'Life Keeps Changing': Why Stories, Not Science, Explain the World

Author and journalist Jennifer Percy was a committed physics major until a Lawrence Sargent Hall story showed her a more satisfying way to approach life's complexities.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus III and more.

Doug McLean

The natural world is a source of wonder and even horror for Jennifer Percy, author of Demon Camp, but science can only explain so much. After Percy read Lawrence Sargent Hall’s “The Ledge” for the first time in college, she dropped her physics major—and started asking questions about story, memory, and narrative. Stories, she now says—invented, reported—better capture the full, complex reality of human beings and our surrounding universe.

In Demon Camp, a work of immersion journalism, Percy tells the story of a rural faith community where people “receive deliverance” through Christian exorcisms. The Covenant Bible Institute is funded, in part, by the efforts of Army Sgt. Caleb Daniels, who came home from Afghanistan suffering from suicidal ideation and frightening hallucinations Percy grounds the story—in which she plays a central role—in the history and science of trauma-induced hysteria. But scholarship is never used to dispute or dispel the visceral “realness” of the demons her haunted subjects live with. Percy’s willingness to entertain her characters’ logic reaches its height in the book’s climax—when she agrees to undergo an exorcism herself. Last week, the New York Times Book Review compared Demon Camp to James Agee’s classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Jennifer Percy’s writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and Oxford American. Her brother, who she mentioned in our conversation, is the writer Benjamin Percy—author of 2013’s werewolf epic, Red Moon and a past contributor to “By Heart.”

Jennifer Percy spoke to me by phone from her home in Brooklyn, where she teaches writing at New York University.

Jennifer Percy: The lessons my father taught me as a child all revolved around science. He was an amateur physicist and saw the world through only that lens. I remember him saying that we are all formed of stardust, that the atoms in our bodies began in stars millions of years ago. Or how, if we stepped into a black hole, we’d be turned into a stream of subatomic particles. I remember him telling me about matter depressurizing in space, how our eyeballs would come out of their sockets.

The natural world was a huge part of my childhood. We lived in rural Oregon, between the mountains and the desert, with not a lot of people around. We spent our weekends in the wilderness. Night was very dark, and every night we’d go out and look through a telescope at stars. But they wouldn’t be stars to my father. He’d call them “dying suns.”

If I burnt a gingerbread man in the oven, and cried to him about it, he’d say, “Well, one day the sun’s going to destroy the earth. Then we’ll all be like the gingerbread man.”

This brand of science terrified me—but my dad found comfort in going to the stars. He flees from what messy realm of human existence, what he calls “dysfunctional reality” or “people problems.” When you imagine that we’re just bodies on a rock, small concerns become insignificant. He keeps an image above his desk, taken by the Hubble space telescope, that from a distance looks like an image of stars—but if you look more closely, they are not stars, they are whole galaxies. My dad sees that, imagining the tiny earth inside one of these galaxies—and suddenly, the rough day, the troubles at work, they disappear.

Still, I found the brutal immensity of the universe frightening. My brother and I, like many kids, were shaped by poking through the books we had at home, and we had just two kinds: physics books and Stephen King books. Both were terrifying. So we had to choose what kind of fear we liked best—the terror of the universe or the terror of the clown that lives in the sewer and is going to kill you. I think my brother chose Stephen King and I chose Stephen Hawking.

I pursued a career in science, and in college, I studied physics. I worked with those guys that make Mars Rovers and understand the properties of crystals and who ride in the Vomit Comet over the Gulf of Mexico, imagining themselves space-bound. But I was unhappy.

The language of science was unsatisfying to me. “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it’s comprehensible,” Einstein said. But I don’t think human relationships are ever fully comprehensible. They can clarify for small, beautiful moments, but then they change. Unlike a scientific experiment with rigorous, controlled parameters, our lives are boundless and shifting. And there’s never an end to the story. We need more than science—we need storytelling to capture that kind of complexity, that kind of incomprehensibility.

And this is a fundamental problem with writing nonfiction. People say, “How do you write a profile of someone? How do you capture them fully?” Well, you don’t. It’s artifice. There are small moments, little parts, that crystallize—but they are part of something larger that’s always changing and evolving. Even if you’re writing autobiography, you only capture a specimen of a larger self. You’re not ever going to comprehend a life fully on the page, because life keeps changing.

Anyway, I started writing instead of going to my regular classes. I was writing about Russia, because I’d spent that summer above the Arctic Circle studying trees and fish and pinecones and how the Russian weren’t doing a good job keeping things alive up there. It was surreal. Never dark. Lots of vodka. I fell in love with this American and we dated—whatever dating looks like up there—but I could never let him know how much I loved him. I was just dying inside. So I had to write about him to make him, maybe to make him less powerful but also to understand this madness I felt. And so I did. It was really love that made me write. I started reading Joyce and Woolf and Forester, and I felt like a perfectly normal human being when I was inside those books. There was this one professor, David Price, and he talked about literature beautifully. The characters were so real it was almost as if they were hanging out in the room with us. He gave us this short story called “The Ledge,” by Lawrence Sargent Hall. It’s not a very well-known piece, though it does appear in some anthologies, as well as The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. It’s about an old fisherman who leaves the warmth of his wife’s bed on Christmas Day to shoot sea ducks with his son. He promised his son they’d go hunting. In the end, when out collecting the dead ducks on the sand. The skiff drifts off to sea and they are trapped together, the water rising, and they are waiting for their death.

Again, I grew up in a place where nature was always encroaching on my life, was always infiltrating my feelings—either literally through the wilderness or intellectually through my father’s science lessons. And “The Ledge,” with its deadly, encroaching high tide, spoke to me profoundly. It helped me formulate questions about how the immensity and cruelty of the universe coexists with ordinary love, the everyday circumstances of human beings. The story leaves us with an image of this fisherman caught man pitilessly between these two worlds. It posed a question that became an obsession, and that followed me into my writing: what happens to your character when nature and humanity brutally encounter one another?

In the passage I chose, the father has already hoisted his son up onto his shoulders. The sea is rising. The dog is already dead. The skiff is gone. As the water’s rises over his boots, everything sort of bottoms out, and the landscape that he had perceived and believed to know and control, deteriorates. The image is baptismal, but it’s a baptism of death. Here’s what happens next:

The boy did for the fisherman the greatest thing that can be done. He may have been too young for perfect terror, but he was old enough to know there were things beyond the power of any man. All he could do he did, by trusting his father to do all he could, and asking nothing more.

The fisherman, rocked to his soul by a sea, held his eyes shut upon the interminable night.

“Is it time now?” The boy said

The fisherman could hardly speak. “Not yet,” he said. “Not just yet.”

The fisherman has made the gravest mistake, the son maintains faith in his father. The choice to maintain this illusion of hope, which neither one really believes in—they both know they won’t be saved, is beautiful. We have to keep that love for other human beings alive at all times, even when the water is rising over our mouths and into our lungs and carrying us towards death.

We never know how we’re going to respond to extraordinary circumstances. We can go into the world, performing whatever role we choose to inhabit, but there can come a point where a performance is no longer possible. The fisherman and the boy keep this going until the very end. But the reader knows exactly what’s going on—and can see through his internal dialogue and his thoughts and the physical descriptions that he’s terrified, and that he’s failed. Not only will they die in the sea—they will disappear into it. Hall makes a point of this. The death happens off-stage, and we see only the aftermath of it—it’s a technique Flannery O’Connor uses too during moments of great violence, because the imagination of the event is so often more terrifying than the reality. But there’s this image we get, which stayed with me forever, which is this starfish clinging to the fisherman’s boot. Even this wriggling starfish conquered this man. It’s such a pathetic moment for human beings.

But it’s not the one that lingers. It’s the fisherman’s words before the sea enters his lungs and kills him. His son wants to know if it’s time to swim. And all the fisherman says is, “Not yet. Not just yet.” I imagine that’s what we all think when faced with our mortality and I like the way we can see the fisherman revise his thinking—softening "not yet" not "not just yet." The “just” is there because he knows death is inevitable but he’s begging anyway for that one extra moment with his son. We hear these words even into the white space. In this way, Hall has allowed them their own kind of immortality.

To continue with the story, the language of physics didn’t help me bridge that gap. There was an emptiness that physics couldn’t help me dispel. Stories could, though. Talking to people wasn’t enough, but if I could visit a world, and be held there in its arms, then I could invite others inside and maybe they could be held there too. So I changed my major from Physics to English. I think I actually cried when I filed the paperwork—it was that scary to give up my whole plan and start on something new. But I was able to articulate writing something important I’d never been able to say on my own before. And, of course, that’s what literature does. In Chekhov’s story “The Kiss,” there’s a moment that looms large in the main character’s mind—but when he’s sitting around the fire with the other soldiers, and he tells them about the moment—the moment of the kiss—it comes out without the strength or significance it carried in his mind. The story just drops dead. I realized I’d often felt that way, too: that when I tried to communicate with people, that bridge was not always forming. Writing was the first time I felt I could forge a connection that moved both ways, a two-way street between me and the rest of the world.