wasn’t even the demons that gave me pause—it was Kasey’s joy at being “freed” from “lesbianism” that began to accelerate my disenchantment with our friendship.  The position of the conservative church on homosexuality would prove the stumbling block—the scandalon—too great for me to overleap, the thread of Ariadne that would unravel my faith once and for all.

But back to the demons.  Years after Kasey’s experience, another friend, Gabrielle, also got exorcised, also without knowing what she was in for.  Gabi and I attended the same church, which was—we believed—an open-minded politically liberal and arts-friendly church that nevertheless remained true to the core Christian beliefs, which we still espoused at the time. 

Sexually abused as a child, raped as a young woman, Gabi had found in Christianity the perfect complement to her feelings of shame and disgust at her body.  Brilliant and intellectual, a professor of French and Italian, she found her faith too cognitive and abstract, and so she strove to anchor her beliefs more in emotions, physicality, and social action.  She coordinated massive holiday banquets for homeless people.  She started clubs for grad students to discuss the place of faith in their lives.

Her drive toward embodiment succeeded devastatingly.  Her Baptist upbringing, like mine, affirmed our prudishness (which was termed virtue, discretion, modesty, discernment), our vehement suppression of any sexual or sensual thoughts, our swathing our curves in baggy shapeless clothes, our pursuing passionately platonic relationships.  Like many victims of sexual abuse, Gabi struggled with her weight, hiding her pain and guilt in overeating.

And yet, Gabi was beautiful and sexy.  Zaftig, she would have been called in an earlier decade.  Stylish and sophisticated, she was worldly-wise (another sin, as we knew from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress), a gourmet cook and gourmand, and knew how to dress with flair on a budget. 

Gabi fell in love with the young man in church who just about everyone fell in love with.  Lyle was blond and had a winning smile and easy demeanor.  He was a fellow oenophile and jetsetter.  Over the years, he was alternately drawn to Gabi and repelled by her.  He would tell her how beautiful she was, but at any advances on her part—a flirtatious touch on his arm—he would withdraw with that precise shade of condemnation that she had been taught—by rape, by pastors—was proper and right for a man to show her.

Lyle was also adored by Jeannine, a shrinking violet of a woman: prematurely graying, pudgy with none of Gabi’s fashion verve, she spoke with a lisp in a too-high voice.  In what cannot but evoke Salem, Jeannine announced to Lyle that Gabi was a witch.  Lyle actually believed her.  Lyle enlisted the help of his mentor, Duane, a leader in the church. 

Late one weekday evening, Gabi and Lyle went to the church, purportedly to attend a “healing circle” that Duane was presiding over.  Gabi was disturbed to realize that the circle was in fact so tiny, including none but the three of them; nevertheless, the candlelit chapel, familiar and warm, calmed her, as did the delight of being with Lyle and pursuing God together.  Jeannine wasn’t there; otherwise, Gabi would have known something was decidedly odd.

Somehow they persuaded Gabi to lie down.  They anointed her with oil, arranged pillows and a throw so she would be warm and comfortable, and began praying for her healing.  She thought it strange, but fine: she certainly welcomed the healing touch of God.

The prayers shifted into exorcism: calls upon the Lord to cast the demons out of her.  She tried to get up, but held herself down; in a warm trustful haze, she reasoned with herself not to overanalyze and over-intellectualize the moment.  These were her friends.  Lyle was Duane’s disciple.  Duane was a respected leader.

Glancing at Duane, she had a terrible thought, reproved herself, but then peeked again.  She realized with growing horror that yes, he had an erection.  The bulge was now impossible to deny or explain away as a trick of the light.

She found herself on the way home, not knowing how she had gotten there.  Had she screamed?  Run out?  Apparently.  Now the shivers set in, the flashbacks, and she curled up on the street, finding it hard to breathe.

Ironically, it was Gabi, the one suffering from sexual abuse and bipolar disorder, who occasionally felt both suicidal and homicidal—in other words, the one who might credibly talk about personal demons—who felt betrayed into exorcism.  That experience (among others) led her to be diagnosed with PTSD, see a psychiatrist, and attend anger management classes.  Whereas it was Kasey, the calm, thoughtful, strait-laced one, successfully working at a job she loved in DC, who embraced the notion of demons in her life. 

Eerily, Kasey and Gabi—who had met once or twice through me, though they didn’t know each other well—shared quite a few similarities. They were strong, stubborn, erudite and articulate, gravitating easily toward positions of leadership and authority.  They were big-boned and had large, strong hands.  They had fine glossy hair that others coveted, and large, luminous eyes.  They were scintillatingly intelligent, voracious readers, deep thinkers with advanced degrees.  They were frequently seen as domineering, insensitive, rigid, uptight, and extreme.  They were passionately loved by a few loyal devotees, recipients of the kindness and insight that both Kasey and Gabi regularly gave out.

Easy, perhaps, to blame the chronic problems, crises, and closeted skeletons in one’s family on “demons.”  Easy to believe that one emotion-laden ceremony, replete with sacred symbols, rituals, and mumbo-jumbo, will rid one of all that, without the need for long hard work. 

Gabi had her hang-ups, but she was very open to loving women, and had fallen in love with at least one (who wasn’t me, although I did wonder sometimes).  She felt no horror at lesbian attraction, and toward the end of her too-brief life, came to embrace a healthy, fluid sexuality and a love of her body.  She was healed: not because of some deus ex machina, but because of arduous years in therapy and relentless self-scrutiny.  She lost her virginity (her words, ignoring any reference to past rape and abuse) at age forty, and was unapologetic.  On the contrary, she reveled in being a mature woman first discovering what she called “sex haze”—that purple state of mind that overtook her for a week or so after really good sex, deliciously preventing her from getting any scholastic work done or any good cooking. 

She was even able to enter sex haze after non-penetrative encounters with her last boyfriend Simon—a Christian Jew of sorts, not a virgin himself, but celibate for the past two decades as he continued to wrestle with his own issues. Gabi took great delight in his sensuousness, which she told me about in vivid detail, underscoring to me that she had come to see sex as a rich, complex experience, and the lack of intercourse was only a small disappointment.  “He knows what to do with breasts!” she gushed to me once.


Wherein, then, resides truth?  The truth is that both these women believed that others were sincerely attempting to cast demons out of them, and that both disclosed these stories to me.  Both were dear friends of mine, who valued me as a confidant.  Were I somehow to discover that they had lied, or deluded themselves, how would that change anything?  What I personally believe, or don’t, about demons seems immaterial.

The big difference is that for Kasey, the prayer circle was unquestionably well-intentioned, responding to her own voiced need for healing.  For Gabi, lured under false pretenses by the man she loved and believed to love her, into a situation recalling the rape and abuse that she had suffered, the “healing circle” was an unspeakable travesty and betrayal.  An abomination.  Learning that the accusation had first come from her rival, and been believed by her boyfriend, must have undone the very foundations of her reality. 

Were I to learn that in fact, Gabi’s healing circle was sincerely meant, that the men truly believed her to be possessed of a demon that could be driven out by prayer, it would not change the truth of the narrative and its impact.  Were I to learn that the leader’s erection was a result of the intense emotions, and that he went home ashamed and humiliated, it would not change the betrayal that Gabi endured. 

Likewise, were I to learn that Kasey’s fellow prayer warriors were mortified and embarrassed by her conclusion that the words spewing from her mouth were the names of demons, that would not alter the revelatory weight of the tale she bore to me.  Were I to learn that those praying Christians in fact did not disapprove of lesbianism, and did not class homosexual behavior with crimes such as murder, it would not change the fact that Kasey came away from the meeting convinced that these were her heroes and rescuers.  It would not change the fact that she shared a deep, profoundly meaningful secret with someone whom she expected to rejoice with her.

I did not rejoice.  I took it seriously, thanked her for revealing such a painful story to me, and tried to affirm her feelings and experiences.  After all, she viewed her lesbian experiences as trauma, and so they were.  Trauma is for the individual to determine, and others do not have the right to discount it.  And I certainly do recognize the betrayal, shame, and paradigm-altering confusion that must have arisen when Kasey entered in good faith into a rather intense friendship with Rose, a rising star within our Christian fellowship, and Rose came on to Kasey.

Hearing about Kasey’s and Gabi’s exorcisms in my 20s prompted me to reflect on how those demons get created.  I had encountered the demon of sexual betrayal before.  I was a sophomore in college.  Kasey was my roommate.  I wound up sheltering my friend Marina for a week, after she’d been sexually assaulted by a church leader.

Marina was a gentle white girl who’d been attending our Chinese church for years.  I’d always been bemused by the few non-Asians who attended our church.  Of our congregation of 500 or so, we had a handful of Japanese and Koreans, a growing population of Laotians, one black kid, and two white kids.  The other Asians more or less blended in, and I assumed that they were subject to the same restrictions as I was: forced to attend church and to appreciate the cultural heritage being rammed down our throats.  But the black and white kids?  I marveled that they were voluntarily attending our fascistic congregation (even other Southern Baptist churches considered us extreme), and I never discovered why, nor found the courage to ask.  Why on earth would anyone willingly subject themselves to lengthy sermons simultaneously translated into Chinese, and the endless litany of other restrictions and unpleasantries?  Yet Marina seemed to actually like it, and she had many friends, including me.

The other white kid was a boy named Nat, who was my close friend, at least as close as he could be given the dislike that my father and most of the male church leaders harbored for him.  Nat’s liking for our church was no mystery at all: he had a thing for Korean girls.  Why, then, did he not find a Korean church?  Well, he was friends with two Chinese girl cousins who attended our church; they brought Nat, he liked it, made a niche for himself, and went after every Korean girl who walked through our doors. 

Anyway, Nat was the one who called me up, sophomore year.  He asked if I could hide Marina for a week, not tell a soul where she was, and not ask or answer any questions about her.  I thought about it, consulted Kasey, and agreed.  That evening, Nat drove up and deposited Marina in our dorm room, telling us only that she needed to be somewhere safe, and to be patient with her.

For a week, Marina slept in a sleeping bag on our floor, ate food we snuck out of the dining hall for her, and spoke not a word to us.  She clearly did not want to be hugged or touched, or even brushed up against.  This was the mid-80s, long before cell phones: the dorms were set up with only one landline per several rooms.  To talk on the phone, you had to go into the hallway and stand or sit—the cord was not long enough to reach into any individual dorm room.  Everyone could hear what you were saying, though since we were all used to it, we learned to ignore all phone conversations, and attempt to give each other a modicum of privacy.  Nor was there even call waiting: if you were on the phone, no one else could make or receive calls.

Marina tied up our line for hours every day.  We shared it with perhaps eight other students.  I remember some grumbling and questioning, but astonishingly, no outright bickering or accusations.  I think my hallmates—who were not a notably compassionate bunch—recognized the signs of trauma.  Marina sat in the hall, one hand cupped over her mouth and the phone, talking very quietly to, presumably, Nat.  Kasey, too, was incredibly selfless in allowing such strange behavior in her own space; her usual nosiness and pushy personality were softened, perhaps, by the air of perpetual fear and deer-in-headlights innocence that Marina exuded.

It wasn’t until many weeks later, after Nat had picked up Marina and taken her away, that Marina and I sat and talked in a café, on a break from school, away from church.  She told me that her Bible study leader, Lee, a young man I had known well, admired, and liked, had assaulted her.  To this day, I don’t know what precisely did or did not happen.  The only thing Marina could say was, “He did things that I thought you weren’t supposed to do till you were married.” 

Amidst my horror, grief, and shock, an ironic part of my mind found the wherewithal to marvel that this poor young white woman faithfully attending a Chinese church was so naïve as to not have the words for such basic physical, sexual encounters.  I operated under the assumption that white folks were by definition far more sophisticated, worldly, admirable, and just plain cool than Chinese people, whom I generally considered sheltered, ignorant, pathetic, and narrow-minded. 

The ironies compounded: it wasn’t until years later that I gained enough understanding of sociohistorical realities to know that The White Woman, in America, has always been the ultimate desideratum, in media, in our sociocultural imaginary.  The surest way for a black man or boy to be lynched was to be accused of looking at a white woman.  And Lee, Marina’s abuser, happened to be the only member of our congregation who was mixed-race, half white, as far as I know: he had a western-sounding, non-Chinese surname.

Back in college, I was mercifully unacquainted with sexual abuse, which made me less understanding and useful to Marina than I wish I had been.  I did my best to comfort and help her, but I didn’t really know what to do.  She went to college out of state the following year, and I never saw her again.  I have tried searching her out online many times, but since her real name is a very common one, I have not succeeded. 

Here’s what I would say to her now if I could: I am so deeply grieved at what you had to endure.  It was not your fault.  I hope that you felt supported, even if not perfectly, by me and others, and that you were able to find some healing.  I hope that you do not still suffer from that experience, but if you do, I am not surprised, because I know the effects of abuse and trauma can last for decades.  I do believe that healing is possible, though the path to it is unpredictable and never guaranteed.  I hope you felt immediately, from me and others, that we believed your account of what had happened.  I never thought to doubt or question you, even if I didn’t know the precise details, and I hope you felt believed.  If I hurt you during that time, I hope you will believe me when I say that I did not intend to, and that I am very sorry

As an epilogue to Marina’s experience, Lee is today a pastor of a church.  And guess what?  So is Lyle.  Lee in fact was repentant and devastated over the harm he had inflicted upon Marina.  After that episode transpired, months went by when I would go to my home church (which I only attended on holidays and breaks), see Lee in the distance, and avoid him.  He was obviously trying to seek me out, trying to get me to talk, but I wanted nothing to do with him.  This was before email, so his only other options were phone (and he didn’t have my college number) or letter.  Finally, months later, he succeeded in quietly and humbly asking me if we could talk privately, and I reluctantly agreed. 

I don’t remember his words, but he impressed me.  He convinced me that he fully owned responsibility for what he had done, was truly sorry, and was sincere in wanting to heal the situation.  He told me of his meeting with the pastor and youth pastor, who arranged a schedule whereby he was only allowed to attend church for prayer meetings (Wednesdays) and evening services on Sunday, and Marina was allowed to attend regular Sunday morning services. Thus, the church leaders enacted something like a restraining order.  These two pastors happened to be men that I really couldn’t stand, but apparently, they did know what had transpired, took it seriously, and took some actions to protect Marina. The incident was extremely well hushed up, as I realized when a couple years later, I ran into one of the most popular, beloved, and central young women at church—one who always knew everything going on—and she remarked that there seemed to have been some odd thing with Lee, and she wondered what it was. All she’d noticed was that he’d seemed to disappear for awhile.

Fun fact: recently, I rediscovered my journal entry that I wrote the night following my conversation with Lee. I had no advice or absolution for him, nor did he seek any from me, but today, I hope that he has discovered the concept of restorative justice, and utilized it in his life, even if not with Marina.  In today’s era of #MeToo, I hope that he has found wisdom and truth, whatever that may be, and that he imparts some of it to his congregation.

Lyle has moved from his native East Coast out to the West Coast, where he pastors a church remarkably close to Lee’s.  Maybe they’ve even met, although that’s doubtful, given one is Episcopalian and the other Baptist.  I will not presume to guess what has happened in his own maturation, and it is perhaps overly smug—though true—to observe that I never liked him, never saw what other women loved about him.  Even my ex-husband loved Lyle, admitting that were he ever to turn gay (as he put it), he’d go for Lyle. 

I know, so now you think I was just jealous.  Believe me, I would have loved for my ex to have had an affair, gay or not.  I felt no physical attraction to my ex, but that is another tale.  “Slick Willy,” that old moniker for Bill Clinton, is in fact how I’d always thought of Lyle in my head.  Way too quick to laugh at everything, trying too hard to play the California surfer, Lyle was for many years the national head of a major advertising account: he was in charge of the branding of an extremely familiar beverage.  How a top-notch ad exec could so successfully brand himself that he even wormed his way into the heart of my CEO-hating ex-husband, the same ex-husband who ordinarily despised the small talk and breezily shallow answers that Lyle excelled in, who ordinarily held nothing but contempt for those who refused to reveal their deepest secrets—the key to Lyle’s death-grip on the hearts of my friends will remain elusive to me. 

I have no doubt that Lyle harbored his own demons.  I wondered, when Gabi died, whether he even knew, whether there was anyone in touch to convey the news.  Although I concede that religion and the church do save some from the demons ravaging their souls, until they can stop unleashing more legions upon others, those of us who have exorcised religion’s excesses must create our own healing circles, without the mumbo jumbo.


1 All names have been changed. Other than that, this is a work of nonfiction, and is completely true to the best of my recollection.



Celestine Woo

Celest Woo is an English professor who has taught college in NY, NJ, and CO. She is now a teacher at Trevor Day School in New York City. She has published poetry, memoir, fiction, and scholarly work, and is also a modern dancer and choreographer. 


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Monday, August 21, 2023 - 11:15