Like Trash on the Hall Floor

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Cristian Mungiu




Like Trash on the Hall Floor by Jean Harris

September 21st, 2013 reset - +

MARICICA IRINA CORNICI, age 23, died after an exorcism performed over several days in June 2005 at the Holy Trinity Monastery, a convent located in Tanacu (Vaslui County, Romania). The dead girl, who would eventually be called Alina in Cristian Mungiu's award-winning film, Beyond the Hills, had suffered for three days in a state of involuntary recumbent restraint on an improvised stretcher of rough boards. Arm supports had been cobbled on as an afterthought. Those who saw the contraption later thought it looked like a cross.

The local press soon discovered that in the months before her death Cornici had visited a novice friend at the convent. They reported that her stay among the religious had inspired Irina to take holy orders, and also that she had stopped breathing some time after the nuns had called for emergency assistance. According to an ambulance worker, Cornici's pulse had vanished by the time the ambulance arrived. According to the nuns, she was alive when she was brought to the ambulance; perhaps she died of insulin overdose on the road. However it happened, the on-call emergency doctor declared Cornici dead on arrival at Vaslui County Hospital.

How could such an event have taken place in 21st-century Europe?

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BBC reporter Tatiana Niculescu Bran began digging into the backstory in the June of Cornici's death. Her work, which would eventually inspire Mungiu's film, began as reportage and issued finally in Romania's two first nonfiction novels: The Confession (2006), whose Romanian title may be translated as Confession at Tanacu, and The Book of Judges (2007). The short, hard tale of Cornici's life forms the spine of the narrative, one that leads toward the exorcism with the mounting doom of Greek tragedy. It's a tale worth telling, not least because (without prejudice to Beyond the Hills, which has its own aesthetic agenda) it strongly suggests that, unlike the romantic heroine of Mungiu's movie, the real Cornici was essentially a victim of social forces and not primarily, as early reports suggested, a frustrated lover.

Born in 1982, Cornici was abandoned as a young girl by a violent, alcoholic mother to the Bârlad Children's Home (Vaslui County) along with her brother Vasile; their father had just committed suicide by hanging himself before his daughter's eyes. The orphanage children were starved, beaten, and abused by a series of corrupt administrators who systematically stole money and foodstuffs, goods, and objects provided to the orphanage or sent as foreign aid. Many children, including Cornici, were used in child pornography as well. (This with the knowledge of the orphanage administration, and, as Bran suggests, probably with explicit consent.) At the onset of puberty she learned to obscure her secondary sexual characteristics to avoid rape and semi-rape by older boys at the orphanage. She took up karate to defend herself and became physically aggressive. She developed an eroticized relationship with her close orphanage friend, Paraschiva (Chiţa) Anghel, the model for Voichiţa in Beyond the Hills; the relationship with Anghel took a sadomasochistic turn as Cornici began to use her friend as a punching bag. Cornici also derived sexual pleasure from tormenting another girl. At the same time, Cornici incorporated homophobic (including anti-lesbian) attitudes and anti-sexual stances in her emotional repertoire, which seems to have been founded on fear of attack. During an interview with Bran, Anghel says she believes that Cornici heard her father's voice during her orphanage years. If this is true, Cornici suffered from auditory hallucinations from childhood (or early adolescence) on.

Straight out of the orphanage in 2001, at the age of 19, Cornici connected with a so-called foster family in western Romania. Now a legal adult, she worked for this family as a hired hand in exchange for room and board. While legally a resident of the Stolojescu household, she amassed some savings during brief legal work shifts in Germany. Cornici intended to use this money to establish herself in Germany with her friend Anghel. When she arrived at Holy Trinity, though, she found that Anghel had no plans to leave the convent, nor had she any interest in a sexual relationship with Cornici, who soon became the convent's guest more than she was Anghel's. Frustrated in her relationship with her old friend, Cornici began taunting the Holy Trinity nuns. Her unfounded, obscene, anti-homosexual insults would soon contribute to the religious community's sense that her outbreaks were evidence of demonic possession.

By the time she visited the convent in early April 2005, a history of psychological and physical abuse, combined with serious physical illness, was leading Cornici toward collapse. After a violent, seemingly suicidal outbreak, she was brought, tied up, to the hospital by the nuns. She spent the period between April 9 and April 24 in Vaslui County Hospital, where she would pass through Intensive Care, Psychiatry, and Intensive Care again, with diagnoses of major psychosis and leukemia on her charts. As The Confession has it, Cornici was most likely discharged from the hospital's psychiatric wing so that her impending death from leukemia wouldn't count against the hospital’s statistics. Nor did things go well at the convent after Cornici 's hospital stay. Despite a period of relative normality after her confession in May 2005, Cornici regressed into irrational violence, often directed at herself, set fire to the cell where she lived, and spoke in psychotic ways, which now firmly convinced the community that she was possessed.

Cornici 's foster parents seem to have done her more harm than good in the end. Just prior to her planned entry into the religious community, Cornici went to visit the Stolojescus, whom she had evidently thought of as real family. She would learn that "Mama Neli" and "the old man" had misappropriated some of her German wages, which she had intended to pledge to the monastic community. This deceit, coupled with the surprise of their having replaced her with a new "daughter," seems to have contributed to Cornici's final, enraged break with reality.

Between April 24 and the June exorcism, the religious community at Tanacu tried to nurse Cornici back to health. Since no other person or institution would care for her, they sought to improve her spiritual state through a combination of love, fasting, obedience, and confession. Unfortunately, the religious community never fully cognized the seriousness of Cornici's physical ailment — largely because the doctors in charge never made her diagnoses clear.

Cornici emerges in Bran's The Confession as the explosive product of nonstop mistreatment in the secular realm. Ignorant of the sin-obsessed universe of the radical religion practiced by Father Daniel Corogeanu, this human force runs full tilt into the religious energy of Tanacu. The priest and nuns lack anything remotely resembling modern psychological education. Cornici's sexually colored provocations seem satanic to the ultra-conservative religious community. To make matters worse, the priest who heads the convent fancies himself an exorcist at war with the devil. Cornici and Corogeanu crash like express trains coming from opposite directions.

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Long before meeting Cornici, Father Daniel Corogeanu was on a direct course away from 21st-century religious practices. He rejected much of modern science and was in revolt against the very idea of ecumenical services and of religious tolerance (which alienated him from modernizers in the Orthodox Church hierarchy). He would boast of having nothing to do with the pagan West; at the age of 29 he was developing a cult following from far away. It was rumored that you could make good absolutions at the Holy Trinity, that some people had been healed of evils there, and also of charms. He felt closest to the part of church culture that focused on exorcism and drew its inspiration from Mark:

And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.

He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;

They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (16: 15-18)

According to Bran, who interviewed Corogeanu extensively, his favorite reading included a pamphlet by Archimandrite Ioanichie Bălan called The Power of Holy Unction. The pamphlet includes sentences like these:

Now [in these days] when cases of witchcraft and invocations of the devil are multiplying, so do the number of those possessed by demons. [...] Christians possessed by the devil have always formed a special category of the sick because they produce fear and agitation in all. Only saints may cast devils out of people with great ease. They have always been the strongest in faith, in prayer and fasting because they were full of the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Strong in prayer and fasting, Father Corogeanu aspired to the grace of a devil-expelling "saint."

Corogeanu's congregants and the nuns under his care came from the least educated segment of society. In this world, the tendency toward what has been called "superfluous and extra-religious exorcism" carries on even today. Among the older rural population as well as in the poorer parts of cities, people continue to practice or seek "disenchantment." Disenchantment by spell may be used to cure a particularly bad flu, for instance, or to lift an apparent mental disorder. Folk medicine simply skips nosology and jumps to the main chance: the cure requires that someone's ill will or something evil be rooted out of the patient. On its face, this minor form of non-church-sanctified, do-it-yourself evil-routing may seem to work — if often (since the advent of penicillin) in conjunction with antibiotics. Beyond this, though, in a culture of poverty where mental health counseling has small penetration and mental illness often goes untreated, professional exorcism may be a next, desperate step.

Enter the nuns. There is simply no evidence that the female contingent at Holy Trinity had any formal theological training. With clear vocations for kindness and obedience, and unlike Corogeanu, who had dogma behind him, religiously speaking, they existed in a hazy mental world where a knot in a piece of chopped wood could be a sign of the devil. That Cornici must be possessed was to them a matter of fact. A highly inappropriate nurse in Cornici 's psychiatric ward was the first to suggest that the girl was possessed, and her remark may have been enough to plant a seed in the kindly Mother Superior's consciousness. It should be said here, though, that the Mother Superior, Neonila, bent over backwards to retain Cornici in the community when theologically educated Corogeanu was all for throwing her out as a nuisance and a menace.

Reading Bran, to whom Corogeanu and the nuns granted exclusive interviews, and who followed their trials on a regular basis, it seems clear that Corogeanu responded to the nuns' plea to exorcise Cornici out of his own aspiration to cast out devils. And in so doing he behaved as if he were centuries away from contemporary Europe, where members of the Roman Catholic clergy, for example, may believe in possession as a matter of dogma, but they study psychoanalysis as well.

At the very least, Corogeanu operated in a dark area outside the official policies of the Romanian Orthodox Church. The church credits the idea of demonic possession and practices exorcism, but insists that the ceremony be practiced twice a year only, and that, for safety's sake, three priests officiate at once. These controls represent, among other things, a deliberate movement away from the kind of theologically uninformed folk religiosity mixed with superstition that jumps to exorcism before other explanations have been tried.

Still, looking at the special features of Holy Trinity’s culture on the fringes of the Orthodox Church takes us only part of the way toward an understanding of what happened to Cornici.

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So, how could such an event take place in 21st-century Europe? Factors pertaining to the wider culture played their part. Irina Cornici existed in the Romania of her time as jetsam, despised wreckage floating in a public space. While it's impossible to delve here into the harrowing nature of Nicolae Ceauşescu's orphanages, it's important to understand at least that Cornici could expect no more compassion from the state than could Oliver Twist. Romania is a country with a very low level of social assistance; communist as well as pre-communist and post-communist pressures have made the extended family — which also includes a circle of very close, trusted friends — the essential unit. There is almost no reliance on the state, and much distrust in outsiders.

One sees this even in the appearance of communist-era apartment blocks. While individual apartments might be renovated and immaculate, the public halls and elevators can be slums. "Our space" is important; "public space," irrelevant. Communist insistence on making all property public paradoxically created disdain for any property held in common. One result, even so many years after the fall of the regime in 1989, is that a collective cleaning project is unthinkable, as is commonly and constantly remarked. The notion of community is virtually absent.

In this ethos, outsiders with developmental disadvantages born of their orphanage childhoods, Anghel and Cornici could not help feeling deeply attracted to Mother Superior Neonila and Father Corogeanu. Asked only for pious behavior in return, the girls unexpectedly found in them parental figures who provided two vegetarian meals a day and the almost unheard-of protection of a close community. Signaling their emotional hunger as orphans, the girls called their monastic parents Mommy and Daddy.

Researching this article, I was lucky enough to see a documentary about the making of a play on the same topic (Andre Şerban's Confession), which preceded Mungiu's Beyond the Hills. In the film's prologue, Anghel talks about how desperate the two real-life girls were to find any half-decent form of shelter. In the documentary footage, they bear no resemblance whatsoever to the unmade-up but attractive, psychologically developed, normal actresses who represent them in the Mungiu movie. Neither shows the least trace of womanliness, and both give the impression of wearing body armor, a sign of having to perpetually protect and fend for themselves.

Putting the case harshly but realistically, lacking family, Irina/Alina and Paraschiva/Voichiţa were raised as if they were trash on a hall floor, detritus of the public space, and, as they grew up, the ill effects began to show. In the end, it seems that Paraschiva/Voichiţa felt a sense of belonging with Mommy and Daddy. Ill as she was, Irina/Alina was incapable of settling down at the convent: despite her short-lived resolution to become a nun, her illness prevented it. Though she may have found a moment's peace at the end of her exorcism ordeal, in the celebrity of her death, she remained a creature of the public space.

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In the end, Cornici fell through the cracks twice. Romania's fragile social institutions —represented by the orphanage and the hospital — failed her utterly. Then she had the both good and bad fortune to fall in with a monastic community. The nuns and even their priest had a will to save her, but by means inappropriate to her dire physical condition and evident mental disease, and in flagrant contradiction to the practices of the church in contemporary society. In real terms, what happened to Cornici was a tragedy. In practical terms, it was one alternative to the common fate of many orphanage graduates even today: huffing paint in the public parks.

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Jean Harris is a novelist, translator and essayist living in Bucharest, Romania. [more]

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