Peretti's Past Darkness
The Wounded Spirit
Word, 198 pages, $18.99
Frank Peretti has written five macabre Christian best-selling novels and a slew of children's books. None of his work has been more personal than The Wounded Spirit. Part biography, part polemic, and part exhortation, his first work of nonfiction attempts to do nothing less than convince his now sizeable audience to create a less brutal world.
And he would know something about brutality. By all accounts, novelist Frank Peretti had a hellish childhood. Though his parents were loving Pentecostals, a glandular birth defect on his neck called cystic hygroma ensured that most of his early life would be nasty, brutish, and, but for decent medical attention, short. Born after his parents made a harrowing trip through an Alberta blizzard in 1951, Peretti was fortunate that the end of his father's ministry tossed the family to Seattle. The hapless Canadian doctors said the large lump on the side of the boy's throat would clear in "a matter of days."
Looking back at his parents' willingness to buy the doctors' assurances, a bemused Peretti allows, "Well, they were medical experts, weren't they?" Some experts. Within a month, the cyst had swelled to the size of a baseball. After diagnosing his condition, doctors from Children's Orthopedic Hospital in Seattle put the two-month-old under the knife. They hoped to prevent further swelling, hemorrhaging, and infection (or possible death through asphyxiation).
The doctors, having removed the cyst, could not foresee a complication that sounds like it came straight out of, well, a Frank Peretti novel. His tongue started to swell, and before long, "[I]t was hanging out of my mouth, oozing a fluid that turned to black scab when it contacted the air. I drooled constantly, leaving bloody, blackish residue around my mouth and chin, down the front of my clothes and on my pillow. I was having trouble eating—imagine trying to swallow, even chew, without the help of your tongue!"
Subsequent trips to the hospital determined that, as a side effect of the surgery, Peretti's lymph glands were sending a stream of toxins into and infecting his large, long black tongue. Seven rounds of surgery later, the tongue of the now four-year-old Peretti was still long, black, and protruding from his mouth. He had to learn to speak without its assistance. Public appearances invited gawking and disbelief.
When his parents presented him to Oral Roberts during one of his crusades in the hope that he could heal their son, the evangelist looked "stymied" by the boy's brackish tongue and confessed, "I've never seen anything like this before." A miraculous healing wasn't forthcoming.
Then the young Peretti had to enter public school.
Though much of the experience was too painful for Peretti to go into in great detail, he finds his voice in the vaguely fictionalized account of the first day of high-school gym class in the opening chapter of The Wounded Spirit, "Boy's Hell." In tones reminiscent of 1984, he writes of a "cold impersonal room, like a prison" that would be a shameful part of the young boy's life, and the lives of 40-odd other boys, for the next four years. In gym class, "kindness meant weakness, human warmth was a complication, and encouragement was unmanly. … [H]arshness was the guiding virtue."
In such a Darwinian environment, it was nigh inevitable that the smallest boy—Peretti—would be singled out for special abuse. He writes of having to strip down in front of all the other boys and being embarrassed by his size and lack of body hair, only to have his own uncertainties painfully reinforced by a pack of naked, jeering high-schoolers.