Frank E. Peretti’s infamous novels about spiritual warfare, This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness, were a sensation in the 1980s and 90s. With over 3.5 million copies sold, these two books wielded an inordinate amount of influence on evangelical Christians since the release of This Present Darkness in 1986. But spiritual warfare is not the only significant theme in Peretti’s novels. There is another, more concrete theme that repeatedly surfaces: abuse of women and children. Time after time, allegations of abuse are levied against the books’ male protagonists. However, every single one is a false allegation from a demon-possessed woman or child.
This theme—false abuse allegations from women and children levied against holy, anointed, and male servants of God—is worth examining. It reflects evangelical Christianity’s distrust of abuse survivors and those who help them—a very popular sentiment among evangelical Christians during the 1980s and 90s and still continuing today, though thankfully to a lesser extent. Many evangelicals have long viewed survivors and advocates—whether they are social workers, therapists, psychiatrists, or progressive politicians—as not only dangerous, but also evil. There is, in fact, a whole field of study dedicated to how an advocate can develop cultural competence towards evangelical Christians to address those Christians’ fear toward advocates. The obstacles advocates face in reaching evangelicals are real, pressing concerns, and ones that Peretti exacerbates.
Peretti’s portrayals—which will feel familiar to anyone who grew up evangelical—are cruel, false, and dangerous caricatures of abuse survivors and survivor advocates. While his books are, of course, fiction, they have wielded an immense amount of influence over the minds of young people who read them and absorbed the messages. Those messages were that people who accuse “godly” people of abuse are liars and demon-possessed and that people who help other people cannot be trusted. Let’s look at several examples from Peretti’s books.
Abuse in the Novels
The first time Peretti raises the specter of false abuse allegations occurs about two-thirds into This Present Darkness. One of the main characters, Marshall, stands accused by his own daughter, Sandy, of rape. This is due to a false memory implanted in her head by a demon. In a pivotal scene, Sandy tries to escape from home because she is terrified of being alone with her father after her mother leaves them. Her father blocks her bedroom door so that Sandy cannot escape, and Sandy becomes more frightened and starts crying. Marshall begins barraging her with facts about his innocence, telling her that cops are trying to frame him for several crimes. Sandy, crying profusely, interrupts him and says, “You raped me. You raped me!” Peretti writes that there is a “hideous deceiving spirit clinging to Sandy’s back, its talons deep in her skull” as the explanation for Sandy’s false memory.
A few pages later, one of the villains, Carmen, makes up a false rape allegation as a distraction from her crimes. She too is possessed by a demon—well, fifteen demons, to be precise. When Marshall and co-protagonist Bernice catch Carmen in the act of espionage, Carmen breaks down crying and exclaims, “I’ve just had a terrible experience! I’ve been raped!” Marshall and Bernice, Peretti writes, are “unsympathetic.” Marshall sarcastically responds, “Yeah, there seems to be a lot of that going around these days . . . So who was it this time?”
A few pages after that, the pastor of a local church, Hank, is falsely accused of rape after unsuccessfully trying to exorcise Carmen. In a particularly disturbing scene, Peretti writes that, while Hank is trying to exorcise the fifteen demons from Carmen, the demons do not quietly disperse. They make Carmen attack Hank, so Hank’s exorcism becomes violent: he “pushes” Carmen, “pounds” her “with his left hand,” “shoves” her, and “tackles” her, but fails to ultimately exorcise her. Carmen (understandably) runs away from Hank but then, influenced by the fifteen demons, falsely accuses Hank of rape. (This plot point is odd, because she would actually have a case for accusing him of physical assault.)
When Hank and Marshall both end up getting arrested on false allegations (because the police in Peretti’s books take rape seriously, which may be the most fictional part of these books), they meet in jail and compare stories. Marshall says, “They told me you were in here for rape.” “That’s right,” responds Hank. Marshall then sarcastically says: “That sounds just like you, doesn’t it? . . . Do you even know this girl you supposedly raped?”
This theme of false abuse allegations continues in Piercing the Darkness, where a main character—a Christian school principal named Tom—aggressively tries to exorcise a demon out of a ten-year-old girl in school, after first having her spanked by a teacher. (The girl, Amber, becomes possessed by a demon by doing meditation in public school.) Amber accuses Tom and the Christian school of physical abuse. Even though Tom actually does drag Amber by the arm, pin her to the ground, and have her spanked (all of which could meet the definition of physical abuse), Amber’s accusations of abuse are presented as false by Peretti—he does not consider any of those actions to be abusive. In fact, Peretti makes clear that he believes corporal punishment of a ten-year-old child by a Christian teacher is “godly”—his exact word. In an additional twist, Tom’s own children get taken away by an evil Child Protective Services worker because of Amber’s “false” abuse allegations.
Evangelicals and Abuse
It is remarkable that, given how rare false allegations of abuse actually are, Peretti chooses to portray every single "victim" as a demonically-possessed liar. While one in four girls and one in six boys will be abused, less than ten percent of child abuse allegations are false and only between two and ten percent of rape allegations are false. Additionally, in family court, unsubstantiated claims of child abuse are much less common than substantiated claims of abuse—and among the unsubstantiated claims, fathers are much more likely to fabricate claims than mothers or children. Despite how common abuse is and how rare false allegations are, Peretti chooses to promote the evangelical trope of lying abuse survivors, particularly women and children (a trope which, on a side note, often misinterprets the story of Potiphar’s wife as an example of women lying about rape, rather than seeing it as slave exploitation). Peretti’s protagonists also model abysmal responses to abuse allegations: automatic disbelief and sarcastic dismissals. These responses are serious violations of best practices that can lead to secondary victimization.
Note as well that Peretti makes the helpers—the people supporting these fake victims (like the CPS worker and the police investigating the rape allegations)—out to be villains. This detail is important because Peretti is playing into the evangelical fear of helpers here. Those who are on the frontline of helping children and survivors—public school teachers, therapists, social workers, child advocates—are cast as evil throughout the two books. Like the lying abuse survivors, they are influenced by demonic forces and reduced to pawns of the demons fighting for control of a town.
The evangelical fear of helpers transcends Peretti’s books. Another popular book series among evangelicals from this era also shows this fear: Anonymous Tip and Forbid Them Not by Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association (published in 1996 and 2002, respectively). Anonymous Tip—the title of which refers to a core aspect of Child Protective Services, the ability to make anonymous reports of abuse—spins a tale about an evil Child Protective Services worker much like Peretti’s CPS worker. Spurred on by a false and anonymous allegation of child abuse by a vindictive ex-husband, Farris’s CPS worker persecutes an innocent woman and her child. In Forbid Them Not, Farris imagines a dystopian future where Hillary Clinton is elected President and the U.S. finally signs the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, causing all sorts of evil things to happen to Christians because of power-hungry child advocates. (In reality, the U.S. is currently the only nation on Earth that has not signed this important convention, and that is directly because of Michael Farris’s advocacy against it.)
An entire generation of children who read Peretti’s books (and similar books, like Farris’s) were indoctrinated to fear the very people who could help them. They absorbed the message that survivors and advocates are generally untrustworthy whereas anyone “godly” is inherently trustworthy. Yet abusers themselves say they specifically choose churches to prey on because “Religious people are even easier to fool than most people.” Indeed, ninety percent of predators describe themselves as “religious.” Based on predators’ own words, then, we should be more on guard around “godly” people.
As evangelicals begin to awaken to the reality of abuse in their midst, they would do well to re-examine the messages they have sent young people about the topic of abuse. Organizations such as GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests), and the Valued Conference are leading the way in evangelical circles, identifying how evangelicals can improve their responses to abuse and align themselves with best practices. Part of that conversation needs to be about the messages implicit in evangelical works of fiction consumed by so many young people. Young people should be educated about and empowered against abuse. They should know that no one deserves to be abused, that abuse is common, that it is important to believe and support people who come forward about abuse, and that there are people who can help abuse victims heal and get justice. You can find resources for teaching young people these lessons here.
Cover photo by Ryan Searle.