The boy who could see demons
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is not really a review, but more a response to the Good Reads review prompt “What did you think?” So I’m writing more about thoughts inspired by the book than thoughts about the book itself.
Carolyn Jess-Cooke tells us that this book was inspired by The Screwtape letters by C.S. Lewis. The Screwtape letters is Lewis’s contribution to Christian ascetical theology, and takes the form of letters from a senior demon to his junior apprentice, giving him advice on how best to tempt his patient.
In The boy who could see demons 10-year-old Alex Broccoli is being treated by psychiatrist Anya Molokova. He tells her about the demons he can see, and especialy a demon Ruen, who says he is studying Alex as a research project. The story viewpoint switches back and forth between Alex and Anya. Anya is concerned that Alex needs in-patient care, partly because his father is absent, and his mother is suicidal.
An experience that a premodern person might have understood as possession by an
evil spirit might be understood by a modern psychoanalytic patient as more mischief from the Id, and might be understood by a postmodern individual as a subpersonality making itself heard – might even, if you want to get really postmodern about it, be recognized as all three.
When Alex is an in-patient in the institution, which has its own school, he regards some of the other children in his class as “psycho”, and is aware, at one level, that Anya regards him as a bit “psycho” too. Anya, from her professional point of view, regards Alex’s condition as a possible case of early onset schizophrenia, but at times finds herself forced to see it from his point of view, and that when he tells her things about herself that he could not possibly have known, he is speaking the truth when he says that he did not know them, but Ruen told him to say them.
This takes me back to another book I read nearly 50 years ago, The primal vision by John V. Taylor. It was on Christian presence amid African religion, and is still, I believe, tremendously valuable. It shows how Western Christianity, which has been strongly influenced and shaped by modernity, sometimes fails to cope with premodernity in Africa. One of the things that stood out for me about it is that Western culture tends to relate the causes of evil to internal things, whereas African culture tends to see them as external. So for Western culture one’s demons are all in one’s head, whereas in African culture they are in one’s environment. And it seemed to me that it is like different maps of the same territory. We all have our own constructions of reality, which differ according to our culture and experience, just as a geological and a political map of the same territory might be quite different. Nowadays, with Google maps and the like it is easier to see the different layers of maps that can be used to view the same territory.
I think I’ve mentioned before in this blog that when I was in Windhoek, more than 40 years ago, we received a letter from a group of psychotherapists in Chicago, saying that they were concerned about the mental health needs of the Third World (there was a Third World back then, though Namibia wasn’t going to be any part of it if the Nationalist government had its way). I thought about this letter for a long time. And I thought that sending a team of American urban psychotherapists to rural Namibia would be like sending a team of witchdoctors from Ovamboland to treat middle-class suburban housewives in greater Chicago. Their psychological ailments are so culturally bound that the therapists from both places would need to spend the next twenty years learning to understand the culture of their patients in order to get inside their skins.
Of course psychiatry is not just any psychotherapy, but is specifically medical. But even there, Western “scientific” medicine is bound by culture, perhaps even more bound in some ways, because of its claim to be “scientific” and therefore above subjective cultural considerations, and therefore fails to see how culturally bound it is.
Scientific medicine has made great advances in Africa, and great inroads into African thinking, but there can still be the dual viewpoint. In premodern Africa most diseases, other than minor coughs and colds, were thought to be caused by human malice expressed in witchcraft (see Tabona Shoko in African initiatives in healing ministry).
In Western medicine the germ theory of disease carries more weight. An African trained in Western scientific medicine would be aware that malaria is caused by the bite of a female anopheles mosquito that is infected by the malarial parasite, but might still ask, “who was responsible for sending that particular infected mosquito to bite me.”
To Westerners this might sound superstitious, but I recall that 25 years ago the drug Ritalin was routinely prescribed as a panacea for all kinds of ailments, including children being bored and daydreaming in class. Psychiatrists and schoolteachers alike seemed to be convinced of its miraculous properties. That seemed entirely superstitious to me.
The Africa of The primal vision lies 50 years in the past; Africa is modernising rapidly, and is a different place. People sometimes don’t realise how different it is. People talk about ubuntu as an African value, but very often seem to have forgotten what it means. There is an example of this here other things amanzi: chicken feet, hat-tip to my blogging friend Jenny Hillebrand, who also gives another example here Carpenter’s Shoes: The value of the individual.
But there are still cultural difference in the ways that illness is perceived, and perhaps, like the wave and particle theories of the transmission of light, there is a place for both.