The boy who could see demons, and the psychiatrist who thought he was nuts
The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke
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 Im 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 Lewiss contribution to
Christian ascentical theology, and takes the form of letters from a senior
demon to his junior apprentice, giving him advice on how best to tempt his
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.
The switch in viewpoints is interesting because in a way it shows something
of the postmodern condition. As Walter Truett Anderson puts it in his book
Reality isnt what it used to be:
An experience that a premodern person might have understood as possession
evil spirit might be understood by a modern psychoanalytic patient as
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 Alexs 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 ones demons are all in ones head, whereas
in African culture they are in ones 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
I think Ive 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 wasnt 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
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 dont 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 Carpenters 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.
And then there is a third way, that of Orthodox Psychotherapy by Metropolitan
Hierotheos Vlachos, but Id better save discussion of that for when I review
For the whole thing, with links, see: