The Haunting of Jolene

The Haunting of Jolene
Photo by Aimee Vogelsang / Unsplash

I spent my childhood and young adult years in the presence of demons. My nighttime was a court of shadows that whispered forbidden thoughts and my daytime was a dance to avoid opening myself to more oppression or, even worse, possession by the demonic. The danger lurked all around, in books, movies, clothes, pictures of holy sites from other faiths; the world and its offerings were all potential poison to me. It wasn’t until my fall from grace that the whispers, the dangers, subsided to reveal the truth.

My mother and stepfather bought a home in Westlake, Louisiana near the chemical processing plants that employed quite a few folks in the area. Our extended family, including my grandparents, lived in Sulphur, a ten to fifteen minute drive from Westlake. That area of Louisiana was in transition from a more country feel to heavy industrialization. Concrete crept further into the green like a corruption, construction equipment bustling around erecting imposing infrastructure for the next chemical plant.

Churches were plentiful, both Catholic and Protestant denominations. Folks in the area tended to choose a denomination and commit for life. For my family, we chose the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal sect with a focus on speaking in tongues and divine healing of the physical body. Southside Assembly of God was constantly in conflict between the more mystical aspects of the faith and a desire to maintain a façade of respectability for visitors. Sunday school taught stories from the Bible, as interpreted through by the Assemblies of God Statement of Fundamental Truths.

My mother rushed into the teachings of the local church after divorcing my birth father; she brought my stepfather into the fold while they were dating. He fit right into the structure of the church, taking authority over our home. They were both committed to functioning as a Christ centered family.

I was an earnest child. I read books, rode my bike down to the local library, and I did well in school. After fourth grade, my mother pulled me from public school to protect me from “bleeding heart liberal” education. I thoroughly dedicated myself to absorbing the Bible and the Christian homeschool curriculum. One of my long-distance heroes was a televangelist that quoted verse after verse all throughout his show; I won every Bible Bee my church hosted.

I was also forced to wear many masks to protect myself. I was a little trans girl with a healthy respect for science and a gnawing doubt about the content of the pastor’s sermons. The focus on hell and damnation was absolute. Every service ended in an altar call to rededicate ourselves to Christ. Every day was a test or a pop quiz; I often failed.

In the midst of it all, one thing remained constant. Every night, I’d be unable to fall asleep due to the shadows in my room.

My shelves teemed with prowling darkness that I imagined as winged monkeys and chittering cats. A little cubby in the corner whispered with the movements of yet more of these demons. These hell beasts were intent on leering at me, bringing up all my shame from throughout the day and sometimes from random moments of my past. For a child, I felt shame at everything. Shame for being a girl and “lying” about it. Shame for doubting that dinosaurs and other fossils were only six thousand years old. Shame for everything about my failure to achieve a day without sin. The shadows targeted my shame and brought me low every night.

One night, not long after the first appearance of the shadow beasts, a blurry human shaped figure joined the nightly festivities. The shadow person took on a different shape from one evening to the next. I knew this being was staring at me, despite it never coming into focus. I sometimes got the sensation that the shadow trying to tell me something, but I took that as an attempt to tempt me into giving up my immortal soul. I was absolutely terrified.

Even worse, all of my training on demon wrangling did not work. I repeated, “I plead the blood of Christ!” and “In the name of Jesus, be gone demons!”, but the shadows never responded. I spent nights with my back to the wall, curled up under a blanket and staring at my tormentors, and crying until sleep took me. My voice was often hoarse from begging Christ to help me all night.

My days were an exercise in achieving holiness, purity, and salvation, all to make my nighttime peaceful. I studied the Bible; memorizing verses after verse to use against the shadows. I constantly evaluated my behavior for signs of sin, no matter how subtle. Sin was insidious, slithering into even the most innocuous of tasks, infecting my limited social interactions and daily chores. Was my attitude appropriate while taking out the trash? If not, I was not being honest with God, my parents, or myself. Was a statement a partial truth, bad as a lie, because I forgot to mention a small piece of information? Better go make things right and then repent.

My goal was nothing less than becoming a Warrior of the Most High. I was quiet and deliberate with my words; the church thought I was wise for my age. I knew more Bible verses than anyone else in my region; the church thought I was unusually dedicated to the Word of God. I did not discuss my knowledge of the Bible too much to avoid the sin of pride; the church believed me supremely humble. I was outwardly calm and polite; the church never saw my inner turmoil.

Life continued on; my younger brother was born just after my thirteenth birthday. He was delightfully silly, and we formed a strong bond, effectively becoming a parent to him. I took him for walks to poke at bugs and plants; he joined me in my room with one of his books, usually upside down, to read with me.

During his third summer, he started seeing “Harry” at the end of the hallway. My parents mostly ignored this, believing it to be an imaginary person that would disappear as my brother grew up. I did my best to advocate for him; I asked my parents to buy a night light to place in the darkest section of hallway. I walked with my brother and did my best to provide a safe place and comfort on particularly rough days.

Toward the end of that summer, my mother had us help fold and store laundry. I was seated on a couch in our living room with a full view of the hallway while folding my clothes. We were listening to a collection of praise and worship songs on a cassette player to set the appropriate atmosphere and to establish a “hedge of protection” around us. My brother was sent to the kitchen to put some dish towels away, requiring him to pass through the lit end of the hallway. The little guy was petrified, crying and pointing at the dark end of the hallway, while my mother yelled at him to finish his chores.

Fear sparked a righteous anger that took complete control of my words and movements. My brother was suffering debilitating fear and I was absolutely going to face the source: shadowy demons. My own fear from the nightly visitors poured into my anger like kerosene on a campfire and I stood up ready to fight. In that moment, I saw Harry at the end of the hallway. The demon was human with gaping maws in place of its eyes and diseased, mottled skin stretched thin across its face.

The next events happened concurrently. I stormed into the hallway bellowing “Begone in the name of Jesus, you foul demon from the pits of Hell!” My brother ducked into an empty laundry basket to hide. The cassette stopped playing praise and worship mid song. My mother’s attitude changed from angry at my brother, to confused, to angry at demons.

I felt the anger, the holy power, fill my entire being as I came face to face with Harry. My hands felt hot; they were my weapons. I grabbed Harry by the collar and smashed my hand onto the top of his head. I began chanting “Be gone in the name of Jesus; burn in the pit!” My mother moved into position behind me as my support, a “spiritual armor bearer” speaking in the language given to her by the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit is also known as “speaking in tongues” in some Christian circles. In that moment, I was becoming a mighty man of God in her eyes. My sister brought out a shofar horn, appropriated from Jewish ceremonies, and blew it at the direction of my mother.

I saw the demon lose its grip on our home and fall into an opening to Hell.

I went from room to room in the house banishing other demons. It was an all-out skirmish. In the bathroom, I sent two spiders with human heads to the burning depths. In my parents’ room, I sent a vulture with three heads to its punishment. In my room, I saw none of the shadow figures from nighttime, instead banishing a slavering hound. Back in the hallway, I felt the last presence. I paced the hallway, commanding my foe to show itself. After a few minutes, I felt heat on my neck and turned to see a horned, lizard like demon attached to the ceiling.

My proclamations grew louder, my mother started singing with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and my sister blew the shofar as often as her lungs allowed. The last demon was strong, but the power of Jesus Christ was stronger. I cast the demon to the lake of fire. As the fight ended, the cassette player started up again, covering us with songs of God’s glory.

We spent a few minutes anointing our doors and windows with anointing oil, another appropriation from Jewish folks, to strengthen our protection against further demonic incursions. Once done, we felt the presence of God like a blanket weighing us down, driving us to the floor. We spent the next fifteen minutes laying prostrate while speaking in tongues and praising God.

That night, my shadows returned, and I cried myself to sleep as the name of Jesus fell to impotently to the floor.

The shadows followed me to college. I attended Oral Roberts University (ORU); its namesake was a popular faith healer. The school’s exhaustive code of conduct was, remarkably, less strict than my upbringing, but the rules were not meant to provide liberation. We had gender segregation in all aspects of the school, including separate curfews and dress codes. We were forced to attend chapel twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays, under threat of being expelled. Each floor had a resident advisor, a chaplain, and an academic advisor. The resident advisors functioned as floor cops by verifying that you were on the floor for curfew, recording chapel attendance, and general were complying with university rules. The chaplains insisted on weekly devotions and mini sermons on top of chapel and church attendance. Academic advisors were mostly coasting along for a discount on room and board.

ORU came with its own set of stress inducing activities and chances to feel guilty, but I noticed that talking with the other students, most Evangelical Christians, mellowed out my constant guilt. The exchange of theological concepts was initially invigorating; it provided freedom to feel joy and hope on occasion. My childhood theology required substantially more sacrifice than the theology of the average ORU student. I still saw the shadows every night, but I felt less afraid.

Toward the end of my freshman year, I was eating dinner with a few team members from an upcoming mission trip when I had my first seizure. I went from eating a dinner roll to waking up in the hallway of a hospital with no one in sight. By that point, I had seen enough zombie movies to be concerned that I was an unfortunate left behind during an evacuation. A nurse mercifully came by before I gained enough courage to pull out my IV.

The seizure was my first, but it was not my last. I had two each school year; one was while I presented for a group project. The expense of the ambulance rides, hospital visits, and the medicine was all too much for me to afford. ORU pretended to be understanding, but they threatened my grades in mandatory physical education classes, even with the doctor’s notes. I prayed every day that God would heal me, but the seizures continued on. The shadows stayed with me, but I became less afraid. I even started talking to the always silent shadow figure about my problems.

I met new friends my junior year when I became resident advisor for the designated quiet floor, marketed as an area for the more focused or devout students to study and pray. The reality was that other floors were not hospitable to the neurodivergent, the questioning, and the closeted queer folks. There was no official mandate placing folks on the floor, but the system of policies in the dorms created a natural gathering point. The other resident advisors called my floor the “floor of freaks,” often said with pity for my plight. Those “freaks” were really nice students that didn’t fit the ideal of Evangelical Christianity. Each one of my new friends challenged my beliefs, chipping away at the walls of the mental and emotional prison theology built for me. More importantly, I saw unequivocal help and support from friends that expressed controversial theology or a desire to not participate in religion any longer. Other resident advisors expressed concern about the changes they observed in me, but I felt more at peace.

My partner in life was friends with one of the freaks; we met over extraordinarily bad cafeteria food. They accepted me unequivocally; I did the same for them. They supported me through seizure recovery and through failing out of ORU due to my medical issues. We also followed a similar path to leaving Christianity behind. As I rejected the Christian God, the shadows became a comfort and, at times, faded away for an evening or two. I no longer attempted to cast the shadows aside.

In moments of reflection on my childhood, I realized that demons that I cast out of my parents’ home were not real, nor were they the same as the shadows. The memory of that day became a different kind of shame, and, later, a story told to only a few friends and a therapist.

A decade later, my partner and I obtained a small measure of financial security after years of edging toward homelessness. The modicum of security relieved a bit of the constant pressure to simply survive. My mind shifted from day-to-day survival toward overdue self-reflection.

I was living as a man, but that was not accurate to who I was as a person. Ever since I was a little girl, my dreams featured Jolene, the girl who went on adventures. The name my parents gave was not mine, not really. The gender role they forced on me was persistently harmful. I was never a young boy and was not a man.

My coming out was littered with fear; society is not kind to trans folks. I was scared to potentially lose my job. I was terrified of losing my partner, but I also trusted them enough to share my most protected side of myself. Despite my fear, my partner stayed, and I maintained my job throughout my transition.

A year into my transition, I realized that the shadows no longer came to me at night. As a kid, I expected to feel relief at their absence. As an adult, I found myself missing their presence for a long time.

The truth is, I believe that the shadows were the parts of myself that I attempted to cast out or suppress to survive my Evangelical upbringing. The fundamentalism inherent in that faith is antithetical to my very existence. The shadows weren’t haunting little Jolene to hurt her; they were reminding her that hope existed. The shadows were my lifeline.