A review of William Peter Blatty’s “Finding Peter”
Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, in the presence of hundreds of local residents, officially recognized the “Exorcist steps” (the memorable staircase from the movie) as a tourist attraction last Friday, just in time for Halloween.
On hand was Exorcist author and screenwriter William Peter Blatty, who clearly enjoyed the honor, telling the crowd that loads of movies win academy awards, but not that many get “prime real estate” in toney Georgetown named after them.
Blatty may be most famous for what he taught us about the devil, but his most recent work, Finding Peter, is more relevant to All Souls’ Day than Halloween.
Finding Peter tells the wrenching tale of the loss of Blatty’s son, Peter, to a freak illness as it turned out, but only after a parent’s helpless roller-coaster ride through the frightening highs and lows of his beloved boy’s bi-polar depression.
The story is not about death, however, but emphatically about life – and specifically life after death, as Blatty reveals countless ways in which his son, through signs and what we Catholics call “graces,” has made his presence felt to the family after his death.
Saccharine and pious it ain’t. An early Drama teacher once signed my yearbook like this: “All the world’s a stage…. Praise the Lord, it’s a comedy!” I’d completely forgotten this, but Blatty’s take on his son’s death and life in eternity brought it to mind, because his story is anything but maudlin.
On the contrary, mindful that most of his readership will be skeptical, he sets out to prove his own worth as a witness. And so Finding Peter is actually Blatty’s own hilarious memoir of his life, replete with vivid stories from an impoverished childhood in Roosevelt-era New York, a stint in the military and then USIA as a reporter, and how he came to be a successful novelist and Hollywood screenwriter (Blatty friends Danny Kaye, Shirley MacLaine and Peter Sellars make memorable appearances in the narrative).
I read the book this summer on a road trip, and interrupted my husband’s music every few pages to read him anecdotes that made us each laugh out loud. Especially wonderful are the many vignettes featuring Blatty’s irrepressible and resourceful Lebanese immigrant mother, “Mama,” – a woman to be adored and feared.
Inevitably the story reaches the wrenching period of his son’s death, with the utter devastation it brought him and his wife. No parent should have to bury a child. And yet, as Blatty details with incident after incident where Peter makes his presence felt, not only to his mom and dad, but also to others who loved him, death is not the end. Blatty’s wife, Julie, is a colleague of mine at the retreat center where I work, and I can bear witness to the truth of what he writes here, having watched from the office down the hall as it were what the family went through, how they bore it, and what they told their friends as things happened in real time.
When we think of Saints, capital “S,” it’s easy to think of people whose lives and examples are heroic, extraordinary, out of our reach. Yet when the Church presents us with yesterday’s All Saints celebration, she is really celebrating the unknown saints – the “everyone else” who never made it formally into the canon but who are known to God, present with him in heaven, and accompanying those of who are still here in the Valley of Tears. She is reminding us that life in God is possible for us all and meant to be the ordinary reality of Christians.
William Peter Blatty’s Finding Peter is a poignant and funny extended meditation on the communion of saints and the reality of the Resurrection. His son Peter died in grace – he had just received the sacrament of Confession the night he passed. Blatty and his wife learn through their experiences – and teach us—not to seek the living among the dead.