Getting the Most Out of One Woman’s Suffering: On ‘The Case Against Satan’

Let’s fucking hope the Catholic Church is footing the bill for this book.

The Case against Satan is ostensibly about an exorcism. The haunting cover would seem to suggest the book is concerned with the woman who does (or does not) need to be exorcised.  It is concerned with her, as far as how she arrived at her current state, sort of.  It cares about saving her, for sure. But in the simple terms of page-space allotted, the book is concerned with this woman’s suffering almost solely as a call to action for important men to set about solving a problem. That, and to allow important men to have abstract, mostly theological debates — to the point that they take a break from the exorcism,  during which the woman is bound to the bed, thrashing and bleeding – to have the following exchange:

cover‘Oh?’ Gregory turned from the window and sardonically echoed the Bishop’s earlier words: ‘Have things changed that much? Love, hate fear, pity, right and wrong, good and evil? Has God changed?’

The Bishop gently set his cup upon its saucer.

‘Touché, Gregory,’ he said. ‘You win this round.’

In terms of what will happen to these characters (people) in the future, the bishop (our figure of authority) is far more concerned with Father Gregory’s drinking problem than with what will happen to this woman when they are through with her. I’d go as far as to say the book wouldn’t be all that different if it were about about a plague of locusts, especially if the priest and the bishop involved were capable of investing some purely corporeal cause for this. Except it is about a young woman who was almost certainly raped, and has come to them for help.

The name of the afflicted woman is Susan Garth. She is 16 and a high school student. When she was 10, she was part of a family rowboat excursion during which the boat flipped, and her father saved her while her mother drowned. Her father says she was playing in the boat and slipped into the water, and his rush to save Susan, the sheer force with which he jumped from the boat, caused it to flip. Her father says his daughter clawed at him, making it nearly impossible for him to keep the two of them afloat — and that by the time he got them back to the rowboat, a motorboat had come to save them and his wife was long gone. Susan says her father killed his mother — something we hear much later that he confessed to the former monsignor of the parish.  Susan also says that not 10 days after her mother’s death, her father began trying to force himself upon her. Whether or not he succeed is left to us. Either way (and of course, if she is not possessed by some incubus), the trauma of this first publicly manifests itself (as far as we know) with Susan visiting the former priest of her parish on off hours, waiting for him to look down (into a book, I believe), and then fully unrobing in front of him. Urging him to ‘Tell me what a pretty girl I am and what a sweet little figure I’ve got. Tell me all the things that are running through your mind when you look at me. Tell me. I won’t mind. You’re a man, Father. All men think such things.” When he rejects her, she calls him a hypocrite, telling him it’s only because he doesn’t think he could get away with it.

This happened about a quarter into the book, and I include it at length because it is the closest we get to her.  To a moment of her agency.

The book is awfully good at committing to nothing. It’s sort of a master class at such. The bishop and the priest continue with the exorcism in earnest, even after they’ve learned the truth of Susan situation. Only when the town rabble-rouser distributes a flyer about the maybe-orgies (my term) happening at the church and Mr. Garth confronts them about this, do they accuse him of the murder and maybe rape/definite lust of his child. In other words, they act as if she is possessed until they are personally brought into peril because of this. The father drops dead shortly after. Act of God? Nope, he took some pills from his pocket. Suicide from the guilt of what he’s done?  Nope, his pills were switched by Father Halloran, one of his very last acts before leaving the parish. Did Father Halloran do this on purpose, out of the sheer frustration of having this man confess to him, yet being completely unable to convince him to confess to the police? Nope, it was an honest mistake: the pills were the Father’s for some deficiency Mr. Garth suffered in excess, causing the pills to kill him. So was it all then the hand of God? Maybe. But was Susan truly possessed? Probably not — the title is The Case against Satan — but either way she completely fine now. Confirmed through a single phone call placed from the orphanage run by the former monsignor (whom she disrobed in front of and tried to force herself on), in which she says how happy she is, and that she decided to become a doctor! (And let’s fucking hope the Catholic Church is footing the bill for that one.) In other words, regardless of whether she had been possessed, the exorcism, the actions of these two important men, saved her.

There’s a telling movement about a third of the way in where the Bishop and Father Gregory spend thousands of words (around 5 percent of the novella’s total, according to the number at the bottom of my Kindle) arguing about faith, whether or not believing in God necessities believing in the devil — how reading fucking Kafka and Baudelaire can inform your belief in the devil, how maybe Freud and the other psychoanalysts are simply doing God’s work without knowing it and/or giving him credit — until Susan starts breaking shit downstairs.

And what do they do? Drag her to a bedroom upstairs and lock the door. And then go off in search of other important men for counsel.

Which could be an amazing, quite literal way of making noise and breaking shit until the patriarchy notices.  If only the book were aware of it.

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