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How We Talk About Illnesses, Victims, and Blame or: Have You Heard About the Prophet of Pelor?

December 4, 2012

Part of a continuing series I’ve dubbed, “To Be A Young Necromancer In Love,” updating Tuesdays and whenever the hell I feel like.

Relatively early in the Fantasy Pirate game, the party was hired by a Priest of Pelor, God of the Sun, to transport him to a town in dire need of a priest. The small fishing village of Blue Ridge had a temple to Pelor since its inception many years ago, and for a majority of the town’s existence its theological issues were dealt with by an older priest named Grant Hull. Very recently though, Priest Hull passed on, and now the new priest Paolo Nevarri needed to arrive in time to perform a ritual commemorating a bountiful harvest following the autumnal equinox.

The party, who largely pray to other deities, were more moved by the priest’s bag of gold than his sad story. That and the fact that they could take on a large load of cured fish, and other food stuffs for sale at larger markets.

When they brought the priest to Blue Ridge though, they discovered that the town’s spiritual needs were already being seen to by a towns person turned prophet, named Gerhart Brauer. Brother Brauer claimed to have been explicitly blessed by Pelor to serve the town in its time of need, and he had magical powers to boot.

Finding it suspicious that there was no mention of a wizard named Brauer living in the town, or any indication that he was among the town’s most faithful, Paolo enlisted the party into acting as his inquisitors. Due to time constraints regarding travel and the important harvest ritual, Paolo didn’t have time to write to the High Priest and request a team of inquisitors, so the party, as magically empowered adventurers would have to do.

Asking around the town, the party quickly discovered some important things about Gerhart Brauer. Namely, that up until the death of the priest, he was considered something of a loser. He was awkward in social situations, and spent much of his time not working alone in his cottage that was set off from the rest of the village. Priest Hull explicitly mentions him as one of the souls that his successor would have to keep a close eye upon. This transformation in his personality is what lead many townsfolk to believe that he must have been blessed by Pelor. Who else would take pity on such a lonely man and finally cure him of his social awkwardness?

There was something far stranger going on though.

First, having magical powers themselves, the party knew that one didn’t just randomly develop them in the middle of adulthood. It wasn’t uncommon for some species to develop them randomly during childhood or adolescence, but in adulthood was completely unheard of. Unless there was intervention by some sort of spirit, and in most cases the spirit was not a friendly or benevolent deity. Deities normally rewarded their faithful who had dedicated large portions of their lives to prayer and study. Dangerous spirits were the ones that preyed upon random people like Gerhart Brauer.

Second, several townsfolk (mostly young women) had ended up asking the party about a, “handsome paladin,” that had passed through shortly after Brauer became a Prophet. The Church had no record of a paladin visiting, and most of the townsfolk couldn’t actually remember him explicitly stating he was going to leave but presume he left with the ship he arrived upon them.

Suspicious of Brauer, the party had decided that the best course of action would be to look into his home. At first glance it seemed to be the home of a lonely, and somewhat studious man. A simple cottage, with lots of singular fixtures for the sole occupant. Beneath the many rugs that covered his stone floor, the party found countless magical symbols etched out in a complex pattern that they only vaguely recognized as demonic in nature.

The party rushed to confront Brauer, finding him descending into the Church’s catacombs. They confronted him with the evidence that he very well may have killed a Church Paladin, and was probably possessed. Brauer was unable to comprehend what they were saying, having no memory or recollection of anything they claimed to have seen. As the repressed memories became too great, a demon took over, and a battle ensued.

Eventually, the party defeated the demon, undead paladin, and possessed Brauer. The town was eternally grateful, claiming they must have just been under some demonic spell when they didn’t recognize the true priest that had come to assist them. As their ship prepared to leave, Gerhart Brauer approached the party and requested to join their crew. Brauer was already experiencing a backlash amongst the townspeople for his demonic possession, and knew that he would never truly be welcome here again. Even if they didn’t want him as a crewmember, he needed passage off the island.

After deliberating on his formerly demonic nature, the party let him join their crew, where he has been a productive member of the team ever since…

It’s really the very end of this session that comes to my mind when I think about it. The idea that Gerhart Brauer was guilty by association because of his demonic possession. Even the PCs who have access to magical knowledge, and clearly know that Brauer didn’t know what he was doing as the demon, are unsure what to make of him post-exorcism.

The basic issue was that when someone has a history like that, can you ever really trust them? Is there something weak about their nature because this happened to them? Is it going to happen to them again and again, and is that a risk worth taking?

Meanwhile, the townspeople have even less knowledge than the PCs. As far as they were concerned Brauer, through his weakness, allowed a demon to kill a paladin, and nearly destroy the village. Furthermore, one can never be sure a demon is really gone, can you? He would always be a potential threat, and a continuous reminder of the darkest chapter in their village’s history.

Yet, the reality was that Brauer had no control over what he was doing as a demon. He definitely didn’t have any influence over the fact that he was possessed. How could people judge a man for something he had no control over?

At the most basic level, a story of possession brings to light the basic problem of most prejudicial thoughts. No one has control over their skin pigmentation, sex, age, or even species. We’re just sort of popped out into this world, and that is that. Even the parts of the world that we’re popped out into aren’t in our control. A demon let’s us externalize these issues and really just sort of how ludicrous the idea is.

And I think most people can agree with that sentiment. However, it doesn’t change something else we do, as a society, on a fairly regularly basis. Even some of the most intelligent or educated among us can still make horrible statements regarding other aspects of people that they have no control over.

The largest example that comes to mind is how our society has interacted with mental illness over the short history we’ve had a classification for it. Humorously enough, it wasn’t that long ago that we believe many illnesses were attributed to demonic possession (epileptic fits, schizophrenia, bipolarity, even clinical depression). In some parts of the world, the assumption that it is outward forces causing these problems is still the assumption. It is the weakness of the person, their failure in faith or magical practice, to prevent this demonic possession. Sounds crazy, right?

Yet, I’ve heard well-educated people question why those suffering from depression or schizophrenia just can’t, “get over it,” or “deal with it?” There are people I know who have been bluntly asked by friends or family if the person was speaking to “Them or [their] ‘disease’?” Once again, the person is being blamed for something that they don’t control. Furthermore, even when the disease is acknowledged it is still viewed with some skepticism. How many people diagnosed with depression have heard something like, “Well, everyone gets sad from time to time, that’s part of life.” As if, once again, it’s a lack of strength or conviction that causes the afflicted to be afflicted in the first place.

Worse is when someone is subject to vivid hallucinations or other delusions. Even when we know that the person is delusional it becomes very difficult to separate their actions under the influence of such delusions from their actual actions. Now this person is not only bearing the problems of their disease, and the shame that we tie to it, but blame for actions that weren’t entirely their own. It’s terrifying for all parties involved, and perhaps this is one of the most extreme examples, but it does happen. At the end of the day, we all hate the demon but it’s hard to separate the demon from its victim sometimes.

Of course, shaming victims goes far beyond just the realm of mental illness. It doesn’t take much to see how the language of weakness involved when discussing the concept of demonic possession can be applied to another act. On top of all this, traumatic experiences cause stress that are devastating to mental health, and can render even very strong people vulnerable for a time. It doesn’t help them to process what has happened to them, to treat them as responsible for what happened, or to act as if their traumatic experience is something that can be merely exorcised with a few strong words and gestures.

Brother Brauer after all, never asked for a demon to possess him.

Just remember the next time you’re thinking about someone who’s mentally ill or has survived a traumatic experience, would you ever blame a cancer patient for what’s happening to them?

The final note, is that sad reality is that terminal illnesses also cause changes within us that might result in health issues like clinical depression. Even when trying to deal with something like cancer or AIDs, both victims and their families and friends might find themselves asking if they’re looking at a person or a disease. It’s an urge that we must fight. We’re never merely the things that happen to us.

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