Facing fears in the Sooner State.
My ailing wife, Amy, had demanded that I take her to a Black Mass, a well-publicized one that would have meant aligning myself with Satan on local television. These people aren’t really Satanists, Amy explained. They’re blue-collar subculture types who’ve grown up and know their rights and want to thumb their noses at the judgy creeps who persecuted them growing up. Amy, who had seen more than her fair share of those creeps in her own youth, wanted to lend her support.
“Understand that this is all they’ve got,” she told me. “It may seem stupid, but after twenty years of getting shit it’s all they’ve got.”
Despite protests from the local Catholic community, the [Satanic] Church of Ahriman held a Black Mass at the Civic Center in Oklahoma City on September 22. The Catholics had also attempted to file an injunction against them, claiming they had stolen the Holy Sacrament they intended to defile in an unholy consecration. This was their fourth mass, but this time it was for real. The Satanists had won permission to build a monument to Satan on the grounds of the State Capitol, and the wild bad reverend in charge of the Church of Ahriman (also known as the Dakhma of Angra Mainyu) was new and media savvy. He basked in the attention, held interviews and press conferences, did all he could to whip his antagonists into a righteous froth. Those antagonists arrived by the busload and dug in, singing songs and passing out leaflets.
Much of the south refers to itself as the buckle of the Bible belt, but Oklahoma has a special claim to bucklehood: there’s the hard-line Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, and everywhere you turn there seems to be a crucifix; pricey little Amish general stores line the highways and tens of thousands of churches are sprinkled throughout the state, from hippieish splinter sects nestled in the foothills of the Ozarks to goliath megachurches with media teams and television studios and lobbying groups. Life in the Sooner State has a churchy feeling—the stickiness of Kool-Aid soaking through the seams of a waxed paper cup, bake sales manned from behind rickety card tables, devotional sing-alongs, gymnasium lock-ins—and there’s a creeping sense of menace for outsiders.
I’ve experienced a whisper of that menace, living here. A remark I made about the cost of a neighbor’s baked goods led to public denunciations of my work at church meetings and a campaign of vicious online personal attacks. Assigning a Sam Lipsyte story in a college composition class provoked a spectacularly argued series of scripture-laden e-mails from an angry student. For an adult with a professional perch, these are little more than minor inconveniences. But growing up in God’s country is another matter. They want your soul and they’re willing to fight for it.
* * *
My wife, Amy, is from Tampa, Florida, which was definitely God’s country in the 1970s and 1980s. Oklahoma is just like Tampa, she tells me. Nowadays she’s an artist and like me has armored herself with a postgraduate education and a decade and a half of cultural deprogramming in New York City. But in the Tampa of the eighties she was a pale, skinny, redheaded teen runaway, a girl who dressed in black and listened to New Wave and smoked Virginia Slim Menthol 100s and had a look that basically screamed vulnerability—the local Baptist churches slavered to save her soul. She had to push her way past picketing protesters to get to her gyno appointments at Planned Parenthood. Groups of strangers would surround her while she puffed her smokes behind the school bus stop, holding cookies with her name written on them in frosting, and they would pray for her while she smashed them against the pavement, even though she was hungry.
Amy has an invisible illness called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), which manifests as a heartbeat that won’t slow down when she changes positions and flurries of excruciating neuropathic pain and clusters of four-day long migraines. Her doctors had been tinkering with her meds, and the present combination sometimes made common words blip out of her mind during conversation. As the day of the Black Mass approached, she was getting worse, speaking to me in an unusual register, frantic and breathless. Her movements reminded me of an animatronic puppet, stiff and strange, with a slouching, lurching gait. In photos taken that week her chin juts out and she looks as imperious and fragile as Benito Mussolini.
“We should get you an appointment with your doctor,” I told her. “This devil-worship stuff is making you nuts.”
The Mass, she said, was all over Facebook, and the fundies were leaving messages, and it was fucking her up but we had to go there. The word triggered has been diluted from overuse, but in Amy’s case it seemed apt: here in Oklahoma, where posters of hacked-up fetuses share floor space with beef-jerky merchants at the state fair, I could believe she was actually being drawn back into her horrible past.
But what had really happened to her? Even after being together for twelve years, I didn’t know. She didn’t like talking about her days as a runaway. When we first met and I was still young enough to be titillated by descriptions of adolescent vandalism, she gave me a recitation that emphasized the cute rebelliousness of it—she belonged to a group of runaways called the Family who lived together in a rancid trailer with no electricity or running water, just a hole and a long drop into the swamp for a toilet. They shoplifted cigarettes and had motel parties where they’d scrawl profanities in Gideon Bibles, and they snuck into camps to steal supplies, and she could field strip a nine-millimeter semiautomatic wearing a blindfold. She’d once set a clubhouse on fire, and when she first ran away from home she’d broken into a church and pelted the altar with paint-soaked tampons.
Then there were her casual mentions of the real reason she’d left home: in her first week of high school, the administration accused her of belonging to an adolescent death cult, and then asked if she was a lesbian, and then conspired to have her committed to a psychiatric hospital. She sometimes spoke of a hyperreligious art teacher who’d hurled her against a wall just before she ran away.
I’d avoided asking her about those days mostly for stupid reasons, as if it would wound my ego if she breathed the name of an ex-boyfriend or I had to hear about how she had to panhandle to pay for an abortion when she was sixteen or about the second abortion at eighteen, when the doctor was so jangled by her sobbing and the chanting and screaming from the protestors outside that he kicked a chair over, and when she flinched at the touch of a cold metal speculum shouted, This is dangerous equipment and if I miss and I gouge you open you will bleed to death here and there is no way in hell an ambulance can reach in time and you’ll die strapped to this table with your knees splayed open. With Satan’s horned head looming over our travel itinerary, I decided that it was time to ask, and this time actually listen to her.
* * *
It was 1987, the beginning of tenth grade for Amy at Chamberlain High School in Tampa, home of the Chiefs, which was a little weird for Amy since her mom was half Cherokee Indian and had passed on her high cheekbones, brittle teeth, and an official Certificate of Indian Blood card, plus some superstitions about the Spanish moss in the trees being dead Indian hair hoisted by spirits; but she didn’t think about it much. Chamberlain was a new school, a dull star-shaped municipal facility made up of low, squat buildings made of concrete and laid out like a prison complex. She was excited because there was an art-class elective, a real art class, with drawing horses and easels and pots of paint and scissors and charcoal. Amy was excited, or she was until she met the teacher.
His name was Mr. Nemeth. Amy scanned him for signs of empathy and intelligence and whiffs of the world beyond Florida. She had a problem with authority figures—especially those who gave her arbitrary time-wasting punishments—but she tried to give them a chance to be human. But this Nemeth gave off nothing. He wore the standard Tampa grown-up guy’s uniform, pressed khaki trousers and a pastel shirt with the sleeves rolled up, but you could tell he was a little off: his nails were grimy and long, and his face was crooked, but it wasn’t a defect, it was just the way he held it, and there was a conspicuous sparkly gold cross dangling around his neck—usually a signal that someone was going to have serious problems with her—and his gaze lingered too long on the girls. And this wasn’t the leer of a food-court perv; it was much more sinister than that. It began as a leer but short-circuited halfway through and became a furious glare, as if his leggy charges had insulted his manhood.
There wasn’t much actual art going on in Nemeth’s class. Half the time he’d hector them about drugs or dating or just rant about whatever Tipper Gore had said about rock music that week. Worse yet he’d only praise the students who were snipping out pictures of saints and cathedral spires and making collages from them around Bible quotations, and would do little more than grunt at Amy and her seatmate Terry. Terry’s work was usually inspired by the band Slayer, though it wasn’t too bad—better than most of class’s. But Amy, who’d been drawing comics since she could crawl, was fairly advanced, and obviously better than anyone else in the class, and she couldn’t stand the idea that this horrible man who called himself an art teacher would gush all over the blousy, cutoff-jeans-wearing, convenient Christians while simply snorting at her.
To pass the time and vent their anger, Amy and Terry would scrawl cartoons on a sheet of notebook paper. They christened Nemeth “Nedemons,” and he became the star of an increasingly grotesque interplanetary adventure. Terry would add tentacles, fangs, and an extra eye to a full-body cartoon of Nedemons, and Amy would raise the ante drawing him dripping with his own filth, the obnoxious cross mutating into a dripping, tumescent phallus. To pass the note, Amy would crumple it up, smile sweetly, and lock eyes with Nemeth, draping her hand over Terry’s desk and letting the crumpled ball fall into Terry’s lap. Of course they got caught.
Nedemons didn’t even pretend to give a damn about Terry—he was a boy, so he was obviously going to dabble in the unholy. But a girl, a girl who shaved her head and wore black and sixteen-hole Doc Martin boots, she needed to be saved. Amy was to become his personal project. She was put upon, as her mother would say. That day after class he pinned her up against the wall and with his face inches from hers ranted about god and devilry and sin, and it happened again the next day and the day following that. Amy started cutting school to get away. The truant officer would haul her back from the mall or Burger King, and Nedemons would be waiting.
These were the days of the Satanic Panic, and so, no doubt with Nemeth pulling strings behind the scenes, things came to a head a few months later when the school called in Amy’s father and prevailed upon him to send her to a mental facility. There was group therapy, there was Narcotics Anonymous, and when she got out, there was Nemeth again, with a group of people singing carols and holding up placards with her name on them.
We don’t ever forget, he told her, so the next time she ran away for good. It was the right decision. Leaving her family was sad, but her family life was imploding anyway—now Amy was finally rid of the Nedemons and the chanting Christians.
In some ways running away doomed her. Without a high-school diploma, she was forced to get a GED—Florida would have kept her from getting a driver’s license otherwise. But a GED wouldn’t get her into college. She tried community college, but she got pregnant a second time and was sick throughout the six months it took to raise the funds for an abortion. She dropped out and worked crappy customer-service jobs—like the one she had at Silk Gardens, a Hobby Lobby clone that reeked of mothballs—and one day, years after she’d run away from home and from school, in walks Nedemons, holding the hand of a prepubescent girl, a scrawny, spindly thing with her hair cut in black bob like Cleopatra who definitely didn’t look related to him. Amy ducked and flattened herself onto the grimy floor until the coast was clear. It was a new low, literally the lowest low, and the moment she resolved to leave Florida.
* * *
The weekend before the Black Mass, the media hype reached its manic peak. Catholic groups rented vans; community churches in Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Arkansas and all over Oklahoma descended on the Civic Center with permission to distribute literature. The Satanists received daily updates from the police department. They were not allowed to come within ten feet of an officer; there was a special segregated parking lot for the mass. Church groups promised to pray for all attendees. There were three bands scheduled to play; two canceled. A flock of reporters came in search of Okie insanity and juicy quotes from yokels on both sides. The bad reverend grabbed as much airtime as he could.
Now I wanted to go. I wanted to write the story and document what happened: I hoped there would be tear gas and flash bangs lighting the sky and protestors clashing. But Amy balked. She was getting sicker. She tried taking fewer pills, but even reducing the dosage by a third brought on a storm of migraines. And an old fear had come back. “We have too much to lose,” she said. “We aren’t going. They’ll hound us forever. I can’t do it.” To her, our lives seemed vulnerable. She knew how relentless the fundamentalists could be. They would be logging license plates, they would have allies in the police force, in the schools—and this wasn’t teenage stuff, this was Satan, this was a fight for people’s souls, a righteous quest against evil and evildoers. They would send letters to employers, picket art shows, summon SWAT teams, call in complaints to HR departments; they were thousands, we were two. Press credentials were no guarantee of neutrality.
So we didn’t go.
On television the news announced that about half of the people who bought tickets showed up. They were tattooed townies, mostly, and they walked in with their shoulders back, as proud as their silly leader. The bad reverend gloated. Somewhere inside the Civic Center a wafer of terrible-tasting biscuit was defiled. Protestors protested. And then the parties climbed into their buses and cars and pulled away and Satan left Oklahoma City.
James McGirk is the author of American Outlaws and an adjunct professor at Northeastern State University and the University of Tulsa, teaching nonfiction writing and composition. Amy McGirk’s artwork can be seen on her tumblr.