The Devil Called Collect by J. Stephen Conn

Book: The Devil Called Collect: The Exorcism of Jessica Leek

Author: J. Stephen Conn

Type of Book: Non-fiction

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it’s the sweetest, sincerest book about exorcism ever written.

Availability: Self-published in 2008 using iUniverse, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I bought this book off Amazon knowing nothing about it other than the title.  You have to admit this is an excellent title.  Isn’t that just like the Devil to call collect? And after that he leaves the toilet seat up and drinks milk straight from the carton. Of course I thought this strangely anti-climactic title masked a turgid and purple story of a young priest and an old priest milking pea soup out of some beleaguered victim of demonic possession. But that isn’t the case.  This is the least melodramatic, matter-of-fact, strangely sweet exorcism tale I’ve encountered, and I’ve encountered quite a few.  And because this book presents such a benign and relatively uneventful exorcism, I actually believe these events occurred as Rev. Conn presents them.

I mean, I think most of us understand that these sorts of cases are embellished, and if you are a heathen non-believer like me, you think such cases are embellished because there is no Satan or various demons to possess us.  There’s just mental illness and hucksters and between the two we get some amazing stories. I love those amazing stories, too.  Give me a book in the vein of the many cases Ed and Lorraine Warren pimped over the years and I’ll probably consume it in one sitting.  I love the late Warrens, but they never met a haunting or possession that they couldn’t tart up in some manner. Horror writer Ray Garton talked about what it was like to write the book, A Dark Place, about the Snedeker family’s haunting.  The story he wrote was later adapted into the film A Haunting in Connecticut, and he doesn’t mince words explaining that the Snedeker adults and the Warrens engaged in a long-con fraud.

But we know that, don’t we? I mean, some of us do.  And that most stories of hauntings and possessions are false doesn’t really deter my enjoyment of such stories unless I know that something extraordinarily awful occurred in the commission of the fraud, or if a family that was enduring something they genuinely could not explain were manipulated by exorcists or paranormal investigators.  While the Warrens were definitely manipulators to a degree, their roles in cases were generally that of conspirators or comforting shoulders to cry upon. You either made some money with them or you gave them the wretched doll you insist was trying to kill you and they kept it behind glass, relieving you psychologically until they launched a tiresome movie franchise around that evil toy.

That is not what is happening in this book.  I know nothing about J. Stephen Conn, but that he writes such a plain and earnest story about an exorcism of a young woman scores some serious points in his favor, where truth is concerned.  I believe that Rev. Conn believed everything “Jessica Leek” told him, and that he believes he helped save her from spiritual torture.  That the story doesn’t hold much water doesn’t really matter where my opinion of him stands because even if I don’t believe Jessica Leek and can poke holes in her story from miles and decades away, he did believe her.  He did his best to help and he never once reverted to movie cliches or deeply Catholic exorcism tropes.

Even though there was a backbone of cinematic exorcist movies and books at the time this story occurred, there is a refreshing innocence and a genuine desire to help found in all the religious folk in this book.  The story begins in Georgia in 1980, and the clergy involved are Methodists. It was easier for these clergy to imbue fewer “liar liar pants on fire” motives to Jessica than I would have, had I been an adult at the time. I hope I don’t sound like I am patronizing Rev. Conn and his associates.  To the contrary, honest people believe other people are honest, and good people tend to expect good behavior from others.  Feel free to do the moral math on why I am such a skeptic.  Even though this book was written 27 years after the events took place, Rev. Conn used notes he and his wife took at the time and even with decades of distance, the book he wrote was still informed by the young family man who just wanted to deliver a young woman from evil.

Not so short summary: In March, 1980, a young woman whom Rev. Conn calls “Jessica Leek” makes a collect call to him at around 2:00 a.m., early on Wednesday morning.  He accepts the charges and Jessica, in a soft voice, asks if he can help her.  She tells him she is in Atlanta, that she’d been hitch-hiking but had been left on the side of the road, and someone had given her his number as someone who could help.  But Rev. Conn was in Augusta, 145 miles away.  He advises her to call a church in Atlanta. But she can’t do that, she says, because she is:

…a witch of the fifth degree.  I’m about to be initiated into the sixth degree of our Order and all of a sudden I’m scared. Strange things are going on and I’m afraid something bad might happen to me.

Rev. Conn actually apologizes to the reader for seeming like he was trying to foist this hitch-hiking witch off on the church in Atlanta, then tells Jessica again she needed to contact the church closer to her.  She plaintively asks him if he will help her, why can’t he help her?  He explains that he’s not sure if he can, that the only person who can is Jesus Christ.  Upon hearing that name, Jessica begins to speak in a demonic voice, that says:

No, no, you can’t have her.  Just hang up the phone.  You can’t have her.  She is mine.

Of course, he doesn’t think she could possibly have produced the demonic voice, and that proves, in a way, that she’s really far more troubled than he expected, that this isn’t just a drunk girl worried about being stuck on the road for the rest of the night.  Rev. Conn asks who is speaking, wondering if she has a boyfriend there with her, but the demon in Jessica says, to effect, that they are legion.

Uh oh.

The demon goes on to say there are a thousand demons in Jessica.  The demon says that their leaders are Orion, Adrian, Beelzebub and Leviathan and over the phone Rev. Conn orders them to leave. They don’t and they taunt Rev. Conn until Jessica takes control again and mewls in confusion about what just happened.  Rev. Conn explains that she is possessed, she displays confusion and eventually we get to the part wherein I knew that I would be head-palming throughout the rest of the book.  Rev. Conn attempts to get Jessica to say “Jesus.”

“Jekkkk,” came the reply, followed by a choking sound.

“Say Jesus, Jessica.”

“Jekkkk.”

“Jessica, can’t you say his name? Can’t you say Jesus?”

“But I said it,” she replied in a puzzled voice.

Okay, so the good reverend is a nice, honorable man.  A young woman who is probably a cluster-b exemplar in distress seems to be infested with the demonic, and he’s concerned. I am totally on his side here, even as I want to thump her on the head. He talks to the demon some more, Jessica comes back and asks him to hold on while she gets a drink, he holds for two minutes or so – remember, this gal called collect – and he tries to get her location out of her, but naturally she has no idea where in Atlanta she may be.

She acts surprised that he wants her location but he reminds her she called for help and he wants to bring her to Augusta so he can exorcise her in person.  The demons react negatively so Rev. Conn asks her to find out where she is and to call him back. She hangs up and another call comes from the old friend who gave her the number.  She’d found his number on a gospel tract but he was in Tennessee so he gave her Rev. Conn’s number.  If I were Mrs. Conn he’d be off our Christmas card list.

Unsurprisingly, Jessica jerks Rev. Conn around, calling when he wasn’t home, unable to leave messages because she was using pay phones, but eventually she gets him on the phone at 10:30 p.m. the following night.  She’d taken a ride from a trucker and ended up in Savannah and was just as far away from Augusta as she was when she was in Atlanta.  Oh, and she evidently didn’t remember calling him because she was stoned the night before but found his number and “something” kept telling her she needed to call him.  The demons come back into play, evidently the goddess Diana is involved because nature worship or somesuch, then Moloch shows up because this is one important post-hippie chick and they’re all staking their claim, and Rev. Conn keeps trying to get Jessica to remember she was possessed and needed help. So she assures him she will come to Augusta and the good reverend keeps fasting and praying.

He hears from her early Thursday morning, just after midnight.  She’d managed to get to a town 20 miles from Augusta. Rev. Conn contacted the youth minister at this church to go with him to fetch Jessica and he and Paul Dana Walker (who died young and to whom this book is dedicated) pray with other religious couples for spiritual strength and then try to find Jessica. And to the surprise of no one reading this, she wasn’t in the very specific place she said she would be. So they drove back home, tired and worried.

Exhausted on Friday, he didn’t tell Jessica to bugger off when she called during the afternoon and informed him she was back in Savannah.  Apparently something was preventing her from getting to Augusta, probably Satan or maybe Ba’al, and their conversation rings alarm bells because Jessica is playing up her witchy ignorance of basic Christian doctrine. The demons talk to the pastor some more, different ones like Mephistopheles, and he offers to send her a bus ticket.  She refuses, he decides to go to Savannah to fetch her, and he and Paul set out again on another godless endeavor around 7 pm Friday to find this girl.  They finally get her on Saturday morning and she leads them down a merry conversational path.

Somehow, this girl who knows the names of every demon – even the Christian demons – doesn’t know Christ was crucified and was resurrected.  Note for future exorcists: if you meet a Caucasian woman born in the USA, who attended American schools and was not kept alone in a cellar from birth until the moment you meet her, and she has no idea that Christ was crucified, in defiance off all Christian influence in culture from Peanuts Easter specials to the crucifixes half the population wear daily, she’s lying.  From me to you I impart this wisdom.

And here I am skipping a lot because even though Jessica really does take these helpful people for a ride, nothing genuinely supernatural happens, she uses demonic sounding voices but so can I and probably so can you, and they want to deliver her from evil.  Rev. Conn even brings her into his home with his wife and kids, a bad decision and one he would probably not make today, but in the end evidently they deliver this high priestess from the demons within her.  All throughout these events Jessica would go into trances and she did the same after they drove the demons from her and it was here I would have banged my head against the wall if I hadn’t been too lazy to get up off the couch.

So, devoid of demons, Jessica goes into a trance while sprawled on a sofa, and it lasts for hours.  Luckily, she narrates the vision.  Evidently Jesus has come to her and is leading her through important Biblical events and somehow, SOMEHOW, she knows things she could not have known since Rev. Con and Paul had not told her.  Sigh…

…in a soft, barely audible voice, we heard her call her master’s name. “Jesus? Jesus?” she said in a questioning tone that seemed to ask, “Is that you I see, Jesus?”

Continuing as though her prayer had been answered, she whispered, “I love you Jesus.  I praise you, Jesus.”

After a short pause, we heard her inquire, “Jesus, why do you have holes in your hands? Nobody told me you had holes in your hands.”

The four of us looked at each other in open-mouthed amazement. Paul Dana and I had told Jessica that Jesus died and made a blood sacrifice for her but we had not gone into detail about the cross or the nails in his hands.

Okay, remember above: if you are well-versed enough in Satanism that you can name legions of demons without prompting, you know about Jesus.  But here’s where I was really surprised by Rev. Conn because this is a key moment wherein it’s clear this girl was basically engaging in a strange ruse: Christ did not have holes in His hands.  He was hammered to the cross via His wrists.  However, many religious depictions, paintings, jewelry pendants, and basic pop culture representations of Jesus on the cross show Him with nails in His hands.  Had Jesus been showing this weird girl anything in a sort of religious fugue, one would expect that He would show her the holes in His wrists.

It goes on from here and lasts for hours and here are a few more of her astonished musings from her trance state:

After asking about the holes in Jesus’ hands, she said, “You can tell me…. You have long hair, too…. You have dark skin?… Are you Jewish?”

Even worse:

“What are you eating?… Bread and wine?… Does the wine have alcohol in it?… What kind of bird?… Is it a dove?… What is it doing on your shoulder?…

Worst of all:

Jessica’s face and voice then showed great anguish, although her eyes remained tightly shut. “What are they doing?… What is that man carrying that cross for?… Cy …  Cyrene?” At this moment, she flinched and groaned.

So did I.  I can’t quote directly anymore but evidently Jesus, I guess after he was nailed to the cross, told Jessica she could now eat meat and give up her vegetarian diet, though it was up to her if she decided to stop going veggie, and urged her to help someone named Tommy whom she had led into witchcraft. She meets Mary Magdalen, offers to wash her feet, wanders around Bethlehem, muses about the star and the stable and I just died inside with every single paragraph.

But she was delivered from evil, she eventually turned her life around, and Rev. Conn kept in touch with her for five years and eventually lost touch with her, which isn’t that strange since in 1985 there were no cell phones, DMs or email.  And the good reverend and his friends got to participate in something that ennobled them in their faith.

I have no idea why “Jessica Leek” engaged in this strange ruse. Throughout most of those book I kept wondering why she was bothering these people.  Surely there was a biker gang or vegetarian cafe with a place for her sort of duplicitous wackiness.  She did get food, shelter and a cadre of very earnest and kind people to help her get on her feet, which is a good enough motive for me.  She may well have also been in crisis when she contacted Rev. Conn and pathological lying got the better of her. And in the end, helping her did no one any harm, and, like I said, allowed devout people to exercise their faith in a largely benign way that may have helped a weird girl in the long run.

But other than the fugue state, there was no theatrics  No reciting Latin backwards.  No cold spots, no windows flying open allowing rain to lash across the demon-possessed girl tied to the bed.  Jessica recoiled from Bibles, assumed various voices, and went into trance states and that’s as close to the metaphysical as we get with the actual behavior.

And without the theatrics, the drama of driving out demons, this was still an extraordinarily meaningful moment for Rev. Conn, so much so that 27 years later he wrote this book and dedicated it to the memory of the friend who helped him save Jessica.

I find myself in a strange place at times because I have no use for religious dogma of any kind. But even as I am faithless, I do not discount the way that religion can give people a sense of higher purpose that can result in a net good for mankind.  I sense Rev. Conn, just from this book, is a person for whom dogma without works is meaningless and puts his faith to work, and does it honestly. This is a very honest book and as I wanted to mock Jessica’s theatrics and marveled at how innocent and open to all before them these Christians seemed to be, my contempt was for the performer, not those who witnessed the performance.

This really is a very sweet book.  If all demonic possessions were this uneventful, horror movie pickings would be slimmer, for sure. But it’s sort of stunning in comparison, the sort of tiring drudgery that goes into attempts at deliverance versus a handsome priest shouting, “The power of Christ compels you” over the body of a teen girl projectile vomiting and squealing like a herd of swine.  Real life, even when considering demonic possession, is seldom as melodramatic as movies and novels.

No idea if anyone but me wants to read this book but this is a charming book and those of you who are deeply interested in such matters may want to have a look, even if just to achieve subject matter completion.  Overall, it’s amazingly well-edited for a self-published book, reads well, and it would be interesting to see if others have the same alarmed reactions to Jessica’s antics.  All in all, not very Halloween-y but interesting nonetheless.

Come back Monday for a counterbalance to this sweet exorcism of demons.  What would it look like, feel like, to be possessed by God, Himself?  Let’s find out together.

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