A Book Review:
William Peter Blatty, Finding Peter: A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life after Death
Regnery Publishing, March 30, 2015
256 pages, $27.99
Honesty is rare, and when it’s found in a book such as this the effect is quite arresting and compelling. I rarely read a book at one sitting, as I did Blatty’s Finding Peter. The author amazes me for several reasons, the foremost being his ability to engage the most religiously skeptical reader to reflect on the possibility of the supernatural.
Blatty accomplishes that, in part, by not talking directly about the supernatural or the theology it belongs to. Rather, his book is a memoir of a distinct kind — a recounting of the providential moments in his life and the tragic death of his teenage son, Peter, who continued to communicate with his parents from beyond the grave.
Thus, it’s not an accident that the narrative begins with a hilarious and touching homage to his Lebanese mother, Mary, or that he casually mentions the copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions he carried in his “battered old G.I. footlocker” on the train from NYC to Georgetown University for his freshman year.
The book’s subtitle, A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life after Death, tells the reader what Blatty intends to convey, but how he conveys it is never didactic or sentimental. In fact, Finding Peter can aptly be called humorous because every story Blatty tells he tells with a kind of wide-eyed wonder, as if thinking, “How can this be happening to me?”
His memoir begins with his impoverished childhood in New York City, where he helped his indomitable mother sell quince jelly on the steps of the Plaza Hotel. From there we follow Blatty as he adjusts to the upscale surroundings of Georgetown; heading the Policy Branch of the U.S. Air Force Psychological Warfare Division; his years working in Beirut, Lebanon, for the United States Information Agency; and the chance beginning of a writing career, which led him to Hollywood and the life of a successful screenwriter, novelist, and, eventually, film producer.
Blatty talks about his Hollywood years, and especially The Exorcist (novel 1971/ film 1973), with some reluctance. His stories about friends Shirley McLaine, Danny Kaye, Grace Kelly, Peter Ustinov, Blake Edwards, J. Lee Thompson, Darryl Zanuck, Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, among many others, are told by a master of comic writing but with the purpose of revealing “only so much of it as I think may be needed to convince you of my truthfulness and credibility.”
In other words, the reader learns William Peter Blatty was a successful man of the world, succeeding in one of the deepest shark pools of contemporary existence, Hollywood’s film business. Blatty, the reader is assured, is not “some gullible New Age wacko who wasn’t born on this planet but, in point of fact, landed here with the manuscript of The Exorcist tucked under his arm.”
The heart of this book is Blatty’s account of the life, death, and afterlife of his Peter, who in 2006 was found dead sitting in front of a television with a remote still in his hand — a victim of viral myocarditis, an inflammatory disease of the heart muscle.
Peter was the first child of Bill and Julie Blatty, born on May 17, 1987, in Stamford, CT. He was a child who seemed infused with the love of God. At age three he said to his mother, “Mommy, do you know why I came here . . . I came here to help people.” Other comments followed, such as the question, “How do you learn? I learn from the sky, God teaches me.” But the most touching of all is what he said to Julie Blatty at age 5:
“You know, Mom, when God was making me I was a little bit sad and a little bit scared. But then I saw you.”
In the year before he died, Peter was diagnosed with Type One bipolar disorder, which led to drugs and other self-destructive behaviors. But things were looking up for Peter when he was found lifeless in front of the TV. Blatty doesn’t shy away from describing the agonizing pain visited upon him and his wife. However, in the midst of that suffering, very quickly things began to happen that could not be explained, until enough of them happened that they realized Peter was communicating to his parents that he was alive, happy, and loved them.
Among the many “paranormal” events Bill and Julie experienced was the lost, and then found, miraculous medal that once belonged to Peter. Bill had taken the medal and worn it around his neck after Peter’s death, only taking it off to get through airport security. One morning he woke up to find the medal was missing, and only the chain lay around his neck. He and Julie scoured the house, paying special attention to the shower, going over and over the small space several times.
A few days later, Bill got in the shower very nervous about a speech he had to give to a large audience. He saw something shiny on the floor and reached down to find Peter’s miraculous medal.
“Let’s go over it again: the glassed-in, brightly-lit shower stall measured a little less than four feet by four feet. Julie and I had separately entered the shower and meticulously searched it in broad daylight at least three times, in my case at least five.”
Here’s another: Julie went to meet a friend for lunch in downtown Bethesda. Seeing a homeless man on the sidewalk across from the restaurant, she told her friend that Peter, with his bipolar disorder, could have ended up like that. At that very moment, the homeless man shouted, “My birthday is May 17!” Julie froze, that was Peter’s birthday. Bill later went to talk to the man, got to know him a bit, and learned that his name was Pee Wee. Pee Wee’s birthday was May 17, but he didn’t remember shouting it out to anyone.
Then there were other surprising experiences involving cats, stuffed dolls, dreams, light bulbs, a lost rosary, a dried-out sunflower, and a recently planted tree. These went on for eight years after Peter’s death. Some of them were experienced by friends of Peter.
William Peter Blatty is by nature a skeptical man, and it was his own skepticism he had to overcome before accepting the meaning of these unusual events. At a certain point he could no longer hold out against the insistence of the son who was determined to touch him from the afterlife. He knows now that all the unexplainable happenings were, in fact, explainable because they were caused by Peter. As Blatty told me in our radio interview, when these things happen so regularly over such a long time “it’s not rational to conclude otherwise.”
In recounting these stories in Finding Peter, Blatty hopes to provide comfort to parents who have lost children or other loved ones. He is telling those who grieve, “They are not dead, talk to them, they will hear you.”
Writer’s note: All proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to a special fund at the high school Peter attended — The Heights School in Bethesda, MD.