The more lurid or gruesome a story, the greater its readership. The press made celebrities out of murderers like Jack the Ripper and Dr. Hawley Crippen, and contemporary readers snatched up the tales of their exploits before the ink could dry.
More than 100 years later, the media frenzy surrounding faux JonBenet Ramsey killer John Mark Karr showed just how little things have changed.
It is to this gory wagon that the “Los Angeles Times” correspondent Tracy Wilkinson seeks to hitch her first book “The Vatican’s Exorcists: Driving Out the Devil in the 21st Century.”
In a fairly thin and unevenly-written volume, Wilkinson outlines the history and current standing of exorcism and exorcists.
Her concentration on the gruesome details, however, does not conceal the fact that Wilkinson may have overestimated her own abilities with “The Vatican’s Exorcists.”
At the heart of Wilkinson’s book lies an interesting question: Why are exorcisms experiencing a sudden boom in popularity in Italy and other heavily Catholic regions? Though the statistics Wilkinson draws on do not always seem credible, her investigation does not seem to be totally without merit: several international associations of exorcists have been formed in the past few years and the last two popes have hailed exorcism as an “important ministry.”
The man who drives “The Vatican’s Exorcists” is not a pope, but rather a priest named Gabriele Amorth. Father Amorth, now in his 80s, is considered by many to be the compelling force behind the exorcism boom. He is a figure of great controversy, a role model for many young priests and seminarians, and a thorn in the side of rationalists in and out of the Church.
Through her interviews with Amorth and others, Wilkinson pieces together a picture of the contemporary exorcism scene: priests, psychiatrists, policemen and others all have their say. While Wilkinson maintains at least some semblance of journalistic balance, her lack of bias often comes across as more uncertain than professional.
It is only in the personal profiles of the men and women interviewed
by Wilkinson that she is really able to shine. Her ability to capture the character
of her subjects almost outweighs the fact that most of “The Vatican’s Exorcists” reads like a textbook trying – and failing – to sound hip and interesting.
Tracy Wilkinson may be best advised to stick to shorter pieces in the future – perhaps it is only in book form that the inconsistencies of her writing appear so obvious.
“The Vatican’s Exorcists” is not for the literary-minded (try “Possession and Exorcism” by T.K. Oesterreich), but if it is gruesome, gory details that you seek, Wilkinson’s book may be for you – unless, of course, you would rather just save a couple hours and $20 by renting “The Exorcist.”
Peter Chomko can be reached at email@example.com.