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William Peter Blatty's Counter-Countercultural Parable

· 13 min read
William Peter Blatty's Counter-Countercultural Parable
Linda Blair in William Friedkin's adaptation of The Exorcist

In her new book Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics (excerpted in Quillette on August 27), essayist and cultural critic Mary Eberstadt documents just how damaging the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and its normalization of divorce in particular, has been to America’s children. She mentions many publications that comment on “the correlations between crumbling family structure and various adverse results,” particularly for the children of divorce. The authors she cites include former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, social scientist James Q. Wilson, and Elizabeth Marquardt, author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce.

A writer she doesn’t mention, however, is William Peter Blatty, author of the blockbuster 1971 horror novel The Exorcist. 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.

The Exorcist tells the story of Chris MacNeil, a recently divorced American movie star, and her 12-year-old daughter Regan Teresa MacNeil, whom Chris calls “Rags.” The story takes place in Washington, D.C., where Chris has rented a home a few blocks from the campus of Georgetown University. She is the star of a movie about unrest on campus that is being filmed at Georgetown. Neither Chris nor her daughter have yet recovered from the divorce. And Regan has begun to demonstrate troubling behavior (using obscenities, operating a Ouija board with a creepy imaginary friend, lashing out at the adults around her) that leads Chris to seek help and advice, first from psychiatric professionals.

Every few pages, the reader is reminded about the absence of Regan’s father. Early in the book, as Chris is hanging up a dress in Regan’s closet, she thinks: Nice clothes. Yeah, Rags, look here, not there at the daddy who never writes. Regan appears to be in search of a substitute for the father she has lost, and television seems to be one of the places she has been looking. Her creepy imaginary friend is called Captain Howdy, clearly a reference to two TV characters popular with children of the Baby Boom, Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody. After Regan explains her friendship with Captain Howdy to her mother, Blatty writes:

Chris tried not to frown as she felt a dim and sudden concern. The child had loved her father deeply, yet never had reacted visibly to her parents’ divorce. And Chris didn’t like it. Maybe she cried in her room; she didn’t know. But Chris was fearful she was repressing and that her emotions might one day erupt in some harmful form. A fantasy playmate. It didn’t sound healthy. Why “Howdy”? For Howard? Her father? Pretty close.

The first person to die in The Exorcist is Burke Dennings, the director of the film Chris is starring in (rather improbably, it is described as a musical-comedy remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Regan doesn’t like Dennings. She suspects (wrongly) that her mother is romantically involved with him—a raging, foul-mouthed alcoholic who is probably gay. Chris, Blatty writes, “wondered if Regan connected Dennings to her filing for divorce.” Dennings dies in a particularly ghastly fashion: his head is nearly twisted off and he has been flung from the upper story of a building—treated the way a child might treat a disfavored doll. Chris, meanwhile, spends a lot of time beating herself up over the divorce:

Regan knew only that Chris had filed. Yet Howard had wanted it. Long separations. Erosion of ego as the husband of a star. He’d found someone else. Regan didn’t know that. Oh, quit all this amateur psychoanalyzing and try to spend a little more time with her!

Again and again, we see the toll Howard’s abandonment is having on Regan. When he doesn’t call her on her birthday (he’s living in Rome now with his new girlfriend), Regan is despondent. Chris makes excuses for him, but they don’t placate Regan, who wanders downstairs to her basement playroom to commiserate with Captain Howdy until it is time for bed. The following morning, Chris awakens to find Regan in bed with her. “What are you doing here?” Chris asks. “My bed was shaking,” Regan responds ominously. Chris laughs this off, but Blatty ends the chapter with a heavy-handed authorial intrusion: “What looked like morning was the beginning of endless night.”

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.

William Kinderman is the homicide detective tasked with investigating Burke Dennings’s murder. When he arrives to take a statement from Chris, almost the first thing he tells her is that he is a father. Unlike Howard, however, Kinderman appears to be a very good father (even his name suggests it). He mentions his wife, his children, and his marriage often. (His frequent references to the unseen “Mrs. K” recall TV’s Lt. Columbo’s elusive but frequently mentioned wife, Mrs. Columbo.) At one point, Kinderman tells Father Karras that Regan “could be my own daughter,” thereby re-emphasizing his paternalism.

Chris MacNeil’s household is run by a married couple, Karl Engstrom and his wife, Willie. They are Swiss and their native tongue is German. Dennings teased Karl by pretending to believe that he was a former Nazi. Karl does have a dark secret, but it involves fatherhood. His daughter, Elvira, is a heroin addict whom Willie believes to be dead. In fact, Elvira lives in a squalid Washington tenement building with a junkie boyfriend who may also be her pimp. Over the course of the novel, Karl grows into a heroic figure. At one point, father Karras enters Regan’s room to find “Karl in a chair by the window, his arms folded, watching Regan. He was silent and present as a dense, dark wood.” This is a stark contrast to Regan’s absent father, Howard. Karl is so devoted to Regan that when the two priests ask to be left alone with her, they practically have to drag him out through the door. He not only assists Regan’s recovery from demonic possession, but he also eventually manages, with some help from Kinderman, to get his own daughter the treatment she needs.

The other major father figure in the novel is the titular character, Father Lankester Merrin, a Jesuit priest and an expert on exorcism. Father Merrin and Father Karras are metaphorical and spiritual fathers only; they don’t actually have any children. Neither man will survive his encounter with Regan MacNeil. William Kinderman and Karl Engstrom, two real fathers, do survive. Blatty kills off the metaphor to show us the truth behind his fiction: the world needs more men like Kinderman and Engstrom—caring, loving men who remain present in their children’s lives when they most need a father.

Over and over, Blatty specifically connects Regan’s demonic behavior with the trauma of her parents’ divorce. Chapter Three begins:

Early on the morning of April 11, Chris made a telephone call to her doctor in Los Angeles and asked him for a referral to a local psychiatrist for Regan.

“Oh? What’s wrong?”

Chris explained. Beginning on the day after Regan’s birthday—and following Howard’s failure to call—she had noticed a sudden and dramatic change in her daughter’s behavior and disposition. Insomnia. Quarrelsome. Fits of temper. Kicked things. Threw things. Screamed. Wouldn’t eat.

Later in the same chapter, Chris takes Regan to a doctor who diagnoses her as suffering from a depression brought on by the divorce. He prescribes Ritalin.

In the 1960s and 1970s, almost everyone in the progressive cultural circles in which Blatty moved saw the liberalization of America’s divorce laws as a boon to society. Blatty alone seemed to recognize that, for the children caught up in these dissolving marriages, divorce was like a trip into hell. The studies Eberstadt cites in her new book confirm that Blatty was right. When Regan starts acting out in increasingly bizarre ways (at one point she disrupts her mother’s cocktail party by coming into the living room and urinating on the carpet in front of a variety of Washington luminaries), a psychiatrist tells Chris that Regan suffers from guilt. “What would she have to feel guilty about?” Chris asks the shrink, who tells her: 

“Well, a cliché answer might be the divorce. Children often feel they are the ones rejected and assume the full responsibility for the departure of one of their parents. In the case of your daughter, there’s reason to believe that that could be the case. Here I’m thinking of the brooding and the deep depression over the notion of people dying: thanatophobia. In children, you’ll find it accompanied by guilt formation that’s related to family stress, very often fear of the loss of a parent. It produces rage and intense frustration. In addition, the guilt in this type of hysteria needn’t be known to the conscious mind. It could even be the guilt that we call ‘free-floating,’ a general guilt that relates to nothing in particular.”

The Exorcist is full of references to Shakespeare’s King Lear, a play about, among other things, the fraught relationships between a man and his daughters. Regan is named for one of Lear’s daughters (Chris, we are told, considered and then rejected the idea of naming her after Lear’s oldest daughter, Goneril). The 1971 film version of King Lear, starring Paul Scofield, is playing in Washington theaters during the course of the novel (a detail that must have been added just prior to the book’s publication, since the film was released in February of 1971 and the book was published in May). Kinderman comments on it several times, and Karl tells his wife he is going to see the film when really he is slipping out to render financial assistance to Elvira, his own troubled daughter.

The demon specifically tells Chris that she is to blame for what’s happened to Regan:

It is you who have done it! Yes, you with your career before anything, before your husband, before her…

Blatty’s antipathy towards divorce is not hard to fathom. His own childhood was much like that of Father Karras—fatherless and impoverished. He claimed to have moved 28 times during his youth, usually because of an eviction notice. Blatty’s New York Times obituary tells us his mother’s sole income came from peddling jars of quince in the streets of Manhattan. She was a devout Catholic and the niece of a bishop. Blatty himself was a Catholic who, thanks to scholarships, was able to attend a Jesuit high school in Brooklyn and, later, Georgetown University, also a Jesuit institution.

But Blatty’s feelings about divorce were not particularly well represented in his personal life. He was married four times and divorced thrice. His marriages produced seven children, five of whom would become the children of divorce. He met his third wife, tennis pro Linda Tuero, when he was 45 and she 23. He seems to have been a bit of a playboy until he reached his mid-fifties, at which point he married his fourth and final wife, with whom he remained until his death. He also seems to have been a bit of a cafeteria Catholic, picking and choosing amongst the faith’s various doctrines.

His journey of faith covered a route familiar to a lot of Catholics. He was raised in a devout household, strayed from the faith quite a bit in his middle years, and then returned to the fold with a vengeance in his senior years. Towards the end of his life he was denouncing abortion in newspaper interviews and even filed a canon law petition against his alma mater, Georgetown, claiming that by embracing secular culture (a campus production of The Vagina Monologues seems to have particularly inflamed his ire) it had abandoned its Catholic mission. Like Blatty, I was raised in a devoutly religious household and received all of my formal education in Catholic schools. Like many of the Catholics I grew up with, I left the faith as soon as I left my parents’ home. Most of my fellow stray lambs have since returned to the fold. I haven’t. But I’ve seen a lot of people travel Blatty’s path, becoming more strict than even their parents were as they move into old age.

In many ways, Blatty was a man of his times, and those times were confusing. In the summer of 1969 (the summer of Woodstock and the Tate-LoBianca murders), as he was holed up in a Lake Tahoe cabin, hammering out the first draft of The Exorcist on an IBM Selectric typewriter, America was in the midst of cultural and political upheaval—the arrival of the Pill, the rise and demise of the hippie counterculture, the Stonewall riots and the beginnings of the gay rights movement, the Women’s Liberation movement, and the rejection of puritanical attitudes towards sex and marriage. The liberalization of abortion laws by the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe vs. Wade would follow the publication of The Exorcist by two years—the same year William Friedkin’s film appeared in US theaters.

By that time, Blatty had already spent about a decade toiling in that most godless of trades, the Hollywood film industry, where he wrote screenplays, most of them sex farces, which is hardly the kind of work you’d associate with a devout Catholic. His second marriage was already on the rocks, and he was writing a novel that would soon become a film that earned the condemnation of the Catholic Church. 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. (In 2011, the publisher brought out a 40th anniversary edition that had been lightly revised by Blatty to, among other things, make it more Catholic-friendly; if you plan to read The Exorcist, I recommend finding the original.) And, although the book is a cautionary tale about the harm that divorce can do to children, it is not a call for an end to all divorce, nor is it an argument against women in the workplace.

Although the demon inside of Regan accuses Chris of bringing about the divorce by putting her career ahead of her marriage, Blatty indicates that this isn’t the case. He portrays Chris as a loving mother and wife, who still hopes to reconcile with her husband. The divorce is clearly the result of Howard’s fragile ego and his inability to handle his wife’s success. Just before they begin the exorcism, Father Merrin reminds Father Karras not to speak with the demon, warning him, “Especially, do not listen to anything he says. The demon is a liar.”

Nevertheless, it is Merrin who makes the clearest plea for Americans to reconsider the idea of ending their troubled marriages. When asked by Damien Karras what the reason for demonic possession is, Father Merrin replies:

“I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us…the observers…every person in this house. And I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity…to see ourselves as ultimately bestial…without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it perhaps…For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it is finally a matter of love; of accepting the possibility that God could love us. He knows…the demon knows where to strike…Long ago I despaired of ever loving my neighbor. Certain people…repelled me. How could I love them? I thought. It tormented me…How many husbands and wives must believe they have fallen out of love because their hearts no longer race at the sight of their beloveds? Ah, dear God! There it lies, I think, Damien…possession; not in wars, as some tend to believe; not so much; and very seldom in extraordinary interventions…such as here…this girl…this poor child. No, I see it most often in the little things Damien: in the senseless petty spites; the misunderstandings; the cruel and cutting word that leaps unbidden to the tongue between friends. Between lovers. Enough of these.”

The Exorcist was written at a troubled time for author and country—a counter-countercultural parable by a writer uneasy with the effects of rapid liberalization on the family unit. It is perhaps unsurprising that contemporary critics overlooked Blatty’s culturally unfashionable social conservatism. But, as Mary Eberstadt’s sobering new assessment of the sexual revolution’s legacy reminds us, his cautionary tale has aged well.

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