August interlude: What we pondered in southernmost Maine!


Bringing Rick Perlstein back home: After even the briefest of sojourns, it’s hard to return to the mundane topics which form our public discourse.

In Maine, we pondered two different claims—the claim that “my current state of just a feature of my brain at the present time” and a second claim by Rick Perlstein concerning the film, The Exorcist.

Below, we highlight Perlstein’s claim. It’s featured in his suddenly semi-controversial new book:
PERLSTEIN (page 206): The Exorcist opened in twenty-six theaters. As word of mouth spread, the studio struck new prints as quickly as possible—and in each new city, emergency room visits skyrocketed. In Boston the audience assaulted the image with rosary beads. In San Francisco a patron charged the screen. In Germany a boy shot himself in the head after a screening; an English boy died of an epileptic seizure.
Do you believe the highlighted claim? Do you believe that visits to emergency rooms “skyrocketed” in each city where The Exorcist opened?

For ourselves, we haven’t read Perlstein’s new book, The Invisible Bridge. We were directed to that passage by Steve Donoghue, a reviewer who helped ignite the semi-controversy by making this claim:

“Almost everywhere you look, you find Perlstein neatening and shortening and simplifying and exaggerating.”

In a subsequent Atlantic review, Sam Tanenhaus said something similar. Perlstein “now finds rumor more illuminating than fact,” the gentleman said, providing a bit of context.

Donoghue and Tanenhaus seem to refer to the process we’ve long described as “the novelization of news.” In this post-journalistic form of writing, accuracy is sacrificed to heighten the sense of drama or to reinforce pre-ordained story-lines and notions.

All facts are embellished, or discarded, to serve the narrative interest.

This type of writing is a form of deception. Widely employed across the post-journalistic world, it has had disastrous effects in recent decades.

So how about it? In the example Donoghue picked, do you believe the highly implausible claim that emergency room visits “skyrocketed” in every city where The Exorcist opened?

Following Donoghue’s lead, we checked Perlstein’s stated source—page 202 of a book by Colleen McDannell called Catholics in the Movies.

As Donoghue notes, the Bostonians throwing their rosary beads aren’t mentioned by McDannell. Neither is the San Franciscan who charged the screen, although those episodes may be described somewhere else.

Who knows? These events may even have happened!

We noted something else. Nothing we found in McDannell’s book supports the highly implausible claim about the skyrocketing emergency room visits.

This is the passage Perlstein cites. By the way, why would a scholar assume that any of this is accurate?
MCDANNELL (page 202): The film shocked both the audience and the critics. Some viewers had severe physical reactions. Individuals in the audience vomited, fainted, cried uncontrollably, or felt that they had become possessed while watching The Exorcist. Reports of such events began immediately and fueled a curiosity that added to the crowds standing in line in the cold. A guard at the New York theater where the film opened told a reporter that, besides the vomiting and the fainting, there had been several heart attacks and a miscarriage in the first few weeks. The film then opened in other cities. Numerous emergency room admissions of sick Exorcist viewers occurred across the country. In Los Angeles, a theater manager estimated that each screening of the film resulted in an average of four customers fainting, six vomiting, and many fleeing in panic. More serious stories of damage included an English teenager found dead, apparently from an epileptic seizure, one day after seeing the film; a German teenager who shot himself in the head; a teen who murdered a nine-year-old girl and claimed that he did it while possessed; and a man who became convinced he was possessed, underwent an all-night exorcism in his church, then killed his wife with his bare hands. Psychiatrists in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Toronto reported hospitalizing patients who had become convinced by The Exorcist that demons inhabited them or their children.
“Numerous emergency room admissions of sick Exorcist viewers occurred across the country?”

If we assume that statement is true, “numerous” could mean “twelve.” That said, what makes us assume that McDannell’s claim is accurate at all?

McDannell cites a tabloidy book called Hollywood Hex as the source for her claims, along with two newspaper reports. If anything actually turned on the matter, you couldn’t safely assume that any of her claims are accurate.

Concerning the emergency room visits, Perlstein took McDannell’s fuzzy claim and spun it way, way up. Nothing much turns on Perlstein’s statement, of course. But his claim seems absurd on its face, and it isn’t supported by his stated source.

Does it matter if Perlstein’s statement is accurate? Not really, especially for people who enjoy reading beach novels.

That said, embellishment has become the norm in much of our political writing. People are dead all over the world because people like Perlstein enjoy this practice, especially when done in groups.

Donoghue and Tanenhaus both seemed to suggest that Perlstein has come to enjoy writing novels. We’ll discuss that suggestion more next week. It’s an important topic.

Regarding consciousness itself, is “my current state of consciousness... just a feature of my brain at the present time?” We’re quoting Professor Searle from the early pages of his book, The Mystery of Consciousness.

That strikes us as an odd thing to say. We had a similar reaction to the professor’s earlier statement about gravity as a “cause” of everyday events.

That said, some things are better off left at the beach. We decided to bring the semi-flap about Rick Perlstein back home.


  1. What's wrong with “my current state of just a feature of my brain at the present time” ? I say it's obviously true.

    1. The problem is with the word "just" which implies nothing more than a feature of my brain at the present time. In a sense this is a simplistic statement since any and every subjective experience is a result of some underlying state of the brain itself. Is there nothing more to consciousness than that it is a feature of the brain? Given that consciousness is the sum total of our personal experience of existence, it seems like the word "just" is incorrect.

    2. That depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is since it was moved by @ 3:34.

    3. 3:34 copied and pasted. No word was changed. The whole sentence, with ellipsis, was moved intact.

    4. Anon. @ 2:01 is right, and, like poor Al Gore, Anon. @ 7:04 is partly right.

      “my current state of just a feature of my brain at the present time” is a direct copy....the first time BOB used it near the beginning of the post.

      But near the end the same thought is rephrased as "is “my current state of consciousness... just a feature of my brain at the present time?” The second time the little verb has moved.

      Does that change its meaning? We don't know. We only know BOB did it and he always has His reasons. We doubt they are Clintonian.

  2. If you actually read the Donoghue article, it's very hard to see what the hell he is complaining about other than The Exorcist saga, which may or may not be supported with sources. He criticizes exaggerations generally, but the rest of his examples are huge stretches that don't support that claim. Tanenhaus is a conservative writer who takes it as a given that Alger Hiss "was" a Soviet spy despite the disputed evidence that has never been resolved except in the minds of people who are committed to that belief .

    So why is The Howler willing to cherry-pick a single example and channel these two critics of Pearlstein whose reviews happen to coincide with a ridiculous charge of plagiarism by Ann Coulter's publicist who also wrote a book on Reagan? Because Pearlstein writes his history from a liberal perspective, and being the scold of virtually all liberals is The Howler's raison d'etre now. (If you want to see how ridiculous the charge of plagiarism is, read the letter from the attorney for the allegedly offended writer. He doesn't seem to have a clue what plagiarism is. Then read the response from the lawyer for Simon & Shuster. The Howler doesn't seem to comprehend that there may be an orchestrated right wing campaign against a book considered to be a threat to their worldview.

    1. Are you implying Somerby didn't "actually" read the article or are you exhorting others to do so?

    2. Perlstein didn't plagiarise, therefore don't criticise him for the ridiculous exaggeration he did do, is that it, urban legend?

    3. How about the ridiculous exxageration that anything Steve Donoghue wrote "helped ignite" anything other than BOB's post?

    4. Perlstein's a professional 60s and 70s revisionist, and so he has to be watched carefully. He has an agenda there, as outlined in his old Lingua Franca piece. He thinks the Left back then was a bunch of idiots, and that most of the history about the period has been little more than foolish sentimentalizing. Alexander Cockburn btw did a great takedown of him in his negative review of Nixonland.

      In fact, wasn't it Perlstein a few years ago who claimed that audience members of 'All in the Family' would cheer Archie Bunker when he'd make his racist jokes and comments?

      Which was not the case-- especially in LA. The most they'd do is clap in hilarity at how funny and outrageous they were. Perlstein's aim was to show that the Left back then was under the foolish impression that the "Silent Majority" was not right wing.

      Whatever, I have a big problem with his depiction of the Bicentennial. None of his anecdotes bear any resemblance to what I saw at the time. There was no preview of the Reaganesque 'Morning in America' time, or need to adopt right-wing frameworks. Quite the opposite.

  3. Exorcist Story: Being Posessed Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry.

  4. I shall read this again before bed and first thing in the morning and see if I can figure out what it has to do with vineyards.

  5. Rick Perlstein is not a new kid. He did not attend an Ivy League institution. He has finished three whole books all by himself which were published by others.

    1. He also has an overt revisionist agenda about the 60s and 70s, which I think gets him into trouble. He's intent on proving that the Right was much more powerful and effective than it really was, and that most Americans were little more than its willing stooges. If only life had been that simple back then.

  6. urban legend wrote: Tanenhaus is a conservative writer who takes it as a given that Alger Hiss "was" a Soviet spy despite the disputed evidence that has never been resolved except in the minds of people who are committed to that belief .

    In other words, the only people who believe Alger Hiss was a spy are the people who believe Alger Hiss was a spy. Seriously, Hiss had a fair trial and was convicted. Later, materials from the USSR generally supported Hiss's guilt. Anything is possible, but I see no particular reason to doubt that Hiss was guilty.

    1. The main reason to doubt that Alger Hiss was guilty is the very large number of innocent people who were falsely accused during this time period.

    2. Hiss was convicted of perjury, not espionage. How do you know his trial was fair?

    3. Innocent people were falsely accused. That doesn't show that guilty people weren't truly accused.

    4. The Soviet papers were hardly reliable. Yes, spooks never lie, or trump themselves up for their bosses.

      I love how we're supposed to think that the Soviets were a devious foe-- and then expected to take their private documents at face value.

  7. wow! of all the things to pick on in Perlstein, when you haven't even read his book yet!

    If there ever was an exemplum of how weird Bob S is! But maybe that's what he's after.

    On the other hand, as someone who was there then (in my early 20's when the Exorcist came out -- I remember profound conversations with my mother's minister about my nightmares produced by the movie): yes, Perlstein is correct. That movie was part of an important cultural moment. Maybe some people have something to say, and bob could learn to listen and learn!

    1. I remember, people were troubled, therefore making some stuff up and exaggerating some other stuff is legit.

      Instead of asking me to think about why I don't care if some stuff was not *actually* true, maybe you could learn something by swallowing whole without thinking!

      It was a cultural moment!!!

    2. "Pick on". What you means by "pick on".

    3. Is you saying emergency room visits did skyrocket? You think that's true?

    4. It's not true-- I was there back then as well. Much of the hysteria was media manufactured, too.

      Perlstein's very unreliable about the 73-76 time period. His problem is that he relies too much on the inadequate journalism of the time. That era btw was pretty exciting-- it wasn't the neurosis-fest that P makes it out to be. Things actually seemed to be getting better, and you could feel it in the air.

      Such a description though does interfere with P's revisionism.

  8. For some unknown reason, there are myths that people like to believe. Some can be explained by tendentiousness. E.g., some liberals were happy believe the fake report of the Lovenstein Institute about Presidential IQs or the fake Texas Air National Guard report on Bush's supposed AWOL.

    Others, e.g., the Bermuda Triangle, can't be explained that way. In fact, there are not a bunch of unexplained incidents in the so-called "Bermuda Triangle." Yet. people were happy to believe in it. Maybe because it made their lives a little more interesting.

    I fully agree with Bob. No great harm is done if people believe in the Bermuda Triangle, However, when elections are decided based on incorrect reports that Gore falsely claimed to be a model for the protagonist of Love Story or that Bush went AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard, then the democratic process suffers real harm.

    When mainstream journalists promote these myths, rather than expose them, that is a journalistic sin IMHO.

    1. What a sad day, when the essence of David In CA's comment is true!

    2. Well, Anonymous @ 11:15 it is a good thing you chose the "essence" to have been true.

      It is hard to grasp how an election was decided on the two myths cited, since the Love Story myth and the National Guard myth pertained to two candidates who opposed each other. Unless you hold to the theory that belief in both myths caused enough people to votes for Nader in both Florida and New Hampshire. That latter psosibility has not, as we all say, been journalistically disproven, so DinC may not be just acting in good faith, but right!

    3. The evidence against Bush was bogus. That's enough to make you doubt the accusation, but it's not enough to prove that it's false.

    4. And to Gore's credit, "Bush went AWOL" wasn't a big issue because unlike the swiftboating of Kerry, he refused to do the Rovian thing -- find a couple of proxies unconnected to himself or the campaign to shout it daily from the rooftops while Gore could pretend to remain above the fray.

    5. The evidence against Bush was not bogus-- the documents were merely icing on the cake. All of the so-called objections to them were disproved. Doesn't anyone else remember those little balls on the IBM Selectrics?

  9. Erich Segal, author of Love Story, corroborated that Gore and his Harvard roommate, Tommy Lee Jones, were indeed the models for the story's main character.

    1. OMB ( Oh, for a chance to discuss Novelization & the OTB)

      Segal did not corroborate that Gore and his Harvard roomate "were indeed the models..." Gore did not mention Jones was a model for "Ollie" Barrett IV. But, since this post alleges novelization by Rick Perlstein, it might be fun to discuss others who have "novelized" events to fit their meme.

      Unless otherwise challenged, we will simply state as fact that throughout his tale of "The War on Gore" very few others saw or tell tales about, "new kid" war correspondent BOB has novelized like a bodice-ripper contract scribbler over the last fifteen years.

      We begin with Part 2 of BOB's a first series on the topic, back in 1999. We chose it because of the ironic choice of a verb by the OTB in this early telling.

      "The Love Story nonsense began in late 1997—invented by a Maureen Dowd column—and in the aftermath of that piece, Melinda Henneberger wrote a lengthy story on the topic for the Sunday New York Times (12/14/97). No one has ever disputed the facts she reported; pundits have simply preferred to ignore them." OTB 12/6/99

      What, dear readers, do we presume BOB meant when he said Maureen was the one, through a column, who "invented" the Love Story "nonsense"? Did she take the initiative in creating
      the "Al Gore was Segal's inspiration"? Or does BOB
      mean the "nonsense" part was Dowd's invention?

      Be careful which answer you choose dear reader. Neither leads to a pleasant place...if you hold OTB high in your esteem.

    2. From The Daily Howler, 25 May 2000:
      Had Segal used the Gores as models? Partly yes and partly no, but Gore hadn't made the claim to begin with. Segal told Henneberger that Gore had been one of two models for the Oliver Barrett part (Jones had been the other model), but Tipper had not figured in the characterization of Barrett's girl friend, Jenny Cavilleri. Had the story ended there—with Gore half right and Gore half wrong—it would be incredible to think that this pointless event could have gotten ten seconds attention. But in fact, Tumulty and Berke told Henneberger that Time had slightly misstated what Gore had said. What had Gore actually told the scribes?

    3. Excellent work Giuseppe! You now take us to another example of BOB's Novelization of this tale 'based on a true story.' According to the version you cite, written almost six months after the version we cited in the comment above, we find this about the birth of the "Love Story" story.

      "According to Time, Gore said that Segal "used Al and Tipper as models for the uptight preppy and his free-spirited girlfriend in Love Story." So was born the silly story that has—incredibly and foolishly—helped define presidential politics over the course of the past fourteen months."

      So what Maureen "invented" in the New York Times was "born" in Time magazine in its telling less than half a year later.

      Of course there is more fun in both the BOB post we cited and the one you cited. But we will save that, perhaps for later.

  10. If nothing else "skyrocketed" is obvious hyperbole. I thought Perlstein's Nixonland was outstanding. It did an excellent job describing the political and cultural backlash in the immediate wake of the era's landmark civil rights successes. Also as a continuing theme, examples of how liberal stands on cultural issues can foment mainstream political backlash.

    1. OMB: Harmless Hyperbole vs. Novelizing with the OTB

      Obvious hyperbole indeed. If he had invented a real number, that might be novelization. Let's look at an example of the latter. This is from a piece entitled:

      Question: Could the mess in Fort Lee, New Jersey have been a bungled attempt at a study?

      "North toward home—driving up I-95: Interstate 95 runs north and south through the major cities of the eastern seaboard. Heading northbound through New Jersey and toward New York City, I-95 takes you over the GW Bridge......

      You crawl along in traffic for miles, cursing your fate and wondering if you’ll ever get to the bridge. When you finally see the bridge, you also see those now-famous access lanes from Fort Lee.

      Ten million cars from those access lanes crawl in front of you into the flow, slowing your approach from the south. Having cursed your overall fate for miles, you now start cursing those drivers."

      As you can see, if your meme is that someone you will later call "The Unreliable Wildstein" was doing something good that the nasty novelizers in the media have disappeared to fit their meme, then you can invent millions upon millions of non existent cars to support yours!

    2. But let's be fair here. Bob didn't pull "Ten million cars" out of his nether regions. He actually took some initiative to look it up, and discovered that 10 million was the number of cars that cross that bridge in both directions ANNUALLY.

      Then he committed the sin that he would have been all over one of his favorite targets for, taking that annual traffic count figure and telling his rubes that that's the number of cars attempting to cross the bridge one way during a single morning rush hour. Then he further mind-reads the motorists who cross that bridge every day.

    3. Let us be fair to BOB @ 7:54. Those words (and numbers) were posted on January 11, 2014. They are simply a slight change from this work published a few weeks earlier:

      Rachel Maddow is a nightmare!

      MONDAY, DECEMBER 16, 2013

      "Rachel Maddow is Fox: By now, there can be little doubt. Rachel Maddow is an official party-line, partisan hack.

      She’ll fill your head full of stupid shazam.


      Losers, guess what? The volume of traffic on the bridge has nothing to do with this story. Traffic across the bridge was not affected, only access to the bridge from the town of Fort Lee."

      Slowing ten million cars access to a single lane is a winner! Watching the clown shoe lady is a loser! Among those who see things others can't, credibility across the blog was not affected.

  11. At its heart this is a childish post. Liberals whom Bob doesn't like did not invent exaggeration a few years ago in order to fight the right wing.

    1. "That strikes us as an odd thing to say." Would it be better to say Liberals whom Bob doesn't like, in their fight against the right wing, did not take the intiative in creating exxageration?

  12. I saw the Exorsist. In Boston. I threw beads. My date blew beets.