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 consciousness...is 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.